By Alana Ladson
Today we’re pleased to welcome Kosoko Jackson to the WNDB blog to discuss young adult novel Survive the Dome, out since March 29, 2022!
Jamal Lawson just wanted to be a part of something. As an aspiring journalist, he packs up his camera and heads to Baltimore to document a rally protesting police brutality after another Black man is murdered.
But before it even really begins, the city implements a new safety protocol…the Dome. The Dome surrounds the city, forcing those within to subscribe to a total militarized shutdown. No one can get in, and no one can get out.
Alone in a strange place, Jamal doesn’t know where to turn…until he meets hacker Marco, who knows more than he lets on, and Catherine, an AWOL basic-training-graduate, whose parents helped build the initial plans for the Dome.
As unrest inside of Baltimore grows throughout the days-long lockdown, Marco, Catherine, and Jamal take the fight directly to the chief of police. But the city is corrupt from the inside out, and it’s going to take everything they have to survive.
First of all, I really loved the characters you created. I loved Catherine, Marco, and Jamal. They were the perfect trio. Who was your favorite character to write?
That’s actually a hard question! I don’t usually like the main characters in my books, but I really like Jamal. I feel like I put my whole foot into that character and that he was a great representation of who I was as a teenager—or at least who I wanted to be as a teenager. I just turned thirty recently so teenagehood is further and further away, but I feel like I wanted to be like Jamal when I was younger.
I really love him as a character but I also really like writing female characters to complete a trio. Catherine was a bit outside of the normal character that I write. A lot of my female characters fall under the very intelligent, book smart, ‘I am better than you because I can beat you at everything’ type of category and Catherine was kind of a different character than that. I don’t usually write about militaristic women so that was a really different change for me and I fell in love with her character.
The intro of the book started with a backdoor deal with Governor Ambrose. I thought that it was interesting that you started with her perspective. Did you base that off of any real-life folks or experiences?
So when I started considering writing Survive The Dome, I knew I was not going to have any positive white characters in the book because of how whiteness plays into politicizing and policing Blackness and minority groups. I asked myself how do I take whiteness and personify it into a character? I thought, what actions could Ambrose do that would seem implausible but literally are a representation of whiteness being able to get away with things that are illegal? I wanted Governor Ambrose to be the type of person that uses her whiteness to get away with things that people of color could never get away with.
There’s a running theme in the book of a strong sense of justice amongst conflicting characters, particularly Jamal and Officer Coles. They’re on opposite sides. Do you think that charters like these can ever come to an understanding or does someone have to be the bigger person or compromise for things to work out?
I think that’s a really good what-if question. I don’t think there’s a universe where Jamal and Officer Coles could come into an understanding without one of them compromising their morals. However, I wanted to personify the twisted tunnel vision representation that the ‘boys in blue’ (i.e. police officers) are always right and what they’re doing to maintain the peace: the ends justify the means. If we opened up two different doors to alternate realities, there may be a situation where someone could change, but in this universe, they will always be at odds.
There’s a protest or two in the book. To folks on the outside, protests can look chaotic, pointless, or even dangerous. Jamal provides commentary on them as feeling home-like, familial, and that he was observing people taking care of each other, feeding each other, etc. which is a different perspective from what we see on the news and other outlets.
Yes, when I think about protests, especially ones that are based on injustice—I think about how we all come from different walks of life to protest, knowing that we could be beaten or imprisoned or have a criminal record by the end of it. There’s a lot that could happen and we silently agree that we are okay with it because it is more important to fight for justice than our own personal safety at that moment.
I think people who come together and subconsciously agree to that belong to that family that supports each other for as long as that protest lasts.
I had a friend who protested during the George Floyd protests who got shot with a rubber bullet in DC. I remember her telling me that people came around her and took care of her. They made sure she got to a hospital and afterward someone gave her a ride to the address she needed to go to. During protests, at that moment you’re all on the same mission and a part of the same family.
In Survive The Dome, there is a character with a police record. People can look at you differently when they know that you have a record, whether your actions were for better or for worse. Was it a purposeful decision to give this character a police record and to take us on the journey with them?
Yes, it was a purposeful decision. I wanted to show that people are more than their pasts. I used to work in criminal justice reform and that was a big part of my life. One of my big campaigns was to change the language around people who have police records. Instead of saying incarcerated people or people with records, saying ‘people living with convictions.’ I think that this character is an important reminder that people living with convictions are not lesser than. They’re regular people and their experiences are a part of the tapestry of who they are.
There’s a line in the book where someone says that they’re trying to “swim upstream against the riptide.” It made me think about protests and how many of us are advocating for change in our own different ways. Do you feel like if we ‘swim upstream against the riptide’ that we’ll eventually get where we need to go? Do you feel hopeful?
