An interview with Charles Johnson.
Boccia: Is there any little-known or unknown autobiographical information that would help us better understand your fiction?
Johnson: As you probably know, my creative work did not begin when I started writing fiction. In 1967, when I was 17, I began publishing as a cartoonist (my first three short stories were published that same year, but in my teens the only thing I desired to be was a commercial artist). For seven years thereafter, I studied with cartoonist Lawrence Lariar; this career consumed me, leading to over 1,000 published drawings in dozens of publications ranging from Black World to The Chicago Tribune; to scripting for Charlton comic books and working as a political cartoonist; to creating, hosting, and co-producing an early PBS how-to-draw series called Charlie's Pad; to publishing two early collections of comic art, Black Humor (1970) and Half-Past Nation-Time (1972). My passion as a child was - and to a certain extent is still - for the visual arts. It occurs to me sometimes when I'm writing literary criticism, as in Being & Race, or discussing aesthetics, that I often cross genres in the language I use for analyzing fiction, borrowing certain terminology from the realm of drawing.
Thus, drawing was my first passion. My second, which I discovered when I was 17, was philosophy. Writing was something I did strictly for fun: ghost-authoring papers for other students in my college dormitory, collaborating on metaphysical plays with my best friend at the time (another philosophy major), religiously keeping a journal, composing about 80 bad poems during my undergraduate days, and writing news articles (my other major was journalism). I read fiction hungrily, but mainly the authors who would appeal to a lover of philosophy - Sartre and Camus, Mann and Hesse, Hawthorne and Melville, etc. In the late 1960s and early 1970s my friends and I were very cross-disciplinary in our interests, and we understood fiction and philosophy to be sister disciplines. But no, I had no specific intention to become a writer of fiction. However, I did realize something when my interests turned to black American fiction - namely, how few black authors were concerned with probing the perennial questions of Western and Eastern philosophy in their stories. Only three black writers qualified (for me) as philosophically engaging: Jean Toomer, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison.
I began writing novels in earnest in 1970 with one specific goal in mind, that of expanding the category we might call black philosophical fiction; i.e., opening up black literature to the same ethical, ontological, and epistemological questions - Western and Eastern - that I wrestled with as a student of philosophy. From the very beginning, I've had no other aim as a literary artist.
Boccia: Can you tell us something about your life that we cannot find elsewhere, something which sheds light on your work?
Johnson: Two things, I suppose, have importance: the martial arts and Buddhism. When I was 19, I trained at a Chicago martial-arts kwoon called Chi Tao Chuan of the Monastery, a very rough school that I've written about (see the author's preface to the new Plume edition of Oxherding Tale). Over the years I've trained in three traditional karate and three kung-fu systems, and for the last eight years have co-directed the Blue Phoenix Kung-fu Club in Seattle. I started with this system in 1981 in San Francisco at the main studio of grandmaster Doc-Fai Wong, and many of my closest friends today are also practitioners of this style. For me, traditional martial arts was a door-way into the theory and practice of Buddhism, a philosophy (or religion) that attracted me since my teens. I've published two stories that thematize Buddhism in the martial arts, "Kwoon" and "China," and elements from Eastern thought - Taoism, Hinduism - can be found in virtually every story or novel I've published.
Boccia: Is there a hidden uncle or maiden aunt, a childhood love or a hated enemy, your alter-ego or a shadow of yourself in one of your characters? For example, was there an innocent and beautiful Faith Cross in your life? (And if so can I have her telephone number?)
Johnson: All of the above appear in the stories and novels - people I've known, or characters who are composites of people I've known, but I'd better not reveal any of them by name. (One of my relatives once contemplated litigation against me for my use of her brother's name in a story.) As for Faith Cross, her description parallels closely that of my wife Joan in 1972 when we were both 24 years old, and I started work on Faith and the Good Thing. You can have her (our) phone number anyway.
Boccia: We are all members of various sub-cultures. My family is Sicilian and African and Hispanic, and I grew up on the streets of New York City, all of which have impacted my life. What do you identify as your sub-cultures, and how did they affect you?
Johnson: This is a tough question for me. The only thing I can identify as a "sub-culture" is the black American experience, but that is - as we know - a cultural experience that has shaped American politics, economics, music, religion, entertainment, athletics, and the arts since 1619. Sub-culture, indeed! It's best to say that from my childhood forward I've always seen myself first and foremost as an American, because it is impossible to separate out black people from this nation's evolution.
