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Genre Bender: Mat Johnson on Fatherhood, Identity, Belonging

IMAGE:  Mat Johnson
Photo by Meera Bowman-Johnson.

Mat Johnson Photo by Meera Bowman-Johnson.

Mat Johnson crosses fearlessly between distinctions, clarifying them with every zig and making them more meaningless with every zag. University of Houston professor, fiction writer, graphic novelist, blogger and prolific tweeter, much of Johnson’s literary energy tracks through his own mixed identity. The writer, of Irish and African decent, locates his narratives in and around a most American fixation: race. His work has garnered major attention, including the New York Times and NPR.

His fourth and most recent novel, Loving Day, follows Warren Duffy, a recently divorced, flailing comic book artist, who returns from England to a deteriorating home in Philadelphia to settle his dead father’s estate. At a comic convention, Tal, a teenage girl, introduces herself to Warren, as his daughter. The artist and his daughter begin to forge a life together, navigating their connection to each other and the world, through the exploration of their identities.

Johnson will read with Helen Oyemi at Inprint’s Margarett Root Brown Reading Series on March 28 at Wortham Center’s Cullen Theater. Nicole Zaza visited with Johnson about how lives, identities, and communities get written.

So what are you working on now?

MAT JOHNSON:  The biggest thing I’m working on right now is a Loving Day TV show for Showtime. We’re trying to turn it into a half hour comedy, or dramedy. We’re working on the pilot right now, so that’s been pretty much all my focus.

What’s that like, working on a script?

It’s great, because it’s not just the script, but it’s all these other things too, which are new and exciting, like casting and location… They teamed me up with Sam Bain, and he’s an incredible British creative writer/producer. He had a show called Peep Show in Britain that was this really funny, amazing show that had nine seasons.

I went over to London before the holiday and we figured out what we were going to do and since then I’ve been working with the execs at Showtime and Random House… Right now I’m enjoying it a lot. I don’t know if I’ll feel the same way in the future, but right now it’s been nice just to do something different.

I don’t know even if this is a fair question to ask, but do you feel at all proprietary over your story?

Yes and no. I’m proprietary in the sense that the story started with me, and I want the heart of what the story is to stay solid; No, in the sense that they come up with great ideas. They come up with ideas that are just … help. It’s amazing. There are a lot of times where I’m working with them and I’m thinking, oh God, I wish I would have had all you guys giving me feedback when I was working on the book…

It’s funny because the stereotype that you do this work and then you get notes from the executives and they’re just horrible and stupid, and you have to fight against them. My experience has been the opposite. The notes come in, and they’re from people who are so smart about story that they almost always really fantastic. If you are all thinking about getting to the same place it works really well….

You have multiple British connections, right?

I went to the University of Wales in Swansea for a year. Then I went back and lived in south London for another two years… I think my humor was definitely impacted by a lot of different British writers and British TV shows…

loving-day-by-mat-johnsonThe novel, Loving Day has some connections to your own story, right?

Yes, a lot of the pieces. Nothing in the story actually happened, but what I like to do is rip up my life into tiny little pieces and then rearrange it like a collage. What I finish with is never anything that actually happened, but you hope that the emotional truths actually work— that emotionally you’re hitting something real. That is why I do fiction and not non-fiction. To me, the story gets closer to the truth sometimes than the facts.

Everybody’s focused on racial identity as being THE most important theme in the novel. It seems to me that there are many questions about fatherhood.

To me, that’s really what the story’s about. The racial aspect is the setting more than anything. It’s a context, but the heart of the story is the father/daughter relationship. The racial thing, how much can you talk about it? It’s there. It is what it is. At some level, that’s it.

I’m a father. I have two daughters and a son. I really wanted to write about being a father. When I started it, my oldest daughter was only six years old. By the time it was done, she was 13. I started it before I had teenage daughter, and by the time I finished I actually had one. That was helpful in the last years of editing. A lot of times my editor was like, “This is a cliché about father/daughter relationships.” He was right, but at the same time, there are so many clichés that end up being true. It was tricky how to get around those and get to other places.

Is there somewhere in there the question of what kind of world do I want my children to live in? Or about how the world perceives them?

More, it was questions to me about mixed race identity, what black/white mixed race identity is in America. When I grew up, if you had a black parent, you were black. Ethnically that was how you were considered. That idea goes back as far as the 17th century. The reasons behind it were literal… because a majority of the time, even if you had a white parent, you didn’t grow up with that white parent as a parent in your life on a daily basis. You might have grown up around that white parent, perhaps as your slave master, but you weren’t considered a part of the family.

That changed slowly, but it really started changing dramatically in the 90s. I grew up in the last era before that. When I was a kid, I didn’t hear that word biracial at all. Nobody used it. There’s been a shift. I was interested in what that [shift] meant, not just on an individual level, but as a community. There has been a lot of writing about black biracial experience, what I call mulatto experience. Mostly, it’s an individual experience…There has never been anything written about mixed, biracial, group experience. It’s always been individual. The other thing is, it’s always been a feminine experience. Almost all of the discussion in literature and fiction has been from a female perspective. I thought it would be interesting to come to it with a masculine perspective, too. …With my kids, I look at what I think of as a mulatto experience. It’s not a race. It’s just an experience.

Genetically, the entire African American community is mixed. What we’re really talking about is an individual experience within an ethnicity. With them, and by their standards and the world’s standards, both their parents are black. That’s their experience. If they were to decide to choose to identify as mixed or whatever, it’s up to them, but for the most part, they just had a type of black experience.

The novel seemed to be interested in the idea of being rescued, even just the question of how we protect our children. How do we rescue them from this world? … I guess I should just start with the idea of being rescued, because the main character, he wants to be rescued by …

His love interest.

There are just a lot of different connections in that way.

