By Jimmy J. Pack Jr., with Sonja Crafts
Mat Johnson was born and raised in the Germantown and Mt. Airy sections of Philadelphia. He is the author of the novels Pym, Drop, and Hunting in Harlem, the nonfiction novella The Great Negro Plot, and the comic books Incognegro and Dark Rain. He is a recipient of the United States Artist James Baldwin Fellowship, the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, and the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship. He is a faculty member at the University of Houston’s creative writing program.
Mat Johnson is very much a writer of the twentieth-first century — always overextended with multiple projects and responsibilities. When he’s not working on his next novel, he’s teaching classes in the creative writing program at the University of Houston, writing graphic novels and comic books, researching African American literature, or making sure his children are off to school on time. His latest novel, Pym, which took nine years to write, not only reflects his devotion to his craft, but also proves resoundingly that diligence pays off.
In 2002, when he finished his second novel, Hunting in Harlem — a work that examines the complexities of gentrification in Harlem through the murders of poor black tenants — Johnson was determined to inhabit an entirely different landscape. He began a new novel that involved researchers in Antarctica after a nuclear holocaust. Yet, after sixteen drafts, his original premise completely changed.
“I knew I wanted to write a book set in Antarctica, but after a few rewrites I realized that setting would only take up about one third of the novel,” Johnson says. “Every time I had a draft done, I’d send it out to my friends who are writers to comment on it, and while I was waiting to get it back, I’d work on a comic book story. I sent the manuscripts out about five times, and it would take about two years to get them back. Some people might think that obsessive, but every writer knows that revision is part of the writing process. With each version, the storyline, the characters, and the writing itself became more layered, more nuanced. But there was, at one point, a time when I thought I couldn’t do this. I didn’t like what I had, and I didn’t know where it was going.
“At that point I was going to throw it out. I’m not kidding. I made a serious decision to just trash it and start something new. But when I started thinking about it — when I needed inspiration — I kept finding myself drawn back to Edgar Allan Poe’s work, in particular a novel called The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. I read it and reread it, and with each read I started tapping into Poe’s racial subconscious. Then I started thinking about my novel as a kind of sequel.”
The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket was the only novel Poe ever published. He originally wrote the book, released in 1838, as a means to make money, novels being the newest form of entertainment at the time, and he was trying as well to take advantage of a then-burgeoning interest in Antarctica.
But the novel also grapples with ideas of race and slavery. Poe’s Pym experiences the “adventures” of a mutiny (led by a black man) when his vessel is shipwrecked near a tropical island located, incongruously, in the Antarctic. The island of Tsalal is inhabited by a race of people so dark that even the enamel of their teeth is black. When the natives set their sights on Pym and his remaining crew, they are engulfed by fear of their whiteness.
The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket was poorly received, and even Poe mocked it as a “silly” book.
Johnson’s Pym has faired much better, earning rave reviews. The New York Times Book Review has called it “relentlessly entertaining” and “masterly,” concluding that “the book is polyphonous and incisive, an uproarious and hard-driving journey toward the heart of whiteness.”
Surprisingly, Johnson credits his work on a graphic novel, Incognegro, for the success of Pym. Incognegro is about Zane Pinchback, an African American reporter for the New Holland Herald in New York City who can pass as white. Pinchback spends much of his time in the Deep South reporting on lynchings and other crimes committed against African Americans.
“I’m not really a comic book writer, ” Johnson concedes. “They think in terms of the visual story. I apply a novelistic approach. Still, writing those comic-book and graphic-novel pieces helped me with my focus on Pym. At one point I wrote a piece about a commune of Mulattos living in Valley Green.”
Johnson often describes himself as an “Octoroon” or a “Mulatto,” despite the terms’ seeming lack of political correctness. He grew up near Valley Green, a section of Wissahickon Valley Park, in the Germantown and Mt. Airy sections of Philadelphia. “I used to identify as an African American,” he says, “and then in the 1990’s the ‘proper’ word was ‘interracial,’ but that can refer to anyone of any two different races. Just to mess with people, it’s more fun to use a term like Mulatto because it gives the sense of another race, which is what I am.”
