Jabari Asim has always liked the word “strong.” It was, in fact, the working title for his first novel, Only the Strong—subtitled, intriguingly, An American Novel—which takes place in Gateway City (a thinly veiled St. Louis) in the years after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. “You need a solid community to have strength,” Asim says.
Only the Strong looks at St. Louis at a time when the notion of community strength, through troubled, didn’t feel impossible. But then, Asim says, “the ‘solid’ citizens all moved away because the suburbs were open to them and hadn’t been before. Urban communities have never recovered. You don’t have situations where families have lived on blocks for generations.”
So who are the members of the mostly African American community in Only the Strong? Well, some of the characters return from A Taste of Honey, Asim’s previous collection of linked short stories. In his novel, he returns to Guts Tolliver, a neighborhood enforcer who softens after Dr. King’s death. His other two major characters, each dominating her own stretch of the book, are Artinces Noel, a doctor in love; and Noel’s protégé, Charlotte, who ventures off to college. Only the Strong feels like three interlinking novellas, with characters from one reappearing in the others; often the reader’s perspective on these characters changes, and people who seem fearsome at first are revealed, in other sections of the book, to have tenderness.
For Asim, Only the Strong is a continuation of a project he began with A Taste of Honey. “I hope to tell the story of this community up to the present,” he says. With this new novel, he hovers in 1970, and Asim—a St. Louis native—fills his book with details of the era, both local and global, including the Jerry Butler song “Only the Strong,” which lends the book its title. Remember that song? It begins, “I remember my first love affair / Somehow or another the whole darn thing went wrong / And my mama had some great advice so I thought I’d put it in the word of this song.” These lyrics contain so much of what’s important to Asim in this book: memory, family, trouble—and also love.
And despite the strife, there is love in this book. One of Only the Strong’s narratives ends with a character literally scooping his girlfriend into his arms and offering to carry her through “whatever you might have to face.” It would seem almost hokey if Asim wasn’t so committed to the notion of salvation through love. “I consider myself a romantic,” he tells me. “I’m fascinated by the idea of longevity in relationships.” He has been married for 30 years, and his wife, Liana, is an accomplished writer too. Once, as a guest with his wife on the webcast Left of Black, Asim said, “All of my creative work, all of my intellectual work, I start first as a husband, then as a father, and finally as a creative artist.” As he says this, his wife beams next to him.
Asim describes himself as “a bit of a novice” when it comes to fiction, but he has worked in many other genres—most notably, as editor-in-chief of The Crisis, the official magazine of the NAACP, and also as the author of two potent works of nonfiction that combine research and commentary to offer a view of black life in America: The N Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn’t, and Why,and What Obama Means…For Our Culture, Our Politics, and Our Future.
Whether working in fiction or nonfiction, Asim considers writing a process of discovery: “The N Word didn’t start out with the idea that I knew how to answer the central question. I wasn’t sure. I tried to be open-minded. I do the same thing with my fiction.” He tells me that he often has an end in mind—something to work toward—but he wants to surprise himself along the way. For instance, another prominent character in Only the Strong is a gangster-turned-community-leader named Ananias Goode; Asim didn’t originally intend to make him one of the central—and most complex—characters, but Goode just wouldn’t leave him alone. What else could Asim do except pay attention?
Still, there’s a gulf between nonfiction and fiction in publishing today. “I’d been very fortunate with nonfiction,” Asim says, “though I do have a sense that it’s more of a slog to promote fiction and to be taken seriously”—especially when it comes to matters of race. Early on, he was told that “literary fiction by an African American male is one of the hardest things to put out on the market,” and sure enough, as Asim’s agent shopped around Only the Strong, they heard a curious response: that publishers liked the story, but found it too “male.” In other words, these places were comfortable publishing fiction by African American women, but not men.
“It’s complicated,” Asim acknowledges, but he also takes a broader view of the problems for African American fiction: “Literary fiction of any kind is a crapshoot, and African American fiction is a smaller category within an already challenged subset. There’s not a lot of room in our culture to conceive of African American men as creators of this particular kind of art. There are categories where we’re more welcomed, but [in literary fiction], we haven’t staked permanent space.”
Books like Only the Strong help to correct this problem, of course, but how else can they help? It’s hard not to think of Asim following the news of the Michael Brown shooting, watching the protests and the violence in the streets, and thinking, Those are my streets. After all, Ferguson, Missouri, is a mere 20-minute drive northwest of St. Louis. Think of how many round trips you could make in the length of time it took authorities to move Michael Brown’s body from the street.
What does fiction have to do with any of this? As an art form, its greatest mission, perhaps, is empathy—and in an era where young African Americans are regularly dehumanized by media and the criminal justice system, can empathy be a form of advocacy?
“You could’ve asked that question in 1968,” Asim says, “and it still would’ve been valid, and the answer still would’ve been the same.” Such empathy, he tells me, “is a form of resistance, tied to the larger question of who gets to control the narrative. I don’t think black men should have exclusive provenance by any means, but it makes sense that our voices would be included there.”
It’s a little scary how much Asim’s portrait of 1970 feels like a portrait of 2015. “It’s hard to imagine,” he says, “a context in which a book like this wouldn’t be timely”—which, of course, says a lot of good things about Only the Strong, and a lot of not-so-good things about America.
Benjamin Rybeck is the marketing director at Brazos Bookstore in Houston. His writing has appeared in Electric Literature’s The Outlet, Ninth Letter, The Rumpus, The Seattle Review, The Texas Observer, VMAN, and elsewhere, and his fiction has received honorable mention in The Best American Nonrequired Reading and The Pushcart Prize Anthology.