Middle Passage at 25: Charles Johnson Reflects on His National Book Award–Winning Novel and More

Robin Lindley | February 2017

Charles Johnson
Charles Johnson


Who sees variety and not the Unity
wanders on from death to death.
Brihad-aranyaka Upanishad

The Middle Passage was the route of slave ships that brought Africans of many tribes and beliefs across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas. Historians estimate that Europeans transported nearly 12.5 million enslaved Africans over this route between 1500 and 1865.

Aboard the slave ships, the captive Africans were packed below deck, forced to crouch or lie together in a cramped, dark, foul space, secured by chains and leg irons. The fetid air, lack of sanitation, and suffocating conditions often led to disease, and epidemics of fever, dysentery, and smallpox were frequent. The combination of disease, inadequate food, and cruel abuse took a heavy toll, and surviving records suggest that about 1.8 million of these captive people died on the Middle Passage, their bodies thrown into the Atlantic.

Charles Johnson brought this experience vividly to life in his 1990 National Book Award–winning novel, Middle Passage, a sea adventure, a picaresque, and a romance, but also a tale of philosophical inquiry and spiritual transformation.

In the novel, protagonist Rutherford Calhoun, a newly freed slave and scoundrel, stows away on the slave ship Republic to evade creditors and marriage to a strait-laced schoolteacher. On board, Calhoun serves under Captain Falcon, a philosophizing tyrant and the embodiment of Western dualistic thought, and in Africa he meets the cargo, members of the mystical Allmuseri tribe who present an alternative view of life, a vision of unity and interconnectedness. The novel captures a voyage of horror and tragedy and illumination.

In crafting the novel, Professor Johnson studied the literature of the sea from Homer and Coleridge to Dana, Melville, and Conrad. And he pored over ship logs, slave narratives, and historical accounts of antebellum America.

Middle Passage was widely acclaimed by critics for its compelling narrative, engaging prose, a balance of humor and horror, and the joining of philosophy and art. In his 1990 review of Middle Passage for The New York Times, celebrated author Thomas Kenneally wrote: “This is fiction that hooks into the mind. Above all, it speaks of the legacies and griefs the peculiar institution has brought to the life of the American Republic.”

In his acceptance speech for the National Book Award, Professor Johnson offered a tribute to the first African American winner of the National Book Award for Fiction, Ralph Ellison, who won in 1953 for his iconic novel Invisible Man. Mr. Ellison, who sat in the audience, was very moved by these words and celebrated the recognition of Middle Passage. Professor Johnson also expressed his hope that black writing in America would move from a literature of “narrow complaint to broad celebration.”

. I can read nonfiction if what I’m after is sociology.

Johnson’s writing offers a striking blend of philosophy, myth, history, and his own Buddhist spiritual beliefs. His novels also include a moving homage to Dr. King’s life in Dreamer; a philosophical adventure in Oxherding Tale; and the allegorical Faith and the Good Thing. He also wrote the story collections The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Dr. King’s Refrigerator, and Soulcatcher, and acclaimed collections of essays, including Being and Race: Black Writing since 1970 and Taming the Ox. His most recent book, The Way of the Writer: Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling, was published in December 2016.

Johnson is a MacArthur Fellow and professor emeritus and former Pollock Endowed Professor for Excellence in English at the University of Washington. He is a national commentator on issues of race and culture, and also a screenwriter, a life-long martial arts practitioner, and an accomplished visual artist with two books of political cartoons. Recently he illustrated a series of children’s books that he wrote with his daughter Elisheba Johnson. Those books introduce a new hero for our time, Emery Jones, Boy Science Wonder.

Robin Lindley: Congratulations on the 25th anniversary of your National Book Award for Middle Passage. Have you reread the book recently? If so, what do you think on looking at it again?

Charles Johnson: I did look at the 25th-anniversary edition and I hadn’t looked at it in quite a while. I jumped around in the book. My memory had faded on many details. There’s a lot in this book that I had forgotten. I’m not bragging, but the book is endlessly inventive and imaginative.

