Janelle M. Williams on her “beautiful” debut novel and its Atlanta landmarks

Atlanta native Janelle M. Williams has produced a debut novel that asks what we owe to our families, what we owe to our ancestors and what we owe to ourselves.

Gone Like Yesterday (Tiny Reparations Books, 368 pages) should come with a soundtrack, because it is swingingly lyrical in more ways than one and will have you swiveling your hips. She employs magical realism to explore the sometimes-surreal experience of being a Black woman in today’s America.

The Decatur native’s novel, with a heavy focus on Atlanta landmarks, is already garnering strong praise. Kirkus Reviews said Gone Like Yesterday is a “profoundly beautiful novel that takes legacy seriously, from a promising new writer.”

We caught up with Williams to discuss the magic and music that make up her novel, and how she used the book to help process her own experiences as an African American woman.

ArtsATL: A sense of place is very important in this novel. Both Atlanta and Harlem are practically characters themselves. How did you get to know them so well?

Janelle M. Williams: I was born and raised in Decatur; Then I went off to college and didn’t come back home for good until a little over two years ago. Now I live in the West End. I mention a ton of ATL staples in the book — the AUC (Atlanta University Center), Shrine of the Black Madonna, Wax ‘N’ Facts, the Underground, Spaghetti Junction, Centennial Park, the Georgia Aquarium, trailers selling lemon-pepper wings , Waffle House, Fellini’s Pizza and more. Atlanta and Harlem, or I guess New York in general, are almost characters because they have distinct personalities. They’re both flawed and perplexing and beautiful, and it’s essential to know at least some of their history, their secrets, in order to truly understand them—it’s the same sort of context necessary when building human characters.

Janelle M. WilliamsArtsATL: Your book encompasses so many themes. What do you hope readers take away from it?

Williams: Gone Like Yesterday is about so many things — family, identity, love, nature, spirituality, culture. It’s a story I wrote to reckon with, to make sense of my experiences as an African American woman in the United States, growing up in metro Atlanta, living in New York for six years. There’s so much I was (still am) grappling with, and writing it all down gave me a sense of peace. To be clear, I wasn’t trying to sum up the African American female experience. I just so happen to be an African American woman, and I had questions. I had so much to say. And also this nagging voice in the back of my mind that kept asking what my ancestors would do, say, feel. Really, that’s what Gone Like Yesterday is about — that nagging, persistent, beautiful voice that won’t let you forget your past, even when people try to erase it, even when you would rather not remember.

ArtsATL: Can you speak a bit about your family and how they have influenced you?

Williams: For a long time, I thought my dad and my paternal grandmother influenced my writing the greatest, two of the most enthusiastic and mesmerizing storytellers I’ve ever met. My grandmother, especially. She’d get so engrossed in her stories that she’d forget who she was talking to. She’d tell you your own story as if you weren’t there to experience it first hand. And she was so great at seeing people; she could read just about anyone. Tell you about yourself in the most real, unapologetic way. But recently, I’ve come to realize that my mother’s side of the family has greatly impacted my storytelling as well. You have to dig for their stories, but when you do, when you finally uncover that oyster, you’re stuck, in wonder.

ArtsATL: How about your literary influences. How do they turn up in this novel?

Williams: I have a ton of literary influences, historic and contemporary. Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Jane Austen, Jesmyn Ward, Tayari Jones, Deesha Philyaw, Kiese Laymon, Zadie Smith. I also feel like a lot of my literary influences were from people who didn’t write books — Spike Lee, John Singleton, Theodore Witcher. Music artists — Janet Jackson, The Spinners, The Supremes, Arrested Development, Missy Elliott, Babyface. It’s a little uncomfortable to name him now, but to be honest, Kanye West. Outkast. There’s bits of all of these influences in my writing. Sometimes, I think things super academically, like considering how slowly Jesmyn Ward’s stories unfold, how readers don’t mind just sitting with her characters. I study how she does that, what it is about the language, the story, the characters. With other influences, it’s like passing down rhythm. They taught me how to snap on beat, you know, just by listening over and over again.

ArtsATL: What role does music play, and why?

Williams: Music is an equalizer. I mean, sure, it’s not easy to write or play music, to sing or rap. It takes a level of practice. You have to be studied, even if self-taught. But I can sing you a song today, and then you can sing it to someone else tomorrow. It’s much easier to pass down than the written word. And it’s so evocative. You hear a song, and a specific moment from 20 years ago shoots through you like lightning. It’s so powerful in that way, and yet, it was, and still is, massively underestimated, at least in a number of ways.

If White people knew how song could carry enslaved people’s spirits, could be foundational to the civil-rights movement, they would have put up a fight about Negro spirituals, about jazz, about the blues, about soul! We see what they did to read, to books. What continues to be done to read, to books! But they missed music, and it lived. It thrived. So of course, in a book about ancestors and spirits, it would be odd not to have that persistence of voice, through song.


Candice Dyer’s work has appeared in magazines such as Atlanta, Garden and gun, Georgia Trend and other publications. She is the author of Street Singers, Soul Shakers, Rebels with a Cause: Music from Macon.

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