Volume XXV Number 1
Copyright © 2002 Tyagan Miller
A Short History of a Writer
Two months since being the new girl myself, Melvin was the only one who called me by my name; otherwise the other kids usually named me after my hairstyle. Like Minnie Mouse or Cocoa Puffs if I wore my hair in Afro puffs. Or Afro Sheen if my mother had greased my hair and pressed it into submission the night before. Or Electric Socket if I was wearing a plain old Afro. Avery. To hear that coming out of someone else's mouth at school was like hearing "Hey, Superstar."
--from "Melvin in the Sixth Grade" in Break Any Woman Down
Dana Johnson understands what it's like to be new. Like Avery, the 11-year-old girl in a story from Johnson's prize-winning collection of short fiction Break Any Woman Down, Johnson has been the new kid in the neighborhood, the new kid at school, and most recently, a new assistant professor of creative writing at Indiana University Bloomington.
"Growing up, I was pretty sure I wanted to be a nun--I thought their outfits were really cool. Or a writer. In my childhood journals I always wrote that I wanted to be a writer," Johnson recalls.
Becoming a writer seemed unattainable in Johnson's working-class household in urban Los Angeles, more like a fantasy than something one might really grow up to be. Nevertheless, Johnson was a voracious reader, a lover of books who never quite gave up on her seemingly impractical dream.
Still, she had serious reservations when she first came to IUB in 1997 as a graduate student in the creative writing M.F.A. program. How would she, a young black woman writer from Los Angeles, fare in a small, bucolic college town in the conservative Midwest?
"I was very nervous," Johnson admits. "But the program had such an excellent reputation. I couldn't resist."
From the beginning, Johnson was concerned about limiting her access to the cultural melange that enriches her fiction. L.A. culture was and is her medium; it gives her fiction kaleidoscopic power.
"I wasn't at all sure, and yet, when I decided to come here, my life just opened up," Johnson says. "Before graduate school, I had been working as a copy editor. I worked during the day and wrote in the evenings, but there was no one to talk to about writing. I wrote stories and put them in a drawer. Coming here gave me an opportunity to totally immerse myself in the world of literature."
Although she left Los Angeles behind, Johnson brought along a store of rich material, which she employed in the making of her M.F.A. thesis, a collection of nine stories that make up her first collection. Shortly after completing her M.F.A. coursework, she began work on an M.A./Ph.D. program in literature at IUB. She was working toward that degree when her world opened up again. In the fall of 2000, word came from the University of Georgia Press that Johnson's M.F.A. thesis had won the prestigious Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction.
"That was an amazing phone call," she says.
Not long after, Johnson was hired as an assistant professor of creative writing at IUB. In spring 2002, as she wrapped up her first full year of teaching, Johnson didn't seem fazed by suddenly finding herself once again in a new role--on the other side of the lectern.
"I just feel so lucky that I get to do what I love, writing and teaching," she says. "I'm in an unusual position, because I've been here five years already, and yet, I'm still new and very excited. I love being in the classroom. I suppose that's a benefit of being fresh."
Johnson is still refining the balancing act required to manage a full-time professorship and a serious commitment to writing, but she is optimistic that she can make it work. She thrives on the sense of community in her department, the presence of colleagues and students, the perpetual conversation of working writers and book lovers.
"It's difficult to teach full time and write," she observes. "I know there's a debate about whether academia is good for writers or bad. But outside, I think it can be much more difficult to make a living while staying at least tangentially immersed in the world of literature. I have friends who are struggling to do it. That's one reason academia is so valuable to me."
Still, she guards her time. "I declined teaching in the summer, so that I could spend more time writing. I also spent three weeks at Yaddo, an artists' community in New York."
In Break Any Woman Down (published by University of Georgia Press), each of Johnson's narrators finds his or her own clear space in which to tell the story of a pivotal moment in life. Johnson creates voices with dazzling intensity, characters whose personal vernaculars reveal more than they intend to say. Out of these voices, the lives of people of different races, backgrounds, and experiences emerge, converge, and sometimes collide.
In the complex title story, for example, Johnson explores the moral universe of an unconventional couple: La Donna, who works as a stripper, and Bobby, her boyfriend, an adult film star. The story challenges the reader: Do these characters have less integrity because of the work they do? Do honor and faithfulness and love mean the same things in their world as they do in the reader's? To make matters in the story more complex, La Donna is black and Bobby is white.
