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Haverford College's Asali Solomon Shares 'Disgruntled' Work

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The 18th annual Villanova University Literary Festival ended Thursday evening with a reading by Haverford College professor Asali Solomon, author of Disgruntled. The novel tells the coming-of-age story of young Kenya Curtis, depicting the many horrors of middle school – gym class, sleepovers, school dance, and the upset of unofficial lunch table seating charts – with stunning frankness and charming hilarity. To complicate the already difficult experience of being a pre-teen, Kenya is one of twelve black girls at the Barrett School for Girls, a fictional preparatory school set on the Main Line. The daughter of two Black Nationalist parents, Kenya struggles to negotiate and assert her identity among the conflicting societal boundaries she straddles.

Born and raised in West Philadelphia, Solomon attended elementary school on the Main Line and went on to attend Barnard College, a private women’s college in New York. In a short lecture following the reading, Solomon spoke to the non-fictional parts of the novel. “Like Kenya, I endured various scenarios of alienation, which is to say that I was a young person and then a teenager,” Solomon said. Even so, she said, “Everything dramatic that happens in Disgruntled is fiction. If my life had been as riven with turmoil as Kenya’s, I would have written a memoir.”

The more significant inspiration for the book is much darker. “The seed for this book was a conversation with a friend, who told me the story of Julian Carlton, the real-life butler who burned down Taliesin, killing seven people, including two children,” Solomon explained.

Photo courtesy of Asali Solomon

Carlton was a migrant from Barbados who worked as a domestic servant in the Wisconsin household of famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Carlton was fired in August of 1914 and set the house afire, standing outside of a window with an axe to prevent anyone from escaping. Solomon, who had never heard of the story before, “detected a juicy historical repression.”

“Though I’d known of Frank Lloyd Wright for years, I’d never heard this,” Solomon said. “I created this story by marrying the fictional possibilities of my own experience and perspective to the inspiration of poor, crazy, murderous Julian Carlton.”

Solomon has been published in the anthology USA Noir and The Kenyon Review. In 2007, she was named in the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” fiction selection. Disgruntled is Solomon’s first novel and second book. Her collection of short stories entitled Get Down, also set in Philadelphia, was published in 2006.

“The title Disgruntled was the first thing about this book that suggested it to me,” she said, discussing the challenge of transition from writing short stories to a novel. “The word ‘disgruntled’ captures something crucial about what it meant to be, means to be, black in America in the aftermath of the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements in the mid 20th century.”

Solomon received a Ph.D. in English from the University of California, Berkeley and an MFA in fiction at the Iowa Writers Workshop. She taught at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va. and Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., before returning to the Main Line in 2010 to take a position at Haverford College, where she now teaches African literature and creative writing.

The Literary Festival is held annually and is hosted by Villanova University’s Creative Writing Program, in conjunction with the Irish Studies and Africana Studies programs. This year’s festival featured Pulitzer-Prize winning poet Gregory Pardlo, author of Digest; Daniel Torday, author of The Last Flight of Poxl West and Director of Creative Writing at Bryn Mawr College and the university’s visiting Heimbold Professor Glenn Patterson, author of Gull. Each visiting author sat in on a class of Villanova English students to discuss writing and answer questions, as well.

“I always thought I would do something in writing, but I never thought I would be a publishing fiction writer. It just seemed like a lofty goal,” Solomon confided. “Really, you just take your life and make it interesting. And if your life is interesting, maybe you’ll write nonfiction.”