Midwestern Gothic staffer Hannah Bates talked with author T. Geronimo Johnson about the the sense of community in the Midwest, high fructose corn syrup, inspiring personal reflection, and more.
Hannah Bates: What’s your connection to the Midwest?
T. Geronimo Johnson: For about five years I was a student and teacher in the Midwest, so the connection is defined by academic umbilicalism as well as rugged, secular terrestrialism.
HB: The Midwest is known for its farmland and its factories, its family values and its regional pride. How does your writing reflect the intersection of grittiness and the strong sense of community that exists here?
TGJ: Funnily enough “the intersection of grittiness and the strong sense of community” also describes center city black neighborhoods and Daron’s white hometown of Braggsville, so perhaps it’s true when reviewers says my writing highlights “universalist class values.”
HB: Your second novel, Welcome to Braggsville, uses dark humor and satire throughout. What attracts you to these methods?
TGJ: Show me a kid who, once exposed, is not morbidly addicted to a jack-in-box.
HB: How can humor and satire be an effective tool in order to comment on serious issues like racism in America?
TGJ: I’m waiting to find out. As the eminent Daniel Garrison Brinton, professor of linguistics and anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania and president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science said in his outgoing speech to that esteemed organization: The black, the brown, and the red races differ anatomically so much from the white, especially in their splanchnic organs, that even with equal cerebral capacity they could never rival the results by equal efforts. Tell me this, dear reader, what is a splanchnic organ? If you know the answer, doth not the quoted passage whet thy appetite for nettled guffaws?
HB: Why do you think it’s important to write in a way that could inspire social change?
TGJ: It isn’t. It’s important to write in a way that will inspire personal reflection – on both sides of the page. Whether that will lead to social change I cannot say.
HB: What advice would you give to other writers who tackle similar projects?
TGJ: Stop asking for advice. Stop asking for advice. Stop asking for advice and write.
HB: In Welcome To Braggsville, you portray academia with an air of elitism. As a product of higher education, what about the culture do you find problematic for writers?
TGJ: The sugarcoated horse pill of politically correct language once seemed a good idea, but so did high fructose corn syrup.
HB: Welcome to Braggsville spends a lot of time dabbling its characters in stereotypes about identities — geographical, racial, generational and national. Which of your identities do you resonate with most?
TGJ: None. At least that’s what I want to say, though, I am quite aware of which of my identities other people notice first. So this question of resonance is a question of socialization, which is a question of psycho-socio imposition, and clearly the most obvious thing about me is that I’m a tall black dude. Fortunately I haven’t turned my back on a cop lately.
HB: Has your time in the Midwest shaped you or the identities of your characters?
TGJ: Candice is from Iowa and brings to the “Four Little Indians” progressive sensibility without the oft attendant hypersensitivity.
HB: Has your writing process changed between your first novel, Hold It ’Til It Hurts, and your second novel, Welcome to Braggsville?
TGJ: No, but I’m hoping the third novel will put me in a position to hire a ghostwriter.
HB: From where—physically, emotionally or otherwise—do you draw inspiration for your writing?
TGJ: I’m a life-plagiarist, so I doodle more than draw.
HB: What’s next for you?
TGJ: Bison jerky.
Born in New Orleans, T. Geronimo Johnson received his MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and his M.A. in Language, Literacy, and Culture from UC Berkeley. He has taught writing and held fellowships—including a Stegner Fellowship and an Iowa Arts Fellowship—at Arizona State University, the University of Iowa, UC Berkeley, Western Michigan University and Stanford. His first novel, Hold it ‘Til it Hurts, was a finalist for the 2013 PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction Johnson is currently a visiting professor at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He lives in Berkeley, California.