Headshot of Charles Johnson

Charles Johnson Talks Editing an Anthology, New Works, and His Book ‘Middle Passage’

by Lisa Edge

Geographically, the Puget Sound region is well known for its beautiful landscapes. There’s no shortage of stunning views from majestic mountains to expansive bodies of waters leading to the Pacific Ocean. The other gem of the area is the vibrant community of prolific writers. Charles Johnson is one of many accomplished authors who have impacted the literary world. Johnson is the kind of artist who keeps a notebook handy, so he’s always prepared to write down thoughts and ideas to be polished and used later.

The University of Washington professor emeritus has published more than two dozen books over the years. He’s also a screenwriter, essayist, and cartoonist. But he may be most well-known for his historical novel Middle Passage, which won the National Book Award in 1990. One of his most recent projects was guest editing the June issue of the Chicago Quarterly Review (CQR). It’s the first time the review has focused solely on Black literature. The anthology features new works of poetry, fiction, non-fiction, and art. It’s available for purchase now for $16. In this Q&A, Johnson talks about being a part of the milestone and much more.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Lisa Edge: This is your first time editing the Chicago Quarterly Review (CQR). How did this opportunity come about?

Charles Johnson: I was a fiction editor of the Seattle Review for 20 years, 1978 to 1998. This came about because there was a play adaptation of my novel Middle Passage at Pegasus Theater [in Chicago]. And the director Ilesa Duncan did a great job. It was called “Rutherford’s Travel,” that was my working title. And one of the actors, very good actor, well-known for what he’s done, is Gary Houston [CQR Managing Editor]. He played one of the characters, Captain Ebenezer Falcon from Middle Passage. And I was very impressed. He’s an elegant writer, very learned man, and been around the Chicago area for forever. I sent to Gary probably a talk I gave on my dad or something at some school, and they published it. And then I recommended a couple of people. Then S. A. Haider, who’s the founder of the publication, said they’d never done a Black American literature issue, would I guest edit it? I said okay. All I’ve got to do is the invitations and try to throw a wide net out, get as much as we can from emerging writers, well-known writers, award-winning Black writers, they’re all represented in the 27 contributors to this issue.

L.E.: That’s flattering, to be invited by you to be a part of this publication.

 C.J.: (laughs) Well a lot of people responded. I’ve been publishing for a long time. My first novel was in ’74, that was when I was living back east. I know people in the book world all since and then of course there’s people in there I don’t know. For example, Sharyn Skeeter is one of the writers in there. She was fiction poetry book review editor on the original staff of Essence and editor in chief of Black Elegance magazine. She’s a poet so she knew poets and I’m not a poet. She gave me a lot of interesting names of people to contact and addresses. So that’s how some of them got in.

L.E.: When did you start working on the issue?

C.J.: Late last summer. We originally had a deadline in the fall, but then we extended it to the first week of January and then that was final.

 L.E.: I was reading your editor’s note. I like your second sentence: “We have endured, and continue to muddle through, crises thick and threefold.” I feel like we’re going through crises fivefold.

 C.J.: Oh well I feel that way too. At least one is done and that is that contentious presidential election. Although the aftermath is still somewhat there with people who deny that it was legitimate. We have a new president, we have a new administration that’s done with pandemic, and then the racial problems are ongoing. They haven’t stopped.

 L.E.: What do you think of the review now that it’s all put together?

C.J.: I’m very pleased. I think people came through as contributors in a good spirit, and there’s a great deal of diversity in what the contributors have to say, their visions of the world and of the Black experience. It isn’t a monolithic experience, but a very nuanced and prismatic one from lots of different angles by the poets, essayists, and the short-story writers.

The hope was that it would be an anthology. Could be used in the classrooms by teachers as well as something for readers to enjoy a very diverse experience with all of these authors.

 L.E.: Why should someone get a copy of the review?

 C.J.: If they wish to be entertained and enlightened about not just the Black American experience, but the American experience, that’s why they should read this issue.

They will be entertained and enlightened. They’ll get history. There are stories here that are told about historical figures in a creative way and poetry about historical — and essays, too. That’s why I would recommend it.

This is new works, original first-time publications of these writers, poets, artists, and so forth, grappling with the world in which we live today, the America we live in today.

Cover matter for the "Chicago Quarterly Review: Anthology of Black American Literature."
Cover art by Jamiel Law.

L.E.: A year ago your book Grand came out. Was it odd to have a book come out in the middle of a pandemic?

