4th Estate Interviews T. Geronimo Johnson

‘The thing that makes Atlanta unique is that there is such a high concentration of African-Americans with wealth and power, who work together to achieve common ends. There aren’t too many other cities like that; there are in fact none. It’s still going strong, it’s still attracting people of all races, but fortunately though, it has this black population that makes it a pretty healthy place for a black person to grow up.’

CCW: What’s the backstory to writing Welcome to Braggsville? Where did this all come from?

TGJ: It’s come from a couple of different places. For one thing, I always wondered why no one has ever done precisely what these four kids do: go to a Civil War re-enactment and say okay, let’s diversify the cast here. And stage a somewhat larger production in order to give us all a broader sense of what was going on at the time. Aside from that there was an incident that occurred in, I think, Redington, Florida in the very early 90s where the clan was having a rally and then a gay rights group and a black activist group showed up to protest the clan. Then, at some point over the course of the morning, this particular black group of protesters joined forces with the clan to protest the gay rights group. There’s no ‘punch line’ to that, it’s just absolutely absurd. The thing is so much about race and sexism and homophobia, however dangerous and unsettling hate may be when it plays out, some elements always strike me as being absolutely absurd. I’ve had the idea for a while, but I’m a serial monogamist – both in relationships and in writing projects. All the while, I was working on that first novel, Hold It, I just was not allowed to write anything else. That’s sort of my rule.

CCW: That’s incredible. You can tell that this is something that has been brewing in you for a long time. It’s not just an ‘ABCD: this is a story, here’s what happened, here’s the narrative’. There’s so much to it; there’s so many layers to it. The thing that surprised me initially was that D’aron was white, because I thought ‘How can T. Geronimo Johnson write through the eyes of something, like a life, that he doesn’t know?’ but I think as soon as you get reading, you can see that it’s just a different world that D’aron has access to and if he were black, he wouldn’t. There’s a richness in it that’s not come from nowhere. We also wondered why you write at all? You do it very well, obviously, but at what point in your life did you think ‘Right. I’m going to be a writer. Here it is.’

TGJ: I’ve always been a – I know it sounds incredibly egotistical to say I’ve always been a creative sort – I feel I should say I’ve always been a little bit left of centre, or right of centre. Or looking to the left when everyone was looking to the right; or the class is outside, I’m still inside; the class is inside, I’m on the monkey bars. I managed to contain all of those arid little personalities when I was working in finance, but I always felt this desire to create. I think that writing prose was ideal for me. I painted for a little while, but that requires a bit more equipment. I started off writing screenplays, I thought I wanted to be a screenwriter, but my first experience with that was a little bit frustrating only because there’s so many people involved in writing the story. At the time, I felt a story that had a chance to be a good story was being denatured and –

CCW: Diluted.

ML: It also must have so much more to do with money if you’re talking screenwriting as opposed to novels, because people’s dollars are riding on it. Makes it very restricted.

TGJ: Exactly. I thought ‘I need to learn how to do this story writing thing, that doesn’t require anyone else.’ I’ve been fortunate to have access to a lot of really rich and supportive writing communities. One thing I wanted to do was write stories and novels that reflect ways that I see the world working, and things that I would want to read; also things that were maybe just a little bit less coy about some of the problems that we’re facing today. I’m very much interested in writing about now, it’s really easy to write about 1960 and say ‘Things were so bad’.

CCW: I think one of the things we realise is the differences between 1960 and now. Has there been a huge amount of progression? Something we’re all having to face.

TGJ: Yeah, a lot of the progression has been superficial.

ML: So, if we could talk a little bit about character development; because you’ve got the 4 Little Indians, this amazing quartet. Often, something that I found really striking and so effective is that there’s actually very little punctuation, and yet you can hear their different voices coming through so clearly. It’s quite remarkable. We were wondering, how did you come about creating these characters? Did they all kind of ‘pop’ into your head, or are they based on people that you’ve come across in life? They’re all so wonderfully and starkly different.

