My book is now available at Pegasus Books in Oakland.
It will also soon be available at the Oakland Public Library and the Mills College library. Working on getting it into more independent bookstores soon. <3
Looking for an ASL interpreter for the launch party
It’s from 7-9 pm next Friday, September 26th, in downtown Oakland. Please hit me up at email@example.com if you want the gig or know anyone who might be good for it. <3 <3 <3
Interview with Author Mat Johnson
I’ve spent this past summer reading everything I could get my hands on by Mat Johnson. Mat was my Graphic Novel writing instructor at VONA [Voices of Our Nation], an intensive summer program for writers of color at UC Berkeley in 2013. This summer my friend Joyce Hatton recommended his novel Pym to me, and after reading it I:
- wanted to read everything else he’d ever written and
- wanted to ask him tons of questions.
I was very honored when he agreed, via Twitter, to an interview.
Pym is about a black professor of literature who becomes obsessed with Edgar Allen Poe’s only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838), and recreating the adventure the protagonist takes in Poe’s book. The tracks he wants to retrace first go to an island of white monsters that live deep within the Arctic ice, then an island of unadulterated Blackness, that has never been tainted by white colonial contact.
Other works of his referenced in this interview include his graphic novels Dark Rain (about a bank heist in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina) and Incognegro (about a light-skinned black man investigating lynchings in the South), and his first novel Drop, which is about a self-hating Philadelphian who escapes only to find himself back where he started. Johnson is also the author of Hunting in Harlem and The Great Negro Plot.
I was particularly excited to talk to Johnson because we share the experience of being light-skinned/white-passing mixed-race Black people. As a result, I started out with a couple of obligatory mixed-race questions.
1.) Though many of your protagonists are light-skinned or even white-passing, they generally seem self-assured in their blackness. Did you grow up with that same sense of confidence in your racial identity, or did you struggle with feelings of racial self-doubt and inauthenticity?
Both, really. I grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood, raised primarily by my black mother, so ethnically that is my base. But I also had my white dad actively in my life, so was connected to his Irish-American family as well. At that time and place, Philly in the 1970s, there really wasn’t a mixed race identity. If one of your parents was black, you were black. So I was black.
That said, I didn’t look black. I looked like a little white boy. So the insecurity was there all the time. Not as much in how I viewed myself, but in how others would view me.
2.) Do you ever feel like you write to prove your blackness, or to stake your claim to blackness? Your novels are in the “African American” section of the Oakland Public Library. Does that feel validating, limiting, or both?
I guess I was motivated to prove my worth, like a lot of artists, and my own ethnic identity was part of that. The question of staking my claim wasn’t really there, because that was never an option to me. I don’t look black, but I’m not white. Not culturally, not legally, etc. If I had grown up in the age where being “biracial” or just “mixed” was more of an option, as it is today, then I would have felt like I had something to choose or claim. But that wasn’t my reality.
The bookstore race-marketing thing, at this point I don’t care. I know they’re just doing that to sell books, and selling books is a really hard thing to do. They could sell it in the gardening section—if that works I’m fine with it. None of it affects the work itself.
3.) Your protagonists in Drop and Pym struggle a lot with the idea of not being “man enough,” and more broadly the idea of what it means to be a man. They also look to women to “fix” or “complete” them. Is deconstructing and interrogating masculinity something you do you consciously in your work, or does it just sort of happen organically? How do you think the way you write about women and relationships has changed since you wrote Drop almost 15 years ago?
Well, a lot novel-writing in general is about identity and adulthood. If you’re talking about a push for adulthood and the character is male, it becomes about manhood. There’s a difference though between talking about a male characters road to fully realized adulthood, and Manhood as a direct target. There were times I wanted to negotiate masculinity, and there were times I just wanted to negotiate maturity.
I don’t like to analyze my own books, but I think its clear in Pym that the narrators views and motivations are not to be taken as endorsed by the writer. I haven’t read Drop in 15 years, so I can’t attest to that one. I don’t like to read books after I publish them. There’s nothing I can do to improve them, and I’ve moved on.
4.) What made you want to include a female character who passes as male in Incognegro?
The story was about passing yourself off as another identity to overcome oppression. Doing the same to overcome gender limitations just made sense, thematically. It’s interesting, because in today’s world we see gender performance along lines personal identity. But in early centuries we examples of cases that were probably also motivated by a need to escape oppression.
5.) In the reviews I’ve read of Pym, people seem to really focus on the obsession with Edgar Allan Poe (both yours and the protagonist’s) and the way the book sort of spirals from hyper-real to super fantastical. I haven’t read much about one the scenes I thought was the most powerful, which is the old woman who faints when she finds out she’s black, having thought her whole life that her dark skin came from indigenous heritage. Was this scene at all based in something you experienced or witnessed? It seemed way too real to be made up. (You seem like you are sort of having a laugh here at Black people who emphasize their indigenous heritage and equating that with self-hatred, but your character gets checked on this by his bus-driving friend. Is that your way of saying “my bad” for judging these people? Where do you actually stand on this issue?)
The Indian DNA scene is made up, but the sentiments behind it are not. I think it’s another kind of passing, a passing of self-definition. Growing up, most of the black people around me claimed significant Native ancestry, in a way that was clearly overstated in part to reduce the stigma of their African ancestry.
I think, in a scene like that, I stand on all sides. I stand with the people saying they’re really Indian, with the gaze dismissing them, and with the gaze critiquing the dismissive attitude. For the writing to be full, you have to be connected to all elements.
6.) Your protagonist in Drop is Chris Jones. Your protagonist in Pym is Chris Jaynes. Why did you pick two names so similar?