Boccia: How and where did you grow up? What was your family like? What was your socioeconomic situation?
Johnson: On my mother's side of the family (all deceased now), I can trace back my ancestors to a New Orleans black coachman born in the 1820s. I think his name was Jeff Peters. My father's people come from rural South Carolina near Hodges and Abbeyville. My dad was one of twelve kids - six boys, six girls - born to a man who was a farmer and blacksmith. What brought my Dad north to Evanston, Illinois, where he met my mother, was a promise of work from his uncle, William Johnson, who'd moved to Illinois in the 1920s. There, he started his own milk company to serve the black community (whites didn't delivery to them), and I have under glass one of his milk bottles, one that was sealed up in a building in my home town 60 years ago and not unearthed until the mid-1970s when that building in the downtown area was torn apart for remodeling. Uncle Will's milk company went belly up during the Depression. He started another company, the Johnson Construction Co., and once it was going (it continued into the 1960s), he invited his brother's sons in the South to come to work for him. So Dad and his brothers traveled north to work for my great-uncle; my father was introduced to my mother by his brother, and all of this led to my being here.
As a kid I remember riding around Evanston and my father pointing out to me places Uncle Will had built - Springfield Baptist Church, apartment buildings, and residences. He erected architecture all over the North Shore area, so I always had a sense that my family members had created parts of the world in which we lived. Those structures remain today long after Uncle Will's death at age 97 in 1989. He was something of a character, the family patriarch (a role my father later inherited), a man who surely was a student of Booker T. Washington in the 1920s, and who over and over counseled me when I was a kid to, "Get an education; that's the most important thing."
My mother and father were a complementary pair. Both were quietly pious, and Ebenezer Baptist Church in Evanston, where I was baptized and married (and my son Malik. baptized) was a valued part of our lives. (My mother sometimes taught Sunday school there.) She, an only child (like me), had always wanted to be a school teacher, but health problems (asthma) prevented this. Still, her interests ran toward books - she belonged to numerous book clubs in the 1960s - which we often shared, and toward whatever was unusual, exotic, unique. She was a Democrat, a passionate woman with a wicked sense of humor who encouraged my childhood passion for drawing, and she was someone my father relied on completely. As for my father, there is simply this to say: He is the hardest working, most moral man I've ever known. In the South he went. as far as the fifth grade before his parents needed him full-time to help with farmwork during the Depression. After moving to Evanston, he often worked two jobs a week - construction and as a night watchman - as well as odd jobs for an elderly white couple in the suburbs on the weekends. He was - and still is at age 73 - a proud, never-idle man who voted Republican in the 1950s before my mother got him to switch parties, and he demanded the same Protestant work ethic from me when I was growing up. We were, I suppose, looking back, lower middle-class, but my parents clearly had middle-class values.
Something else to say is that my hometown and high school were integrated long before I was born; in fact, my mother graduated from Evanston Township High. When I was there between 1962 and 1966, black students made up fifteen percent of what was then the third best public high school in America - we were proud of this distinction. And proud too, I believe, that integration was something we all took for granted. My friends from kindergarten through high school were white as well as black. Bigotry, as we understood it then, was simply "uncool."
Boccia: Did your idea of your cultural identity change over the years? How would you say this has shaped you and your work?
Johnson: Given my childhood, I think I can safely say that I was a child of integration. I never questioned its validity until I went away to college and met other black students more affected by Black Power than integration, by Malcolm X than Martin Luther King, Jr. The ideology of "blackness" was something I learned in the late 1960s and early 1970s on campus, not from the piously Christian black folks in my family or their friends. A part of me sympathizes with black nationalist concerns, such as economic self-sufficiency - remember, my Uncle Will was a black businessman devoted to helping his own. But I just never bought into black cultural nationalism. It always struck me as naive (all cultures we know about are synthetic, a tissue of contributions from others). The way its proponents portrayed other races - whites, for example - had nothing to do with the supportive people I knew when I was growing up. In the end, black cultural nationalism only served to remind me of how thoroughly American my family and I have always been.
Boccia: What works of art do you consciously imitate? Clearly your works have parodied or imitated escaped slave narratives and visual art such as "Ten Oxherding Pictures." What books would you suggest we read to better see the structure of your novels?
