Jill Nelson is an American journalist and social commentator who contributes regularly to the Village Voice and USA Today. Her first novel, published in October by Serpent’s Tail, is Sexual Healing, a frank and funny story about two black women in their forties who decide to open a discreet brothel for women. According to Missy Elliott, ‘It’s like chocolate Sex and the City’. Alastair Mucklow discusses feminism, sexuality and the Church with the up and coming novelist.
The LIP: What was it like to write fiction after years of journalism and non-fiction?
Jill Nelson: It was a ball! After so many years as a journalist and writer of non-fiction, being necessarily constrained by the ‘facts’ as best I could uncover them, it was a true pleasure to be able to let my imagination take my words as far out as I wanted to go. In the beginning of writing it I’d get to places in the text and feel ‘stuck.’ Luckily, I had a pal who’d remind me, ‘It’s fiction. Make it up!’
The LIP: The book’s heroines call their brothel a ‘Sisters’ Spa’ and intend it to be exclusively for black women. Is the book aimed broadly at a black, female readership?
JN: I consider my first audience black women and as a black woman I write with sisters foremost in my head. However, I think SH speaks to all women, and I would hope that men too will read the book. I think the book’s for anyone who likes sex, likes to read, and has a sense of humour.
The LIP: Lydia and Acey are clever, feisty, financially independent professionals who give it all up to provide sexual healing for women. Did you want to make a feminist statement?
JN: I wanted to write a fast, funny, smart, good read, with the feminist messages embedded more subtly in the text. It’s about friends coming up with a great idea and navigating their conditioning, society’s expectations and a lot of other bullshit to make it work; it’s about women taking control of their own sexuality; it’s about beating back the sexism, exploitation of women and opportunism of the Church through the character of T. Terry Tiger, and the oppression of capitalist exploitation in the persona of Dick Dixmoor, and winning in the end. And it’s also about women getting in touch with who they are.
The LIP: Microsoft’s online magazine compared Sexual Healing to Michel Houellebecq’s Platform, in that it too proposes a version of sex tourism as a remedy for ‘the desolateness of contemporary Western sexual relations’. What’s your angle on this?
JN: My take is that women’s sexuality is so proscribed, oppressed, and judged in the culture, that we are often left desolate and depressed. This happens both when we try to ‘fit in’ with expectations as well as often when we rebel and, in acting out, enter yet another trap that’s been set by what I call the dying white culture. What I tried to do in SH is not simply flip the script in terms of women controlling their own sexuality and the selling and buying of sex, but also create a new world in which these things could take place and thrive.
The LIP: How did your own observations of American society influence your creation of Dick Dixmoor?
JN: Dick is a character largely based on real events, real people, and my imagination’s take on the rapacious, cut throat nature of American capitalism and the often frightening collision of capitalism and racism, i.e. Dick’s obsession with the ‘black male super-predator’ and his sincere belief that secretly making black men impotent is justified by social conditions. Dick’s character is based on real stuff onto which I piled my own skewed imagination.
The LIP: Do you think that a conflict between organised religion and personal sexual freedoms is something a lot of people are anxious about?
I see organized religions as incredibly oppressive, particularly for women. As a black American woman, it was impossible not to bring the black church in as a character, since in most communities it is among the few long-lived, stable institutions, and has incredible power and influence on people’s lives. And yes, I think many women and men are disturbed by the Church’s hypocrisy when it comes to sexuality, whether it’s the studied indifference to HIV/AIDS, the refusal to acknowledge gay parishioners, or ministers’ exploitation of lonely female parishioners who confuse their minister with their God.
The LIP: Are publishers representing black literary talent well enough?
JN: I really can’t speak for the UK. In the US I’m convinced that white readers by and large don’t read writers who are not also white. I find people of colour read much more widely. Do I think publishers could push readers to read more widely? Yes. But I think they only do it after a writer has, usually through her own hard work, crossed over. Then they figure out it makes good business sense to market all writers to all people.
The LIP: Do you think black interest sections in bookshops are a good thing?
JN: I have mixed feelings. It’s great to be in a black interest section for people who are already interested in work by black writers, but they’re a minority of book buyers. So, it’d be nice to see SH in the ‘New Fiction’ or ‘Fiction’ section in addition to black interest, ya know?
Jill will appear at Ottakar’s in Clapham with Alex Wheatle on 19th October as part of Black History Month in the UK. For further info visit: www.serpentstail.com.