A Life of Books: Asale Angel-Ajani – A Country You Can Leave

Asale Angel-Ajani‘s debut novel A Country You Can Leave, is about a fraught mother-daughter relationship where the two must rely on each other to survive. Through beautiful prose, she explores their relationship and exquisitely allows the daughter to come of age. She previously wrote the nonfiction book Strange Trade: The Story of Two Women Who Risked Everything in The International Drug Trade.

Debutiful asked the author to answer our recurring A Life of Books questionnaire so readers can get to know her better!

Is there a book or series that, when you think back, helped define your childhood?

There are two books—a series actually—that define my childhood. It was the reading of these books and then hiding them from my mother who thought that I should be consuming more “elevated classics”—that strengthened my relationship with them.

The first book, The Adventures of the Great Brain by John Dennis Fitzgerald, was my first ever book purchase for 25 cents at the Rose Bowl Swap Meet. In some ways, this book was such an odd choice for me as its central character was a young white settler boy living in rural Utah during the mid-1800s, as one of the few Catholic families among Mormons. But the book addressed being a minority and having to confront injustice in a small rural town and that just spoke to me as a young Black girl in a multiracial family living in rural California. Also, the main character, Tom, was a bit of a schemer and was always dreaming up some plan to make some quick cash or create some over-the-top fun for the neighborhood kids (which he would charge them for) and I loved it. I sort of used this book as an instructional manual, for my own neighborhood. Of course, Tom was a boy and I was a girl and this really was also my first lesson in how patriarchy works.

The second book also centered on a “male” character—Encyclopedia Brown. I loved those books. It spoke to the nerd in me because I was a firm believer in (and had been raised to think) that the answers to almost everything could be found in books. Of course, if memory serves, Encyclopedia Brown, as a kid, solved his mysteries through his repository of useless knowledge, but I was so inspired that I remember trying to spend an entire summer in the local library reading the Encyclopedia starting with the letter “A”. I didn’t get very far. So, that was the summer I read (grudgingly, at my mother’s insistence), Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. And I didn’t love it.

Would you want any children in your life (yours or relatives’) to read those too? Or what’s your philosophy on what children read?

I haven’t looked at these books in years—The Adventures of the Great Brain or Encyclopedia Brown, but yes, I think based on memory alone, I would be happy for the kids in my life to read them. I am sure they are a bit moralistic and out of touch with contemporary reality, but I think, especially, The Great Brain, which deals with the questions of hate crimes and discrimination and settler colonialism, that would be a good read for kids now. Plus, it shows a kind of independence that exists outside of parental dynamics and has more of a community-based identity. I am sure I am romanticizing the book—but if it’s like anything I remember, it’s a great read. Encyclopedia Brown is now a live-action kids’ movie, and I tend to think, books are often (but not always) better than films.

Moving to your school years: what book did you read in high school and hated (or skipped reading at all) that you learned you loved later in life?

I skipped reading Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World when I was in high school—I mean I actively thought I would hate it, and a decade later discovered that I really liked it. Also, not that it was ever assigned to me in high school, but it was on the list of books I was told I needed to read, was Faulkner’s, Light in August which I probably stayed away from because of my mother (who loves Faulkner), but when I did rediscover the book, it became a favorite. Stylistically, it still blows me away.

What about the opposite way? One you loved in your teens, but realized you didn’t love it so much later on?

As a teenager, I loved both Marx’s Capital V.1 (although I am ashamed to admit that I was the idiot who called it Das Kapital) and On the Road by Jack Kerouac. Both of these books were not about love but acceptance and being seen as a certain kind of person in one of the many, many high schools that I attended. I read these books, carried them around with me, quoted from them, and in a way, loved them but all as a stand-in for something else. The cute exchange students from the about-to-be-demolished German Democratic Republic (GDR), mainly. There were three of them at one of the new schools I had transferred to—mostly white and in the suburbs—a first for me and for the GDR students. Anyway, Marx was their influence which was useful in grad school but a truly boring read, and Kerouac, was useful for adolescence but didn’t really have an extended shelf life in my world.

Are there any books that you read while writing your debut that helped shape the direction you took your own book?

I just had the realization the other day that an early re-read of Sula by Toni Morrison had a huge impact on my novel. It’s strange to only realize this now. I have for months (and years) thought that other books—such as Tolstoy and other Russians, or Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place, or some of the poetry I had been reading by Wanda Coleman—were imprinted all over my novel, but no. So, when I went back to Sula recently, I realized that there was a way the story of these two women, one, Sula who lived her life recklessly and with a lack of attention to those around her and Nel, who really is the main character in the novel and who is there to pick up the pieces that Sula leaves in her wake, was the novel that shaped my thinking about how to approach the central relationship in my book. It’s both a love story between friends and the betrayal between enemies, set in a community that witnesses all. And that is sort of what my novel is about.

What is a book you’ve read that you thought, Damn, I wish that was mine?

Too many. It’s with trepidation that I commit this to the page, as it were, because, well, I’m not sure if it’s a statement on ambition or of craft or of the time it takes to achieve something so exquisite. Of course, obviously, I wish (and also don’t wish) that Sula was something I had or could write. Also, The Good Lord Bird by James McBride—I was so taken by the voice in that novel that it encouraged me to create the firm rule that I cannot read anything but poetry when I write. Because when I read The Good Lord Bird, I went back to my novel with this whole other voice and it took days to exorcise it from my brain. It’s such an excellent book.

What have you been reading / do you plan to read during your debut book tour?

I plan on reading a lot of poetry because I am finishing up an essay collection now (not part of my three words below). But I am looking forward to reading Out by Natsuo Kirino, it’s been on my list for a while. Also, I am going to be reading, When Trying to Return Home by Jennifer Maritza McCauley.

And, finally, I have to ask… I’m sorry. What’s next? But wait! Only use three words.

Failed. Ambition. Writer.

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