Johnson: Parody may not be the right word here. My first (and only) writing mentor was novelist John Gardner. There was much we had in common - as teacher and apprentice - but one thing about Gardner stands out for me. In his work there is formal virtuosity, a deep knowledge of literary forms from within, whether we are talking about the triple-decker Sunlight Dialogues, the pastoral Nickel Mountain, or the explosion of forms that inform his other works. In other words, something I deeply appreciated in Gardner - and have always tended to do myself - is take form itself as a meditation when I'm writing. Each story in The Sorcerer's Apprentice should upon examination profile a different form - the tale, parable, animal fable, science fiction, etc. I suspect this way of approaching fiction is something we owe to the creators of the "New Fiction" that emerged in the late 1960s - including Gardner, John Barth, Robert Coover, Ron Sukenick, Ishmael Reed, and John Fowles, at least in terms of his magical novel The French Lieutenant's Woman.
Boccia: What books did you read as a child or as you evolved as an artist? What films or paintings or cartoons did you see?
Johnson: Although I spent a summer devouring James T. Farrell's Studs Lonigan Trilogy when I was in high school, my personal tastes don't incline much to "naturalism," which I see as being an interesting but limited theory and literary approach that began in the late nineteenth century. (For example, the life-world of naturalism falls short of adequately portraying the life of the spirit and, for that matter, anything we know about the sub-atomic realm of physics). Generally, I prefer the tale. In high school I made myself read at least one book a week, everything from science fiction (I joined a book club) to Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Grecians. As a young philosophy student I loved Candide, had fun with Jack London's Martin Eden, Shakespeare, Mary Shelley, Sartre's plays, all of D. H. Lawrence (including his letters), Dickens, Kafka, P. G. Wodehouse. This list could go on and on. When I discover an author I tend to read everything I can by him or her until I'm saturated by their work.
As for films, I've loved since the 1950s Paddy Chayevsky's Marty, Disney's Fantasia, Capra's beautiful Lost Horizon, Sidney Poitier in All the Young Men, and Jane Fonda in They Shoot Horses, Don't They?. I'll confess to admiring Peckinpaw's The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs, but right now a discovery I'm giddy about is Ang Lee's Pushing Hands.
As a kid, I regularly visited the Evanston Public Library and checked out all their books on art. I did the same as a student at Southern Illinois University, then at SUNY-Stony Brook. Diego Rivera is a favorite of mine. Also - and especially - Nicholas Roerich. Among cartoonists I deeply admired Jack Davis, caricaturist Mort Drucker, Charles Schultz, Gahan Wilson, Burne Hogarth, the prolific Jack Kirby, Wallace Wood, and the seminal Will Eisner. This, believe me, is only a partial list.
Boccia: Who are the "dead" writers you most admire? I choose dead writers so that you will have no opportunity to offend by omission, but you need not limit yourself in any way.
Johnson: Where to begin? Start with Homer and Plato. Move on to St. Augustine and Hegel. Throw in Voltaire, Melville, most of the phenomenologists - Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, Scheler, Merleau-Ponty, Mikel Duferenne - then ease on to Toomer, Wright, Ellison, Albert Murray (still going strong), and Gardner. Again, this list is woefully incomplete. I think my favorite "dead" writers are those who are involved in what has been called the "epic conversation"; that is, the writers dialoguing across centuries with each other about the nature of Being.
Boccia: Your work has touched upon issues ranging from entropy to Asian philosophies. What are the central themes that run through all your work?
Johnson: At last, an easy question! If the principal novels and stories in my body of work have a central theme it is the investigation of the nature of the self and personal identity. As a phenomenologist, I cannot help but believe that consciousness is primary for all "experience" - that the nature of the I is the deepest of mysteries, and that all other questions arise from this primordial one, What am I?.
Boccia: Do you feel that certain themes have been misunderstood?
Johnson: Yes. One of the greatest mistakes that critics and readers make when approaching a novel by a black author is the tendency to read that work as sociology, anthropology, or as a political statement of some sort. By taking such a limited and narrowing approach, critics and readers miss time and again the remarkable passages on "history" and perception in Ellison's In visible Man, the treatment of temporal experience in Wright's Native Son, the Buddhist-Hindu-Taoist meditations in Oxherding Tale, and the dramatization of Buddhist epistemology in my story "Moving Pictures." As educators, I feel we simply must help our students to become better readers - and to make clear the point that for many black writers "race" is not the only subject they can write about with authority.