C.J.: It was the first time I’ve had a book release during a pandemic. And so I got to do things by Zoom or by phone. You can’t go to bookstores; you can’t give readings which is what we’re all used to prior to the pandemic. I had an adaptation of Middle Passage, it was wonderful. A year ago, late February in Chicago, at Lifeline Theater again directed by Ilesa Duncan. Got great reviews and then the pandemic hit and then the theater closed in early March. So publishing a book at that time, people adapt.

 L.E.: What was the catalyst for writing the book?

C.J.: There’s a publication here called 3rd Act and it’s for senior citizens generally speaking. I did a couple of pieces for them, short pieces about things they ask older people. But then one of the themes was what would you say to your grandchildren and what advice would you give them? I sat down and I thought about it and I said, well, it’s kind of a short article, 10 things I would really feel I could stand by that would be applicable to my time, his time, and maybe all time for us as humans. I didn’t elaborate on them for the article, but it was received well. And then I shared it with one of my editors who said he wanted to do a book. So I said OK, I’ll do it, I’ll expand the 10 points.

L.E.: Number seven on the list stands out to me as spot-on advice for today. You write: He should also understand the Buddhist wisdom in the phrase “open mouth, already big mistake.” What this means is identical to the Muslim wisdom that tells us that before we speak, we should pass whatever we say through three gatekeepers. The three gatekeepers are questions: Is it true? Is it necessary? Will it do no harm? If our speech can pass these three gates, then it is worthy of sharing with others.

 C.J.: You’ll find that in Hindu wisdom, and I want to say we also heard that wisdom from Khalil Gibran. It’s pretty universal and worth thinking about. Is it true? Is it necessary to say this? If it is true, will it do no harm if you say it? Those gates, I think, are really important. I’m Buddhist, practicing Buddhist. And for me, right speech is one of the items in the Eightfold Path. And to me that fits into right speech, those three gates. We should be very careful what we say in public because words are powerful. Language is powerful. We know this. You can create illusions that can create delusions in people’s minds. Demagogues rely on that and so you are being very mindful of our speech is important.

L.E.: That’s a timeless lesson and particularly urgent right now. Are you on social media?

 C.J.: You know, I’m really behind on that kind of thing. I was writing and doing stuff before social media exploded and publishers, all of them want their writers to be engaged with social media and have a following. I don’t go on Facebook. I don’t do Twitter.

But it’s a lot of work to me, a lot of time and time, energy. And I could be putting that into a new work that I’m doing.

 L.E.: Grand is your 25th book. Do you have any other books you’re working on right now?

 C.J.: There are two graphic novels in the works. One comes out in January. I coauthored it with my friend, sci-fi writer Steven Barnes, who has a piece in here [June issue of the CQR] called “Rudy.” But this book called The Eightfold Path is eight interlocking horror stories told in the fashion of the old DC Comics from the 1950s. However, they are negative examples of Buddhism in the sense that they’re all morality tales, they’re horror tales. Each one has a moral lesson. My contribution to the book was to flavor the stories with a little bit of Buddhist sensibility here and there. That comes out in January.

They’re [The Eightfold Path publisher] also doing Middle Passage as a graphic novel. From what I understand, it’s been drawn already by the comic book industry great illustrator Denys Cowan. The script is based on a script by director Reginald Hudlin, who’s an old friend of sorts, and that script that he wrote for the graphic was originally based on a screenplay I did when we had the Middle Passage novel with Interscope. It was optioned and we worked on it there.

I was going to give the movie rights quite recently to John Singleton. He came up here, we talked about it, had dinner, just getting ready [for] my literary agent to finish off the last little thing in the contract. And then he has a stroke and then he’s gone. And it was his dream project to do. We’ll see. Reggie, he wants to direct it too.

L.E.: Middle Passage was published in 1990. It feels like it’s the gift that keeps giving.

C.J.: That’s what one of my agents once called it. (laughs). It is a modern classic, that’s what it became in terms of contemporary literature. And there’s always a new generation of people who haven’t read it. I’m always doing interviews for it.

 I have other books, too. I’d like to see them have longevity as well.

Lisa Edge is an award-winning reporter who most recently covered the arts for Real Change. In 2013 she relocated to Seattle after working as a reporter and anchor at several television stations in the south. Lisa most enjoys telling stories about people and how they are making an impact with their voices.

📸 Featured Image: Photo of author Charles Johnson. (Photo: Crystal Riley-Brown)

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