I threw away three thousand pages of composition for that book over six years, from 1983 to 1989. I compressed a lot of material into the finished book of about 200 pages, and rereading it was re-experiencing the book.

Lindley: In your 1990 acceptance speech for the National Book Award you credited Ralph Ellison as an influence, and he was at the presentation and was very moved by your words. Did he have a direct influence on Middle Passage?

Johnson: I wouldn’t say a direct influence. Ellison’s novel Invisible Man is no longer just a novel. It’s a cultural artifact. We have used that book to read American culture in terms of race relations and many other things.

There was no direct influence except maybe in the spirit of Invisible Man and Middle Passage. When Ellison won the National Book Award in 1953, he said in his acceptance speech that he wanted to achieve “a novel that would have all the bright magic of a fairy tale,” and leave sociology to the sociologists. I quoted that in my acceptance speech because that is the right spirit for imaginative, creative literature. It should have all of the bright magic of a fairy tale and it should be rich at the same time, and not be driven by ideology or agenda.

In a spiritual sense, I come down closer to Ellison’s attitude about storytelling than I do with other writers.

Lindley: In your acceptance speech, you expressed a hope for a shift in African American writing from “narrow complaint to broad celebration.” What did you mean and have you seen a change in black writing?

Johnson: The protest novel is a tradition in American literature, and Richard Wright and James Baldwin wrote these along with many others.

Do I feel that twenty-five years later we’ve gone to a literature of “broad celebration”? I don’t think so. Our literature reflects our lives in certain ways. I think our lives, unfortunately, are more tribal. We have women who write literature for women. We have blacks who write literature just for black people. We balkanize what was American literature.

There’s a great difference between writers of Ellison’s day and now. In Ellison’s period, writers like Saul Bellow were concerned about what American literature is and what can it do. Both Bellow and Ellison took the minority position—one Jewish and one black. So in the context of a WASP literature, the question that developed for Bellow was how could he present the Jewish experience in all of its particulars in a way that resonates with the universal human experience. The same question arose with Ellison: how do I represent black experience in such a way that it opens up for all of the universal themes.

That’s how writers in the ’50s were thinking. We don’t think that way anymore, I believe. Writers aren’t trying to answer the question of what is American literature, or what is American experience. Not what is the Jewish experience or the black experience or the women’s experience, but what is the American experience? We’re still struggling with this now.

I don’t want to read a writer just because he or she is a black person, or gay, or a woman, or Jewish, or anything. I want to read a great story, and I don’t care who wrote it. The particulars of that experience will introduce me to another culture not my own. Like the Sinbad stories. They are anchored in a world different from my own, but they are great stories. What comes first and foremost is good storytelling regardless of race, class, or gender.

I personally need a good, rousing, imaginative story that will liberate my perception of the world. Ellison mentioned the sociology of literature. If you want to read a book and find out what it’s like to be gay or black or Hispanic or white, nonfiction will serve your desire for sociological details. But if it’s a novel or story, I want to see great storytelling. I want suspense, a sense of mystery and wonder, and compelling characters. I can read nonfiction if what I’m after is sociology.

We live in an unfree world and, if we’re not vigilant, we’ll become even more unfree.

Lindley: I understand that you encouraged your student writers to explore other lives, to put themselves in the place of different types of people and imagine those other lives.

Johnson: If the students write a story or several and they seem to be the protagonist of every one of them, or someone of their background, then we have something that’s limiting. I would encourage them to write outside of whatever they think is their identity.

Your identity is based on your knowledge. For example, in a book I published in November 2014, Taming the Ox, one story is from the point of view of a follower of the Buddha during his six years as an ascetic and just before his night of awakening. The next story after that in the collection is called the “The Cynic” about Diogenes, and narrated by Plato. And the story after that is a third-person viewpoint tale—a modern sutra—about a secluded Japanese Buddhist abbot and his encounter with a black American woman.

These stories are not me but they come out of my knowledge and what I’ve studied. You create the illusion of reality. I think we could open and expand our stories if we had a broad sense of our humanity, rather than a limited narrow sense of our humanity.

Lindley: And you haven’t seen much writing like that recently?