Boccia: You have told us that there's nothing worse than being haunted by a philosopher's ghost. What ghosts haunt you?
Johnson: Gautama, the 25th Buddha. Lao tzu and Chaung tzu. Gandhi when he speaks of satyagraha. Martin Luther King, Jr., when, as a philosopher, he speaks so beautifully of the "beloved community," of agapic love and the "network of mutuality" that binds all life as one.
Boccia: You mention numerous world views and philosophies in your work. What was the path of your growth and personal philosophy?
Johnson: I may have indirectly answered some of this already. Early in life, I found Buddhism deeply appealing and made the study of Eastern scholarship a lifelong avocation. But in college I encountered black cultural nationalism, which I felt the need to respond to, mainly as a cartoonist. Shortly thereafter I settled into Marxism, did my master's thesis on Wilhelm Reich and how he was influenced by Freud and Marx; then I taught Marxism as a Ph.D. teaching assistant at Stony Brook everything from the 1844 Manuscripts to Mao - while immersing myself in the history, theory, and practice of phenomenology. I still believe the Marxist critique of capital, though I no longer much believe in Marxist solutions to social and. economic problems. My philosophical method, the one I fall back on whenever in doubt, is phenomenology. And on the deeper spiritual levels, I fully embrace the so-called "three refuges" of the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. (Early Buddhism, by the way, has often been called a very rudimentary form of phenomenology - the two have much in common in respect to their forms of "radical empiricism.")
Boccia: Assuming for the moment that there is an "American Culture," how do you think that this society affected your work?
Johnson: The work I've done could only have been attempted and could only have found its audience in America. Why? I've visited many countries in Europe and the Far East as a lecturer, and something that struck me repeatedly was how closed many societies are. There is nothing in England that equals our First Amendment. In Indonesia, writers are routinely tossed in jail for criticizing the government. In Czechoslovakia in 1989 I met with PEN authors who'd only been released from jail three days earlier during the "Velvet Revolution," authors who explained to me how the former Czech government had its list of "approved" writers (none of them were on the list), most of whom they said were mediocre. There, I met with publishers who only after their Revolution felt they could translate certain American authors who previously had been banned (Gardner was one of them).
Whatever our faults as Americans, we have protected freedom of expression. Often I wonder if our cultural nationalists and Afrocentrists value this feature of American public life - this philosophical demand that we permit the airing of views contrary to our own - as much as I do. In a different, more closed society, or in another age (that of Copernicus or Socrates), I suspect my own work would be buried or banned as "ideologically unacceptable."
Boccia: Do you feel that mainstream culture accepts your work?
Johnson: It's hard to know what is meant by "mainstream culture." However, I do know that Middle Passage, the short stories, and even Oxherding Tale are taught nationwide in colleges, high schools (public and private), and even some middle schools. Courses have been designed around Middle Passage; dissertations have been - and are being - written; it's been taught at the U.S. Naval Academy, is read by book clubs, and is in its tenth printing.
Boccia: How has winning the National Book Award affected the popularity of your work?
Johnson: Let's just say the NBA gave it a nice boost in 1990.
Boccia: Are there any plans for films of your fiction?
Johnson: To date, I've written more than twenty screen- and teleplays. No need to list here those projects, but I have been working now for four years on the movie project for Middle Passage, first at Tri-Star, then at Interscope with the Hudlin brothers, Reggie and Warrington. I've written two screenplays for this project, and it's been optioned three times. We're about to option it again this June, and my hope is that we can be in production soon. I should say that this is an expensive movie - between $40 and $70 million - which is quite a challenge for an studio, particularly since Hollywood has no track record yet with doing black epics. Nevertheless, we're confident it will get done.
Boccia: Can you describe what you see as our historical era?
Johnson: In twenty-five words or less? Okay, here goes: I think the best, most prosperous days for America came after World War II, when this country emerged unscatched from the battles that left much of Europe in smoldering ruins. Through the 1950s the Baby Boomers - and I am one - saw a decade and a half of unparalleled growth and opportunity. The Civil Rights Movement only improved upon this. Then, with the escalation of the Vietnam War, a decade of political assassinations, and Watergate, American self-confidence was badly wounded. Next came the rise of Japan as a serious competitor (China will take that role in the twenty-first century), and the transformation of American capital - the loss of the kinds of jobs my father relied on in the 1950s and '60s, with the inner cities all but abandoned, and corporations no longer restricted by national boundaries. This is the end, I believe, of an era. To be honest, I think we are at a crossroads as we approach the eleventh hour of the twentieth century. Though still a "super power" - in fact, the only super-power left after the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union - the United States is facing, not its youth, but instead its middle age. A time of cutting back. Downsizing. Of letting some of its dreams go by the boards while other societies at last free of colonialism take their places as major players on the world stage.
