Mat Johnson: Exploring Issues of Race in Antarctica

by Jimmy J. Pack Jr.

            Mat Johnson is very much a 21st Century writer. When he’s not working on a novel he’s teaching classes at the University of Houston in the Creative Writing Program, writing scripts for graphic novels, 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, reflects his devotion to his craft, and proves hard work pays off. In 2002, when Johnson finished his second novel, Hunting in Harlem—a work that delves into the complexities of gentrification in Harlem, New York City, through the murders of poor Black tenants—he immediately wanted to work on a novel that involved researchers in Antarctica after a nuclear holocaust. After sixteen rewrites this premise completely changed.

            “I knew I wanted to write a book set in Antarctica, but after a few re-writes I realized setting would only take up about one-third of the novel,” says Johnson. “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 manuscript out about five times and it would take about two years to get the manuscripts back. Some people might think that obsessive, but every writer knows that rewriting and revision are 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 on something new. But when I started thinking about it—when I needed inspiration—I kept finding myself drawn back to Edgar Allen Poe’s work, in particular a novel called The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. I read it and re-read 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. Released in 1838, Poe originally wrote the novel as a way to make money. Novels being the newest form of entertainment at the time, Poe tapped into the then popular interest in Antarctica. Poe’s Pym experiences the ‘adventures’ of a mutiny (led by a Back man) and his vessel is shipwrecked near a tropical island located in Antarctica. The novel also focuses on the ideas of race and slavery. Pym and a few crew members find themselves on the island of Tsalal the South Pole where a race of people are so black that even the enamel of their teeth are black. When the natives of Tsalal set their sights on Pym and his remaining crew they are engulfed by the fear of their whiteness. The novel then has a short and somewhat confusing ending as a gigantic white figure rises out of a chasm as Pym tries to row away from the island—the end.

            The novel was not very well received, and even Poe mocked it as a “silly” book. Fortunately, the same can’t be said for Johnson’s Pym.

            “Before Pym came out, Incongnegro 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 OK 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.”

            The attention Johnson is speaking of is the positive reviews Pym has received in the New York Times Book Review, The Wall Street Journal, and National Public Radio. His last published work, Incognegro, was a graphic novel about a man named Zane Pinchback, an African-American reporter for the New Holland Herald in New York City who can ‘pass’ as white. Pinchback spends his time in the deep-South reporting on lynchings and other crimes committed against African-Americans.

            “With Incognegro, I took my literary aesthetic and put it into a comic book story. I’m not really a comic book writer—they think in terms of the visual and story. I apply a novelistic approach. Still, writing those comic book/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. It’s these other works that maintained my focus on Pym.”

            Johnson, who often describes himself as an ‘Octoroon’ or ‘Mulatto,’ despite the lack of political correctness, grew up in the Germantown and Mt. Airy sections of Philadelphia—Valley Green being a section of the Wissahickon Valley Park in the Mt. Airy/Chestnut Hill sections of Philadelphia. “I used to identify as an African-American, and then in the 1990’s the ‘proper’ word was inter-racial, 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.”

            His first novel, Drop, published in 2000 by Bloomsbury, focused on Chris Jones, and his movement from the cultural richness of London, England, to what he saw as the cultural wasteland of Philadelphia. Jones, like the main character of Pym, Chris Jaynes, aspires to something more, but for his third novel, Johnson mined some tougher material. He thought of Pym as an exploration of whiteness.

            “In the African-American community, race is always in your consciousness, but the same isn’t true if you’re white. 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. This is one of the ideas that drove the writing behind Pym.

            “And what’s funny is that my review in The Wall Street Journal had this tone of, ‘Man! He really sticks it to these Black lefties,’ but it also takes on White folks as well. Whiteness is not as tangible in the study of race and ethnicity, but I wanted to delve into that.”

            In Pym, the main character, Chris Jaynes, is denied his tenure at an ‘OK’ university because he does not pander to the stereotype of an African-American studies professor. Jaynes realizes he was hired mainly to give his university some diversity cache. Jaynes is ‘let go’ from his job and in his own studies finds that Poe’s Arthur Gordon Pym might actually be based on true events. Jaynes sets off to see if he can find the island of Tsalal. “If we can identify how the pathology of Whiteness was constructed, then we can learn how to dismantle it,” says Jaynes.

            But to say Pym is only a study in Whiteness is too reductive. Johnson, who received his M.F.A. from Columbia University, where he studied under Michael Cunningham (The Hours, A Home At The End Of The World) and Maureen Howard (The Rags of Time, A Lover’s Almanac and Bridgeport Bus), also walks the line between Realism and Science Fiction, punctuating his prose with a lot humor, which Johnson says, “I put in their for myself.”

            When asked what he’s working on next, Johnson is quick to respond—“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 the same kind of novel out. 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 in visual art a lot 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, with books like the Twilight series. But that can be a death trap for a writer. I was recently reading an article on Salon.com where a writer was talking about how authors start to suck after 15 books or so, and that’s because they’re constantly 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.

            When Johnson wrote Dark Rain: A New Orleans Story, his material certainly was fresh. Set in the first couple days after hurricane Katrina, the crime-noir graphic novel centers on Dabny, who is holed up in a Houston, Texas, halfway house after being convicted of taking a bribe. He eventually teams up with his prison mate Emmit to go into the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans so they can rob Emmit’s former employer. Eventually they are chased by Dark Rain, a private security firm that is as corrupt as it is avaricious.

            “My next work isn’t going to dive onto the whole zombie-thing that’s made a comeback and has been popular since nine-eleven. As it stands right now it’s going to dive into a somewhat familiar world—the post-apocalyptic—but you’ll see it with a new vision.

            “As a scholar of African-American literature, I come to find so many amazing writers from the 18th to the 20th centuries who have been lost. When you dig deep enough into the works that were published, you can find so many talented writers with some unique vision, 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.”

            One of the interesting ideas Johnson dug up became material for his so-far only published nonfiction work, The Great Negro Plot: A Tale of Conspiracy and Murder in Eighteenth-Century New York. The book focuses on a legitimate scheme cooked up by slaves living in New York who wanted to blow up the island of Manhattan. They are, of course, eventually thwarted and punished.

            For the last few months Mat Johnson has spent his time doing readings around the country as well as giving interviews, and while he’s working on his next novel you can be sure that his new-found fame will not go to his head.  He’s still has meetings with students and he still has to make sure there’s still plenty of family time. Such is the life of contemporary writers.

PYM, By Mat Johnson, 322 pp. Spiegel & Grau. $24

Born and raised in the Germantown and Mt Airy sections of Philadelphia, Mat Johnson 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 Creative Writing Program.

An edited version of this interview appeared in TINGE online magazine.