Johnson: I don’t think so. There are writers who have managed to move around with many different characters in their work. I think Colum McCann does that in Let the Great World Spin—which received the National Book Award when I was chair of the fiction panel. One of the virtues of that book is that he took on the portrayals of lots of different types of people.

Again, the kind of writing I care most about is just a terrific, memorable story.

Lindley: You called Middle Passage a sea story, an adventure and a philosophical novel. What is a philosophical novel? I imagine you’d include Invisible Man, and Moby Dick by Melville, and Candide by Voltaire.

Johnson: The philosophical novel usually is considering philosophical questions. Melville and Hawthorne were doing that with other 19th- century writers. I would put Bellow and Ellison and John Gardner in that category. The French have been good at understanding the interface between philosophy and literature going back to Voltaire and Descartes. The Americans have not been so good, and there’s a void in our literature for robust philosophical investigation in the form of fiction. Part of my goal is to fill that void by looking at all sorts of philosophical questions.

Lindley: Those questions loom large in Middle Passage.

Johnson: A lot did. The book that preceded that, Oxherding Tale, is actually more complex. I deliberately scaled back on the complexity and inventiveness of Middle Passage. But Oxherding Tale was a crucial book for me because everything I’ve done since then rests on the questions raised in that book. I call it my platform novel, which is an allusion to the sixth patriarch of Buddhism and his platform sutra. All my other books rest on the foundation of Oxherding Tale.

When I was writing Middle Passage in the mid-’80s, one of my intentions was to show the reader what a pure entertainment is.

Many books published in the ’80s were agenda-driven, political tracts disguised as novels. My intention was to give the reader as many of the delights of entertainment as possible. The book held together that way from the very first chapter.

The book starts off as a picaresque because Rutherford Calhoun is a picaro. He’s the classic rogue. But once he’s on the ship, which he stays on for most of the rest of the novel, he becomes an epic character with the crew and the unusual tribe of Africans that is brought onto the ship. The middle part of the book is an epic. Then, when he’s reunited with Isadora Bailey, who is the Penelope to his Odysseus, the book becomes a romance.

So the book moves through three literary genres in about 200 pages. It’s a sea adventure story with all of the excitement and high-seas adventure that genre can give you. Then you have the classic, three major conflicts possible in a work of man versus nature, man versus man, and man versus himself. Nature is the ocean, the elements and weather. Man versus man is slavery. Man versus himself is Rutherford Calhoun coming to terms with the demands of maturity on this journey.

The novel becomes the spiritual odyssey of Rutherford. He starts out as immature and selfish. He’s free, but he doesn’t understand the responsibilities of freedom until he basically goes from the frying pan into the fire and gets his ass kicked. In the whole middle part of the book, he is awakening to maturity, to embracing the new thought he acquires in the course of the journey, and also realizes his sense of identity through the Allmuseri tribe.

All of my books deal with a spiritual odyssey. If you look at the template for all of my novels, there is movement from ignorance to wisdom and all of them have a spiritual arc, including Dreamer, Faith and the Good Thing, and Oxherding Tale, a Buddhist novel.

All of my books have that arc, but my short stories do not. They’re far more diverse in terms of where the characters come from and wind up at a story’s conclusion. But the novels all have that exploration of a spiritual dimension.

In essence, we are all part of each other. We want to believe this but we still are fearful.

Lindley: What sparked the idea for Middle Passage for you? Was it an event or something you read?

Johnson: It has a long history. I said I wrote it from ’83 to ’89. That’s correct. But I wrote six novels in two years, from ’70 to ’72, one every ten weeks, beginning when I was an undergraduate. The second novel was on the Middle Passage. And that goes back to the ’60s when black students on campus were demanding their rights. There were no black teachers and no black courses. We started that.

We were the first generation of black students to go en masse to white universities. The curriculum was entirely white in US history, so black students demanded black studies. At the time, there were no black professors to teach the course, so graduate students put together a lecture course that included philosophy, sociology, and history. As an undergraduate, I was one of ten discussion group leaders. I met with a group every week, and I was educating myself on black history, literature, and culture. I was reading John Hope Franklin’s From Slavery to Freedom.