Boccia: In the battle between the ancients and moderns, how are we distinct?
Johnson: As a Buddhist, I believe deeply that all things are impermanent, transitory. The Chinese have a lovely phase, "A thousand years a city; a thousand years a forest." In other words, all things - nations included - go through the process of rising and passing away. Yet I think this country will be remembered, perhaps as a glorious oddity, for the way it struggled mightily to resolve the difference between its ideology of freedom and its treatment of blacks, minorities, women, and gays. No other nation has wrestled more with the ideals of "equality" and the commitment to individualism. The major domestic events in our history - the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement - attest to this. Whether or not we succeed in these social goals, it must be said of Americans in our time that we tried. We pushed the envelope of the question of social justice farther than any society in recorded history. Are we being fair? is our daily koan, and I think this defines the character of modern Americans.
Boccia: What has happened to you as a human and as an artist that marks you as distinctly of our historical period?
Johnson: Obviously, the Civil Rights Movement was of central importance in shaping the lived-world (Lebenswelt) of my young manhood. I came of age at a time when America was still "the land of opportunity" but also fluid during the 1960s. As one of my friends during that time put it, "I'm a nigger, I can do anything!" That was the sense of life that I soaked up around me - there were no artistic or intellectual restrictions. If I wanted to be a cartoonist, a philosopher, a fiction writer, a college professor, an essayist, a screenwriter, a martial artist, all I needed to achieve any or all of these things was my own talent, disciplined labor, and the blessing of God. In other words, the self was a verb, not a noun - a process, not a product. You defined your life through action, deeds; or, as Sartre might put it, "Existence preceded essence." In the late 1960s, you did not see yourself or your essence - your life's meaning - as defined wholly by the past, or by race or class. As an artist, you were not confined to any single tradition; rather, you could creatively cross genres and in doing so bring something fresh in the way of meaning and form into existence. Whether we are talking about the arts, politics, or the art of living, the one word - the single driving idea - of this historical period is freedom.
Boccia: What contemporary social, political, or cultural issues are reflected in your writing that have been generally overlooked by your readers?
Johnson: In his yet unpublished literary study of my work, critic Jonathan Little says, "Critics have surprisingly downplayed the spiritual in Johnson's fiction, tending to stress instead Western philosophy. As few critics have pointed out, Johnson's fiction and aesthetic have evolved into a pathway to the divine; they have come to show us the sacred already existent within the network of human interrelatedness and connections. His art and criticism now imply the preeminence of the intangible spiritual realm as a foundation for ethical, political, and social strategies in ways that are more liberal humanist than postmodern." I believe Little is absolutely right.
As I mentioned, I became a writer specifically to develop black (and thereby American) philosophical fiction. But over the last three decades I found that intellectual integrity demanded that along with the dramatization of Western philosophical concerns I also had to acknowledge and explore the central questions in Eastern religions. In short, the life of the spirit has been something I could not - and did not want to - ignore. And sometimes, late at night when I think back over the products of thirty years, it seems to me that my fiction is at bottom a form of spiritual literature - that I want it on the shelf beside Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge, Hesse's Siddhartha, James Hilton's Lost Horizon, Thomas Mann's The Transposed Heads, Toomer's poem "Blue Meridian," beside St. Francis's famous prayer, beside The Dhammapada, the Bhagavad-Gita, and the work of Shankara. For in the pre-taxonomic space cleared by the phenomenological epoche, the little boxes and categories into which we sort "experience" do not exist. There is only Being, which holds within itself spirit, mind, and body without our limited, racial, parochial, and self-interested distinctions.
Michael Boccia is a scholar, poet, and fiction writer whose work has appeared in such journals as The Journal of Modern Literature, Modern Fiction Studies, The Literary Review, and Hawaii Review. He has edited several journals, was a Contributing Editor for the Heath Anthology of American Literature, and has served as a Guest Editor for The Review of Contemporary Fiction. He currently teaches at the University of Southern Maine.
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 1996|
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