“History is a cruise ship docked in the port of today.” In conversation with T. Geronimo Johnson
While Charlie, Candice, and Louis were fastening seat belts and returning chair trays to the upright and locked position, it dawned on Daron that though he’d asked his mom to move The Charlies, he’d neglected to mention the mammies from New Orleans, Salt and Pepper Climb on Cucumber, as well as the Bibinba, Zwarte Pieten, and Hajji Firuz dolls his cousins had picked up while stationed abroad, not to mention the Blackface Soap and Watermelon Whistler tins. And that strange guy with the big grin dressed in only a loincloth and turban. That they were antiques, that they were valuable, that they were gifts wasn’t going to make Candice feel any better about them.
It’s not that the Davenports had never had black people around their house before, or even a Chinese guy once, but never a Malaysian who looked Chinese to some and Indian to others, fancied himself black at times, and wanted to be the next Lenny Bruce Lee; a preppy black football player who sounded like the president and read Plato in Latin; and a white woman who occasionally claimed to be Native American. They were like an overconstructed novel, each representative of some cul-de-sac of idiolect and stereotype, missing only a handicapped person—No! At Berkeley we say handi-capable person—and a Jew and a Hispanic and an Asian not of the subcontinent, Louis had always said. He had once placed a personals ad on Craigslist to recruit for these positions: Diverse social club seeking to make quota requires the services of East Asian, Jew, Hispanic, and handicapable individuals to round out the Multicultural Brady Bunch Troupe. All applicants must be visibly identifiable as members of said group. Reform Jews and ADHDers need not apply. Daron felt now as he had when people had started responding to that ad, that he couldn’t help but expect a spectacular disaster.
–Excerpt from Welcome To Braggsville (William Morrow & Company)
ANNE RASMUSSEN: In past interviews you’ve mentioned doing extensive research for your first novel, Hold It ‘Til It Hurts. Welcome to Braggsville holds a wealth of information and detail: from the campus culture at UC Berkeley to Ishi to the (fictional) Braggsville’s origin-story, to the culture (and hierarchies) of reenactment, government investigations, and militias. And you really capture the rhythms of internal and external responses to the “incident” in Braggsville, the media firestorm that turns a little known place and individuals into household names overnight, and the personal aftershocks that are still felt after the media has gone off in search of a fresh scandal/tragedy/ratings bid. How and when does research factor into your writing process? With a novel that is so intricately detailed yet wide-ranging in scope, do you do much of your research before embarking on the project, or do you research as you write?
T. GERONIMO JOHNSON: I run the battery down on the creative generation and only then engage in the minimum amount of research necessary to complete a first draft. This novel required a bit less research than Hold It – broader instead of deep, and, significantly less morbid, but equally disturbing. The rise of militias, the story of Ishi, the settling of Lucky 13, all called for a good measure of hunting and rooting about. Braggsville is neither a historical nor a nonfiction text, yet about a third of the way into the novel, it became clear that it needed to straddle the line between the two which meant it needed both fact and fiction in equal measure.
I am extremely cautious about when I do research. Some days you’d rather mow the lawn than write. Mowing the lawn cannot pass for writing, but research can trick me into thinking I’m getting work done. I forget who said this, but I try to live by the motto “Writers write.” Fact is, someone else could do your research for you, no one else can write your book for you. I wait until the last possible moment and look for those few facts needed to bridge gaps in the novel. In this case, it was all in the service of one idea: history is a cruise ship docked in the port of today, and some disembark having spent luxurious hours on the sun deck and at the seafood buffet while others have been so far below decks for so long that they have no idea we are even at port.