Anyway, one day a graduate student put on the overhead projector the image of the cross-section of a slave ship. The black figures were pressed together spoon fashion. That image burned into my mind. The next quarter at school, we had a visiting black professor from St. Louis. I asked if I could do my research paper on the slave trade because I would also use that for my second, in-progress novel, and he said yes.

So I did research on this novel for seventeen years before I actually started this version. But the first draft I didn’t like because I fell into a trap. I read the logs of slave ship captains and they were all written by white men. They could not experience from the inside with the greatest degree of intimacy the slave experience.

So I came back to the book in ’83. I said let me have a free black man who is American. He is a “liminal character”—an in-between. Rutherford Calhoun is in-between the sailors and slaves on the ship because he stows away, and then he becomes a crewmember by default. But he can also relate to the Allmuseri, the Africans brought onboard the ship. He looks in two directions at once. The impact the Allmuseri have on him is transformative. They remind him a lot of his brother in southern Illinois. So Rutherford to me was the best solution for who should tell the story.

Can you imagine Captain Falcon telling the story? It would be totally different in terms of his experience and reporting on the story. He can’t describe the Allmuseri culture, but Rutherford can. That’s one transformation in the ’80s version from the early ’70s version I did very quickly.

It began with that image of the cross-section of a slave ship.

Lindley: That’s a haunting image. You vividly capture the atrocious experience of the chained, suffering people below decks in a 19th-century sailing vessel.

Johnson: Twenty percent usually did not survive the voyage. And twenty percent of the sailors generally didn’t survive either.

Those ships were constantly being remade as they were torn apart by the waves at sea. Masts would break in the storms. And this ship is called the Republic because it is constantly being repaired and it is a metaphor for the nation and its need for constant repairing as we crawl along the waves of American history.

Lindley: And Rutherford Calhoun is a scoundrel who becomes transformed. You called him a picaro.

Johnson: There’s a literary tradition of picaros or disreputable narrators.

Lindley: Rutherford is a freed slave from Illinois in the 1830s. Your research is impressive and, from the story, readers will understand that there were also slaves working in the north before the Civil War.

Johnson: There’s a barn in southern Illinois called the Slave House where they housed slaves.

What many people may not realize was that, in the 19th century, you had a tapestry of situations. You had people in chattel slavery and you had people who had been freed for generations in different parts of the country.

The history of slavery in America spanned 300 years or so. The first African brought to Jamestown wasn’t a slave but was an indentured servant. Later, slavery applied to blacks exclusively, and not indentured servitude.

A black man in Jamestown named Johnson was a slave owner. He owned another human being who took him to court at one point.

Lindley: Rutherford in your book was treated well and educated by his owner Chandler, and that’s a different take on slavery.

Johnson: Chandler wasn’t Simon Legree. He was a minister and opposed slavery, but he inherited slaves. He sets them free. Rutherford’s brother broke away from Rutherford and his roguish ways, and followed Rev. Chandler’s deep commitment to a spiritual way of life. And of course, Rutherford and his brother Jackson never knew their father, Riley, who escaped from slavery—or so they believe—and left them behind. That issue is resolved in the book with the presence of the Africans, their god, and how it delivers the absent father to Rutherford.

Slavery is very complicated and it’s very old. Today, the Islamic State has legally reinstated slavery for women. It’s another atrocity. And slavery exists in other forms in terms of trafficking of children for sexual exploitation or for work. We live in an unfree world and, if we’re not vigilant, we’ll become even more unfree.

Lindley: You capture the brutality of slavery, and the voyage of the Republic reveals ways that slavery transformed America.

Johnson: I hope this book makes clear that when Africans were brought aboard these ships by Europeans they didn’t see themselves as Africans. They saw themselves as members of different tribes. They were lumped together by Europeans and given a blanket identity: they’re African, they’re black. That transformation took place during their journey when they were taken from the interior to the forts, and then taken onto the ships. By the time they got to the New World, they had been through “seasoning camp,” and were taught rudimentary English, and given some clothes to wear. That was before they were put up for sale. So they are transformed as a people during that entire passage from Africa to the New World.

