It’s typical of Mat Johnson, the latest guest of the University of Michigan’s Zell Visiting Writers Series, to tackle topics like liminal identity, race theory and institutional oppression in, as he calls it, “an adventure book.” Johnson writes across genre and across medium, authoring adventure, fantasy, non-fiction, mystery novels and graphic novels alike. Quintessential to all of his work is cleverly deployed satirical humor.
Like all writers, Johnson carries his identity with him to the page. Coming from an interracial household, Johnson has lots to say about an institutionalized Black and white binary. Indeed, at the core of much of his work is a powerful challenge to racial dichotomies.
But let’s not be mistaken, Johnson doesn’t write about race. Like the Los Angeles Times wrote about Johnson’s 2015 novel, “To say that ‘Loving Day’ is a book about race is like saying ‘Moby Dick’ is a book about whales.”
As Johnson mentioned in his Zell Visiting Writers Series talk last week, conducted via Zoom webinar, white identity is so normative that it’s “invisible.” Such invisibility renders an adventure novel written by a white author as just an adventure novel, but categorizes an identical novel written by a Black author as “an adventure novel about race.” To the writers in the audience, Johnson advised a conscious departure from this narrative: “Drop that coat,” he said. “Relieve yourself of that, and do your art.”
To begin his talk, Johnson read aloud from his newest novel, “The Invisible Things.” Set on a moon of Jupiter, “The Invisible Things” is — in true Mat Johnson style — both a sci-fi novel and “a parable of partisanship.” Johnson told us he’d finished the novel just the day before, after four years of writing.
As he began to read, something special happened: Johnson’s narration was so compellingly conversational and vocally energetic that it seemed to transcend the impersonal setting of a Zoom webinar. In the most endearing way, it was like Johnson was sitting across from me in a diner booth, telling me an extraterrestrial tale in between chomps of a sandwich.
He read from his manuscript fluidly, revising and reorganizing on the fly. He added in colloquialisms, sprinkled in extra details, omitted some sentences and improvised brand new ones. Using his hands gratuitously, raising and furrowing his eyebrows, he accompanied his narration with gestural punctuation.
Johnson’s expressive, informal, diner-booth public speaking style isn’t just charming, it’s intentional. Oftentimes, when you ask an author “How did you find your voice?”, you’re in for an abstract, metacognitive response. But as we learned in the Q&A section of the talk, which followed the read-aloud portion, Johnson’s response is pretty straightforward.
To find his voice, Johnson said, he taped himself telling a story to his best friend. When he listened back to his own voice, he heard himself at his most linguistically comfortable, speaking the way he does at home. In public, Johnson code switches routinely, but in his writing, he wishes for the reader to hear a voice more truthful to himself at home.
“I wanted to get the right code,” he said, in order to write “the most honest version of who I am.”
After he transcribed his oral storytelling, Johnson said it was like “finding a basement of gold.” He’d found a voice that had been in him the whole time — it had only been pushed beneath the surface. He’s been writing this way ever since, capturing audibly appealing oral rhythms and the avid attention of his readers.
Johnson’s voice is as brilliant as it is rebellious — a rebellion against the presiding mainstream style of his youth.
“I grew up with the Gen X tradition of ‘I can bore you.’ The failure is not mine (the author’s) for being boring, it’s yours,” Johnson said, this last point in reference to the reader not working hard enough to derive meaning from their boredom.
Johnson’s accessible, humorous style is anything but boring and purposefully departs from mainstream literary traditions. His informal style is also a rebellion against the ideal of white literary genius.
When a white writer departs from standards of formality, they’re perceived as a literary mastermind. “If I wrote like that,” Johnson said, “or another Black writer wrote like that, the assumption of genius behind the informality isn’t there. … As a joking, mixed dude, I don’t get that. I’ve never felt that assumption of worth.”
Rather than let it deter him, Johnson responds to this sort of reception with an air of untethered experimentation: “If you’re to going to take me seriously anyway, I can do whatever the fuck I want!”
Johnson derives his own sense of worth from his multiracial background. There’s something about being “both in and out” of a community that gives someone like Johnson a valuable breadth of vision. If you’re completely “in” a community, Johnson said, you can’t “see it for all its hypocrisies.” If you’re a complete outsider, “you don’t understand it at all.” With one foot in-bounds and the other out-of-bounds at all times, Johnson tells that he is able to see, understand and write about Blackness and whiteness with remarkable perspective.
Ultimately, both young and old readers and writers in the audience at Johnson’s talk were presented with three sparkling jewels: the refreshing vivacity of Johnson’s newly-finished manuscript, the certainty and energy with which Johnson cultivates and wields his own literary voice and the practical positivity with which he meets adversity.
I’ve no doubt these wisdoms will shine bright in Johnson’s new book, as well as in the hearts and minds of those who heard him speak last week.
Daily Arts Contributor Gigi Guida can be reached at email@example.com.