Inside the black and white, small-town world of Joshilyn Jackson’s The Almost Sisters.
Joshilyn Jackson’s world is filled with contrasts: light and dark, love and hate, despair and hope. She tries to show readers both sides of the real world through her books, ultimately giving us stories that are entertaining and funny with just a touch of social justice. Her latest novel, The Almost Sisters, was meant to be what she calls a “breath” book, but it turned into something darker and even more profound.
“I just write the stories that I have to write,” she says, “but I think of it as leaning hard into being critical of the church and the brokenness and of everything and leaning into the hope and the pushing against that blackness in the world.”
In The Almost Sisters, comic book novelist Leia Birch finds out she’s having a baby boy—and the father is a black Batman she had a one-night stand with at a convention. Before she can break the news to her conventional, Southern family, she learns that her stepsister, Rachel’s, marriage is imploding, and her beloved 90-year-old grandmother, Birchie, is losing her mind. Birchie has been hiding her dementia with the help of Wattie, her best friend since girlhood and a black woman. Leia returns to the small town of Birchville, Alabama, to put her grandmother’s affairs in order, clean out the house and tell her family she’s pregnant.
As she wrestles with the biracial fate of her baby, Leia also discovers a dangerous secret hidden in the attic. Its roots reach all the way back to the Civil War, and its exposure threatens her family’s freedom and future. Maybe she doesn’t know Birchie—or Wattie—as well as she thinks she does. As Leia spends more time in Alabama, she begins to change the way she sees herself and her sister, her son and his missing father—and the world she thinks she knows.
On Friday, Oct. 27, Joshilyn Jackson will be teaching a WordShop for the Louisiana Book Festival on the theme of setting. In the workshop titled “No World Like Mine,” Jackson, who calls herself “a place writer,” will reveal how she creates her richly imagined settings.
“I look at The Almost Sisters, and to me that book could not take place anywhere but the small town South,” she says. Birchville is loosely based on the centrally located town of Dadeville’s history, but Jackson says her fictional town looks very different.
“It looks like am amalgamation of every small town I’d ever lived in, visited, loved,” she says. “The way the small town everyplace works is it’s an animal, it’s a unit. Everything is connected by veins and tendons and arteries, and you can’t move one piece without it affecting all the other pieces. It’s a microcosm. Everybody knows everybody’s everything. What makes it Southern is the black and bloody history that is sunk into that soil.”
For Dadeville, and Birchville, that bloody history is the Civil War. Despite the book taking place in modern day, races are still divided in Birchville. Birchie attends First Baptist Church, while Wattie is a member of the all-black Redemption. Jackson describes parallel versions of black and white lives being lived simultaneously in different churches and in different neighborhoods.
The South I’d been born into was all sweet tea and decency and Jesus, and it was a real, true place. I had grown up inside it, because my family lived there. Wattie’s family owned real estate there, too. The Second South was always present, though, and in it decency was a thin, green cover over the rancid soil of our dark history.” – Leia, Chapter 15
“I’m very ambivalent about the South,” she explains. “As much as my South grieves me, I love it. I think that helps too if you have a strong emotional reaction to the place and you channel that through the writing.”
A resident of Atlanta, Jackson sets many of her books in Georgia and neighboring Alabama. While her books are distinctly Southern, they also have a universal quality with life lessons disguised in a blanket of Southern charm. As a volunteer for the past five years inside Lee Arrendale State Prison, she teaches creating writing courses to inmates and also helps produce a literary magazine. Jackson channels that experience through Wattie in a line that she says is one of her favorites in the book.
You can’t go around holding the worst thing you ever did in your hand, staring at it. You gotta cook supper, put gas in the car. You gotta plant more zinnias.” – Wattie, Chapter 13
“One of the things that I hear from my students is we’re going to get out eventually and they’re afraid that they’re going to be that worst thing that they did and they won’t be allowed to be anything else,” Jackson says. She hopes that teaching them to write will give them an educational opportunity when they get out and also allow them to look beyond their own lives.
“Writing is the deliberate practice of empathy,” she says. “I think that’s what novelists do. I think that’s what reading does. Reading is a way to look inside other lives.”
Fans who’ve read most—or all of Jackson’s nine books—know that she truly loves each and every one of her characters. As she takes us inside the lives of women like Stacia Frett, Ro Grandee, Shandi Pierce and Paula Vauss, readers develop empathy right along with her and might even notice a shift from story to story. Jackson explains that she writes in two different modes.
“I always try to end on a breath in a place of hope, where even if everything is not perfect and super, there’s some grace. I write toward grace, I write toward forgiveness, I write toward the restoration of all things,” she says. She also admits that some of her novels are darker and “chewier” than others. Those would be Backseat Saints about an abused housewife and last year’s The Opposite of Everyone. These books take more out of her and she tends to follow them with lighter, sweeter ones like A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty and Between, Georgia.
She compares The Almost Sisters to her first novel Gods in Alabama in terms of darkness. In Gods, Arlene Fleet returns home after a decade away to contend with guilt, discrimination and a dead body. Sound familiar?
Jackson weaves her own dark family history into The Almost Sisters in what could be a tribute to her grandmother descended from slaves. “It took all sides of the South to make me,” she says. “I come from slaveholders. I come from slaves. I come from very poor white Southerners, sharecroppers, the whole spectrum of what the South was. I look back and I see that in my family tree, and I’ve been thinking about that for a long time.”
Inspirations for this book also came from Faulkner’s “A Rose For Emily” and Genesis, the first book of the Bible dealing with creation. “I was thinking about the ideas of the past being alive in the present,” she says. “A superhero has an origin story. Genesis means origin story. And I’m looking at the South’s origin story for the situation we’re in now in regards to race.”
See Joshilyn Jackson at the Louisiana Book Festival on Saturday, October 28, at 11 a.m. in the House Chamber of the State Capitol Building. She’ll also be signing books at noon in the Barnes & Noble Bookselling Tent. Sign up for her WordShop on Friday, October 27, here.