AR: I hope you can talk a bit about your protagonist, D’aron/Daron. The action of the story is filtered through his self-consciousness and blind spots, and what I loved about D’aron is that so much of his conception of self is still unformed, a work-in-progress. At this point in his life, D’aron knows more about who (he thinks) he ISN’T than who he is. He’s shaped by his small-town southern upbringing even as he tries to reject and define himself in contrast to it. At U.C. Berkeley, he imagines he will find a place to thrive and belong, but to his dismay many fellow students (and faculty) see him as a cultural oddity, a stand-in for “the south” and the very stereotypes that made him want to leave Braggsville. Although his new friends’ idea—to stage a mock lynching in his hometown as a form of political theater—isn’t consciously intended to exploit D’aron’s feelings of marginalization, it creates a perfect storm, one that he is far too naïve to avoid. Welcome to Braggsville could have been told from the perspective of any of the “Four Little Indians” (with markedly different results). Can you talk a little bit about developing the characters of D’aron and his friends with this story in mind, and your choice to follow D’aron’s POV so closely?
TGJ: I should first admit that while I write “characters,” I do not think of them as characters, but as people, or personalities – at the very least. I find it more useful to ask, “How would this person behave?” Given my topics and themes, to retreat into the notion of character construction would undermine my entire project as a writer, which, for some time now, has been to address a single driving question: how do we learn to care about people who are unlike us?
This question of empathy is directly related to the summer I spent at Emory University with Tibetan Buddhist monks, an experience that has long been the most significant influence on my process of developing the central personality in a novel. You can find similar theories in Western philosophy, but Buddhist philosophy is where it clicked for me: the self is not an absolute phenomenon.
D’aron, like the rest of us, cycles through constant dynamic transformation. As for the accuracy of his self-image, that’s the painful part of it, that aside from the self-realization said to be spirituality’s reward, how else do we know ourselves but through others? Other people—near and far, home and away—are the landmarks by which we most commonly locate the self, so as D’aron’s social world grows, so does his perspective on himself, and, like many of us, he fights it, resisting change and redefinition until realizing that he wasn’t the one who defined himself in the first place, that his so-called self-image was largely constructed for him (this is especially true where race is concerned, whiteness included).
All of this would have held true no matter who the “main character” was, and does hold true to great extent for Candice and Charlie as well. I’ll undoubtedly butcher this a bit, but…in Tibetan Buddhism, according to the concept of Pratītyasamutpāda, or dependent origination, there are no absolute conditions in this world. There is, for example, no such thing as beauty. A person may possess a collection of features that we interpret as beautiful: a beautiful nose, beautiful mouth, beautiful eyes, etcetera; however, that person’s “beauty” is not itself a phenomenon with independent existence. The lit theory analogue would be Bakhtin’s theory of heteroglossia. As a writer, I interpret both, too loosely perhaps, the same way: we are all legion. I don’t own my mind. I try to observe it when I can, and most of the junk stored in that garage was placed there by other people, so, as a writer, I always endeavor to bring this alive on the page. In Hold It, the voices were all threaded through Achilles’ consciousness. In Braggsville, the voices are woven into both D’aron’s thoughts and the overall structure of the book.
An undergraduate was the ideal vehicle, because those years are often the years when one most actively questions everything. Later in life we may find the weight of adult responsibilities competing with the facility for wonder, but for these four students, everything is up for discussion and examination, and Berkeley is certainly an environment that encourages intense commitments to that kind of honest exploration.
As for this novel in particular, I had originally cast D’aron as black, not only because I am, but because of my abiding interest in how we form identities in hostile environments (hence the novel’s first sentence). When I started writing, though, that impulse died out quickly–partly because that strain of nascent racial becoming felt too close to Hold It, and partly because of the rise of militias. Those militias have a very specific membership profile, one that would not surprise a black kid from the south, but might disturb a white kid from the South. And, what black kid from a small southern town is going to be surprised to “discover” a “lodge” tucked deep in a “haunted wood?” Further, many a black kid, males especially, receives explicit formal instruction in how to avoid being shot by the police, maybe even before they learn the multiplication tables, and while “do not dress as a slave and stage a performative intervention at a Civil War reenactment” is not among the interdictions, those cautions which are articulated, if followed, prohibit such a lark, however well meaning. For a completely accessible treatment of this subject, listen to Bruce Springsteen’s “41 Shots.”