Slavery was an economic foundation for America—and also for the Portuguese and the Dutch and the French and the British. If you stock a slave ship, you have to put food in it. You have people working to outfit those ships. You have people catching fish and putting them in barrels to be used during the voyage. You have somebody making the barrels for these fish. Every aspect of the society is a factor supporting the slave trade. Who’s putting up the money?

Lindley: And one of the investors in the slave ship Republic is a black man.

Johnson: I have a black investor in the form of a gangster, Zeringue.

Lindley: That adds another dimension too. Was he based on a historical character?

Johnson: No. But it’s part of the story of slavery. There were black people who owned slaves, like that guy I mentioned who owned slaves in the colonial period.

It’s a complex phenomenon. If we see slavery in cartoonish, black and white ways, I think we do a disservice to that complexity. You can think about it in terms of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Simon Legree with whips and chains, but you have a whole spectrum of human behavior.

Slavery ended with the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, and when I was growing up in the ’60s, slavery seemed very remote, like ancient history. People write about slavery as if it’s today, and that’s not the truth, and to not recognize that is a violation of the past and a misunderstanding of the present. You can’t collapse the past into the present.

As I look at America now, we’re going through a period of incredible change, a sea change. This is a critical moment now for black Americans, fifty years after the Civil Rights Movement. The present will determine black lives in America for the rest of this century. We’re talking about questions of caste and inequality between the rich and poor, but also knowledge-based caste systems in which those at the top of the caste won’t be excluded on the basis on race, class, or gender. The people at the top will be Asian and South Asian and black and others—who have the education that is needed in a global, knowledge-based economy. That will determine where you fall in the new caste system. We know education is essential, that it’s crucial for improving one’s life and livelihood. But the irony for a democracy—and the notion of equality—is that education also divides people.

We’re at pains right now because most of the information technology companies, Google and Amazon and so on, have only about two percent black people in the creative parts of the companies. There’s a great desire to increase that percentage, but that percentage will increase only based on education.

So the issue is access to education, which has become very expensive in colleges and universities. It’s woven into the question of what kind of schools are black kids going to? About twenty-seven percent of the black population is poor, and the kids are going to substandard schools that don’t have the best teachers and don’t have the best resources. And there are other factors like coming from a two-parent home or from a home where a single mother is struggling to work and to live.

There are many complexities, but I think those issues will be sorted out in the next five to ten years. And we may not like where things come to rest and it may not fit our ideals as Americans.

This is a critical time right now. There’s a lot of hysteria, and it’s not just about black men being shot by white police officers. It’s about the entire state of America at this moment. It’s about the endless killing as portrayed in Spike Lee’s new movie set in Chicago [Chi-Raq].

When I’m creating, whether writing or drawing, it’s a great joy. There’s no pleasure since my childhood greater than that or that has sustained me longer than creating has.

Lindley: The Allmuseri tribe you created is remarkable. Their thought embodies unity, wholeness, and interconnectedness in contrast to the dualism of Western thought. How did your Allmuseri come to be?

Johnson: The Allmuseri occur in a story I did prior to Middle Passage. I applied for a Guggenheim and I said I wanted to create an entire tribe with its own language, religion, and habits—the things that make a culture. I wanted them to have the most spiritual culture on earth. I wanted a whole tribe of Mother Teresas and Gandhis and Martin Luther Kings.

The details about the Allmuseri are drawn from Indian culture. Their habit of giving up a selfish desire every year is something done by people in Kerala, India. The way that Ngonyama carves the pig in the galley by cutting around the bone is from a description in Taoist literature. There’s a lot drawn from other cultures to create the composite culture of the Allmuseri.

The important thing is that they are the first tribe of humankind. The members of the tribe are changed when they have to violate their principles by killing the crew. They are changed and will have to live by the consequences of their violent action.

Unlike the Allmuseri, Captain Falcon sees the world in a very bifurcated, dualistic way.

