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Harlem Renaissance Man

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Last Updated: 08/13/2013 4:16 pm
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After three years of reading, he sat down and “wrote it like a novel.” The narrative voice he employs is startling, ranging from an incantatory prologue (“Beware the Africans, Koromantines and Pawpaws of the Akan-Asante, kidnapped from West African shores and brought to the ocean’s other side”). to an informal, streetwise diction that seems to come straight from crime fiction (“Silver has always made good stealing. You can hammer the metal down if you put your muscle to it, or melt it if you got the know-how”).

This hardboiled tone is no accident. Johnson’s latest titles are the graphic novel Hellblazer: Papa Midnite (illustrated by Tony Akins and local artist Dan Green) and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award winner Hunting in Harlem, nominally a thriller. “There’s a long tradition of social satire in African-American literature, but satire is what closes on Saturday night. So they marketed it as a thriller,” says Johnson.

Thriller or not, Hunting in Harlem is packed with phrases Raymond Chandler would relish: a scrawny author resembles “a skeleton dipped in chocolate”; parole officers are “like office coffee left to burn on the plate for days”; a victim “looks like a jockey’s runt son.” Walter Mosley called the book “righteously terrifying…a cautionary tale for our time.” The setup is simple: Three ex-cons are recruited by Harlem’s Horizon Realty for a second-chance incentive program. By the time they realize that Horizon’s vision of a new Harlem Renaissance involves uplifting the race (and property values) through ethnic self-cleansing, they’re in it up to their necks.

Johnson’s first novel, Drop, follows an African-American adman from West Philly to London and back. The hero’s journey echoes the author’s: During college, he spent an exchange year in Wales and later moved to London on a graduate fellowship, studying the African-American diaspora in Europe and Africa. He also wrote ad copy for MTV; his wife, Meera Bowman, was art director of Essence.

Between gigs, Johnson attempted a novel that he cheerfully labels “abysmal. I realized I wasn’t good enough to write a good book, and too proud to write one bad enough to sell.” He attended Columbia’s MFA program, where he studied his craft with the likes of Michael Cunningham and spent some years living in Harlem.

Johnson venerates the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and ’30s; his website references that era with the provocative moniker www.niggerati.com. (“The only negative response I’ve gotten has been from white people,” he notes with amusement.) “Niggerati” was coined by either Zora Neale Hurston or Wallace Thurman to describe Harlem’s cultural intelligentsia. Johnson writes, “While tongue-in-cheek, the word managed to take a slur and make it regal, using it to describe a new caste of Talented Tenth meritocrats. It is both self-effacing and self-aggrandizing, an in-group word that only one ethnic group can comfortably speak aloud.”

He launched the site in November and often gets over a hundred hits a day, including a lively blog-and-response section. “I wanted a place for African-American people to talk about African-American literature,” he exults. “I got into writing because I wanted to have a conversation with society. I started the blog so people could talk back.”

Johnson’s next publication, Incognegro, is a graphic novel described by Vertigo (DC Comics’ adult imprint) as “a noir mystery based on true tales of undercover race spying in the Jim Crow South.” He calls writing graphic novel scripts “a good palate-cleanser” and enjoys the challenge of frame-by-frame storytelling. To those who disdain the form, he responds, “That’s like saying you can’t have a good conversation on the telephone. It’s just a medium.”

“Sometimes it’s difficult to code-switch between forms,” he admits. “But if there’s something I’m not quite comfortable with, that’s attractive to me. I want to keep getting better, I don’t want to calcify.”

Johnson’s next novel, Pym, spins off Edgar Allen Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, a problematic fantasy that ends with a literal cliffhanger. H.G. Wells and H.P. Lovecraft both wrote sequels, but Johnson’s take on Pym’s “half-breed” companion is uniquely his own. Noting the college’s tradition of literary experimentation, Johnson grins. “This is my Bard book.”

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