A Dinner Party About Lost Selves and Lost Chances
Asali Solomon’s novel "The Days of Afrekete" is about queer Blackness and the cost of upward mobility
Asali Solomon’s The Days of Afrekete follows the searing, tempestuous love affair of Liselle and Selena, two young Black women who grew up in Philadelphia. This is a complicated love, a buried love, but one that refuses to be forgotten. And yet Liselle, the novel’s main character, tries very hard to forget.
The novel opens on a dinner party reminiscent of Mrs. Dalloway—mushroom tarts, a catered spread, a cast of characters no one actually wants to sit beside at the table, including Win, Liselle’s husband. It is not entirely clear even to Liselle why she has married Win, a wealthy white real estate lawyer from Connecticut whose trust fund and inflated sense of self has driven him to run for state legislature. Only Liselle, in the crowded room, knows that her husband is being investigated by the FBI, and that the knock might come at any minute.
Out of fear of ending up like her mother Verity, alone and struggling financially, Liselle entered with Win into an uneasy “alliance and conspiracy against various imprisoning realities” that only now brings regret. Yet what begins as a story about a Black woman reeling from her husband’s corrupt failed bid for office becomes, very quickly, a reckoning with lost selves and lost chances. Over the course of the evening, everything that is artifice in Liselle’s life begins to crumble—her marriage, her lifestyle and comfort, the insularity and protections that have come at the cost of authenticity and desire. And we eat it up, thanks to Solomon’s humor and bite, and lines like: “It was the beginning of a parable: a parable or that Billy Ocean song,” and “Promise me you won’t wind up with some ugly white bitch.”
Liselle and Selena, apart for twenty years, come back to one another in surprising, witty, haunting recollection. The Days of Afrekete is a book about queer Blackness, friendship, and the power of reclamation.
I interviewed Asali Solomon in West Philly, where we both live and participate in the Claw, a salon for women and nonbinary writers.
Annie Liontas: Asali, I did not know you were writing a sexy book!
Asali Solomon:: It didn’t come up!
AL: I remember you describing it as a dinner party that draws on Virginia Woolf and this friendship, but I am thrilled to be reading a queer Black romance that raises questions about class and security.
AS: You never think about what you’re writing in the terms that are the headlines for other people. I did base the structure on Mrs.Dalloway, but that wasn’t what I was thinking consciously about as I wrote. The idea for Afrekete initially came after reading about Chirlane McCray, Bill de Blasio’s wife—a Black lesbian poet—when they were still campaigning. I thought, this is crazy, how does that happen! But there were other sources and influences, some of them random. Middle age, for instance. The Good Wife. Sula, which is one of my all-time favorite books and is about two women whose relationship is the most important one in their lives, but they are not romantically involved. So I was like, what if that actually was part of it?
The queer romance has to do with thinking about how marginalized but essential Black women are to the functioning of the world. Liselle, particularly, is anxious about making an alliance that will bolster her socially and socioeconomically, and the risk that is involved in forming her strongest alliance with a Black woman. That there could be something saving or recuperative about that.
AL: The relationship between Liselle and Selena is the novel’s most moving—if volatile—connection. What about those early loves that define us and which we carry, even after they’re gone?
AS: Part of that comes from thinking about middle age and how memory works. This is a time when people think of the relationships they’ve had. You’re sort of doing a forward moving review of your life as you live it. Liselle is thinking about the choices she has made and how she didn’t really get what she wanted out of those choices. The subplot of the FBI is the universe’s way of more strongly suggesting that to her.
As far as the effect of early loves—this really does harken back to Sula. In middle age, you’re looking for people to meet you where you are. But in youth, there is this sense that the people you meet actually shape who you are. What Liselle is realizing without naming it is how much this connection with Selena shaped her. It’s a revisiting of a time when she had a much stronger sense of possibility. What she was in that relationship, her sense of erotic power. It’s about not just capturing the relationship, but who you were at that time.
AL: Liselle, in her marriage to Win and a “life of comfort with moments of joy” is in a constant state of “twoness” or double consciousness. We are told, too, that “Liselle had never had Verity’s easy way with regular Black folks. First she had been shy, then she’d been a lesbian.” What does this split existence mean for her? How does it constrict her, even as it allows her certain luxuries?
AS: I like the way you’re naming the different types of double consciousness she experiences. Everything I write is about people who are somewhat present in their own lives, but who also watch their own lives from a distance, and feel marginal or like an observer. For Liselle, there’s a value in that, because there’s an ability to move between different spheres—but it also means never being fully present in any of them. She spends a lot of time figuring out who she is by looking at herself from these various angles. That’s a big part of this book: who is Liselle, ultimately? That’s the question she asks when she’s interacting with Xochitl, when she’s talking with Verity, when she’s with Jimena. With Win, they’ve agreed she’s this person and he’s that person, but that starts to fall apart, too. No one is fully authentic all the time—in every relationship, you’re always performing something. But I do think that she is much more genuine in her actions with Selena than anybody else.
AL: What are the external forces responsible for Liselle’s unhappiness? Or should we believe that her unwillingness to claim her life for herself a tragedy of her own making?
AS: In Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, Saidiya Hartman writes about Black women—and, to a lesser degree, men—who in the early 20th-century moved from the South and came up North, and how the lives they built for themselves spawned a lot of policing. These are people who were experimenting with different kinds of relationships, some queer, who were written off as slovenly, trifling, and promiscuous. One of the things Hartman talks about is how when people would fall in love—working-class Black people in the city—the only thing they had going for them was that love. So much of what we think about as the bonds of family and the bonds of romance are about socioeconomic alliances, but these people making this family or home together weren’t thinking about socio-economic alliances. Though college is a moment where Liselle feels a sense of possibility in her relationships with women, she’s not ready to take the risk of making a life with someone who can’t protect her socioeconomically. Liselle is afraid of is being caught out there like Verity. Verity lives a lower-class life and is a single parent. Verity struggles with loneliness and low-level depression. This terrifies Liselle.
