When Sandra Jackson-Opoku was on a book tour for her first novel, The River Where Blood Is Born, she heard from her readers--whether she wanted to or not. "There always seems to be one brother in the bookstore who is interested in how black female writers treat black male characters," she says. "I'll admit I was sometimes put off by those questions. 'When are you going to write a book about the man, what about the male character?' And often I would respond out of annoyance--'Maybe that's the story you need to write, brother.'
"But I realized, after some introspection, that there is a need for both male and female writers to make well-rounded characters of the type we don't always see in fiction. I think there's a dangerous trend for black writers and white writers alike to recycle the stereotypes we are fed from popular culture."
At the time she was struggling with a novel about a womanizer burdened with a terrible secret. "I wanted to explore that kind of character and see what makes him tick--how he became that way," says Jackson-Opoku. But her third-person narrative wasn't working. "It just felt kind of distant," she says. "I wanted to find a way to get into this character in a different way."
She hit on the solution after seeing a TV movie on Quincy Jones. "His story was told through a series of interviews," she says. "I was fascinated by the varied stories and conflicting information that was revealed about Quincy Jones by the people who knew him at different points of life. I thought, 'Wouldn't that be interesting, to do that in a fictional sort of treatment.'"
Her new novel, Hot Johnny (and the Women Who Loved Him), is told in reverse chronological order from the point of view of women--family members, girlfriends, and acquaintances--who knew Johnny on his journey from Chicago gang member to devoted husband and father. The story veers from North Carolina, where he's settled into family life, backward to Mexico, home of his great-grandmother; Africa, where he's stationed by the military; Urbana-Champaign, where he attends college on a basketball scholarship; and the mean streets of Chicago. Along the way he meets some memorable women--most notably in Somalia, which Jackson-Opoku populates with nomadic African and Euro-African sophisticates. "The style influenced the content of the story," she says. "When I started revising, different voices and different stories started bubbling to the surface."
Jackson-Opoku, currently a visiting professor at the University of Miami, is a lifelong Chicagoan, but she spent a semester at the University of Nigeria while majoring in African-American studies at the University of Massachusetts. She drew on her own experience for both Hot Johnny and her first novel, which spanned 200 years and three continents and won the American Library Association's Black Caucus Literary Award for fiction. She also did a lot of research.
"I am drawn to stories that approach and cross borders--cultural borders and racial borders," says Jackson-Opoku. "I have always been fascinated and engaged with the idea that as people of African descent challenge the larger society to be accepting of diversity, that we also accept diversity within our own culture. That is a very strong interest of mine--the connections between all of the far-flung corners of the African diaspora."
At a recent signing for Hot Johnny, one of the men in back asked Jackson-Opoku why women are attracted to cads like her protagonist. "It's a way of living dangerously through someone else, a vicarious way of touching something that's wild and adventurous and maybe even a little dangerous," she said. "They're also responding to an image that we've been taught to admire--the man with the air of danger, the brooding manner, the barely suppressed violence in his personality. That made him the one who was intriguing, attractive. The good guy, well, he was boring."
Jackson-Opoku will read from and sign copies of her book twice on Friday, February 23: at 12:30 at Afrocentric Books, 333 S. State (312-939-1956), and at 7 PM at 57th Street Books, 1301 E. 57th (773-684-1300). Early readers of this paper can also catch her on Thursday, February 22, at 7:30 at Women & Children First Bookstore, 5233 N. Clark (773-769-9299).
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Davis Barber.