In Dreamer, I created a character named Chaym Smith as a double for Martin Luther King, Jr. I made Dr. King Abel and Chaym is Cain. Here are the first two brothers. One kills the other. That’s primordial Western myth. And Falcon is of that mentality: mind was made for murder. To me, that sense is very interesting for our social relationships and how we overcome that, if we can overcome that.

Lindley: Rutherford comes to see Falcon, a Western thinker, as the devil.

Johnson: Yes. On the ship you have the devil, Falcon. And you have the god. You have eighty people, forty of them slaves and forty of them crew. You have heaven and hell and then a devil figure and an African god. There’s a lot happening on that ship during its voyage.

Lindley: The book has so much resonance now. With political life, we hear voices of division and, on the other hand, there are voices of interconnectedness and inclusion in the vein of Dr. King’s dream of a network of mutuality and Beloved Community.

Johnson: I think America today is painfully divided. We are not E Pluribus Unum. And Falcon is a survivor, so he deals with a dangerous world by making himself more dangerous. He lives in a world of weapons, from his steel-toed boots for smashing shins to a gun he invented with a version of a magnet trigger [that responds to] his magnet ring. And he has traps all over his cabin. He is distrustful. In his world, life is “short, nasty and brutish,” as described by Thomas Hobbes. In 1915, just a hundred years ago, the average life span for a man was forty-seven years. Life was harsh. Falcon is a Magister Ludi—a maestro—of survival.

And in America now, we’re flooded with guns. Gun sales soar whenever there’s a tragedy, like what happened in San Bernardino and Paris. Whenever the president mentions gun control, people go out and buy guns.

We live in a very violent culture. What we regard as entertainment, our movies and television shows, drip with violence. I look at this and wonder, what are we doing to our children and ourselves? And I don’t just mean physical violence, although a lot of that goes on. I also mean in terms of speech toward each other, which is violent. And you find a lot of hate speech and racist speech on the Internet because you can hide behind anonymity.

This is the present-day world, and the violence is thick. And people become afraid. The mindset is “I’ve got to be dangerous in a dangerous world. Otherwise I’ll be a victim.” That’s understandable but the consequence is loss of life.

Lindley: You are a voice today for interconnectedness, oneness, and the “network of mutuality.” Where else do we hear that from now?

Johnson: The idea of mutual dependence or interdependence is a central part of living. Pratitya samutpada is a Sanskrit term for dependent origination. In essence, we are all part of each other. We want to believe this but we still are fearful. It’s very much the cultural vision of the Allmuseri.

The Allmuseri are a composite of many spiritual traditions, of the thought of Mother Teresa and Gandhi and King and Pope Francis. I don’t know if humankind on this planet can relate to this interconnectedness. Some will, and I would hope that literature such as Middle Passage and Dreamer will guide them along that path or provide an alternative to the visions of violence that are everywhere.

Lindley: A remarkable line in the book is when Rutherford reflects on his journey and says, “We make peace with the past by turning it into Word.”

Johnson: “Word” refers to writing and freeing yourself during your life through creating. That’s my statement about writing in general.

Lindley: And is that how writing works for you? 

Johnson: When I’m creating, whether writing or drawing, it’s a great joy. There’s no pleasure since my childhood greater than that or that has sustained me longer than creating has.

I want to read a great story, and I don’t care who wrote it. The particulars of that experience will introduce me to another culture not my own.

Lindley: And you work so hard. You wrote 3,000 pages to create Middle Passage?

Johnson: That’s part of the process because you have to look at alternatives and possibilities. Sometimes you go down the wrong road and, when you get to a certain point, you have to back up. That’s the process. I was usually writing twenty pages to one—one page saved and the rest thrown away. That’s when I was younger. Now, after fifty-one years of publishing stories and drawings, creating is easier because of all that previous experience. I can work faster. And since I know Western and Eastern literature, I know there are numerous ways to solve any creative problem. So my joy in creating is even greater now.

