HITTING SHELVES #26: Soul Serenade by Rashod Ollison


Soul Serenade by Rashod Ollison comes out today!

It’s a coming-of-age memoir set in Arkansas in the 1980s. When his father returns from the Vietnam War “dead on the inside,” the author, who is beginning to understand his own same-sex attraction, dives deep into the music of Aretha Franklin, Al Green, and other soul luminaries, eventually becoming an award-winning pop music critic. Soul Serenade is about how great music can lift the despair of poverty and violence.

We asked the author one question.

How are you celebrating the publication of Soul Serenade?

When my book went from being an abstract idea haunting me night and day to thousands of words filling my computer screen, I had reason to celebrate.

I couldn’t have written any other book until Soul Serenade was out of my system. There was so much rich territory to explore about my childhood and the people in it and what central Arkansas was like in the 1980s and 1990s, the time I was growing up there. For at least a decade, the idea of appropriating the material for a novel wouldn’t leave me alone.

But when I finally found the courage to sit down and start writing the book, it became a memoir written like a novel, the better for the reader to experience what I had known—the bluesy rhythm in the language of my neighbors and relatives, the soul food, the smoky backrooms, all of those gorgeous maple, mimosa and sycamore trees.

Rashod Ollison

Rashod Ollison

The writing was a hard but liberating process. The technical duress—fussing over the plot and the flow and structure of sentences—I actually relished. The difficulty was reliving so many painful moments unblinkingly and saying goodbye yet again to a few dead relatives I still miss. But writing Soul Serenade was, in a way, an exorcism of all that grief and sorrow, leavened with lots of humor. I come from a sharply funny family, and laughter often kept us from crying. Now that important, formative and difficult part of my life is contained in a book. I can literally close it and look ahead, assured and confident, for something fresh.

So Soul Serenade—the labor of love, as it were—is online and in bookstores everywhere. What do I do to celebrate that? The day it comes out is the beginning of my book tour, so I will be inside a Barnes & Noble that evening, not far from my home in Virginia Beach, doing a reading and signing books. I will be celebrating the publication with friends and strangers, many of whom follow my weekly criticism, reviews and features in The Virginian-Pilot. In a way, this is apropos, because the book doesn’t belong to me anymore. It’s for the reader to take whatever he or she wants from it.

The following two weeks, I’ll be in and out of cities along the East Coast, in the Mid-Atlantic and in the South, connecting with readers, family and friends as I promote Soul Serenade. The tour itself is a celebration, a dream come to life. Nothing about my past says I should be doing any of this. Most of the people in Soul Serenade never read books.

The celebration for me is that I honestly, elegantly and lovingly distilled a place, time and people that the mainstream overlooks or ignores altogether. The celebration is that I did something for “Dusty,” that little boy I was, a gifted, sensitive child who always felt so alone in the world. I told that boy’s story. The celebration is that my mother, aunts and sisters—fiercely strong, deeply flawed and richly nuanced black women—come to life on the pages without ever veering into stereotypes. The celebration is that this book assumes the centrality of my gloriously funky and dysfunctional Southern upbringing with no apologies or self-loathing edits for the “white gaze.” It simply is what it is: a human story of resilience. And I can share that with anyone who chooses to open the book and surrender to the text. That is as good a reason as any to celebrate.

Get the book here.

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