In her monthly column, Re-Covered, Lucy Scholes exhumes the out-of-print and forgotten books that shouldn’t be.
When I read the extract from the writer and activist J. J. Phillips’s novel Mojo Hand: An Orphic Tale in Margaret Busby’s groundbreaking Daughters of Africa: An International Anthology of Words and Writings by Women of African Descent from the Ancient Egyptian to the Present (1992), I immediately knew that I had to track down a copy. Phillips’s writing is raw, but it’s astonishingly lyrical, too, mesmerizingly so. Later, trying to find out more about the book, I came across the novelist and academic John O. Killens’s verdict in Ebony magazine, congratulating Phillips for having “captured the beauty of Negro language and put it down without fear.” This is all the more impressive a feat considering she was only twenty-two years old when this, her debut novel, was first published in 1966.
Reading Mojo Hand in its entirety only confirmed my initial impression; it was unlike anything else I’ve read. It was also a book I’d never heard any mention of outside Busby’s anthology, which seemed particularly bewildering given its strange, unique power. I quickly came to agree with the American historian, novelist, music critic, and longtime Village Voice columnist Nat Hentoff, who, in 2015, described it novel as “the most neglected book I know.” Perhaps this disregard has an explanation. Reading it today, it’s clear that Phillips was a writer ahead of her era, and Mojo Hand, as summed up by the Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Carolyn Kizer, was simply “too rich a mix for the time in which it appeared.”