Finally, the book required an insider, a kind of whistleblower – which they each gradually become, except Louis, who is intent on burning down the house from the get-go. One of my concerns of consequence—which we need for every novel, like the egg in meatloaf—is: What does it mean—and what would it look like—if one tried to live in strict accord with one’s beliefs? Over the course of the novel, D’aron, Candice, and Charlie all come closer and closer to that integration of self, and boy, it’s not easy.
These events required a sympathetic witness, neither spectator nor participant, but merely a witness. D’aron, of course, is a stand is for all of us, because all of us are conveniently blind. We all tend to turn the periscope out – it’s built like that for a reason.
AR: Though the existence of reenactments (or present-day militias) isn’t necessarily surprising (we know they exist), drilling down to the details as you did in depicting both the public trial and the hidden mock-trial revealed detailed codes and hierarchies (only the town’s elite “get” to wear the gray uniforms; newcomers and underdogs wear the blue) and intraracial power dynamics that I (like D’aron, probably) hadn’t given much thought to before. What details about present-day militias (and their recent growth in popularity) stood out for you as you researched this world more closely? Were there particular surprises for you?
TGJ: No surprises bar the constant reference to “constitutionality,” a cloak donned as far back as the “Organization and Principle of the Klan,” dated 1868.
AR: I don’t know if I’ve read anything that so perfectly captures the cognitive dissonance between the language of academic discourse on race and the experienced reality of racial tensions in a community as those police interview transcripts with Candace, Charlie, and D’aron following the “incident” in Braggsville. The chasm between theory and practice is hilariously (and painfully) revealed in these interviews, as Candace and Charlie try to mitigate the trauma of what has happened by mentioning Judith Butler or the “veil of ignorance” (as though citation of sources might bring accountability to the situation). This gets at something that’s always troubled me about settings in which race is treated as an abstraction rather than a lived experience. The whole “incident” could be written off as the folly of youth except for the fact that their professor encourages them to do it as a class project. Even after the unthinkable happens, that professor still urges D’aron to make it the subject of an honors thesis. The historical quotes you use between sections further underscore this bizarre reframing of racial trauma. John Collier (1942) refers to Japanese internment as an example of “the splendor of cooperative living,” and George Whitefield (1751) decries the “destruction” of white people that the institution of slavery has helped remedy. What makes these quotes even crazier to me is that history seems to view Collier and Whitefield as the good white guys, social reformers whose legacy includes “helping” the oppressed. In telling a story like Welcome to Braggsville, what is your starting point for unpacking the level of absurdity that has graced our national conversation about race for over 200 years?
TGJ: My starting point is the conversation itself, to place it in the palm, compress it into dramatic shorthand and let the readers decide for themselves how they feel about these debates. Doing so required a lot of research into the conversation itself, analyzing what the French call the “longue durée” over which the theoretical and practical conversation take place, and revisiting much of what I had learned in school, such as: Hegel’s belief that slavery was a necessary educational phase; or the disturbing fact that on more than one occasion Europeans formally debated whether or not natives even had souls – a contestation of inclusion with disturbing secular analogues found in the early debates over citizenship as well as the ideology underlying contemporary strategies to disenfranchise voters. Some of these discussions might pass as the product of neutral and objective science or reflection, but it’s all phrenology in another form. Another angle on “longue durée” might be to consider the shifts from slavery to Jim Crow to the current Carceral State. The end of formal, legal slavery was not the end of the policing of black bodies, and as a 6-plus foot black dude, I’m here to tell you that the black body is still very much policed. But I hope recent news cycles have made this clear to people.
