Interview With T. Geronimo Johnson
The Ernest J. Gaines Literary Award winner talks about pop culture, rap music and the political extremes of California and Georgia.
For the past nine years, the Baton Rouge Area Foundation has awarded an author with a prize named for Louisiana native writer Ernest J. Gaines. This year, the honor goes to T. Geronimo Johnson for his 2015 novel Welcome to Braggsville. Also longlisted for the 2015 National Book Award and the 2016 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, Braggsville is a dark and socially provocative Southern-fried comedy about four UC Berkeley students who stage a dramatic protest during a Civil War reenactment.
Award committee Chair Mary Ann Sternberg says Johnson’s novel was chosen for being innovative, fresh and funny. “The judges thought it showed promise of a really fine writer,” she adds.
A native of New Orleans, Johnson now lives in Berkeley, California, and serves as visiting professor at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His first novel Hold it ’til it Hurts was a finalist for the 2013 PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction. We interviewed him by phone about winning the Gaines award, why he thinks writers today should listen to rap music and how Georgia became one of the settings for his novel.
Meet Johnson and applaud his award January 21 during the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence awards presentation at the Manship Theatre in downtown Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The ceremony is free and open to the public, but reservations are requested by [email protected]
TGJ: Of course the surprise and excitement that one would expect, but I think that I was especially pleased because of the nature of the award.
EZB: Do you have a favorite book or passage of Ernest Gaines? How big of a fan are you of his writing?
TGJ: A very big fan. I don’t have a passage that I can quote offhand, but it’s either in A Gathering of Old Men or A Lesson Before Dying, I know that there’s a passage in one of the novels that’s about a “home leaving” so to speak. A character is leaving home for the first time in his life and that moment has always stayed with me. There’s something about that moment that symbolizes all departures from all families and moved me in such a way that I’ve never forgotten it, almost as if I were the one leaving home.
EZB: You’re from New Orleans. Is that correct?
TGJ: I was born there and I graduated from high school there and then I spent some time in Maryland in between.
EZB: What has leaving home been like for you?
TGJ: I’ve lived in a few different areas of the country, so I don’t know that I had that one occasion where I knew I was leaving the one place I had spent my entire life. So, for me, I think it’s been more so about the arrivals and the departures. The journey I guess has been one of learning what it means to be a black male in different parts of the country. It’s a very different experience depending on where you are.
EZB: How long have you been in California?
TGJ: I’ve been here about 8 years.
EZB: Your book opens with a sort of free verse style that could be called rap. How does pop culture play into your book?
TGJ: That’s interesting. I don’t think of it at all as being like rap. Rap is a very particular art form in which I have no skill. I think that rap requires a certain musical talent that I wouldn’t say that I have or that is expressed differently in lyrical prose than it is in songwriting.
I’m a huge fan of rap and I think that if you are writing today you should be listening to it just because there’s so much energy in the language. In terms of pop culture, my attitude about it is that I’m writing for the moment, I’m not necessarily writing for posterity. I’m concerned with pop culture to the extent which it’s influencing our behavior. I’m not necessarily trying to include everything that’s cool or slang, because trends change so quickly, but in terms of social media and what not, that ends up figuring into the book in places just because it’s so much a part of how we share and receive information. So much of what we share with each other is mediated through social media and often of course references pop culture in the form of memes and gifs and what not.
EZB: Why did you decide to send your characters from Berkeley, California, to Braggsville, Georgia?
TGJ: I suppose it could have been anywhere in the South, but I’m familiar with Georgia and fond of Georgia so it needed to be set someplace that I had knowledge of and a positive affinity for. These two locations, Berkeley and Braggsville, are just sort of bookends on a very wide shelf and most of us are somewhere in the middle, but I needed to pick two locations that were far enough apart that there was space to examine everything between those political extremes.
EZB: Author Karen Russell said about Welcome to Braggsville: “This book will wake you up!” What are you trying to wake readers up to?
TGJ: Everyone seems to awaken to something different depending on where they’re from, but I suppose that the novel is a mirror to contemporary American culture, and perhaps the question that it asks the loudest is about essentially how people formulate their own ideas and opinions about others and the extent to which they just kind of adopt what they’ve been told or toe the party line, so this applies of course to racism, sexism, homophobia.
The other question that the books asks is how do you learn to care about someone who is not like you? Right now, we live in country where the politics is very, very divisive, and the rhetoric is very, very divisive and this book is not to necessarily remedy that but it does examine what that means for the individual who’s living according to someone else’s rules and not their own.
EZB: What are your commitments as the Gaines award winner?
TGJ: You get to meet him and you get to visit some of the local schools and talk a little bit about writing. When I was in high school, I didn’t have that opportunity, so it’s great to hear from people who are not following a career path laid out in the guidance counselor’s office.
T. Geronimo Johnson photo by Elizabeth R. Cowan.