Never leave them unchanged

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Author: Kevin Nance
Date: March-April 2015
From: Poets & Writers Magazine(Vol. 43, Issue 2)
Publisher: Poets & Writers, Inc.
Document Type: Article
Length: 3,729 words
Lexile Measure: 1240L

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T. GERONIMO Johnson was back in New Orleans for an uncle's funeral, having a quiet drink at the Cats Meow on Bourbon Street, when a bouncer and his buddies grabbed him. It was 1994, and the tall black man in his mid-twenties--"Nimo" to old friends who knew him from high school in the Big Easy--was believed to have been involved in a fight that had broken out in the bar earlier that evening. The bouncers hustled him noisily out onto the sidewalk, joined in a moment by an off-duty policeman who, having observed the operation from his seat near the door, was critical of their extraction methods. "Haven't I told you there are easier ways to do this?"

In full view of passersby, the cop proceeded to conduct a master class in restraint techniques, with Johnson as his mannequin. "If you have someone on the ground and you want to keep them down, you can just lean on their nose," he said, demonstrating. "Then there's this move where you accidentally knee the guy in the groin." Demonstrating. "If you want to get someone off the ground, you don't have to pick them up. You can just grab them by the ears and pull, and they'll get up." Demonstrating--but the mannequin wasn't cooperating. The cop began to get angry, pulling harder on the ears, when the mannequin said, with icy calm, "You realize that these guys are holding me down? You can't pull me up when these guys are holding me."

Twenty years later, after telling me this anecdote of dehumanization in his office at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where he is a visiting instructor, Johnson leans back in his chair and stares at the ceiling. His voice, never loud, has become progressively quieter and more measured during the story, as if the words can only be spoken with extreme effort. He dabs at the tears forming in the corners of his eyes. I am a stranger to him, and therefore not someone with whom he would normally share such a painful memory. Doing so has cost him dearly, and yet he's apologetic. He was a shy child, he explains, and now, except with a few close, long-established friends, he is deeply reluctant to express his anger and other feelings about the challenges of living as a black man in America. The things that frustrate and haunt him--the subtle slights and false assumptions, not to mention not-so-subtle recent incidents such as the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the fatal use of "restraint techniques" on Eric Garner in New York City--don't come up in most everyday conversations.

"Everything that people are hearing in the news now is stuff that I've known for years," Johnson says. "But most of the time, I'm not looking at things the way everyone else is, so I tend to keep my thoughts to myself. It's like I have to comport myself in a way that lets me get through the day and get along with everybody. I'm bottled up." He looks at his hands. "I wasn't always this reserved, but after a while, it felt like people weren't listening anyway. If I say, 'Michael Brown didn't deserve to die, even if he stole cigarettes,' there are people who would say, or think, 'Of course you would say that. You're black too.'"

Shane Book, a longtime friend from their days together as Stegner fellows at Stanford, understands Johnson's predicament all too well. "There's a certain amount of tension that's always there for black and brown men, even in university settings," says Book, author of the poetry collections Congotronic (University of Iowa Press, 2014) and Ceiling of Sticks (Bison Books, 2010). "For Nimo, people expect him to be a certain way--to be like he writes, or to speak in a certain way. Or they'll be surprised that he's educated, surprised that he teaches. People who claim not to be racist will make racist assumptions about him right off the bat, and it wears on him. And I think he's frustrated that white people seem to be paying attention to this kind of repression of black men at the hands of the police all of a sudden, when it's been going on for a long, long time."

The potential pitfalls of candor are compounded, at least in Johnson's mind, by the effect of his physicality (he's a muscular six-foot-three): "I scare the shit out of people, just by walking into a room sometimes," he says. "I was teaching in Prague a few years ago, just walking down the street, and there was a group of American students coming up. One young woman didn't see me until she got close, and when she did see me, she screamed! It was a very strange moment. She looked at me, and looked at her friends, and said, 'I'm so sorry.'" That kind of reaction has made Johnson wary of conveying anything that might remotely resemble hostility. "Because I know that everything I do is amplified, I try to think of the best way to get the point across. And confrontation isn't always the best way to get the point across."

Fortunately for Johnson, and for readers, there is a place where he can get his point across, and where nothing is bottled up: his fiction. With the publication of his smart, stricken, alternately hilarious and tragic second novel, Welcome to Braggsville, published in February by William Morrow--about a multicultural quartet of Berkeley undergraduates who try to crash/critique a Civil War reenactment in rural Georgia by staging a fake lynching--Johnson has found perhaps the ideal outlet for much of what he cannot otherwise express.