In his first novel, Drop, published in 2000 by Bloomsbury Press, Johnson explored both his Philly background and his interest in the race relations central to the region. The narrator, Chris Jones, moves from the cultural richness of London, England, to what he views as the cultural wasteland of Philadelphia. In an obvious parallel, Pym’s narrator, Chris Jaynes, also aspires to rise above his surroundings, yet Johnson thinks of Pym as a more complex take on the issue of race — an exploration of whiteness more than blackness.
“In the African American community, race is always in your consciousness, but the same isn’t true if you’re white,” Johnson says. “The point of distinguishing people as ‘black’ was used to define ‘whiteness.’ How else do you explain the idea of being civilized but by contrasting it to being a savage? That dichotomy of black/white is a myth, and they are dependent on one another. Black reinforces the idea of white and vice versa. Whiteness is not as tangible in the study of race and ethnicity, but I wanted to delve into that.”
In Pym, Chris Jaynes realizes he was hired in part to give his university some diversity cachet, and is denied tenure because he chooses not to pander to expectations. He leaves the university and, through his own research, finds that Poe’s tale about Arthur Gordon Pym might actually have been true, prompting him to attempt to find the island of Tsalal, vowing, “If we can identify how the pathology of whiteness was constructed, then we can learn how to dismantle it.”
But to say that Pym is only a study of race would be reductive. Johnson, who received his M.F.A. from Columbia University, where he studied under Michael Cunningham and Maureen Howard, is, first and foremost, a writer with a firm grasp of literary craft, one who walks an inventive line between realism and science fiction, and who often punctuates his prose with humor (which Johnson admits, “I put in there for myself”).
When asked what he’s working on next, Johnson, ever the innovator, is quick to reveal: “Houston has a highway around the city called The Loop. I thought to myself, ‘What would happen if they built a wall around the city where The Loop is?’ Then I thought I’d turn it into a post-apocalyptic novel set in Houston. I don’t want to be seen as the type of writer who gets stuck writing the same thing to death. I want to keep changing my vision so I’m not always putting out the same kind of novel. Will that alienate some of my readers? Maybe, but it’s more important to me to grow as an artist than to just constantly give people what they want.
“Much of contemporary art today is about branding. You see this a lot in visual art, where the painter will create many works of art that look the same. It’s because they know that kind of work sells. In fiction you see this happening a lot as well. But that can be a death trap for writers, just putting out what they think readers want to read. I could never do that. I need to make sure I’m always engaging my reader as well as engaging myself with new material. Think of it this way. My kids want candy for breakfast, but I know it’s not good for them, so I don’t give it to them. When I write, I know I have to write for a reader, but it’s important for any writer to also write for themselves. Will I write about some of the same themes? Sure, but I won’t do it in the same way.”
His graphic novel Dark Rain: A New Orleans Story is a good case in point. Set in the first few days after Hurricane Katrina, the crime noir story centers on Dabny, who is holed up in a halfway house in Houston, Texas, after being convicted of taking a bribe. After teaming up with his prison mate, Emmit, to go into the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans to rob his former employer, he is chased by Dark Rain, a private security firm that is as corrupt as it is avaricious.
Even while striving to reinvent forms, Johnson looks back to the past for inspiration. Some of the material he uncovered in his various research projects led to his only published nonfiction work to date, The Great Negro Plot: A Tale of Conspiracy and Murder in Eighteenth-Century New York. The book details an actual plot to blow up the island of Manhattan, devised by slaves living in New York. The plot, of course, was eventually thwarted, the slaves punished.
“As a scholar of African American literature,” Johnson says, “I come to find so many amazing writers from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries who have been lost. When you dig deep enough into the works that were published, you can find so many talented writers with unique visions, and their ideas fascinate me. Of course, you can say this about writers of any race, but in African American literature it seems especially true.”
Recently, Mat Johnson has been busy giving interviews and readings around the country to promote Pym, and while he’s already working on his next novel, he maintains his life as a professor and a father. “Before Pym came out,” Johnson says, “Incognegro received the most attention. But everything I’ve wanted to happen to me for the last ten years happened in forty-eight hours. I walked around like a zombie because this attention was all kind of new to me. I pretty much assumed it was never going to happen, and I was okay with that. But now that it has happened, not much in my personal life has changed. I still have to get the kids ready for school in the morning.”
Read an excerpt from Pym.
Photo of Mat Johnson: Meera Bowman Johnson