I think that’s part of connecting, too. That’s why we need friends. That’s why we need lovers. That’s why we need children. There’s always some level of ‘take me away from the type of lifestyle I’m living.’ I think with parents too: I rescue my kids and my kids rescue me. This was actually based on going to conferences and things that I use as the model for the Melange Center in the book. A lot of people are looking for something. They’re looking for a connection. They’re looking for a place to belong, a person to be, and a place to belong.

I think that’s true of most of the people in the book, and in particular with the father and the daughter. The daughter is at a point in her life where she has to figure out who she is anyway. Her life is crumbling. The same thing with the main character: we start a point where his life has completely collapsed. He doesn’t really have a persona. He hasn’t succeeded in anything in his life.

They’re in a position to help each other, and I think that’s ultimately what they’re doing. His ideas about what he needs to be rescued, and what he actually needs to be rescued are probably two different things.

I think all that is connected to community, too. We look for a community where we can belong and where we can feel like, if somebody shakes the world, we won’t fall off.

Then there’s also the question of beauty that comes up a lot in the book.

The main character is learning how to become a man in relation to women.

Throughout the piece, there are a lot of different types of female roles that he has to negotiate. He has somebody who he wants, and becomes his lover. He has somebody who is his daughter. There’s a matriarchal figure there as well. He has to negotiate it.

Part of my question in life and on the page is: how do you get to a more honest, healthy way of relating to women in this society that is inherently misogynistic?

One of the things I wanted to do with him dealing with Sunita was to try and look past what the larger society defined as beauty and actually go into his heart about what he thought beauty was. Society assumes that beauty is youth, and the beauty of females is based on a youth idea. The societal idea is that the perfect female body is basically the equivalent of a 13 year old girl, right? No fat, just not even a real adult.

Also, coming from a black aesthetic, that’s just not what was valued when I grew up. It was a very different beauty aesthetic. I wanted him to try, in part, claiming a beauty aesthetic that actually was real as opposed to commodified and was healthier.

That wasn’t that hard. I grow up in a different environment, so I basically just had him talk. That’s all I had to do with that.

It was clear to me that you wanted him to say those things. That you wanted that aesthetic to be audible to us.

I’m a middle aged guy on a college campus. I’m surrounded by young adults all the time. I guess in part because of that, when I see in the larger pop culture discussion, the ideas about beauty, that all equate with youth, I can tell you I talk to young people. If I was single, I would not want to be dating one. No offense to them, but I’m a grown up and what is attractive to me is grown-ups!

That type of relationship is not healthy, but that’s the type of relationship we’re given in movies and television shows all the time. Invariably, the men seem to keep dating 20 year olds for the rest of their lives. That’s presented as being normal. Of course, I’m sure there are tons of relationships like that that are fine and great, but as a basic principle, the ideas behind it are not.

The book too, is in part about accepting yourself, and learning how to accept yourself. That’s a journey that they’re all on, all of them relatively early into the book. The beauty thing is part of that.

Do you think the novel is asking any questions particularly to the readers?

Sure…When you’re writing a novel, it’s a dream. You’re telling your dream, right? It’s just this vivid dream and there’s a story there. Honestly, when I write a novel, I look back years later and I see them differently than when I wrote them. It happens every time. My idea about how it is when I finish it, it’s so different from when it hits the shelves, and it’s different by the time the paperback hits.

To me, the overall thing was capturing this feeling, this feeling around identity and not just in the sense of race, but in the sense of self identity, period. Invariably, that just brings up tons of questions.

I went around with it a bit. I don’t like doing readings; I don’t like being in public, honestly. It’s interesting how people react. Invariably, people have their own questions and reactions. Sometimes I can foresee them and they’re similar; and then other times they have interesting, valid reactions that I’ve never imagined.

How do they react?

It’s been interesting. I get white readers who are very self-conscious about their own ideas about race, and they come and basically vomit up all their guilt on my blazer. This time I got people who thought about their own fathers and the relationships to their kids; that was a really big one. Then I got people who were violently upset about how I was defining race, or how the characters are defining race.

Race obviously is a perspective, not anything biological. In part, it depends on how we as a group choose to define it. When you question the way people are choosing to define it, they get very upset because they need everybody to agree with them in order for their version of reality to exist. For some people, the novel challenged the way that they look at the world, or challenged the way that they classify race. They would get upset…

One of the armors that I’ve made for myself when people get upset about something I wrote is that it must be threatening, because if it wasn’t threatening they would just shrug it off. Instead they took the time to go find my email, which I tell you is not particularly easy, for very good reason. Then they write me about it.

One of the things I really admire is that you cross into different spaces. You seem fearless about doing that.

Dennis Leary has this comedy album, Lock and Loaded. He talks about his father was a smoker on there, but unlike a lot of smokers, he didn’t have a brand. He just didn’t care. He’d smoke any cigarettes. He would just pull a branch off a tree and start smoking it. He didn’t give a shit. That’s how I am. I care about story, and I get excited about story. I really don’t care about the genre. The similarities between the different genres are so slight that I feel like a lot of people make a real big fuss over what genre they’re writing, in part, because they’re just scared they’re going to fuck up, not because it’s actually that different.

With all this stuff, I’m just going with it. Whether it’s writing comics, which was really cool and fun, or writing scripts, or doing genre-bending stuff like having ghosts in Loving Day and monsters in Pym, I’m just trying to get to the story and I’m not scared of failing, because you fail as soon as you start. There’s nothing that’s going to be perfect, and there are always people telling you that you suck. It frees you up to just do whatever the hell you want.

I have noticed that the more that I’m just free with it, and just do what I want, the better the response. People are bored with having the same type of stories all the time, and the same ways of thinking about things. I know one of the things that I offer is a chance to try something different.

—NICOLE ZAZA