"When I write, I aim to push myself into areas where I feel uncomfortable," he says. "Otherwise, I'm not confident that I'm entering a territory that's worthwhile to spend any time in. So my sense of reservation, I do cast it off when I'm writing." On the page, Johnson says, he feels he has a better chance of making a difference on the matters of race that concern him most. "I think it's really very hard to change people's minds, especially through discussion, because we're animals, you know; we're not as logical as we all claim to be. But a narrative can give people a vicarious experience that might open up their hearts a little bit more. In a novel, you can have a conversation, hopefully in a way that gives readers the space and time to process it and not feel like they're under pressure. It also lets me have that conversation without the level of frustration that comes when you're trying to address every racial and cultural misunderstanding as it arises throughout the day."

What a conversation. The novel centers on D'aron Davenport, a workingclass white kid from Braggsville ("The City That Love Built in the Heart of Georgia. Population 712)," a community known for its annual celebration of Southern heritage--in the form of a Civil War reenactment, recently renamed Patriot Days, that involves trooping around in the woods in costume but includes no reference to the issue of slavery. When D'aron, in a successful attempt to distance himself from Georgia as far as the continent will allow, finds himself at the University of California in Berkeley, his new pals there--Louis, a skinny Asian American with a gift for comedy; Candice, a white girl from Iowa who claims Native American roots; and Charlie, a thoughtful black kid from Chicago's South Side--decide to stage a cracked sort of "performative intervention": "social justice meets vaudeville," as it's later described. The 4 Little Indians, as they call themselves, plan to startle the Braggsville reenactors by treating them to the sight of a young black man dangling from a tree, his body flogged by his white owner. Southern pride? States' rights? Wake up, Jim-Bob. This, this is what your ancestors were really fighting for. With more than a little last-minute improvisation, including trick knots, a pulley, and some blackface makeup, the plan is put into effect, with a troop of faux-Confederates arriving on cue. Then--horror.

Strange fruit, indeed.

UNLIKE Candice, Tyrone Geronimo Johnson does in fact have Native American ancestry. Family lore has it that Johnson and his father, both named Geronimo, are direct descendants of the legendary warrior who bedeviled the Mexicans and, later, the Texans as they settled in Apache territory in the nineteenth century. Johnson has yet to confirm that he is, as believed, Geronimo's great-great-great nephew, but it's plausible, as his own cheekbones suggest. "As a kid, it was a bit of an inconvenience, having that name," he says with a smile. "You get teased a lot. In the playground, they'd yell 'Geronimo!' every time they'd go down the slide or jump off the top of the monkey bars." But he came to like the name, especially after reading about his possible ancestor's exploits, which now serve as inspiration.

"What most stood out to me was his determined resistance," Johnson says with obvious admiration. "He was for many years a thorn in the side of the government, so shrewd, so talented a tactician. He was someone who refused to surrender."

The latter-day Geronimo was born in New Orleans, leaving the city at the age of three when his parents divorced. After elementary school in the racially progressive community of Columbia, Maryland, Johnson returned to the Big Easy for his last two years of high school, where he was dismayed at how far behind the public schools seemed. "The civics teacher was explaining that there are three branches of government, and a lot of the students were surprised to learn that," he recalls. "In Maryland, we'd had that lesson in elementary school." He shakes his head. "How can someone fully participate in the culture, in things like citizenship, if they don't know how things work? What keeps running through my mind is that you can receive a good education or a not-so-good education, and you might not know [which one you got] at the time. I think of all the people I know who have tremendous intellectual resources, but have never had the opportunity to develop them."

It was in New Orleans that Johnson first heard himself called the N-word. It was also there that he was first mocked for "talking white."

"You talk so proper," a white kid told him.

"Fuck you."

"Fuck you."

By the end of the first semester of his senior year, Johnson had taken all the credits needed to graduate, and had found classwork so unstimulating that he decided to stop going to school. He took calculus--a course his high school hadn't offered--at Xavier University, and spent what would have been his last semester of high school working as an intern at a law firm.

After attending Louisiana State University for a year, Johnson dropped out, moved to Atlanta, started a mortgage business, and dabbled in screenwriting. "Sometimes I would go to the movies, sitting in front of the screen and thinking, 'I would like to be able to make someone else feel the way I feel right now.'" One of his screenplays was optioned by a production company in Atlanta, but the development process--"too many cooks in the kitchen," he says--made him think he might prefer to tell stories in a different medium. In his mid-twenties he enrolled at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta's Buckhead neighborhood, where he wrote some poems and short stories as part of an English class. The work was promising, which led the instructor to suggest he attend a Hurston/Wright Foundation writers workshop, a summer program for young black writers. "The instructor there said, 'You should think about getting an MFA,' but I didn't know what an MFA was," he recalls. "I didn't fully believe that you could get a degree sitting around a table, as we were that summer, talking about writing." And that launched him into an education in writing fiction that included stops at Stanford University as a Stegner fellow (2004-2006) and the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where he completed his MFA in 2008. (His educational journey continues to this day; he's currently enrolled in a doctoral program in language, literacy, and culture at Berkeley, where he also directs a summer writing program.)

