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Jabari Asim: an ‘eclectic, voracious’ reader

Jabari Asim's new novel is “Yonder.”Handout

Jabari Asim sets his new novel, “Yonder,” on a 19th-century plantation where the people he calls the Stolen manage to find joy, friendship, and love, which they will risk for freedom. This is his third work of fiction for adults. Asim, who directs the creative writing program at Emerson College, is the author of nonfiction books, such as “The N Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn’t, and Why,” as well as children’s books, such as “Whose Toes Are Those?” He lives in Brookline with his family.

BOOKS: What are you reading?

ASIM: “Nobody’s Perfect” by Anthony Lane, which is a collection of his New Yorker film reviews. It’s a fat book. I read one review before I go to sleep. I write cultural criticism so I’m always reading other critics to see how they go about things. I have bunches of collected works by critics, and they range from new to old stuff. I have essay collections by Cynthia Ozick and Ralph Ellison, and, more recently, Jia Tolentino. I’ve just been dipping in and out of that.

BOOKS: What was your last best read?

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ASIM: The short story collection “Insurrections” by Rion Amilcar Scott, who is an old friend of mine. That and his more recent collection, “The World Doesn’t Require You,” are about a fictional urban community, Cross River, Maryland. I’ve been reading lots of novels that build communities, and he does a really good job with that.

BOOKS: Do you have any favorites in that genre?

ASIM: I’m very partial to the novelist Ronald L. Fair, who wrote about fictional versions of Chicago in the ‘70s. His best-known book is “We Can’t Breathe.” “Hog Butcher” is really good too. I also like Edward P. Jones’s short story collection “Lost in the City,” which is a classic in writing about the city, especially the part I come from, the inner city.

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BOOKS: Do you read more fiction or nonfiction?

ASIM: Probably nonfiction, and mostly essays because it’s compatible with my own writing. I’m really interested in fiction but if I’m working on my own I can’t read it. When I finish a novel, I read fiction like crazy, which is what I’ve been doing for the last five or six books.

BOOKS: What was your favorite novel in that group?

ASIM: I liked them all for different reasons. I read “The Secret Lives of Church Ladies” by Deesha Philyaw, also an old friend. If I can describe it as a house, the door is wide open. Even when I’m reading fiction I’m doing research. For my next project, I envision writing a sprawling, urban story so I’m looking at novels about cities. I did a Google search for great novels about cities, and Balzac’s “The Wrong Side of Paris” and Dickens’s “Bleak House” were on the list. I also read Jon McGregor’s “Reservoir 13,” which takes place in a village. My project will have a mystery but it will not be a mystery book like McGregor’s novel. A girl goes missing in “Reservoir 13″ but solving that mystery is not everything.

BOOKS: What kind of reader were you growing up?

ASIM: Eclectic, voracious. I went to a school for quote-unquote gifted kids. A teacher would get furious at us for reading comic books. She would say, “That is beneath you.” There was no high or low culture for me. I grew up in a house full of books, and my parents didn’t police my reading so I read some books I wasn’t quite old enough for but I wasn’t scarred by that. One of my older sisters gave me the first adult novel I read, Robert Ludlum’s “The Chancellor Manuscript.” I was maybe 12. She said, “It does have some sex in it but you can handle it.”

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BOOKS: What were your favorite children’s books?

ASIM: “The Very Little Boy” by Phyllis Krasilovsky. I have it on my shelf. When I was writing my essay collection “We Can’t Breath,” I sent off for it. My mom had a part-time job when I was four or five. I would go to my grandmother’s, and I would take a bag of stuff with me. That book was always in the bag. That’s one of my earliest memories of falling in love with a book


Follow us on Facebook or Twitter @GlobeBiblio. Amy Sutherland is the author, most recently, of “Rescuing Penny Jane” and she can be reached at amysutherland@mac.com.