I can understand why people are tired and it can feel like a lot of things are done for nothing, but I think the moral arc always bends towards justice. In fact, it’s more of a pendulum that swings and you have the ‘bad’ side and you have the ‘good’ side. The question is, can we weather the bad to get to the good, knowing that the good isn’t a given and is going to require work to get there? I am hopeful and I do think we’ll get there.
There’s more than one instance where people are called monsters, but at the end of the day, those monsters are regular people. Can a monster (or person) be redeemed?
I think they can be redeemed. I don’t belong to the camp that people are irredeemable, but I do belong to the camp that if someone shows you who they really are multiple times, you should believe them. Change is hard. It takes a lot of energy to make that happen. And that’s true for changing as a person. It takes a lot of self-reflection and it takes a lot of work—it doesn’t just happen passively.
Movies make us think that there’s one incident or one instance that makes us change completely as a person, but change is consistent and it requires you to choose. Sometimes to change, you need to go left when maybe you would normally choose to go right. There are stumbling blocks and there are times you’ll fall backward. So I think people are redeemable, but there needs to be an effort put in by that person.
Jamal says living in America as ‘always being at war with something.’ Can you talk a little bit more about that?
Yes, and Jamal is coming from a Black and queer perspective. Jamal understands as a black queer man it’s going to be hard for him in life. I also strongly believe that most people have situations where they are the privileged and/or the oppressor. Jamal is disadvantaged by being Black and queer in many spaces, but he’s also a man, which gives him an amount of privilege versus someone like Catherine in other situations. A lot of Jamal’s points of view and statements come from a place of being a marginalized individual and speaking to other marginalized individuals.
There are a few times that religion is lightly mentioned through character dialogues and expressions. What role did religion play in oppression during the events of Survive The Dome?
I often think about history and that we don’t talk enough about The Crusades, which seems like a strange intersection here, but I think about how religious persecution or religious actions are used to do some pretty horrific things to people. And the intersection between church and state, especially in this country, is used as a reason to get away with things that are completely terrible.
In the book, you mention doing ‘the right thing.’ How do you know what the right thing is when you’re faced with a situation like the teens in Survive The Dome?
I don’t think you can know. I think the right thing is a leap of faith. I think it’s very rare that the right thing points itself out with a shining light like ‘Here! This is obviously the right thing to do!’ Obviously, it’s situational, but life is made up of many messy choices where the right thing and the wrong thing are just a hair’s breadth away from being different.
And sometimes the choice is just the right thing that you can do at that moment; because we often don’t know how our actions are going to manifest into reality. Hindsight is 20/20 at times. The ideas and intentions that we put into our actions sometimes don’t generate the effects that we think they will have. I think that all we can do is make the best choice possible and hope that history is kind to us.
What advice would you give to folks that want to take action or make a difference?
Survive The Dome takes place over a somewhat short period of time, but action and long-term, positive changes that take root and don’t get dismantled a month or year later, are small and incremental. And sometimes it feels like nothing is happening. There are times you’ll see an impressive story on the news. For example, a school district that has an oppressive restriction at a school, like unfair dress codes for girls. You’ll hear that it has been dismantled because of one person or a group.
But that probably wasn’t the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, or the third, or even the 20th time that this has happened and that people have stood up. Like a bestselling author, there are years of failures behind them that led them to where they are today. Remember that failures are not defeats, they’re things that you can learn and grow from.
Do you think that Jamal’s and the other characters’ courage will inspire someone else?
I hope so! I really wrote Dome as a letter to activists and those who want to make a difference. Even in the acknowledgments, it thanks the leaders of Black Lives Matter. I want this to inspire Black people and people of color to become activists for things they believe in.
What do you want everyone to take away from Survive The Dome?
I think at its core, Survive The Dome is about the importance and value of standing up for what you believe in. Historically many movements have been started by teenagers, women, and people of color, which is what the trio of Catherine, Marco, and Jamal represents. Individuals and their small actions can make a huge difference in the grand scheme of things.
Born and raised in the DC Metro Area, and currently living in Brooklyn, Kosoko Jackson is a digital media strategist for non-profit organizations; which enables his Twitter obsession. Occasionally, his personal essays have been featured on Medium, Thought Catalog, and The Advocate. When not searching for an extra hour in the day, he can be found obsessing over movies or drinking his (umpteenth) London Fog. He is the author of Survive the Dome and Yesterday is History. Visit him at kosokojackson.com.
Alana Ladson is an illustrator and character designer who loves to read, write, and draw. During the day, she is the program coordinator for an after-school program at Yale Peabody Museum. At other times you can find Alana sipping chai lattes with oat milk, taking online courses, or reading all types of books—from adult fiction to young adult to poetry to comics to picture books. Alana’s current favorite picture books are The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Bilal Cooks Daal, and The Proudest Blue. She is currently working on writing and illustrating her own children’s picture book. You can find her illustration work at alanaladsonart.com.