Issue 224, Spring 2018
Charles Johnson’s historical slave narrative, Middle Passage, winner of the National Book Award for Fiction in 1990, defies genre. Framed in part as a nautical epic with echoes of Conrad and Melville, there is also a Swiftian current running through it, with variations on the Sinbad stories and Vedic myths. Such transgressions of form suffuse Johnson’s fiction. His four novels and three story collections incorporate fairy tale, parable, conversion narrative, picaresque, bildungsroman, and more. Johnson’s balance of playfulness and philosophical rigor also energizes his screenplays for television and film, two collections of humor writing, and several volumes of essays on Buddhism and craft, including Turning the Wheel (2007), Taming the Ox (2014), and The Way of the Writer (2016).
In life, as in his writing, Johnson does not limit himself to a single mode of approach. Born in Evanston, Illinois, in 1948, he was raised in the African Methodist Episcopal Church; his youthful experiments with meditation led to a lifetime engagement with Buddhism and other Eastern traditions, including the study of Sanskrit and martial arts. He earned a B.S. in journalism and an M.A. in philosophy from Southern Illinois University and received a doctorate in philosophy and phenomenology from the State University of New York at Stony Brook. In 1976, Johnson was offered a position as assistant professor at the University of Washington, in Seattle, where he remained until 2009, retiring as the S. Wilson and Grace M. Pollock Professor. He has also had successful careers as a journalist and an illustrator.
In July 2016, Johnson and I spent two long afternoons together in the offices of the English department at the University of Washington. Our first conversation took place the day after an African American man opened fire on a group of police officers in Dallas, killing five and wounding nine. Johnson views race, like the distinction between forms, as an illusion, but with far greater consequences. “That young man was living out a narrative,” he said. “He was living out a story, an interpretation of blacks and whites in America, today and in the past, going back to slavery. And he got caught up in an illusion filled with hate.” Johnson was thorough, if professorial, in his consideration of craft, but it was in our discussion of the dharma, and meditation in particular, that he grew most animated. He was always eager to return the conversation to examples of lived experience, especially where it involved the joys and complexities of family life or the clash of cultures. “We can talk abstractly, we can talk sociologically and philosophically,” he told me, “but this is ground zero. This is the way we’re living.”
Of all your creative endeavors, which would you consider your first love?
Well, art—drawing—preceded everything. From when I was a kid in the fifties, that was my passion, still is to a certain extent. By age fourteen or so, I told my dad I had figured out what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to be an artist, a cartoonist and illustrator.
How did that go over?
My dad didn’t know any artists, so he was very concerned about my future. He said, Chuck, they don’t let black people do that. And that was pretty devastating for me because if I couldn’t draw, I didn’t want to live. But I saw an ad in Writer’s Digest for cartooning classes with Lawrence Lariar and I wrote him a letter, just out of the clear blue. My dad says they don’t let black people do this. Do you agree with that? I didn’t expect to hear back, but a week later I got a fiery letter in which Lariar said, Your father’s wrong, and you can do whatever you want, you just need a good teacher. I wrote back to Lariar and asked him to be my teacher. But of course, he didn’t believe in free lunches, so he said, You have to pay for my course. It was a two-year course, what today we’d probably call distance learning, and my dad paid for it.
Were you always a reader?
My family has always valued education and skill acquisition, so I was a pretty avid reader from the time I was a kid. My mother had shelves and shelves of books. That’s where I discovered Richard Wright. When I was going through the public schools, they were integrated but the curriculum was not. So teachers—white teachers—had never put before me a book by a black author. When I found Black Boy in my mother’s collection, I thought, Am I supposed to read this? My teachers never mentioned it. Is it contraband? What is it? All of that was marginalized or erased from the public-school curriculum.
I remember she also had a book on yoga with a chapter on meditation. I was a pretty smart kid, so I sat down for half an hour and practiced what I’d read, and it was a remarkable experience, the most incredible thirty minutes I’ve ever spent in my life. I began studying everything I could about the Buddhadharma, all the way through my undergraduate years. And I was in a book club—a science-fiction book club—in high school. I loved science fiction. As a visual artist, literature stimulated my imagination. Cartoonists get tropes and metaphors from literature. So I was always reading.
What provoked your interest in philosophy?
I majored in journalism as an undergraduate at Southern Illinois University and took two philosophy courses. One was required—that was logic. The other was an elective about the pre-Socratics. It was remarkable. I’m listening to the professor and thinking, These are my questions. I have to stay close to these questions for the rest of my life. That class was seductive. In the journalism school, they told me I needed to stop taking those classes over there and finish up over here. So I did that. And when I graduated, I gave the degree to my dad and said, This journalism degree is for you. It proves I can make a living. Now I’m going to graduate school for philosophy, because that’s for me. I worked as a journalist to support myself and my wife while I was working on my philosophy master’s degree.
How did your studies in philosophy dovetail with your interest in Buddhism?
Well, let’s start with the fact that fuzzy-bunny Buddhism doesn’t often talk about what it’s all really about—that it’s a preparation for death. Buddhism begins with that young prince leading his sheltered life and seeing the four signs. He sees an old man, he sees a sick man, he sees a dead man, and he sees a holy man. And he realizes unequivocally, categorically, That’s me. I’m going to get old, I’m going to get sick, and I’m going to die. So how do I deal with this? Buddhism is about letting go of a lot of conceptual baggage, the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves—you let that go and there’s a sense of liberation and clarity.
Take Marcus Aurelius—Meditations got me through Stony Brook University. I’m a Ph.D. candidate, with the pressures of teaching undergraduates, passing my own graduate classes, my qualifying exam, and living in 1975 on my four-thousand-dollar assistantship, with a first child on the way, no job yet, and a second philosophical novel to complete that had to be more expansive than the first one. Meditations got me through because Marcus Aurelius understood suffering, impermanence, and death almost as well as a Zen master. And Plato once said that philosophy is really preparation for death. I extend that wisdom to our very notion of the self as an enduring entity. You let go of the things that are simply unnecessary, almost as Occam would, if indeed Occam used this phrase, “Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem”—“Entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity.” David Hume figured this out—the self is not necessary. And Sartre figured it out—it is not necessary to posit an enduring, substantive self when we talk about human experience, and also it’s empirically unverifiable. This is an important observation long recognized by Buddhists. This is what I care about. The word philosophy does mean, after all, the love of wisdom.