I studied both the arts and the social sciences, and both experiences were shaped very much by the institutions that conferred the degrees, but what we can’t get away from is the patriarchy inherent in academic institutions. Academe is changing daily, and even though it evolves, and even though it has long been a beacon of light and a repository of critical human knowledge, a damning question remains: who studies whom? It’s inherently asymmetrical, and even the best meaning scholar has to contend with that messiness, which is why contemporary social science requires researchers to explicitly acknowledge their social profile, especially if it contrasts with that of the subject populations. Are you a straight male studying how teenage girls perform in math? No one would question that 50 years ago. Today we know we need broader representation amongst the observers and not only those observed; nonetheless, we are still experiencing the turbulence of days gone by, and for a long time social science, arising in the colonial era, was disturbingly paternal.
Social science research too often reflects the very relationships and hierarchies it seeks to dismantle, for it is itself a product of the system. (To para-paraphrase Foucault, there is no way around this.) Take, for example, research on African-American language use. I’m a fan of Labov and he has done wonderful work demonstrating (unnecessarily, we would hope) the humanity of his subjects, such as when he writes about language use, specifically narrative structure, among African-American youth – but at end he is taking on a great deal of ancillary work because he is recovering their humanity in the eyes of those who would consider them “less than.” (What if we reversed it? I often wonder how people would feel if we took the African-American students or blue collar students to campuses and let them perform the observations and analysis and write up the reports.) (Isn’t that stand-up comedy? you ask.) In short, what does it mean that Labov has to redeem African-American youth in the eyes of the academy?
Everyone should read at least the introduction to Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, which springs from his conversation with a local politician in Papua New Guinea who asks why European powers colonized Papua New Guineans and not vice versa. His outstanding book is the answer to that question, and a piercing deconstruction of what is commonly perceived as European cultural and intellectual superiority.
(Were this a YouTube video, this is where the trolls in the thread would offer their armchair anthropology and say things that should not be repeated here –about who invented what– which leads me to another of my concerns as a writer, the divide between what people really think and what they publicly admit to thinking. Too many people are in denial about the prevalence of inhumane attitudes. Sure, the anonymity of the net frees people to spew vitriol and we call them trolls, but that describes the act more accurately than the person. In mythology trolls are far from human. Online trolls are precisely human.)
But in a novel, none of these issues matter unless they assume a distinctly human shape. So, how to unpack all of that? I start with a ton of information, a compelling situation, and then try to focus on the dramatic and not the didactic. I offer very little direct explanation and instead try to create spaces for readers to draw their own conclusions. At end, we must treat some subjects like Medusa, because everyone recognizes them as such and knows to look away. An oblique approach is therefore demanded, an approach that resists the reader’s gaze, because the more it resists the reader’s gaze, the more the reader strains to see it.
AR: Though Welcome To Braggsville takes on a lot of serious issues surrounding racial and cultural power and identity politics, it’s also very funny—sometimes uncomfortably so—throughout. How did you view the role of humor in the narrative? Did you encounter any resistance to the humor in Braggsville as you sought a publisher for the novel?
TGJ: No resistance at all. After reading the first draft, my editor, Jessica Williams, was concerned that the humorous currents overran the emotional core, so in revising I attended to that. But the book simply wouldn’t work without the humor (see Medusa above). In fact, neither Welcome to Braggsville or Hold It ‘Til It Hurts would work without the humor, neither for me nor for the reader. (I wrote two novels after Hold it – both heavily leavened with comedy. I needed a break. The subject matter and the scale of suffering and the currency of all that suffering made Hold It somewhat exhausting.) And practically thinking, comedy, like craft, is the thin wedge; it helps us say things we can’t otherwise enunciate, and comics get away with saying things no one else can. Also, much of what happens in Braggsville is not humorous, but absurdly terribly abjectly funny.
Both of my novels rely heavily on humor, but in the first it’s almost all gallows humor. Both novels, though, rely on careful emotional modulation and comedic doglegging. It’s funny; I realize now that this conversation with Late Night Library is really an extension of our first conversations about Hold It, and in answering these questions, about the humor, etc, I’m forced to say, again, “like Hold It ‘Til It Hurts,” because the differences between these two novels is as superficial as skin color – but however superficial that skin, the experiences it opens in the world are anything but. I guess that, too, is something else I’m always writing about. As for the discomfort, it is first my own, and I believe that makes for engaging writing. If I’m not willing to venture beyond my safety zone, I sure can’t ask the reader to.
