Charles Johnson: By the Book
Dec. 22, 2016 New York Times Sunday Book Review Section
The author of “Middle Passage” and, most recently, “The Way of the Writer” agrees with Sartre: “If literature isn’t everything, it’s not worth a single hour of someone’s trouble.”
What’s the last great book you read?
“Mushotoku Mind: The Heart of the Heart Sutra,” by Taisen Deshimaru (revised and re-edited by Richard Collins). In my blurb for the book, I wrote: “Through his elegant, rich explanation of mushotoku mind, Master Taisen Deshimaru gives us one of the most beautiful and profound commentaries on the Heart Sutra that I have had the pleasure of reading: a gift of the Way that may save the West from itself. I didn’t want it to end, because everything is here — the nature of reality, how we should live — in a deep, dharma transmission that brings peace, insight and happiness on each and every page.”
What books are currently on your night stand?
In addition to the books I’m eager to read, there are endless books that people send to me in hope that I will write an endorsement for them, or judge them for a contest. At the top of my list is “Husserl’s Missing Technologies,” by Don Ihde, who is distinguished professor emeritus at Stony Brook University. He is easily America’s most important interpreter and popularizer of phenomenology as a method and a philosophy, and he was the director of my dissertation, “Being and Race: Black Writing Since 1970” (1988). What’s wonderful about Ihde, who is now in his 80s, is the rigor he has brought during his long career to examining technologies of science, reading and writing, and science praxis. His book “Listening and Voice: A Phenomenology of Sound” is seminal in the field, and his other works — “Experimental Phenomenology,” for example — are inspiring examples of how philosophy can be done with creativity (he is also a painter), accessibility and clarity. He never makes a statement or claim that is not empirically verifiable.
I just read John Wideman’s “Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File”; Clarence Major’s stories in “Chicago Heat”; E. Ethelbert Miller’s “Collected Poems”; and I recently received Deborah A. Miranda’s “Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir” and Vaddey Ratner’s “Music of the Ghosts.” Also in my study are books I have to judge for a contest: Calvin Schermerhorn’s “The Business of Slavery and the Rise of American Capitalism, 1815-1860”; Patrick Rael’s “Eighty-Eight Years: The Long Death of Slavery in the United States, 1777-1865”; Aisha K. Finch’s “Rethinking Slave Rebellion in Cuba: La Escalera and the Insurgencies of 1841-1844”; Alex Borucki’s “From Shipmates to Soldiers: Emerging Black Identities in the Río de la Plata”; and Jeff Forret’s “Slave Against Slave: Plantation Violence in the Old South.”
Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?
Well, I have to mention my friend, the late August Wilson, with whom I enjoyed 15 years of spirited eight-to-10-hour dinner conversations here in Seattle, which I described in a story titled “Night Hawks.” As an old journalist, I find I enjoy reading — and trust — David Brooks in The New York Times and Jason Riley in The Wall Street Journal. (I’ve written often for the former newspaper and two op-eds for the latter, and I read two newspapers a day, one liberal, one conservative, which is a professional habit I developed in the late ’60s when I worked on newspapers like The Chicago Tribune and The Southern Illinoisan.) I like the poetry of my former colleagues at the University of Washington — Heather McHugh, Richard Kenney, and Linda Bierds (all are MacArthur fellows), and poetry by Jaswinder Bolina in “Phantom Camera” and my former student David Guterson in “Songs for a Summons,” as well as poetry by some of my friends (Ethelbert Miller, Rita Dove, Sharyn Skeeter and James Bertolino). If by “critics” you mean literary scholars, then I have to mention some I feel are superb and important — John Callahan, Marc Conner, Linda Selzer, Ross Posnock, Eric J. Sundquist, John Whalen-Bridge, Charles Altieri, to name just a few.
What moves you most in a work of literature?
I’ve long argued that literature has an epistemological mission, can be the site for philosophical agency, and that the aim of great literature is the liberation of our perception. As Sartre once said, “If literature isn’t everything, it’s not worth a single hour of someone’s trouble.” So I’m a very greedy reader. I want everything. I want a story original in its theme, with logically plotted sequences (i.e., convincing causation linking events because, as John Gardner once put it, “plot is the writer’s equivalent to the philosopher’s argument”), characters we experience as real people with real problems, sensuous description or a complete, imaginative world to which a reader can respond, a strong narrative voice, brutal emotional honesty, poetry or musicality in the prose, and a spirited engagement with ideas that matter.
What’s the last book that made you laugh?
That’s an easy question to answer — “The Good Lord Bird,” by James McBride. It’s a masterful, hilarious work by a gifted writer whose sense of timing, comedy and irony are delicious.
Which genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?