TGJ: These are probably, to some extent, based on people that I know in life – but I can’t give any of those people the credit that they deserve. Whereas with the first novel, Hold It, I had a lot of friends who were soldiers and obviously I was drawing from their experiences. But with Braggsville, I knew that I needed a number of distinct lenses. In addition to D’aron, we had to have a black guy, we had to have a white female, because each of these have very distinct social profiles. They move through the world in different ways; some have fins and some don’t; some are aerodynamic and some aren’t. I wanted to have someone who was Asian, but I didn’t want to have someone who was necessarily a member of an Asian group that is fully accepted and with which everyone is already familiar. I had someone who is not at what would be considered the top of that particular hierarchy. The whole thing’s like this recursive kind of process, so I started writing and I wrote a bio for each character, which is what I do at some point usually around maybe a third of the way in, when I know who the characters are. I have to leave the text and give them all a full life. Much of the stuff in that bio will never make it onto the page directly, but it presses through. The reason that I mentioned it is recursive because, also, what was happening early in the process of this book is that I was handling the punctuation a little bit different. There’s a lot of embedded dialogue, there’s a lot of dialogue used as adjectival clauses; these adjectival deployments of dialogue. What I also knew I wanted was an experience that blurs this between what people will think and what people will say. This is one of the biggest challenges that we’re all always facing that I’m really interested in as a novelist: the difference between what we will admit to publically, what we will admit to privately, and what we don’t even know is actually driving our car. In this book, I was trying to move between these without necessarily announcing so. That particular goal, or demand, placed this pressure on me to really try to distinguish the voices, because if I had to use quotation marks we’d have that very clear boundary, this chasm between what’s said and what’s thought. I just knew in my gut that the book wouldn’t do the work that it was supposed to do if that were the case. I believe that a novel should be an experience, quite literally an emotional experience; the fact that I wasn’t always going to indicate who was saying what, or when someone was even talking, created these pressures that really required me to distinguish their voices. Sometimes just through content, or just through syntax or other sentence structures. When Charlie goes on his rampage and the interrogation.

CCW: The book, it does because of that, have a certain rhythm to it almost. The prose is very stylistic and it made us wonder what your literary influences are? And if not, what are your musical influences? Because surely they feed into the writing of the novel.

TGJ: Well, first of all, I’ll make a soundtrack for each book and I will only listen to that soundtrack when I’m writing that book.

CCW: Can you tell us what was on the soundtrack for this?

TGJ: I can’t tell you everything that’s on the soundtrack – I don’t know why this is so personal to me, because I keep getting asked to do a set list for Large Hearted Boy, and I just can’t bring myself to reveal the music that’s involved in these novel.

CCW: Music is a very personal thing.

TGJ: I will say that for Welcome to Braggsville there was a bit of Arcade Fire, there was a lot of Bruce Springsteen. There was an awful lot of The Boss involved. There’s always a little bit of American R’n’B and soul, just because that always to provokes in me a little bit of nostalgia. I heard a student say this the other day – and I was so glad that he said it – but he felt like, in America, rap is the best argument for poetry. And, definitely, I do try to listen to rap. In addition, I have this habit of mishearing people and usually what I mishear is sort of interesting in some way. Like that Tears For Fears song, ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’? For years people were like ‘Everybody wants to hold her hand’. Thank god for the internet, now at least we know what we’re singing. So often I’ll mishear something and I’ll write that down, and what I think I heard will become a springboard for turning the conversation. And then in terms of intentionality, I always feel like I need to turn it just a little bit so that the reader can’t quite see around the corner of the sentence.

CCW: I spent so much time being like ‘hold on a second’, and going back over myself. I think it’s absolutely incredible because you’re not expecting it. It’s not like anything I’ve read, it’s not typical literature – to put it simply. I think you’ve done an incredible job of keeping us on our toes.

TGJ: Well, thank you. Thank you for that, because I really feel like when I first started writing, one of my mentors said to me: ‘It’s sort of egotistical to ask another human being to just sit down and consider your thoughts solely for several hours, or several days.’ That’s really stuck with me. I feel like if I’m going to write a book and ask someone to read it, I really should try to make it worth their time and I should try to make it engaging. I feel like that’s incumbent upon me, especially because of what I write about. I need to do that work to make it worth your while.

