An Interview with Charles Johnson

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

In The Way of the Writer: Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling (Simon & Schuster, 2016), MacArthur Foundation “genius” award winner Charles Johnson defines words as “the most tangible flesh in which thought is tabernacled.” Over his lengthy career as a writer and scholar, he has offered up a plethora of thoughts—funny, anguished, embarrassing, compassionate—all of which reflect our humanity.

His most recent work of fiction, a pensive collection entitled Night Hawks (Scribners, 2018), continues to explore what it means to be human. Written over the course of thirteen years, Night Hawks houses twelve stories that span space, time, and ordeals. Disparate as they may seem, at their core lie questions about human connections and existence, and the manifold ways we understand the world(s) in which we live. 

My interview with Johnson was conducted this winter as an email exchange. 

TQ: I would like to start first with what is, perhaps, a broad question. What do you hope to achieve when writing a story? What possibilities does a work of fiction present? 

CJ: All my life I’ve said that what I want when I read a story or a novel is “to laugh, to cry, and to learn something.” I’ve said that to my writing students for thirty-three years. So it’s natural that I would want to strive to give a reader those same forms of entertainment in my own fiction.

TQ: The subject matter that appears in Night Hawks could lend itself well to nonfiction. How did it end up being stories, instead?

CJ: I could easily write an essay exploring any of the subjects and themes in the twelve stories in Night Hawks. In fact, I have published philosophical essays that do this—for example, my essay “A Phenomenology of the Black Body” (1975), written as my philosophical “style” paper (a requirement then and now) for the PhD in philosophy at Stony Brook University, explores issues dramatized in the story “The Weave.” But with a story—with drama—I can help a reader experience those themes and subjects viscerally, palpably, and emotionally. Drama or a story takes the question we extract from experience—to analyze it logically and systematically—back to the ambiguous muck and mud of daily living from which the question originally arose.

TQ: I can’t help but think about the epigraph in your outstanding novel and winner of the National Book Award in 1990, Middle Passage (Atheneum, 1990): “Who sees variety and not the Unity wanders on from death to death.” Unity features prominently, as well, in Night Hawks. Has your conception of unity changed since the publication of Middle Passage? If so, in what way?

CJ: All my adult life I’ve deeply felt and believed that quote from the Upanishads. But in 2007, I took my formal vows (the Precepts) as a lay Buddhist or upasaka in the Soto Zen tradition with my friend, mendicant monk Claude AnShin Thomas. Therefore, my conception of the interconnectedness of all being, what Thich Nhat Hanh calls “inter-being,” is something very much central to my way of looking at and experiencing the world.

TQ: The stories in Night Hawks differ in setting and time, as well as in the protagonists’ races, nationalities, and ethnicities. Why have you chosen to take the reader on such a vast journey?

CJ: Readers will see immediately, I think, that the twelve stories in Night Hawks are all over space and time—we find ourselves with ancient Athenian philosophers and with the Buddha during his six years as an ascetic, with a Muslim American soldier in Afghanistan today, as well as with a Zen monk in Japan, with an ex-slave in the antebellum South, many characters in contemporary Seattle, and even characters in the year 4189 in a story I co-wrote with the prolific sci-fi writer Steven Barnes. 

Why so many journeys? The answer is simple. My intellect and imagination take these journeys all the time.

TQ: Is it fair to understand these stories as a commentary on interconnectivity?

CJ: Yes, that seems fair. I would only add that in some stories, like “Idols of the Cave,” the characters fail to realize how deeply—historically and ontologically—they are connected to one another.

TQ: Freedom is a concept you explore throughout the collection. In “Following the Drinking Gourd,” Christian Fowler, an escaped slave, returns to the South to help liberate his wife’s cousin and child from “the bleak and macabre world of slaves.” It also features in “Prince of the Ascetics,” as a group of monks struggle to attain freedom from external and corporal pressures. What have you found to be the underlying thread present in the various shapes that freedom takes?

CJ: In both stories you mention, freedom is realized through “letting go” the illusory ego. At the end of “Prince of the Ascetics,” Shakyamuni Buddha says during his moment of awakening, “At last I have found and defeated you, ahumkara, I-Maker.” Similarly, when Christian Fowler realizes the cries of Ida’s baby will bring two slave-hunters or soulcatchers to their location, he knows his death cannot be avoided and he experiences the extinction of ego, of his clinging to or being attached to the life he enjoyed as a man who was briefly free. Self-emptied, he is able then to sacrifice himself to ensure the freedom of Ida and baby Sara. But the story ends before we know if he will escape the slave-hunter and return to his family, or die.

TQ: Guilt is another concept you seem to examine in your writing. What attracts you to this topic?  

CJ: I’m not sure “guilt” can be called a central theme in my fiction. But it does appear in one story in this collection, “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” where I portray Fowler as having a feeling of “survivor’s guilt” because for a time he escapes slavery, leaving behind others he feels are as worthy of freedom as he is.