When I was a kid and in my teens, I cut my teeth on the great science-fiction writers. Their works were imaginative and at the same time intellectually stimulating. The best writers, like H. G. Wells, Ray Bradbury and Stanislaw Lem, delivered what I want in storytelling — a sense of mystery and wonder about this vast universe we inhabit, and hard science, theoretical or applied. And like philosophy or Buddhist practice, they shake up our calcified ways of seeing, our presuppositions and assumptions, our social and cultural conditioning, making us wonder, “What if?” Sci-fi landscapes alone make us imagine the world differently. That is the first step in changing the world as it is given to us. So I’ve published a few sci-fi stories myself, and one I co-wrote with my friend Steven Barnes who works in this genre. (Our story is “4189” in the Burning Maiden anthology.) What genres do I avoid? Actually, the answer is almost none. As a college professor teaching creative writing for 33 years, I had to be ready to help all my students effectively compose works in the genres of their choice. John Gardner once wrote that “most great American art is an elevation of trash.” What that means is that all genres — murder mysteries, horror stories, westerns, sci-fi, children’s literature, graphic novels and comic books — can be transformed into memorable works that entertain and enlighten in the hands of a master storyteller, a technician of form and language with what Northrup Frye called an “educated imagination.”
How do you organize your books?
The philosophy texts, Eastern and Western, as well as numerous reference books, are in my study so that I can reach them quickly. My house groans with thousands of books — novels, story collections, criticism — crammed into bookshelves on the first and second floor, and even into closets. The organization on those shelves is rough, but I can usually find a book when I need it.
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
Tons of collected volumes of comic art (as my teacher, cartoonist/mystery writer Lawrence Lariar, described it in the 1960s), but this might not be surprising, since I’ve been a professional cartoonist and illustrator since I was 17, publishing thousands of drawings, two books, and creating, hosting and co-producing an early PBS drawing show called “Charlie’s Pad” (1970). Our nation’s editorial cartoonists, from the first one (Ben Franklin) to those working today for newspapers, on comic strips, comic books and graphic novels, were my first heroes, followed by philosophers, with writers in third place for artists I most admire. My imagination has always been primarily visual.
What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?
When I was 8 years old, in 1956, my parents gave me the World Book Encyclopedia. As a kid, I loved reading the entries, and those 18 volumes are in my study right now. When I was working on my short story “Dr. King’s Refrigerator,” the F book’s entry on “food” gave me the Aha! moment I needed to connect Martin Luther King’s famous description of life as a “network of mutuality” to the Buddhist idea of pratitya samutpada or “dependent origination.” I have always loved those books.
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
My choice of reading material when I was a child (and in my teens) were stories that stimulated my imagination, and I loved adventure stories more than anything else. I read Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”; Shakespeare’s tragedies; Orwell’s “1984”; Richard Wright’s “Black Boy”; the Studs Lonigan trilogy, by James T. Farrell (because I grew up in Evanston, Ill., and his stories were set in Chicago locations I recognized). Starting my first year at Evanston Township High School — in the 1960s it was ranked as the best public high school in America — I read at least one book a week, and often as many as three. Junk fiction (all the James Bond novels) along with serious stuff (Plutarch’s “Lives of the Noble Grecians”). Fiction fertilized my imagination for the drawing I was obsessed with doing (in 1966, my senior year, I received two second-place awards in the sports and humor divisions from the Columbia Scholastic Press Association’s national contest for high school cartoonists). But back then I had no interest in being a “writer,” though I suppose I should say that our nation’s cartoonists and comic artists are, in fact, storytellers, too. Even to this day, I don’t call myself a “writer,” only an artist who one day is doing a novel, on another day a short story, who may wake up and work on an essay about some problem in philosophy (usually aesthetics or Eastern thought for me), then in the evening sit blissfully bent over my drawing table, doing a panel cartoon or an illustration for the children’s book series about a black science whiz kid I co-author with my daughter Elisheba, “The Adventures of Emery Jones, Boy Science Wonder.”
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
W. E. B. Du Bois, Ralph Ellison and Jean Toomer. But, heck, I’d sure want to include Ralph Waldo Emerson, Herman Melville, Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse, Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Descartes, Plato and a whole lot of others.
Of the books you’ve written, which is your favorite or the most personally meaningful?
I often refer to my second novel, “Oxherding Tale” (1982), as my “platform novel,” which is a reference to the so-called platform sutra of Hui-neng. Everything I’ve done since then rests on that book. If I couldn’t have written and published that book (and it was rejected two dozen times) I would have had no interest in writing anything else. It prepared me to write “Middle Passage” in terms of certain narrative strategies I figured out for “Ox,” and it also prepared me to fully embrace the Buddhism I’d studied since my teens, taking my formal vows in the Soto Zen tradition with mendicant monk Claude AnShin Thomas in 2009. It’s a philosophical slave narrative for late-20th-century readers, one grounded in Eastern philosophy — a meditation on freedom and slavery (not just physical or chattel slavery but also psychological and spiritual bondage) and the perennial question “What is the Self?” I believe it was ahead of its time in 1982, and probably is ahead of its time today. Probably one of the best critical essays explaining that multileveled novel is Richard Collins’s “Honoring the Form: Zen Moves in Charles Johnson’s ‘Oxherding Tale,’” in Religion and the Arts 14 (2010) 59-76.
Whom would you want to write your life story?
No one. I feel my life is boring, uneventful. That’s how I want it. All I do is work, because I love the creative process, which is about discovery and problem-solving. That wouldn’t make for a great biography, since I like to have drama in my stories but not in my personal life.