AR: Speaking of the recent news cycle/social media attention to the conversation about the policing of black bodies–as I read Welcome to Braggsville, I couldn’t help thinking about the young black men who’ve lost their lives at the hands of white cops, and the ongoing dialogue about race the news of their deaths has recently spurred in mainstream and social media. It’s not as if these stories are new, but they seem to have captured and held the public’s attention anew in the past year– perhaps due to the ease with which incidents can be recorded and instantly and widely shared. And I couldn’t help wondering how all these stories (and the ensuing shockwaves) unfolding in real-time might impact a manuscript in progress. When current events so closely mirror the topics and themes you’re writing about (or the conversations your characters might be having, in class, in public and on social media) how do these stories factor into your writing or revision process?
TGJ: These incidents were among the most recent assaults against people of color, mostly black men, but they were not “news” per se, being not at all new to me. If anything, the news cycles spurred me to continue, to write faster. But the blatant disregard for black life is nothing new, which is why in my interview for Hold It ‘Til It Hurts, I say that in “…America the most dangerous place for a black boy is in the body of a black man.” And that black body is defined in this case not by the biological development of the boy, but by the psychological and emotional development of whoever is viewing that boy, as seen in the murder of 12-year-old Tamir Rice by Officer Timothy Loehmann.
AR: In a 2012 interview with Zing Magazine, you talked a bit about your experience as a workshop student, and how readers of color picked up on nuances and tensions in your writing that white readers tended to either miss or criticize. You commented, “while I knew there were receptive readers, I also considered myself to be, on some level, writing for a hostile audience, or at least an audience alienated from the day-to-day reality of my characters.” How has this experience informed how you approach teaching writing? People often ask “Can writing be taught,” but craft does not exist in a vacuum. I wonder if how/what writers read is a bigger issue, especially when it comes to who gets published, what sells, etc. Do you feel a responsibility to help your writing students develop as readers? And if so, how do you approach this?
TGJ: First, writing can be taught. I do not know why people always say otherwise. I don’t hear painters saying that painting can’t be taught, or musicians saying that music can’t be taught. We cannot teach people to give a damn. We cannot teach spirit. We cannot teach passion, commitment, purpose, desire, but writing, Yes! If not, there would be no such thing as the workshop story, which is a real thing. That said, we can only build containers, we can’t tell students what to put in it. As my rhetoric mentor, John Ramage, said about teaching rhet, we can only guide them in developing the skills, we cannot guarantee they will use the powers for good. So we can teach people to write, but perhaps not to be “writers.”
One reason I’m always troubled by that claim is that it suggests bad faith. In America today there is far too much confusion about race, class, and gender mixed up in education for anyone to dare say they’re being paid to teach the “unteachable.” (If so, go deliver some of this magic to the kids who need it most.) If indeed the students are learning the “unteachable,” it is in no small part due to previous educational experiences, experiences that prepared them to perform well and absorb information in an environment where much of what is communicated is quite abstract.
I spent time at Iowa, Stanford, and Arizona State University and I was taught A LOT, through direct instruction and discussion, from professors and peers. (Thank you McNally, Chang, Wolff, Tallent, L’Heureux, Offutt, Canin, McCracken, Parker-Rhodes, McPherson.) That said, I realize that because teaching writing means teaching habits of mind, professors who are pre-constructivist, or who were, as I often was, educated in schools that operated on the banking model or spent time in classes invested heavily in the notion of received knowledge, might find themselves in a creative writing classroom thinking, “I can’t tell her what to write” or “I can’t tell him how to bring to bear on this story the necessary personal emotion.”
