The sharp and socially conscious writer discusses the racial issues explored in his latest novel, Welcome To Braggsville.
Author T. Geronimo Johnson
Tavis: His first novel, “Hold It Till It Hurts”, was a finalist for the 2013 PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction. His new novel, “Welcome to Braggsville”, is receiving rave reviews from just about everyone. He’s been lauded for knowing which dark corners to expose and which cultural buttons to push. T. Geronimo Johnson, good to have you on this program, sir.
T. Geronimo Johnson: It’s an honor to be here. Thank you for having me.
Tavis: I’m delighted to have you. So much I want to talk to you about in the time that I have. I think I want to start our conversation the same place I started a conversation recently with the wonderful writer, Joyce Carol Oates, whose recent book required her as a white woman to write about difference…
Tavis: And this book puts you in the same situation. Here you are a Black man and you’re–where these protagonists are concerned–writing about difference. Tell me the story, first of all. I’m curious as to what your approach is as a Black man to writing about this kind of difference.
Johnson: Okay. So to start there, I think that’s actually easier than most people realize. The fact is that, you know, I’m in predominantly white environments most of the time, so I have ample opportunity to sort of cross the aisle in that way. But I think that the biggest challenge for this book was sort of creating this racial becoming because this is what happens.
D’aron slowly comes to understand what it means to be white in America and to recognize some of those attendant privileges that he’s been able to ignore. So unlike “Hold It”, it just was about sort of a stripping away of the illusions, and that was probably the easiest part.
Tavis: So D’aron’s the main character, but there are four that you call the Four Indians. They call themselves at least the Four Indians.
Johnson: Yes, they call themselves Four Little Indians.
Tavis: Tell me the story.
Johnson: So we have D’aron, we have Candice who calls herself a Native American at times. She’s one-eighth Native American. We have Charlie from Chicago. He’s African American. And then, lastly, we have Louis Chang who wants to be the next, you know, Lenny Bruce Lee, the Kung Fu Comedian.
All decidedly different, all opening for the reader different doors on this experience of going to school like Berkeley and of being at this age in todays’ world when things are changing, you know, so fast. And they are simply unable to understand how this Civil War reenactment continues year after year after year without ever falling under any scrutiny.
Tavis: Tell me how you approached the issues then of race and class in the novel.
Johnson: Well, in this novel, I selected Berkeley and Braggsville first of all to give us sort of two kinds of cultural bookends on a very, very, very long shelf. The idea’s that most people don’t reside in either emotional or psychological space, but most of us are somewhere in the middle.
So starting with these two locations, though, and these two sort of world views created a nice kind of boundary. So all of the characters find themselves coming up against these various obstacles.
Maybe they feel like they’re not quite progressive enough for Berkeley. This is D’aron’s issues. Like he’s trying to fit in. You know, he’s going through the pressures to assimilate, right? Then…
Tavis: Fish out of water.
Johnson: He’s very much a fish out of water, you know. Then we have Lewis and we have Candice who consider themselves to be liberal and somewhat open-minded and progressive. And then they find that, when they encounter Braggsville, they’re sort of running up against these kinds of obstacles as well.
But what they’re discovering is that their idealism doesn’t hold much truck in the real world. Like once they leave campus, no amount of fancy talk is going to change what’s actually happening right in front of them.
Tavis: How much is the–I’m trying to find the right word–the tension, the difference, the dialectic between Braggsville and Berkeley, how much of that factors into the story?
Johnson: You know, it is important all the way through the story, all the way through the story, because D’aron is carrying Braggsville with him much as any of us carry our hometowns, our neighborhoods, our families.
And he has gone from Braggsville to a campus that, as he admitted in his application essay, the only way he could get farther from home was to learn how to swim. So he’s gotten as far from home as he can possibly geographically, but now finds that he is at the opposite end of the earth also politically, okay?
So the rest of the novel is sort of witnessing the storm that’s taking place inside him as he’s trying to reconcile these two very, very different worlds, one of which reminds him or tells him that the world he thinks he knows, the world that he’s grown up with, is nowhere near as fair and equitable as he has thought it to be.
Tavis: Let me jump from the page to real life and ask whether or not there is a takeaway for real life white students today who come from these kind of places and are exposed to a very different world when they hit campuses, even if they aren’t places as progressive as Berkeley, that cause them to rethink or to reimagine or just reexamine the assumptions they hold about the world that they think they live in. Does that make sense?
Johnson: Absolutely, absolutely. You know, there’s a joke I tell at my readings where I talk about this garage that is my head and how many cars are parked in there that don’t actually belong to me [laugh].
Tavis: Right [laugh]. I like that.
Johnson: Sometimes I just observe my mind and find myself. And this is really helpful as a writer, just observe my mind and find the thoughts that are in there that are not my own and sort of, you know, take note of how they’re operating and unfolding.
So I think that probably the most important takeaway for “Welcome to Braggsville” would be something along those lines for one to ask one’s self whether or not these ideas are ideas born of experience, whether or not your opinions of people are born of actual exchanges with those people or whether or not you have just inherited some ideas that are in no way based on lived experience and in no way based on your sort of immediate notion of the world. I guess to get the extra cars out of the garage [laugh].
Tavis: Let me jump back to the real world. How does using a place like Berkeley in this fictional setting give you all the stuff you need to play with? I don’t want to color the question any more than that. You can take my point.
Johnson: Right. Well, you know, Berkeley is a stand-in for so many ways because it’s a campus and a school. It’s an institution that exemplifies progressive politics.
It exemplifies civic engagement, so starting at that campus means that a lot of the work, the real work, is already down. So this is one of the very clear advantages of setting the book partly in a known place, the place that’s known, you know.
Tavis: To the real world again, the creative writing program that you run at Berkeley, tell me about it.
Johnson: So that’s a summer program, that’s a summer program. We didn’t run last summer of this. It’ll be running next summer. In our first incarnation, we ran for about six weeks.
We had writers come in from all across the country. We had a very diverse staff, a very diverse faculty in terms of representing the Asian writers and African American writers and Latino writers.
So it went very, very well, but what we want to do next summer is to just manage to make it a little bit more affordable and, with some of the changes on campus, it wasn’t possible for us to make the program as affordable to people as we want it to be.
Tavis: Final question about the text, “Welcome to Braggsville”. Why do you think fiction for you, this novel, is such a ripe place to write about such real world issues like race and class?
Johnson: You know, first would be that people resist facts…
Tavis: Ain’t that the truth [laugh].
Johnson: They do. So when we really talk about getting to someone’s heart and changing someone’s mind, one of the most effective ways of doing that is through the kind of vicarious experience that you can only get from narrative. So be it fiction or nonfiction, I prefer fiction.
That is my just predominant mode of sort of reaching another human being. That’s my preferred mode in writing. But it gives someone an experience and someone needs the experience to understand the other. And that’s the closest they’re going to get.
Tavis: Well, you do it well. You do it awfully well. The book by T. Geronimo Johnson is called “Welcome to Braggsville: A Novel”. I think you’ll enjoy it and learn a few things hanging out with these Four Indians [laugh], as they call themselves in the text. Good to have you on the program, brother.
Johnson: Thank you so much.
Tavis: It’s my pleasure to have you here.
Johnson: It’s an honor, it’s an honor.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.
[Walmart Sponsor Ad]
Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.