AL: It does seem that the reader is a secret keeper for Liselle. We are witness even to what she withholds from herself these twenty years, and we are let into her private thoughts even as she is playing the role of host at the party. We return to the past with lines like, “Pressed up against a woman, her face buried in a woman, she had definitely felt like a woman. Certain Black men made her feel, in their treatment of her, like a weak man.”
How do you think of the intimacy between reader and a character like Liselle?
AS: I hadn’t really thought of it like that! It’s such a crowded scene!
AL: And no one is real.
AS: Yeah, exactly. In crafting those scenes, I was conscious of the way that the mind works. By being the only audience for Liselle, you’re also privy to everything she’s bringing to those moments mentally that no one else is aware of. That’s something I’m interested in—how we’re haunted by memories. The intrusion of memory, the intrusion of anxiety. But hopefully, the scene is constructed to suggest the possibility that anybody in the room could be having some version of that experience. It’s a lonely scene, even though there are a lot of people.
AL: You evoke the city of Philadelphia through ’90s pop culture—the Power 99 Countdown, South Street and Ishkabibble’s chicken cheesesteaks. But you also recall Black spaces that now only exist through shared or mutual knowledge, such as the Richard Allen projects and MOVE. What is the Philly that you call home? How have you seen it change? How have you seen it defy change?
AS: West Philadelphia has changed a lot in the last few years—it’s a lot whiter—and the ways it’s become a much queerer space is something that wasn’t always the case, though it was suggested by the mix of cultures that were true even when I was a kid. You had super eccentric groups, really traditional communities, the mosques, there was the university. You had a lot of people who were into different stuff, and there was a real sense among the Black people of West Philly of multiplicity. But as far as working, lower-middle-class Black people—that population has definitely reduced here.
This question gets at something I didn’t realize until pretty recently, which is that if you’re a Black person and you write about major cities during the era right up until the 2000s, you’re writing in a time capsule. You’re actually doing historical archival work. I published my first book in 2006—everything I write is set in Philadelphia—and I thought I was writing about a currently very Black city that would eternally be a very Black city. Writing an account of Blackness in big cities is like that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indiana Jones is running from the big boulder, you’re just trying to stay ahead! It takes a while until the cultural imprint shifts to the degree that you can recognize what’s happening, but I guess part of what I’m doing is keeping that alive. It’s really meaningful to live in a major city that’s also a Black city. I’ve thought about Edward P. Jones in this respect. You feel like he is documenting D.C., but the reality of D.C. is so different from those stories.
AL: It’s like looking at a black and white photo.
AS: Right. And it happened so quickly. The way he painstakingly says, It was at the corner of this and this street. At the time, I thought, oh, that’s the way you mythologize a city. But in reality, that’s how you document what happened.
The MOVE fire is mentioned in almost everything I write. In the past year or so, that story has gotten more mainstream attention, but it’s a story everyone should know about. It’s extremely informative not just about Philadelphia, but about how the state works in America, what it means to be Black in America, the limits of Black representation in terms of political power. And to remember.
AL: This book is also about the women who shape Liselle and Selena. There is flawed Verity (“no matter how distant, abusive, judgmental, unloving and useless one’s mother was, one called her when things fell apart”), Aunt Baby, who with the word “slumlord” invokes “dazzling Black women,” and Alethia, who in seeing Selena through her writing helps to save her. How does The Days of Afrekete honor Black mothers and aunts?
AS: This whole thing is a love letter to Black women. Often a daughter’s relationship with a daughter is really central to development, and this is certainly something a lot of Black women have written about, and I always feel like there’s more to say. It’s endlessly fascinating and endlessly literary. You have these complementary mothers: maybe Liselle might appreciate Alethia’s respectability and uptightness, maybe Selena would appreciate somebody asking her about her bowel movements in the grocery because she needs to talk. But this also implicates Zami, a book whose mission is to give an account of the relationships with women that Audre Lorde had that made her who she was. I was interested in that as a model, too.
AL: Parties, in literature as in real life, can be joyous or a complete mess. What attracted you to the clock of a party?
AS: Everything I’ve written has a party scene, and usually the party scenes involve dancing. Middle school dances, when I was in private school, were the scene of the crime. I’m trying to write through that over and over again. And then the dance floor was the scene of other crimes. I studied abroad in the Dominican Republic, and we would go dancing and it was all about not being asked to dance and being forced to contemplate the history of slavery. No matter what a white girl was bringing to the table, they were treating her like Madonna at the club. So I spent a lot of time on various dance floors thinking about the long march of history. I’ve written a lot of parties, but this is slightly different because it’s a dinner party. At some point, I was thinking about how dinner parties are totally overrepresented in American literature.
AL: That and marital affairs.
AS: All those corny things are in this book. Not just an affair, but a marital problem. And I thought well what if I had a marital problem and a dinner party but it might actually be about everything. All these things these people are thinking about and talking about. It was a joke with myself. The original title was American Dinner Party. A long time ago, when people put “America” in things with people of color, it was ironic, but now if you read “America” in the title you’re like, this is going to be about some people of color.
And I also like how the dinner party, which is set during the Obama era, has this sense of—you’re just socializing, you’re just drinking your wine. But the dinner party is a contrast to Selena’s life. There is no escaping—there’s numbing, but there’s no escaping the savage realities that these people get to bandy about in this conversation. It’s the dinner party at the end of the world.