But the reality in this country is that the people who get into the best creative writing programs enter into—if they do not already hail from—a world with very specific privileges, and the latter is more often the case. Many students arrive well versed in literature as a direct result of undergrad and they have lived lives and had educational experiences in which they were “heard” and “seen” and now believe that they deserve to be heard and seen (which is healthy). And this is perhaps the first thing a writer needs – the belief that their story should be told and should be heard.
In grad school, to protect my sanity, frankly, I depoliticized myself as much as possible. This, obviously, is not sustainable in every context, and can be terribly, terribly unhealthy, but it’s the survival strategy that earned me safe emotional passage through graduate study in creative writing. Early on I became aware that I was not reading stories in the same way as most of my peers (I was a rel studies major, not a lit major) and that many of my moral or philosophical concerns were not echoed in our discussions, so I focused more and more on what we could hold in common – craft. I do realize, though, that my every concern is not useful for every story, concerns such as: responsibility in representation and absence as psychic and social death; how being in a western society with a linear notion of time coupled with the promises of Christian eschatology places unique demands on our consciousness and our notions of narrative structure; and that enduring question – Do we represent the world as it is or as we want it to be? – a false dichotomy that nevertheless deserves attention because it’s not treated as such. Stuff like this is what I’m trying to filter through action.
But self-bracketing has not been without its advantages. First, it makes me much easier to get along with (even with myself). Second it has over the years forced me to think more specifically about how craft functions and how to relate those functions to students. I do not feel that it is my job to tell students what to write. Do I think that morally vacuous art often reflects abject privilege? Yes. But is that necessarily a bad thing? No. And, it’s not my place to tell people how to live. I am open to any discussion outside the room, but in the classroom my only focus is helping them do what they want to do better, not helping them do what I want them to do. I already have my MFA.
As for the hostile reader, yes, rhetorically I remain conscious of the unreceptive reader. Why write for the receptive reader? Why write a story the reader already knows? Borges once said something like, we need fiction and metaphors because people resist fact.
On the subject of reading- I rarely introduce texts into graduate creative writing workshops. Becoming a better reader, nonetheless, is a natural byproduct of a quality workshop experience. I’m more concerned with engaging students in what it means to write and what we can discuss only in the writing classroom. Too many habits from lit class that are not helpful to writers migrate into workshop and threaten to at any time derail what is, by my mind, an art and creative endeavor pleasantly divorced from the domain of literature studies. This perspective outrages some, but lit theory and creative writing are not identical endeavors. Writers should look to other artists for inspiration, not scholars. Drivers don’t look to mechanics for instruction, or engineers.
All this said, I’ve seen lots of writers struggle more than necessary due to a violent divorce between what they care about in the world and what they care about on the page.
Answering your question I wonder if how/what writers read is a bigger issue, especially when it comes to who gets published, what sells, etc. would be an entire essay, and I’ve already written too much, so I’ll say only that there are stories that people think they already know, but they don’t, so we must avail all energies in finding new ways to tell those stories so that they can be heard. I know there will always be barriers because I write what people don’t necessarily want to hear, but I try to write about things that are more important than me; that’s one strategy guaranteed to bear you through the rough patches.
Lastly, though I have referred to students – I think of them—and prefer to treat them—as other writers; the classroom is a communal space.
Find a copy of Welcome to Braggsville on IndieBound.
Check out Late Night Library’s previous interview with T. Geronimo Johnson.
Born and raised in New Orleans, T. Geronimo Johnson received his M.F.A. from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and his M.A. in language, literacy, and culture from UC Berkeley. He has taught writing and held fellowships—including a Stegner Fellowship and an Iowa Arts Fellowship—at Arizona State University, the University of Iowa, UC Berkeley, Western Michigan University, and Stanford. His first novel, Hold It ‘Til It Hurts, was a finalist for the 2013 PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction. Johnson is currently a visiting professor at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He lives in Berkeley, California. (Photo by Elizabeth R. Cowan)