I think we liberate ourselves through creating. Some people do. And Rutherford believes that. After the ship goes down and he’s rescued by another ship, he is going through post-traumatic stress. He’s thinking of suicide, and he thinks about the crew that didn’t survive and the Africans that didn’t survive. He’s right there on the edge so writing provides him a moment of release. He won’t even walk on deck. He is shattered. It was very hard for him to reintegrate into another society, because the ship he’s on when he writes is a pleasure boat with gambling and drinking, and he’s gone through an ascetic experience through the Middle Passage, a journey of loss, denial, deprivation, and even cannibalism. He can’t re-enter the life he’s once led. He’s pulled back to one last challenge when he realizes that Zeringue, an investor in the slave ship, appears and is about to force Rutherford’s girlfriend, Isadora, into marriage. On top of that, Baleka [a surviving Allmuseri child] is owned by Zeringue, so Rutherford must confront him and free the child and make sure Zeringue leaves Isadora alone.

At the end, Rutherford and Isadora do, but don’t, make love. He doesn’t want sex at that point. He wants something deeper.

Lindley: That was a touching scene. Despite the grimness of much of the book, there’s a great deal of humor.

Johnson: Yes. If you want a humorless depiction of the Middle Passage, read the first story in my book Soulcatcher called “The Transmission.” I wrote that without a trace of levity or humor. But the humor of Middle Passage comes out of the characters, not out of the situation of slavery. It’s in humorous characters like Squibb or Cringle or Falcon. They’re people, and they represent a continuum of emotional and tonal possibilities—like you or I do.

We have moments when we’re serious, moments when we’re wise, moments when we’re stupid. We’re human beings. We’re not one-dimensional creatures. That’s the problem with most stories written about oppression and slavery. Characters are all evil, like Simon Legree. They do not exhibit a tonal tapestry like a real human being. They are one idea and everything they do reinforces that idea with no departure from that. That’s a problem with melodrama—all good characters and all bad characters.

Human beings are complex because we don’t have a fixed central nature. We are processes, not products. We are verbs, we are not nouns.

Lindley: Now, in the twenty-five years since your National Book Award, you’ve written another acclaimed novel, Dreamer, and books of stories and essays, and lately, you’ve written a series of children’s books on Emery Jones, Boy Science Wonder, with your daughter Elisheba. And you’ve gone back to your early love of drawing and illustrated the Emery books. You’ve also retired from university teaching. Would you like to write another novel?

Johnson: I’m not interested in doing a novel right now because this country is too strange. I don’t feel I understand America and I’m not too happy with Americans at the present moment. I don’t like what’s going on in our country. I think it’s going down the toilet.

Lindley: That could be instructive too.

Johnson: But that’s a bummer. I don’t like to write novels where there’s no redemption. Sooner or later I’ll return to the novel form, and its theme will be an exploration of the question, “What does it mean to truly be a civilized person?” That’s the question I’ve been brooding on every day and night since 1998 when I published Dreamer, which actually touches on the question as I portray Martin Luther King Jr.’s last two years.

Middle Passage takes place in a savage world, but that is not my image of the world ultimately. Right after that, I wrote Dreamer about King’s vision of the world. And then I spent a lot of time on my Buddhist essays and they are very different from the brutal world of the Middle Passage.

The Emery Jones books give me the opportunity to create stories that I hope are fun, instructive, filled with the innocence of youth—that feeling of wonder and awe we have before the universe when we’re children. The world of Emery Jones and Gabby Sykes is totally different from the brutal, ugly world of 19th-century slavery.

I’m a lot closer to this later work I’ve done than I am to Middle Passage. I will never write a novel like that where human beings are so cruel to each other. I don’t want to feel the murderous hate of characters in these stories. And when you’re an artist, you have to bring that hate into yourself and feel it every moment you’re writing about that character and the hate that he or she feels.

As a Buddhist, I watch and critically examine my mind and emotions constantly. I’m not a person who hates, but when you write about the slavery experience, you must make yourself experience hate and anger, these very negative emotions. I don’t want and I don’t need a steady diet of that in my particular spiritual practice.

In art, there are no hard and fast rules. Whatever work is well done teaches us anew the possibilities for innovation and invention.

Lindley: Your visual art must be rewarding, even liberating.

