BookBrowse Reviews Yonder by Jabari Asim

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Yonder

A Novel

by Jabari Asim

Yonder by Jabari Asim X
Yonder by Jabari Asim
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2022, 272 pages

    Paperback:
    Jan 2023, 272 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Valerie Morales
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As they try to survive the brutality of their owner Cannonball Greene, a group of slaves band together and commit to freedom.

The captivating historical novel Yonder turns an intimate lens towards the tragedy and survivorship of American slaves. Jabari Asim sets his story at Placid Hall, a plantation owned by Randolph "Cannonball" Greene. Though there is nothing placid about Greene or his wife — nicknamed Screech Owl — whose emotional and physical violence is predictable, Asim has done something special here, separate from the atrocity he details. Similar to Toni Morrison's tour de force Beloved, and its powerful line "You your best thing, Sethe. You are," in Yonder the slaves are the story's light.

Pandora is a house slave of mixed race lusted after by Greene. Cupid, the slave foreman, is a bully tortured by memories — he once saw a man's hands and ankles chopped off. He spends his nights with a woman named Nila, sexually abusing her. Cato is emotionally paralyzed and often lonely after his beloved Iris was sold away. William, the story's unassuming hero, lacks faith. Unlike his slave brethren, he doesn't believe in God, because what kind of God would have created such suffering? Silent Mary's voice disappeared after her newborn was snatched out of her arms and sold. She collapsed onto the earth and never spoke again. Double Sam continually talks to his twin brother, who died shortly after birth, as if he is right in front of him. Margaret can't stop remembering the day her mother was taken from her. Milton is a new father.

Asim's characters take us on a journey through heartache, captivity, violence, jealousy, exhaustion, love and freedom. In many ways, Yonder is a place we have been in literature before, but Asim adds several new twists. For one, Placid Hall is a place where skilled laborers live — all slaves weren't of the fields. The author also creates names for the categories of captive and owner: Stolen and Thief. An old slave tells William, a Stolen, "You don't belong to them unless you think this life is yours for all eternity. Part of you has been stolen, yes. But part of you is free as long as you can dream of something else."

Chapter after chapter, Asim confronts a suppressed history that is still being marginalized. Rituals. Whippings. Horrors. Hate. Brotherhood. Lust. His prose returns humanity to stolen people as he writes of how the slaves at Placid Hall crave love, acceptance, friendship and caring, evoking what bell hooks meant when she wrote, "Love is an action, never simply a feeling." Early in the story, Cato confesses to killing Cupid, and is beaten so severely as a punishment he passes out. He is then given water, pot liquor (the juice from collard greens and vegetables), stories, soothing comfort and love from his friends. Pandora, William, Double Sam and the rest refuse to let Cato slip away, loving the sorrows of his changing face, as the poet Yeats wrote.

Just as gripping is the simplicity of romantic love that Asim pens so beautifully. Margaret, who as a child watched in horror while her mother was sold away from her, is now as an adult given permission to move in with William, and she insists on making changes to the sleeping situation. The cabin used to be Cupid's. He slept on a bed of rocks. Margaret will not:

"…you won't be loving me on those rocks. I won't be clutching you in that grass, holding on to you, trying to keep you moving inside me instead of pulling away. That will happen in here. And it won't happen on that bed."

"A lot of trouble to gather shucks and make a new pallet," he said.

"I'll suppose you'll find me worthy."

The pace of the story picks up when Ransom — a preacher — convinces William, Cato and others to run. To freedom. He tells them the Chariot — a metaphor for spiritual light — will guide their way. Always skeptical, William isn't sure. But Margaret is adamant about leaving: "The longer we live here, the more we lose. Fingers. Teeth. Tongues. People we love. I'm sick of losing, William."

In this age of attacks on Critical Race Theory, Asim's novel is the type of book to be on someone's banned list. Books by black authors (Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston) are among the most frequently banned because they document racial injustice. Yonder is a story about racial suffering; those who inflict it and those who are traumatized by it.

It is also a masculine story. Male characters like William and Cato, and the despicable Cannonball Greene, make up 70% of the novel. The slave women, like Margaret and Pandora and Iris, have a subordinate presence that feels reductive. Normally this would have bothered me, but Asim's point of view covering black men in trauma is very effective. He is writing about brotherhood and generational harm. Women liberating themselves isn't his particular hill to climb and the centering of men doesn't detract from the book's gorgeous language, such as when Cato says, "We began to wonder before we even had words. As soon as we learned to toddle on our own two feet and feel the heaviness of the world, we began to ask ourselves why. Not why were we born but why were we born there?"

Familiar as I am with slave tragedy, Yonder still reduced me to tears, which is a testament to Asim's talent as a writer and his ability to create earnest characters suffering through a catastrophe I am well versed in. I reread the story to see if there was something I had missed — there wasn't — but this time I had a lot of tissues by my side. I remained awed by the slaves Asim brought to life and gave homage to, and the ones he didn't that still exist in history. It is their bravery and commitment to one another that make Yonder such a special story to read.

Reviewed by Valerie Morales

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in January 2022, and has been updated for the January 2023 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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