Because I don’t give a shit about names. I’m lazy. And disdainful of naming.
7.) At VONA [Voices of Our Nation], I think you mentioned that Dark Rain changed a lot between the conception of the idea and the execution of it. It seems a little less racially poignant than some of your other work. Did your editor/publisher ask you to tone down the politics of it? If not, how did the direction it ended up going differ from the direction you had intended to go with it?
I was asked to tone the politics of it down, after the first draft. To be fair though, I don’t think I incorporated it well. What I came up with was preaching and off-story. I wish I could have found a way to incorporate more into the final story, and would have if I’d known the other stuff was getting cut.
With everything I work on, the finished product is different from what I intended. That’s what makes it art. It goes in its own direction, and I try to help it a long. Some times I’m happy where it ends up, and sometimes less so. There is a definitely element of chance in writing. That’s part of what I love.
8.) In a video interview (for University of Oregon) you mentioned that the deep sea diver (Booker) character in Pym was actually based on a relative of yours. How similar is the real-life “Booker” to the character and in what ways?
I made up his racial outlook; my cousin Ted is nothing like that. But the crazy deep-sea diving stuff and the mannerisms, that’s him. Check him out.
9.) Your twitter banner photo is a panel from Incognegro with the text “assimilation as revolution”. In Incognegro, the hero passes [as white] and this enables him to be an asset to his people as an investigative journalist. However, Pym depicts two very different and much more negative portrayals of assimilation: [SPOILER ALERT!] One in the form of Nathan, who almost immediately sells out his people for personal gain, and in Booker Jaynes, who “sells out” by falling in love with one of his white captors. In real life, it seems like the difference between “revolutionary” assimilation and straight-up selling out is not always so clear. What do you think that difference is?
Assimilation is a tool. Sometimes it solves the problem, sometimes it doesn’t. I don’t think of Booker Jaynes as assimilating, though. I think of him as the opposite, as someone who is so fixated on his animosity of the majority culture that he’s driven to fetish about it. For that matter, I don’t think trying to survive by acquiescing to the oppressor is always selling out—sometimes it’s the only way to survive the battle, even if you don’t give up the war.
10.) You mentioned that your forthcoming novel Swirl is a satire about the mixed-race movement. In what ways have you been part of a “mixed race movement” and what makes it satire-worthy?
Everything people do is satire-worthy, because people are imperfect and arrogant and foolish as well as beautiful and amazing. It’s when we take ourselves, our viewpoints, and political positions, too seriously that we really fuck things up. So we need to step back and laugh at ourselves. It’s the best form of self-criticism.
I don’t think of the “mixed-race movement” as an organized advocacy force, although there are many mixed theme groups out there now. I think of it more as the movement of public opinion. As more people of mixed racial heritage are born, and larger racial oppression has lessoned (compared to 60 years ago), the old One Drop Rule has started to fall as well, or at least be interpreted in more nuanced ways. It’s been fascinating to watch, because I think I’m of the last generation of mixed black and white people who simply thought of themselves as black. So I’m definitely interested in that transition, and that’s what the new novel will be about.
I don’t suffer the self-righteous, though, regardless of whether I agree with their larger worldview. And this book will most likely upset some people, on all sides of the issue.
Swirl is slated to hit bookstores in May 2015. Mat Johnson’s future projects include a memoir and another graphic novel.
#artlife: the secret to making a living as an artist is having a day job
For the last two years I have been trying to make a living as an artist, and failing. Turns out making a living as an artist is extremely difficult. Of the 40+ artists I have interviewed on the podcast and in the book, almost all of them have a day job. Actually, I think every single one of them has a day job. Or is unemployed and/or on assistance.
After I left my full-time nonprofit job, I had an unpaid internship at Colorlines for 5 months, which then became a paid internship for 3 months, and then ended all together. I didn’t become self-employed because I wanted to. I became self-employed because I couldn’t find a job. I’ve been looking and looking since even before I left my pre-Colorlines nonprofit job. I haven’t had an interview in over a year. Most of the time I haven’t even received a courtesy call or email saying “we’re not interested.” One of the jobs I applied for and never heard back about was at Colorlines. I applied for several jobs at a queer anti-violence organization (where I have a friend on the board) that does the exact same kind of work as an org I used to work for in Colorado. No call, no email, nothing. I’ve been unemployed so long that I have applied for jobs, they have been filled, the person who had the job has moved on, and I have applied for the job again, a year later.
It’s brutal out there. A lot of my friends of color are in similar positions, even though they have many skills and sometimes many degrees. In short, if you are having a hella hard time finding a job, it’s probably not your fault. It kind of sucks for all job seekers right now, but especially trans, black and brown ones.
I stopped applying for nonprofit jobs and started applying for retail and food service positions again, a position I had hoped not to find myself in after college. After two years of unemployment, I all of the sudden have two part time jobs, which is very exciting and very exhausting. In the time I was unemployed I found ways of dealing with my chronic pain that mostly involved living a VERY sedentary lifestyle. That is no longer as much of an option. I like my jobs and I am grateful to have them, but learning to navigate disability stuff in these positions is a challenge that is bringing up a lot of my internalized ableism. The hardest thing is not to beat myself up for not having the energy to see friends or work on passion projects after work.
I am glad I finished the book and pre-recorded podcast episodes for the rest of this year before I got the jobs. I am hoping that in the next few months I can learn to balance life, work, and disability stuff in a way that will allow me to keep doing the podcast next year.
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Thanks. Shoutout to job-hunters, folks living with chronic pain, and folks figuring out how to navigate disability stuff in the workplace. Stay strong. <3