Between the Lines: T. Geronimo Johnson

Oct 16, 2015

Civil War re-enactors in Raymond, Mississippi, in 2012
Credit Rogelio V. Solis / AP Photo

Four university students in Berkeley, California, friends who call themselves the "Four Indians," decide to protest a Civil War reenactment in one of their hometowns. Something goes terribly wrong when a student pretends to get lynched and acting turns into reality. T.. Geronimo Johnson’s newest novel Welcome to Braggsville (William Morrow, 2015) takes on issues of class, race, politics, and even social media.

The book was long-listed for the National Book Award 2015, and Johnson’s debut novel Hold It ‘Til It Hurts was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Prize. Johnson says the role of social media in the escalating the storyline, especially once the lynched student is found, is crucial.

“It’s an important role in the book. It also speaks to the collapse of the 'reflection period.' Social media often means there’s very little reflection left between when we decide to share something and when we actually share it. So not only do we have less filtering going on, but we have much less context. That’s part of what gets the 'Four Little Indians' in trouble.”

The “Indians” represent different backgrounds: Malaysian, African- American, a mix of Caucasian and Native American. They hail from small towns and big cities, liberal juxtaposed with conservative, street smart and naive. Their intervention in the Civil War reenactment in a small southern town brings to the fore the truth that history can be seen in very different ways depending on your background and perspective. Johnson illuminates stereotypes, sometimes employing a dark sense of humor to illustrate the absurd.

While writers are often told to write without their audience in mind, Johnson says he finds himself writing for more than one.

Credit William Morrow

“As a writer of color, I often find myself writing for two audiences: the outside audience and the inside audience. That’s one inherent challenge. The gatekeepers for literature are predominantly white, so there’s a period in the process where you have someone who doesn’t know your experience telling you how they think you should best represent it. That’s probably the biggest challenge to artists working in any medium on the periphery … you have to do a lot of anticipatory emotional and psychological work.”

Johnson says he hopes readers of Welcome to Braggsville come away with the realization that history cannot be viewed through one lens only. He says it is like a discussion between two people, with each person remembering it later in very different ways.

“In any healthy relationship,” he says, “you should go back to that discussion to understand where your two perspectives diverged.”

T. Geronimo Johnson was born in New Orleans. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a former Stegner Fellow at Stanford, Johnson has taught writing at University of California–Berkeley as well as Western Michigan University.

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