CCW: We searched high and low for a stereotype in WTB, but you seem to have subverted all of them. Was it important that this book, and the characters in it, transcended the social norms? You’ve spoken about Louis, and about all of them being their own person, but I know that Charlie is definitely not what he appears to be. We find out throughout the book that it’s very conflicting in him to present himself as something that he’s not because of his appearance. Was it your aim to say he is A, but he’s going to be B?

TGJ: Definitely, that’s probably most pronounced with Daron/D’aron in terms of the punctuation, but it needed to be the case for everyone, and obviously the case for Louis. He goes through a complete transformation into another form of being, and another type of presence. I wanted it to be the case for everyone; each of them had to go through a very significant transformation. Part of it is just that this world changes us. I was thinking about this for something I was writing a couple of days ago: we start off like the Earth, Wind and Fire song, a child is born and the way of the world makes his heart turn cold. We start off and then we find that adult responsibilities are competing with our facility for wonder and our willingness to question. I wanted to wrap that all around this transformation that they’re all going through, and at the same time, present this idea that people are not as they appear, in fact they may often be quite the opposite. It has to happen for all of them because you needed to get this sense that their collective efforts are much more important than any of their individual challenges or obstacles. I think this is what’s happened far too often, and it still does in terms of making any advances in terms of social rights and civil rights, everyone thinks that their problem is only their problem. That’s just not the case and we end up getting balkanised in our thinking and getting balkanised emotionally. The fact is that black people need to be able to work with white people in order to address the issues that affect black people; men have to work with women, and vice versa; heterosexuals with homosexuals. There are these various continuums and just by mind, this sounds like a tangent but this is what’s at the seed of it when I’m trying to build through the experience – we have to be willing to work with those people who are disadvantaged by our advantage. That’s what they’re each sort of doing, in some kind of way.

CCW: If you look at all those characters, the way that they interplay with each other socially – it’s never as clear-cut as ‘one person is influencing another person’. It’s interesting looking at the way that they work around each other and the way they end up coming together, going apart; coming together, going apart. It’s not representative of just one set of people; again, you’ve managed to subvert the whole idea of peer pressure and growing up. We’re not going to ruin anything, but there’s a huge thing in the book that does affect everything from then on, but the characters still a maintain a dynamic that is to themselves, an integrity that is for themselves.

TGJ: Yeah, they’re all forced to retreat into the corners and reconsider everything.

ML: Daron/D’aron – with or without an apostrophe – who wants to be plain old Daron, which is a sort of reverse form of cultural appropriation. We’re wondering if this was intentional because it is such a brilliant piece, in the first scene, when he’s with the counsellor and she’s like ‘D’aron? Are you sure about that?’ and he’s like ‘Yeah…’ it’s just so brilliant and I’m just wondering what’s underneath that little moment.

TGJ: Everyone wants to fit in, and part of what was happening was that there’s something about his name that’s obviously going to cause a reader to make one particular set of assumptions about him. There’s also that period of conscious becoming that’s so tied into the naming of things, and in his case what he gets the opportunity to do is to name himself, as he wished he could be named. There’s a whole lot wrapped up in there.

ML: There’s this amazing descriptive part about Atlanta airport and how it’s described as the ‘New South’; we were just wondering if you could expand on this idea of the New South. Is it sustainable; is there still a rich ‘Old South’ that’s still reacting against it? I was also wondering the New South that’s described does seem very classy but there’s a lot of wealth on show. I was wondering if the more ‘bitches and bling’ side, the reductive side of current R’n’B and hip-hop; do you think that’s had an impact on it, within society, as opposed to just within the book?

TGJ: Gosh, you know, America is ‘blinged’ out. The thing is when we talk about black culture or hip-hop culture in this country it feels like we’re talking about American culture over all. Yesterday on the television I saw an advertisement for an innocuously named body wash, marketed towards women, and I think ‘summer’ was in title. Leading up to it was a bunch of strutting by women of various races, and the song, of course, was something about having swagger.

CCW: It’s very important to have swagger…!