Johnson: It is. Solving a problem by depicting it visually or in a story is how I live my entire life today. I can’t imagine living a life in which my mind is not engaged in creative problem solving. That, to me, is why I arrived in this incarnation as an artist (if you believe in reincarnation, and I’m not saying that I do). Put simply, this is what I was given to do to fill my days and nights in this lifetime.

If you love creativity, then your work naturally makes you learn about other creations and how other people have done it. So you want to expose yourself to as much art as possible: black, white; east, west; past, present. You expose yourself to all kinds of art and you learn—and grow constantly in your craft—because you’ve seen all of these creations that are our human inheritance.

We are all human and we all confront the same problems, whether we’re in Shakespeare’s time or Socrates’ time. This is a lifelong process. You don’t go into it just for a day. You do it like Jacob Lawrence the painter who worked until the last day he was alive. You’ll do it until your last breath.

More importantly, you need to expose yourself to the widest possible range of creation in your field. In art, there are no hard and fast rules. Whatever work is well done teaches us anew the possibilities for innovation and invention.                                


Robin Lindley is a Seattle writer and attorney. He has published a wide range of interviews with authors on literature, art, history, politics, law, and the sciences.



from The Way of the Writer: Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling

Book cover of The Way of the WriterStorytelling and the Alpha Narrative

I hate to use one of my own novels, Middle Passage, as an example, but as poor an example as it may be, it might still shed some light on why a fictional premise should be rich in imaginative possibilities. The “ground situation” in Middle Passage is the voyage of a slave ship. The first questions I had to ask myself were: Who are the people on this ship? What personal motivations brought each member of the crew—from the captain to the cabin boy—onboard for a voyage intended to transfer African slaves to America? Furthermore, who are these Africans, individually? In all the stories I’d read about the slave trade, such as Melville’s “Benito Cereno,” the Africans were never presented individually as people with complexity—they were simply a mass of suffering humanity, like cattle, unnamed and unvoiced. I wondered: Who were they before they were captured? What were their lives like in their village? What social roles did each have before Europeans came? What was their religion, their language, their customs, their dreams? And the same questions had to be asked, of course, about the ship’s captain, who turned out to be a diminutive version of Sir Richard Francis Burton combined with Jack London’s Wolf Larsen in The Sea Wolf: a man who was a genius, an imperialist, a racist yet was fascinating to me because his personality was prismatic. In other words, in this novel, Captain Ebenezer Falcon opens the “ground situation” onto the entire history of the sea adventure story stretching back to The Voyage of Argo by Apollonius of Rhodes and to the Sinbad stories, to name just a couple. The presence of the Africans, the Allmuseri, in the “ground situation” provides a doorway for exploring non-Western philosophies and spiritual traditions not based on the metaphysical dualism represented by Captain Falcon. And the narrator and protagonist, Rutherford Calhoun, is the story’s bridge to all the possibilities of a picaresque antihero, a free black man, somewhat irresponsible at the start of the story, whose character carries echoes of Ishmael and Odysseus.

So there is the “ground situation.” There are the dramatis personae. There is the simple story line, a voyage. Put them all together on the sea (which in this novel symbolizes the Void in Buddhism), put them in a dilapidated ship that represents the racial diversity of contemporary America, throw in the possibility of storms, slave revolts, a mutiny by the crew, an African god that sits in the hold of the ship like a nuclear bomb ready to go off, add Rutherford Calhoun’s “Cain and Abel” conflict with his brother Jackson, add his love for a schoolteacher named Isadora Bailey, and also his longing to find a place that he can truly call “home,” and we have—front-loaded in this fiction—a “ground situation,” or fictional premise where anything can happen; where it is man versus Nature, man versus man, and man versus himself; where the writer stays in a state of suspense and must keep probing and asking the right questions; and where what is at stake—for Rutherford and I hope the reader—is the perennial, open-ended question “How in heaven’s name shall we live in a world smothered by suffering?”

Excerpted from The Way of the Writer: Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling by Charles Johnson.
© 2016 by Charles Johnson. Published by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Reprinted with permission.


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