It was a lengthy, somewhat circuitous journey, but when the time came to write his thesis at Iowa--which grew into his first novel, Hold It 'Til It Hurts, published by Coffee House Press in 2012--Johnson understood his mission better than he might have otherwise. "I had a sense of duty and obligation as a writer to give voice to stories that might not otherwise be told," he says. "I'm interested not so much in depicting black life in America as depicting the points of contact between the cultures." Johnson takes this mission with profound seriousness. "I'm not writing for posterity, but really for the moment," he says. "I have no control over posterity, because I'll be dead. Who cares what happens when you're dead? I really don't. But what's really important to me is that people who are alive right now who come to my work gain from it a deeper understanding of the world--that part of the world that's not theirs, or, maybe for some other readers, see themselves reflected enough to feel ... seen. In Notes of a Native Son, there's a moment where James Baldwin walks into a diner and they tell him, 'We don't serve blankety-blank.' He's so mad that he throws a glass, and it misses the waitress behind the bar--fortunately, fortunately--after which he realizes what he's done and takes off running. I remember reading that, and it reflected the way I've felt at times, and I thought, here's someone feeling angry in the ways I've felt angry, who's having the same reactions I've had, and I felt a little bit less alone. And that's what I'm trying to do with my work. I'm always writing for two audiences: the inside audience and the outside audience, the black reader and the white reader. Or one for the reader who already gets it, who already knows what I'm talking about, and one for somebody who doesn't think of the world that way. If I can get them all the way through the book and they walk away with a different sense of the world, I've done my job. It's like I send them down a hallway that's been freshly painted. I don't want to leave them unmarked. I don't want them to leave unchanged."

Johnson leans forward. "As much as I value literature in the abstract--for what it means to us as humans--the whole point of craft, the whole point of writing better, is to be able to effectively reach another person who is not like me, right? So for me it's this human communion. And the most important work is developing the empathy that we all need to make this a better world."

IN HOLD It 'Til It Hurts, that crucial effort came in the form of two black siblings, Achilles and Troy--adopted by an interracial couple--who, after returning from fighting in Afghanistan, find their lives upended when they learn about their birth parents; Troy disappears, and Achilles goes in search of him on an odyssey of love and the search for racial identity. The manuscript took a year to find an agent, then another nine months to be sold--although it was later named a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. "It's so easy to get frustrated in this industry because there's a lot more negative feedback than positive feedback," Johnson recalls of that period. "I read a lot of the rejection e-mails, and they were all complimentary about most aspects of the book, but in the end they just didn't know what to do with it. They didn't have a frame of context. You could feel them asking, 'What do I do with this fucking big book about race and adoption with a black protagonist?' One of the things I started to intuit from reading the rejections was that the book wasn't reflecting their own schema, their sense of the world, so I added a paragraph in the first chapter where I mention common cultural points--Schoolhouse Rock!, Seinfeld, a few other pop-culture touchstones--and the next time the book went out, there were offers."

With Welcome to Braggsville, Johnson took a wildly different approach. For one thing, the book is chock-full of pop-cultural references, Berkeley academese, Southernisms, and youthspeak. It includes an appendix called a "Sexicon," a glossary of terms used in the novel such as "Bingo wings" ("aka triceps tacos, the bag of skin hanging inelegant from the triceps of many an arm"), "Micro-aggression" ("the plastic gun of racism; you can sneak this one through security most of the time because it is comprised of nonracist ways of being racist [such as] You speak English very well"), and "University" ("Colonialism's most exquisite distillation").

For another, despite having initially conceived D'aron as black, Johnson ultimately chose to make him white. "As I was writing it, page by page, it felt increasingly difficult to imagine a black kid from the South going back home and staging a fake lynching," he recalls. "Even if he wanted to, his parents would try to put an end to that immediately. There's a certain amount of caution that's ingrained in you, depending on when and where you grew up in the South, as I did. I mean, when I moved to San Francisco to go to Stanford, and for the first time I was around so many progressive people, I thought, 'If I hadn't grown up in the South, I don't think I would be a writer at all.' But in the South, you develop a sense of reservation, because otherwise, the repercussions can be very real."


Johnson's agent, Eleanor Jackson of the Dunow, Carlson & Lerner Literary Agency, sent the manuscript of Welcome to Braggsville out to editors on a Friday; the first of several offers started coming in on the following Monday. The sale was completed in four days, and while its featuring a white protagonist may be only one of several factors in the book's quick acceptance, Johnson concedes that it's probably part of the equation. I ask, "Are you comfortable with that?" He repeats the question to himself, sotto voce. "Am I comfortable with that?"