TGJ: Yeah, so I find it increasingly hard, if not impossible, to distinguish between hip-hop culture and American culture overall. In fact, it’s hard to imagine what we would have, if we didn’t have that. The thing that makes Atlanta unique is that there is such a high concentration of African-Americans with wealth and power, who work together to achieve common ends. There aren’t too many other cities like that; there are in fact none. It’s still going strong, it’s still attracting people of all races, but fortunately though, it has this black population that makes it a pretty healthy place for a black person to grow up. In a way that it just isn’t if you’re in Arizona, or, say, Idaho. That may be changing a little bit; there is a lot of gentrification going on. In Atlanta the demographics are somewhat shifting, but there is still a high concentration of progressive-minded people of colour doing good work there. I think that’s going to last for quite some time. As far as the new style overall outside of the book, people use it in so many different ways that I can’t speak to all of the various connotations and denotations. But within the book when Daron’s at the airport, he’s reflecting on this idea that ‘Okay, here are so many different kinds of black people’. All of your previously conceived notions are blown out of the window. For a long while, longer than I care to admit, I worked in finance – real-estate finance – and there were occasions when (I wish I were making this up, but I’m not) banks would basically take bus tours through south west Atlanta, because the lenders needed to see for themselves Guilford Forest and all these other developments in that area. And say, ‘Okay, wow, you have miles of million dollar homes owned by black people: we can loan them money.’ So that’s really the New South that Daron is thinking about. There’s definitely no more share cropping in that area, or if so, it’s at a completely different scale – one that makes it unrecognisable. While at the same time we still have big problems in this country overall with income and equity, and I understand that’s becoming more of an issue in Europe too.

ML: On this point, you’re from New Orleans – I don’t know how much you’d agree with me – where Old South rules still apply. We were wondering how you were affected by Hurricane Katrina, because we know you now live in Berkeley, in a personal way and also the impacts on yourself and your family and society.

TGJ: I think a lot of people have identified the storm and the aftermath as being asymptomatic of deeper issues, and that’s very true. Me personally, I know that my grandparents’ home in the east was ruined and people were shifted around. I still think that were it not for all the relocation in the wake of the storm, my grandmother would still be with us. I remember watching the coverage and listening to the various terms being bandied about: if someone black was in the store looking for food they were a ‘looter’, you know, and if someone white was in the store looking for food they were a survivor. And when they showed up in Texas, they were refugees. I’m just watching this coverage, and it sort of crystallised for me this question that I’d had for a really long time, and it forced me to go back and rewrite my entire first novel, which, at that point, was only 275 pages. At the end of the week after the storm hit, and I couldn’t pretend that the storm hadn’t hit. I’m watching all this coverage and I found myself wondering, okay, how do we actually learn to care about people who are not like us? I found myself really curious about that, and watching the coverage gave me the words for it. That question has persisted in a strong way because it’s really one of the questions in Braggsville as well.

CCW: Have you found the answer?

TGJ: I have, and it seems there are a number of ways that it requires conscious, empathetic work, and listening. There’s a whole lot to it, but it’s more than just retreating into the notion of colour-blindness and saying ‘I’m not going to offend people, because I don’t actually see your race, or I don’t see your gender.’

ML: Yeah, it’s like America and Europe are post-racial, and post-gender, and it’s like ‘Eh, bollocks!’

TGJ: Yeah, which is the opposite. To me it’s like a kind of social death. I know that it [the storm] motivated me to work harder at doing what I do.

CCW: This is going to be an obvious question, but Ferguson and the Eric Garner ‘I Can’t Breathe’ campaign. I mean, we’re here, and some of us feel almost as affected by the goings-on there. We probably feel as impotent as people in America do, just watching it and not being able to do anything. Obviously, we’re here, your laws don’t apply to us, we can’t get involved, and the support that we can give is limited: it’s on the internet, it’s on forums, and it’s going to marches here. I think it’s impacted on lots of us here negatively, especially a younger generation because we’re seeing it in real time, researching it. Has this given you, not a negative outlook, but what kind of perspective has this given you on your existence as a black male in America?

