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Nikesha Elise Williams writes truth in fiction

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There is no such thing as an easy answer in writer Nikesha Elise Williams’ sphere. She writes in a post-Jordan Davis environment in a Stand Your Ground world. Literally: The fictional story that started with the Jacksonville-centric Four Women continues in The Appeal of Ebony Jones.

Last fall, Jacksonville was abuzz with the story of Four Women, and rightfully so. The story takes off in an unflinching, yet recognizable scenario: a woman noticing the flaws in the ceiling as a man takes his tacitly consensual but totally brutal pleasure of her. It’s an incredibly difficult scene to read.

Yet in terms of framing the trauma that undergirds Four Women, it sets the emotional tone—one of wrenching honesty and introspection—for the entire book. But honest doesn’t mean that a little arch-eyebrowed commentary can’t be inserted. From observations about Shands (now UF Health) to the “airs” glossy magazines “put on” (unlike their unvarnished tabloid counterparts), Williams, in the guise of her protagonists, notices everything. These comments are in service to the narrative, but those readers calling Jacksonville home will drink them up like tea.

The Appeal of Ebony Jones picks up exactly where Four Women left off. That is, in the courtroom. And though the tone is somber and the tempo is slower than in the first book, the sliding, winking commentary woven through again offers a tactile view of Jacksonville; the comparison of Northeast Florida to Mississippi is particularly apt.

These asides about the city and the institutions that inhabit it flesh out the fifth character in the two books—that bold new city of the South, where it’s so much easier: Jacksonville. In an interview with NPR’s Melissa Ross, Williams said that she intentionally made the city a character, “ … it kind of sets the backdrop of what’s going on and what’s happening and plays as that underlying current.”

An Emmy-award-winning news producer, Williams writes with a crisp cleanness. Her style verges on the no-nonsense, while still leaving plenty of room for the kind of evocative details, like the description of the “simple Northside [...] stereotyped by its headlined crime,” is followed up by a statement on the vindictiveness of the Florida State Attorney’s Office.

Folio Weekly spoke with the very busy Williams the day before she was scheduled to leave for a trip to Cuba. Over the phone, she’s bubbly and youthful, but focused, too. She explained that the main motivating factors in writing the sequel were her readers. “You’ve gotta write a sequel ... we need to know what happened,” they said.

Her curious readers aren’t wrong, after following and caring about Ebony, Dawn, Soleil and Johnnie, it’s not easy to walk away, with no idea how things turn out. But more than a simple denouement of the story, Appeal offers a compelling window in the psyches of these woman, after their lives become radically different. If Four was a startling ride into the heart of their lives, Appeal gives ground to the circumstances of the characters. Now that Ebony’s trial is over, they must return to address the complex minutiae in which they exist.

Both books were written with the memory of Jordan Davis looming large. “I was working those nights when Jordan was shot in November 2012 on Black Friday, and I followed that case through my career because I’m a news producer. Stand Your Ground was such a big deal, and the law, and the jury instructions … just everything that could possibly happen in that case I saw and I covered. I started to think, ‘Where are the women in these stories?’”

“I saw the grieving mother and the angry women protestors. But I was, like, ‘There have to be black women, and women in general who are going through these same things … and nobody is talking about their cases.’ There’s a saying in the black community that black women always show up for our boys and our men, but nobody shows up for us. So I wanted to explore that.”

She explores this in a manner that recalls (but with significantly more adult stickiness) Angie Thomas’s The Hate You Give. Which is to say that Williams, like Thomas, places her readers inside the very complex contemporary lives her characters lead: from reformed-ish parents to the intricacies of female friendships in the workplace. In this, it’s also a deeply human commentary on race, policing and justice in America.

At the very end of Appeal, Williams exhorts her readers to #saytheirnames, there’s a list, too. But the most chilling aspect is the line yet left blank … for the next senseless murder.

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