THE NEW Novel from kimbilio Fellow Janelle M. Williams

Sharp and wholly original, Gone Like Yesterday is a story about family and the quest for legacy  but also a literary exploration of ethnic and racial identity, self, and what it means to be found.  Shot-through with generation spanning song lyrics and stark  societal truths, this novel explores  the majestic and haunting experience of a Black American woman.

Zahra is a listless college prep coach helping New York’s wealthy teens craft pitch-perfect  essays to get into the most prestigious schools, while Sammie, a teenage girl and budding activist, is struggling to embrace the varied aspects of her identity. The two women are drawn to each other, seemingly randomly, before realizing an unexpected commonality—beautiful, mysterious moths have been singing the songs of Zahra’s ancestors to her for years and have more recently begun giving Sammie the eerie feeling of being watched.

Then the unthinkable happens: Zahra’s  brother, Derrick, goes missing. Derrick has always been enigmatic—sensitive and connected  to the spiritual world—and it’s no secret he has  been drifting from Zahra and her family. But this  time feels different, and Zahra is panicked that he may really be gone for good.

Zahra and Sammie embark on a road trip  from New York to Atlanta, Zahra’s hometown, in  search of Derrick. A journey that balloons into something far bigger than they could have imagined. In order to uncover the truth, they must  discover what the moths and their ancestors  want with them, and what that answer means for their individual and collective futures.

Janelle M. Williams


Janelle M. Williams received her BA from Howard University and her MFA in creative writing from Manhattanville College. She is the recipient of Prairie Schooner’s Lawrence Foundation Award for her story, “From the Closest Waffle House.” She was a 2017 Kimbilio Fellow, and her flash fiction story “Harlem Thunder” was longlisted for the Wigleaf Top 50 in 2020. Her work has appeared in The Normal School, Shenandoah, Passages North, Split Lip Magazine, and Lunch Ticket, among others. She is currently the Director of Programs and Outreach at Writopia Lab. Gone Like Yesterday is her debut novel.
A photo of a black woman, kneeling and smiling.

Five Questions for Janelle M. Williams

Brit Bennett, Deesha Philyaw, Jesmyn Ward! I love writers whose words feel authentic, who write for and from their own experiences, cultures, and communities. Brit Bennet started writing The Mothers when she was still in high school. She wrestled with that novel until publishing at 26, and the rawness and dedication really comes across in her writing. Deesha Philyaw is brilliant. Her writing speaks to Black women so well, and I love the conversations I’ve had with friends about her stories–it’s nice to feel seen. Jesmyn Ward is the gift who keeps on giving. I taught Salvage the Bones in a creative writing undergrad course and got to ask a room full of college kids–what do you think of dog fighting? Ever heard of Michael Vick? How do we feel about him? If someone fights their dog, are they a good owner? Do they love their dog? Now let’s read this character, Skeeter, and we’ll come back around to these questions. I love a story that makes me reconsider my position, my understanding of the people and the world around me.

Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, and Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age. Maybe I’m hyping myself up, but I think it fits right in between the two of those.

Setting and characters almost always come first for me, and they’re so intertwined that it’s hard to choose between the two. Sammie, one of the main characters in Gone Like Yesterday, isn’t Sammie without the NYC, Harlem, Private school background–all of that helps define her. Zahra, the other protagonist, is a NYC transplant, who eventually takes Sammie on a journey back home, to Atlanta, to look for her brother. Zahra is also an amalgamation of person and place–she’s a byproduct of the Black southern church, of Dekalb County’s desegregation busing in the ‘90s, of 285 traffic and snap music and lemon pepper wings sold out of a trailer by the corner store. From the setting and characters, especially Zahra and her brother Derrick, I began to understand what drove them and what broke them, to the point of one losing another.

That’s such a hard question because there are/were so many people who inspired me, but for brevity’s sake, I’ll say the storytellers of my family–my late grandmother, Barbara, and my mom and dad, as well as the high schoolers I teach at work. Gone Like Yesterday is really a reckoning with the past. What better to juxtapose with the past (ancestors) than the future (a teenager)?

Musical, Cathartic, Searing (in the best way of the word).