Why they force you to be hard? Why aren’t you a thug by choice?
“If the soul of our neighborhood were the sun, then I would have been on the planet Neptune, close enough to circle its comings and goings, but never in range of its true warmth,” observes Benjamin Baker, Jr.
If I didn’t know any better, I’d swear that Benjamin, the main man in Seeking Salamanca Mitchell, went to my high school. I know characters in novels are fictitious and resemblances are coincidental, but as I read, I couldn’t help but think of the quiet, seemingly intelligent kid with the headphones and notepad that sat in the back of class. Hardly noticeable, he didn’t hang with the knuckleheads, but I sensed that he walked the fine line between good and evil, punk and gangster; and I only hoped that he went in the right direction. Seeking Salamanca Mitchell could very well have been his story.
And this is precisely where Kenji Jasper’s talent lies — developing characters that escape archetype assimilation while telling a story that infuses authenticity and reflection. Admittedly, you might have already been exposed to the bass line of this tale-guy gets caught up, goes to jail, leaves girl and unfinished business behind, gets pumped up in the pen, and optimistically aims to return to a normal life. However, with Seeking Salamanca Mitchell, it is the lyrics, performances and rhythmical arrangement that propel Jasper’s artistry.
While D’Angelo’s “Brown Sugar” bangs on the radio, you’re transported to mid-’90s Washington D.C., fully equipped with Go-Go band mentions, U-street spots, and Rock Creek grape soda. Jasper, who is a native of D.C., describes his hometown with a meticulous remembrance, using language that is neither overly boisterous nor unforgiving. Nor does the story suffer from throw-away observations or suspicious dialogue. Words are methodically placed to achieve a firm foundation upon which his characters emerge.
Benjamin Baker, the son of a deceased police officer, sought the musical rhythm of piano keys as opposed to the gunshot melody of his neighborhood. Music was to be Ben’s alternative; the anti-crime activity that public service announcements push. But it wasn’t walking past the drug dealers with phat pockets that drew him away from his gift and into the bad element. It was the immense fatherly void that triggered any peer pressure reaction. A void so deep that Cinnamon (not a local stripper, but his piano), Ben’s family, or the subsequent love of his life, Salamanca, could not fill. Tapping into this highly ignored societal ill, distinguishes Jasper as a truth seeker instead of a hype-believer.
So, in stomps Alfonse Mitchell, the bible-toting, contradictory O.G., who controls the town and his daughter, Salamanca, under thug-ignited duress. He offers our man Ben a deal he can’t refuse while taking him under his sadistic wing. Benjamin’s new school, Lil’ Wayne gangsta can’t contend with Alfonse’s, Ice-T, originator game. In other words, Ben gets in way over his head — at the brink of being discovered musically and affectionately.
Some could point to Benjamin’s quick involvement in crime as a pacing miscalculation. But it is the honest, yet harsh reality of too many young men. Jasper positions readers as surrogates who not only care about Ben’s well-being but feel the sting of disappointment just as a caring parent would.
One of the other well-cast performers is the title character, Salamanca Mitchell. While Benjamin’s time in jail seemingly flies in a chapter or two, Salamanca’s time waiting is decelerated, leaving readers craving: Who is this young girl that respects love to the point of no return although it hasn’t been always true to her? She is new-school virtuous and an old-school survivor. Simultaneously, Jasper exposes the insecurities of a young African-American male while bolstering the strength of a young, black woman. You only wish that more time was devoted to her thorny struggle.
But with Ben’s first-person narrative versus Salamanca’s third person, Jasper doesn’t have to spell out whose story this really is. Still, the dynamic between the two reflects a consonant duet. Imagine L.L.Cool J’s “I Need Love” with a female accompaniment.
A love story? Yes. But not just between lovers, but of family, neighborhood, music and life. A coming of age story? Indeed. Jaspers dives into the depth of a young black man’s psyche, journeying through his growth as lover, brother, son and man.
An urban tale with contemporary flair? No doubt. Seeking Salamanca Mitchell is fiction for our times that expertly illustrates the dualism (hustling ambition + layered versatility) of an important sect of Generation Xers. And who better to represent these multiple dimensions than Jasper himself, a twenty-eight-year-old author of three books and contributor to outlets like NPR and The Source?
Unquestionably, Seeking Salamanca Mitchell represents the gritty beauty of the real “Real World.”