TQ: In your novel, Middle Passage, and your short story, “The Weave,” you conjure up characters who, like all of us, are profoundly flawed. The characters I’m thinking about in particular are trying to navigate lives girded by a history of slavery and subsequent abhorrent racial policies. Would you mind speaking more about guilt and the African American experience? 

CJ: I think I see why you ask this question. In Middle Passage, the narrator-protagonist comes to regret his life as a rogue or picaro once he is forced to grow up because of the horrors he experiences during the North Atlantic slave trade and the rigors of life at sea. Perhaps we can call that “guilt.” After letting her boyfriend Tyrone convince her to rob her former employer at the beauty salon in Seattle, Ieesha does regret doing so, especially after she experiences or feels the righteous, spiritual, vanity-free lives led by Buddhist nuns in India who provided the hair extensions in the wig Tyrone puts on her head.

These characters, I think, are not so much “flawed” as they are simply human. And as complex as real people are complex.

TQ: I am intrigued by the presence of vulgarity in your writings. Crude happenings occur. Bodies, for instance, do embarrassing things. Why it is necessary for you to render your characters so painfully human?

CJ: As you point out, we are embodied beings. Our bodies are physical or material objects in the world among other objects. We experience the world through our embodiment. But tabernacled in these physical bodies is a mind or consciousness and, I would add, a spirit. And all three of these—mind, body, and spirit—create the whole that we are. Japanese Buddhist artists and poets have always been quite aware of this and find the transcendent in the everyday, the sacred in the profane, the holy in the muck and mud of daily existence, where awakening is possible at any moment. Their art (and, I hope, mine) asks us to go beyond the dualism caused by our social conditioning, and by our miscellaneous list of likes and dislikes.

In Night Hawks, there are characters who regularly use profanity, like Antwon in “Occupying Arthur Whitfield.” And there are other characters who don’t use profanity, like the unnamed narrator in “Welcome to Wedgewood,” though he finds himself in an enveloping social world where the profanity of others exists. When writing, one inhabits as best one can the consciousness of one’s characters and uses the diction or language they would use for authenticity.

TQ: You also touch on vulgarity in the final story of Night Hawks, which bears the same name as the collection. Your characters lament the prevalence of vulgarity that has developed over the years. Do you feel that American society has become more crude? What do you think are the origins of this tactlessness?

CJ: Yes, I do feel people in American society have become coarser, less civilized, more selfish, angry, and even violent during my lifetime. Look at our president. And his supporters in MAGA hats. Look at our motion pictures and television shows. Look at pop culture. Look at “gangsta rap.” Look at “street lit” or “ghetto lit,” as these fiction genres are sometimes called. And look, if you get the chance, at my recent book The Way of the Writer, especially chapter 9, “In Defense of Our Language,” where I discuss this matter at greater length.

TQ: You are both an artist and a scholar. How do your scholastic interests and engagements inform your writing, and vice versa?

CJ: As both an artist and a scholar, I’m just always curious about this mysterious universe we inhabit. As a phenomenologist and Buddhist, I’m curious about the operations of mind that deliver this universe to us moment by moment. I never put our experience in little, neat boxes, which people do for the sake of convenience. When I explore something of interest to me, I feel free to use the tools of a cartoonist and illustrator, the tools of a trained philosopher, or the tools of a storyteller.

TQ: Has your approach to art and scholarship changed with age?

CJ: My approach has not changed much. The central, philosophical question in my first published novel, Faith and the Good Thing (1974), is Plato’s question, “What is the Good?” In my novel after that, Oxherding Tale (1982), it is the question, “What is the Self?” In the last novel I published, Dreamer (1998), the question is “How do we end social evil without creating new evil?” I revisit these questions all the time, every day, because during the process of writing these novels, I provide provisional answers, not final ones, since these questions are perennial and as old as our human species. So I return to them all the time in hope of discovering a new insight into these questions.

TQ: Is there anything you wish to achieve still as a writer?

CJ: I’m not at that stage in my life and spiritual development where I want to “achieve” anything. A Buddhist will ask, “Who achieves?”  At age seventy, I’m in what I call the winter season of my life’s journey. Since 1982, I’ve kept taped to my desk a quote from the late, great spiritual teacher Eknath Easwaran: “A well-spent life is one that rounds out what it has begun. The life of a great artist or scientist is usually shaped by a single desire, carried through to the very end.” In my early twenties my desire was to enrich the genre of American philosophical fiction—especially black American philosophical fiction—because philosophy and literature are sister disciplines. I hope to create until the last days of my life, but only exploring subjects I love and am curious about. So for me this is now a season of “rounding out” my fifty-three years spent publishing drawings and stories (and later scholarship) since I was seventeen years old. It is a time of closing circles and tying up loose ends, if any still exist in my work and life. A season I looked forward to all my adult life. I’m enjoying it, and with much happiness.