TGJ: None at all, it’s had really very little effect on me. It’s been frustrating, it’s been extraordinarily painful – but it’s not news. For me it’s not at all news. The book builds to, in some way, Charlie’s speech, this crescendo where he is laying a lot of this information out. It’s an unfortunate news cycle, at the same time unfortunate that more people are aware of it, because black males and black females have had this reading of American history and contemporary American society for so long. People sort of look at us sideways, like ‘You’re being paranoid. The cops are here to protect and serve’ – but protect and serve whom? Or serve whom to whom? There’s the whole public school-to-jail pipeline; the fact that America’s gone from being a slave state to, you know, a Jim Crow country, to a carceral state. The notion of policing black bodies has not changed at all since we first came to this country. These particular incidents, they rouse an anger in me, while at the same time they break my heart as they always do. But Ferguson, Garner; that was not at all news to me. That’s actually one of the things I’ve been writing about but it comes up more directly in different ways than the first novel, because the character in the first novel ended up visiting two inner-city morgues. And that ends up being a comment on this plague of the unconscionable premature deaths of all these black men. It’s not just black men of course, some of the police are just completely out of control: black women, people of all races have been subject to undeserved abuse while being taken into custody. Braggsville touches on that a little bit too.

ML: We read the first draft of this amazing essay, that I hope it’s okay that we talk about, we won’t spoil anything – ‘The Rebirth of a Nation’. To give listeners an idea of a few of the topics: Obama’s inauguration and ascendance, the KKK in its various incarnations, and now white supremacy joining the military for its own reasons.

TGJ: Oh, my essay! Oh! I was like ‘This sounds interesting!’

ML: Can you discuss some of those topics – I know ‘topics’ is so redundant – but discuss the essay with us?

TGJ: What’s been interesting, also the word for it is disturbing, is in the wake of Obama’s election there’s been a rise in militias. I don’t know the exact numbers, but I think they’ve grown something like fivefold, which is really disturbing because these militias tend to have a very specific profile. The thing is that none of them, or very few of them, claim to be supremacist groups per say, though they may not have any black members. Some of them do, I think there might be Promise Keepers that does, but if not, please strike that comment. Promise Keepers, I think, has mostly military or ex-military folk, and law enforcement folk. But the really disturbing thing that came up when I was doing the research for this is the notion of constitutionality. This seems to be a theme that all of these groups claim that they are gathering together and arming themselves in order to protect the constitution; in order to prevent a wayward government from outgrowing its britches and taking over everything. So when I ended up reading the initial chartering documents for the KKK, this was their argument as well. You get a little bit uneasy when you hear some of the people say some of the things they’re saying today, but the research made it clear like here’s the lineage of this idea. Basically, constitutionality has become the shield behind which various, for lack of a better word, racist groups operate. It becomes their cloak. It’s now a very weighted, coded term.

CCW: Does it frighten you?

TGJ: When I completed the research for the essay, I think I was a little bit disturbed because I’m fine to intuit things and I will generally put my intuitions off to the side, but doing the research confirmed all of these intuitions. This wasn’t the case were you wanted I say ‘I’m right! I knew it!’ What’s unfortunate is that so few people see it as what it is. I get it though, there’s a lot of racial anxiety in this country, which is going to happen when you get a black President. Which is why, as soon as it looked like he was going to win, people were saying ‘Give me my country back – people were crying, at rallies, crying ‘Give me my country back’ – like Obama had shoplifted their country.

CCW: Looted.

TGJ: Yeah! ‘It was in the driveway, and now it’s gone!’ I do get the anxiety, but I think the problem is not that people have this anxiety – it’s that politicians stoke this anxiety. That’s the bigger problem. The people who are in charge and who should be “leaders” are not necessarily leaders in terms of demonstrating ways of being that are admirable, but more so they’re just rousting people and getting people ‘foaming at the mouth’ and anxious. They are feeding off fears. This goes back to I think Nixon and the GOP.

CCW: Fear is control isn’t it, that’s the way to keep your people in line.