"The book's title, Break Any Woman Down, refers to the fact that many of the stories are about women seen from different points of view. But in this story, I'm also exploring race," Johnson explains, "looking at how black female sexuality is viewed in this particular arena, and also in general."
To make so many distinct voices sound convincing is no small feat: Johnson's stories demonstrate her powers of observation, literary skill, and heartfelt interest in the people she encounters day to day.
"When a writer, or any artist for that matter, does a good job, there's a veil stripped away, there's a moment of clarity--the reader sees something that didn't seem to be there before," Johnson explains. "In everyday life, in passing moments, you never get to know what people are really like. You only see the surface. But in fiction, when a writer digs deep, you get more. There's a special kind of education that comes from reading a novel, a short story, or a poem."
Beyond language and form, she says, the core of the writing experience is the ability to see. "Writers have to see their characters--really see--to understand them and to reveal their lives. It's important, because what they are ultimately revealing are the ways we live.
"One of the things I learned as a graduate student is that it's important to be generous to your characters," Johnson adds with a laugh. "Like real people, they almost always have redeeming qualities."
Johnson's writing students soon learn that seeing clearly isn't as easy as it good writers make it seem. In creative writing workshops, some of the most rudimentary exercises require students to simply look at an object.
"They are usually asked to describe something--a pear, for example," Johnson says. "And right away they think: 'Oh sure, I know what a pear looks like.' But they begin to look and look, and they begin to realize all the things about a pear that they had never really seen before.
"Creative writing gives students experience in thinking about why characters do what they do, say what they say, and how particular environments influence the way they behave," she continues. "Many students come away saying, 'That was useful, because I hadn't really looked at the world quite as carefully before.'"
Occasionally, simply seeing Johnson in the classroom causes students to see things differently. For many, a class with Johnson represents their first encounter with a black woman in a position of authority.
"They often tell me straight out that I don't fit the profile--the white, male professor in the corduroy jacket. It's pretty funny," she says, but she admits that this aspect of teaching can be difficult. "Sometimes a student just refuses to take me seriously, because I don't fit that traditional profile. On the other hand, I often feel good, because I have had students in my classroom who have not spoken with black people on a regular basis, and they leave the class having expanded their thinking and conceptions about black people."
Johnson recalls the first time she taught in a large lecture hall, a class of about 150 students. "In all those faces, I saw two black students, and yet, there I was, lecturing every Monday. And I know that exposure to someone of color who is a professor--who has certain ideas that may or may not fit into what is often the conservative majority point of view--is helpful to them. It's helpful for me to be there, too, and to understand that people don't always think like me.
"Teaching is always interesting," she says with a smile. "Interesting for the students and interesting for me."
When she has time away from teaching, Johnson is often at work on her latest writing project, a novel. In this new work, she continues to draw on her own life experience and scholarly interest in race, class, and issues of cultural assimilation. She envisions the novel as a continuation of the story of Avery, the character who first appears in "Melvin in the Sixth Grade" as an 11-year-old girl and reappears later as a woman of 28 in "Markers." At 11, Avery has already figured out that her manner of speech, her black, inner-city vernacular, is setting her apart:
"I didn't know there was anything wrong with the way I spoke. I said 'prolly' when it was 'probably.' I said 'fort' when they said 'fart.' I said I was 'finna' go home and not 'getting ready' to go home. That's how we'd always spoken and it was good enough until the suburbs. I started studying the kids and editing myself. Mama, I practiced in the mirror at home. I'm go-eng to do my homework. Go-eng. Who farted? Somebody farted?"
"When I wrote that story," Johnson says, "I knew that I wanted to talk about race in a way that wasn't dogmatic, but I didn't know that it was going to be a story about how language functions as an assimilating process. I thought I was writing a story about the cruelties that kids inflict on each other, but I began to see what was really happening: the assimilation of outsiders--whether they were outsiders by race or place--was happening through language.
"It was exciting, because I discovered quite a lot about what had bugged me in my own childhood--something I could never articulate before," she continues. "I saw that assimilation through language was something I had experienced as a kid."
In the spring of 2003, Break Any Woman Down will be published in paperback by Anchor Books, and Johnson will be experiencing another thing her childhood self might not have believed possible--going on a book tour.
Deborah Galyan is an essayist and fiction writer. She lives in Bloomington. Ind.