A long pause.

"I wish it wasn't like that," he says. "It was not a commercial calculation on my part, but I can't say that I wasn't curious about whether or not that might make a difference when the manuscript went out."

Another long pause.

"I wish it wasn't like that."

As it happens, it wasn't like that--at least not with Jessica Williams, who acquired and edited the manuscript at William Morrow. The color of the protagonist wasn't a factor in her decision, she says,

although she concedes that it may have been for other editors at other houses who wanted the book. "It was more important to me that it was a high-concept book, with a strong potential readership with young people and readers in the South," she says. "It's also true that right before his agent sent the book out, Johnson had just been nominated for the PEN/Faulkner, so I think a lot of editors were looking at him as a talented writer that maybe you haven't heard of yet. He mixes high and low culture in a really unusual way that reminds people of Junot Diaz. And that opening paragraph just really impressed me."

That opening paragraph--that opening sentence, actually, a single explosive riff on D'aron's various names and nicknames and shifting identities--stretches over most of two pages:

   D'aron the Daring, Derring, Derringdo,
   stealing base, christened D'aron
   Little May Davenport, DD to Nana,
   initials smothered in Southern-fried
   kisses, dat Wigga D who like Jay Z
   aw-ite, who's down, Scots-Irish it is,
   D'aron because you're brave says Dad,
   No, D'aron because your daddy's
   daddy was David and then there was
   mines who was named Aaron, Doodoo
   after cousin Quint blew thirty-six
   months in vo-tech on a straight-arm
   bid and they cruised out to Little
   Gorge glugging Green Grenades and
   read three years' worth of birthday
   cards, Little Mays when he hit those
   three homers in the Pee Wee playoff,
   Dookie according to his aunt Boo
   (spiteful she was, misery indeed loves
   company), Mr. Hanky when they discovered
   he TIVOed Battlestar Galactica,
   Faggot when he hugged John
   Meer in third grade, Faggot again
   when he drew hearts on everyone's
   Valentine's D ay cards in fourth grade,
   Dim Ding-Dong when he undressed
   in the wrong dressing room because
   he daren't venture into the dark end
   of the gym, Philadelphia Freedom
   when he was caught clicking heels to
   that song (Tony thought he was clever
   with that one), Mr. Davenport when
   he won the school's debate contest
   in eighth grade, Faggot again when
   he won the school's debate contest
   in eighth grade, Faggot again more
   times than he cared to remember,
   especially the summer he returned
   from Chicago sporting a new Mid
   west accent, harder on the vowels and
   consonants alike, but sociable, played
   well with others that accent did, Faggot
   again when he cried at the end of

Still. Repercussions.

Later that night back on Bourbon Street, in 1994, the demonstration of creative restraint techniques concluded, the future author of that opening paragraph found himself in the back of a police car, under arrest, charges unknown. Another one of his uncles approached and told the arresting officer, "See that guy on the corner right now? He's the one who started the fight."

Johnson chimed in, proclaiming his innocence.

The cop turned around in his seat and said, "You know what, Tyrone? I think I believe you. But the problem is, I work here off-duty, and I've got to take somebody to jail. And you're already in the car."


Welcome to Braggsville

Every student at Berkeley--all 36,142, he believed--played an instrument or a sport or volunteered for a social justice venture or possessed some obscure and rare talent. Or all four. Students raised in tents in Zimbabwe by field anthropologists and twin sisters who earned pilot's licenses at age fifteen and Olympians from as far afield as Norway. One student athlete, a track star, upon being asked, Are you considered fastest in your country? smiled charitably, I am the fastest.

And the Asian students, he'd once confessed awe-stricken during a phone conversation with his mother, Some of the Asians, well, I shouldn't say some when they are the majority, but some of the Asian students speak multiple languages--more than a Holy Roller--languages I didn't even know existed. Kaya, in Calc Two, for example, is half-Korean but raised in Malaysia. She speaks Korean like her mom, Chinese like her dad, Malay like her cousins at home, and is already in French Two and Spanish Three. Does she even speak English? He sighed. Don't fret honey. You earned the right to be there and you'll do fine DD baby. Don't fret. He murmured his thanks, reluctant to admit, let alone explain, that his distressed aspiration bespoke not lamentation but yearning. Kaya! Kaya mesmerized him, sitting in the basement commons study sessions twirling her hair around her pen as she wrote names in Korean and IMed in English and tweeted in Malay, all while conjugating the subjonctif, her bare knees pressed together to balance a laptop surely hot to the touch.

From Welcome to Braggsville by T. Geronimo Johnson, published in February 2015 by William Morrow. Copyright [C] 2015 by T. Geronimo Johnson. All rights reserved.

KEVIN NANCE is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinNance1.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A414824998