ML: It’s just used as campaign fodder. Just to go back to a word we talked about, a way of describing it earlier as being ‘superficial’. Is there a danger that actually driving these things back into the constitution, re-constitutionalising them; for the foreseeable future, does that make it more of a threat that these things do have a cloak to hide under?

TGJ: It could make it more of a threat. Often when there is a shooting, like there was a shooting at a Jewish museum last December or November, there’s one in DC in the last few years as well; in many of these cases, people will say that these were lone wolfs. But these were not necessarily lone wolfs. They were receiving guidance directly, or indirectly rather, from these various attitudes that they’re exposed to in the media, and what they people hear in these chatrooms and on these websites. After the Charlie Hebdo shooting, there were a slew of retaliatory acts against Muslims and mosques.

CCW: If it’s an African-American, it’s black-on-black community: that’s the community embroiled. If it’s Muslims, it’s all Muslims. If it’s someone who is a white male: they’re working in solitary. He can’t be blamed he’s just this young, poor guy with no influence at all. This poor guy acting in isolation; he was misunderstood. When it’s a minority, it’s a whole race that is accountable.

TGJ: Exactly, the whole race gets pathologised; they need new leaders, and support and so on. I was thinking of this one particular case, were a Muslim man was stabbed to death. One man barged into the home of a Muslim man and stabbed him to death in front of his wife and child. Afterwards, the reports say that the man who committed the murder was ‘disturbed’. So he’s a lone wolf, and he’s disturbed. But while he’s committing the act, he’s actually commenting on his victim’s religion. So where does that come from? [Somebody] mentioned this even when Michael Brown’s murderer killed him before shooting him, he felt that he was looking at a demon, felt like a little boy. Where are these images coming from? We may be calling these people lone wolves, but the society in which we live provides far too many occasions where they are exposed to images and ideologies that implant this sense.

ML: And normalise it.

TGJ: Exactly, normalise it.

CCW: I wanted to touch on your experience of the UK. What do you know of us Brits?

TGJ: Of the UK in general?

CCW: Yeah, what are your experiences?

TGJ: When I’ve been in London, it’s usually been at the St. Pancreas station catching the tunnel from Paris, because I was flying in and out of Heathrow. From what I’ve read, my understanding is that there was, even if there is no longer, tension between the East Asian community and the mainstream community. Or at least those from the subcontinent and the mainstream community. I know that London is a wonderfully international city but it seems to be suffering, and has been for some time, a bit of what’s happening in San Francisco and other cities in the US where you have to almost be rich to be able to live in the city now.

CCW: Yeah, I suppose our problems aren’t as clean-cut as yours.

ML: Now we’re in the age of what they’re kind of calling the ‘Intern Age’: the only way of doing anything remotely creative, that won’t earn you lots of money, is to have really rich parents, which is obviously a hideous, hideous idea.

CCW: Also, race relations are still poor. It just seems across the board there are a lot of problems.

TGJ: If I’m in London, or I’m in Paris, I’m not going to be treated the same way a local would be treated, once someone hears me speak – I’m well aware of that. As soon as someone becomes aware that I’m a tourist, or as soon as someone hears me just destroy the French language, then they’re suddenly very nice to me. Oh, we don’t actually need to follow him through the store because he didn’t come all this way to go to jail for stealing a beer. But I do notice how other people might be received. What you said about the intern age being so hideous is, also, I think, a little bit disturbing because in the end this means that very few people will be able to tell stories that are heard, or make art. So then who gets to make art?

ML: Yeah, apart from Trustafarians.

TGJ: You can argue that the internet sort of flattened the market or flattened distribution, but that’s not really true. There’s a big difference between self-publishing and having a book come out with 4th Estate.

ML: We’re going to end on one question that always brings up some very interesting answers. Which one book do you wish you had written?

TGJ: Oh, this is hard. The first book that comes to mind because of its absolutely exquisite structure is If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller. But then, almost anything by Toni Morrison. Her language wants me to just go back to the crib and start all over.

 

Interview by Candice Carty-Williams and Morwenna Loughman

 

Welcome to Braggsville‘Welcome to Braggsville’ is out now

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