Book Club

8 takeaways from the ‘Yonder’ discussion with author Jabari Asim

“My aspiration has always been to write literary fiction that moves,” said the author. Book Club's hosted a discussion with Jabari Asim and Harvard Book Store's Lily Rugo on "Yonder." Shef Reynolds II

Jabari Asim claims he has no hobbies—that’s how he can manage to write over 18 books (among other things) and foster the next generation of great writers as an associate professor at Emerson College. Writing has always been an intellectual, spiritual, and joyful practice to the author, and this sense of joy especially comes through in his latest novel, “Yonder.” 

Asim’s third work of fiction, the book follows a group of enslaved people in the South escaping their captors during the mid-nineteenth century. And while there is so much pain naturally intertwined in narratives following enslaved people, Asim infuses his with stunning representations of love and joy while honoring the legacy of his family through creating characters and stories inspired by what he doesn’t know about his relatives. 


“I have to enjoy the process,” said the author. “It can’t be a miserable process for me, or I won’t want to do it. That’s part of the story of ‘Yonder,’ this looking for love and trying to maintain love in circumstances where love is not only discouraged, but is often brutally punished.”

The Book Club recently hosted a discussion with Asim about the novel. Moderated by Lily Rugo, local book blogger and bookseller at the Harvard Book Store, the talk covered developing characters, whom Asim chose to give a voice to in this story, who he writes for, and more. 

Asim develops characters around three questions.

Characters drive the story for the author. The narrative will follow after he answers three questions: What do they want? What is between them and what they want? What will happen if they don’t get it?

He doesn’t pay attention to genre while he writes. 

Though “Yonder” has been called historical fiction given its setting in the nineteenth century, this was not the author’s intention. He doesn’t acknowledge a particular genre while composing a book, but instead writes as if he’s afraid to bore the reader. “My aspiration has always been to write literary fiction that moves,” said the author. 

Asim used language as an “entry point for the reader” into the story.

“One of the things I want to do as a writer is create points of entry for the reader,” said Asim. “I thought that the whole idea of language, of weaponized language, of oppressive language, of language that’s used as a tool of liberation—all these sort of reflections on language.” Asim uses these reflections that both the novel and characters themselves contend with to invite the reader a chance to enter the text, also dramatizing the use of language by enslaved people to stay ahead of their captors. “On some level, there’s this floating language which only exists between people in a particular group, especially in an oppressed group, where the oppressors are active and constantly subjecting them to rigorous vigilance.” 

Asim creates full profiles for each of his characters to make each one unique.

“The other thing I want to do is distinguish the characters from each other and that was really important in this story because there are multiple narrators, which is really tricky,” said the author. “I wanted them to each have their own pet phrases and their own way of looking at things, so that’s something I had to take care to do, but once I know the backstory it becomes easier to do that.” These profiles are a great tool for Asim during the writing process, as he lifts particular qualities from them to move along the story when appropriate, such as one character’s opinion of another. In “Yonder” in particular, the profiles also helped fine-tune each character’s narrative voice: each was written with a varying level of literacy to reflect their personal circumstances. 

The author was very careful in choosing whom to give a voice.

The chapters written in the perspectives of the five different narrators are all in the first person and have a name atop the page, while the others covering the happenings in the lives of the captors are intentionally untitled and told in the omnipotent third person. “In my nonfiction, I write about something called ‘narrative combat,’ which is the clash of stories,” said Asim. “It was important to me that the captors not have a chance to narrate any of the story. I never wanted the captor to turn to the reader and say this is my version of events, because that is the default version of events.” 

His intended audience is people like himself.

“I’m very selfishly writing for somebody like me,” said Asim. “Someone who likes literary fiction, but doesn’t have the most intense attention span…I wanted to write a novel that I would want to finish as a reader.” 

Writing is an “intellectual and spiritual practice” for Asim.

Though writing is his career, Asim would avoid using the term “workaholic” to describe his commitment to his craft. He also always writes words intended to be shared. “I write to be read without apology,” he said. “I’m always imagining another person on the other end of the line, so I’ve never been a journaler—I like the idea but I don’t know when I would do it.”

Asim feels an obligation to counter harmful narratives through his work. 

“The story of my people in particular is distorted and deliberately distorted to achieve an objective, which is to continue to deny the full humanity of Black people,” he said. “So in my work, regardless of what I’m writing about, I feel a sacred obligation to counter those weaponized narratives that have done so much harm.” He addresses these narratives head on in the book—one in particular from Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on Virginia, in which Jefferson claims that Black people are incapable of genuine attachment. Asim seeks to dismantle those statements through his writing—whether it be fiction, poetry, or otherwise—pushing back with all his strength. 


Buy “Yonder” from: Bookshop | Harvard Book Store

Join our next virtual discussion

​​Join the Book Club on Wednesday, Feb. 16 at 6 p.m. for a virtual “Thank You, Mr. Nixon” discussion with River Bend Bookshop‘s Meghan Hayden and author Gish Jen. 


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