by Amanda Ong
Charles Johnson, former emeritus professor of English at the University of Washington, has recently released his latest book The Eightfold Path, a graphic novel with coauthor Steven Barnes and illustrator Bryan Christopher Moss.
The Eightfold Path is an anthology of interconnected Afrofuturistic parables inspired by the teachings of the Buddha. It traverses media, stories, cultures, and ideas. Johnson and coauthor Steven Barnes are both practicing Buddhists and have incorporated their beliefs into this series of Buddhist stories that intersect with science fiction and Afrofuturism.
Johnson taught at the University of Washington for 33 years and has authored 26 books of fiction and nonfiction, as well as written for television and worked as a cartoonist and illustrator himself. He is also a MacArthur Fellow and the recipient of a 1990 National Book Award in fiction for his novel Middle Passage. Considering Johnson’s prolific body of work, The Eightfold Path stands out as something a little different.
“For me, the important aspect of this graphic novel is that in addition to telling spirited stories in several popular genres of fiction it also gives a reader an introduction to Buddhist wisdom, which I try to live by,” Johnson said in an interview with the South Seattle Emerald.
“There’s never been a book like this: ‛Buddhism Noir,’ as one reader review on Amazon described it,” Johnson said. “It uses a storyteller tool of our time — the graphic novel — to dramatize through mostly negative examples Buddhist wisdom that is 2,600 years old, and it ends with my essay on Buddhism, which I greatly enjoyed writing.”
Afrofuturism can be defined as the science fiction, fantasy, horror, and so forth created by or concerning children of the African Diaspora, Barnes said in an interview with the Emerald. That includes philosophies, perspectives, and experiences of life and existence. Buddhism engages with reality in a way that comes as a response to some of the questions Barnes says are attached to Black identity.
“We have an urgent need to ask ‘Who are we?’ and ‘What is true?” Barnes said. “Because there have been centuries of brainwashing and propaganda directed against us, much of which only began to break down toward the end of the 20th century.” The Eightfold Path has allowed Barnes and Johnson to explore these questions, as well as their own faith, values, and art.
Barnes said that the project started with a desire to write a book earnestly rooted in Buddhism. Thereafter, their decision to use the Buddhist practice of the Eightfold Path took hold as the basis for the series of stories.
“Buddhism seemed a very powerful set of questions and strictures to guide human thought and action, not just in the search for ‘enlightenment’ but simply to navigate the human world,” Barnes said. “I’ve used a lot of different organizing structures for my stories, and at some point it occurred to me that Buddha’s Eightfold Path would make a good one.”
Barnes says that he knew that he wanted to write the book with an expert on Buddhism, particularly one who actually walked the path. Being respectful of the teachings was very important to the coauthors. “[I had] a very serious intent: to have the totality of the stories represent the messy, frightening, confusing, inspiring, WONDERFUL experience of life, and encourage readers to ask questions rather than just handing them ‘answers,’” Barnes said.
Barnes and Johnson have previously partnered with each other to write, but this is their first book together. Having collaborated in the past, Johnson was a longstanding dear friend who Barnes said is one of the best and smartest people he knew. Johnson was enthusiastic when Barnes brought him the idea.
“Steve is a truly prolific and important storyteller in the sci-fi genre and for television, a true pro who can take on any assignment,” Johnson said. “Which is something I’ve always admired about him since when I first wrote something about his work in my 1988 critical study Being and Race: Black Writing Since 1970. So working with him on anything is a great pleasure for me.”
Three of the stories in The Eightfold Path were stories they had collaborated on earlier for a horror comics project that never came to fruition. These stories are “The Best Barbecue in Hatten County,” “The Last Word,” and “4189,” which they cowrote and published in an anthology of horror stories titled The Burning Maiden, edited by novelist Greg Kishbaugh. “4189” also appears in short-story form in Johnson’s fourth story collection, Night Hawks (Simon & Schuster, 2018). Both Johnson and Barnes are also life-long practitioners of martial arts, which informs their story “The Gauntlet” in the collection.
Combining Buddhism with Afrofuturism poses a lesser common intersection of thought and identity, though Barnes comments that Buddhism has become more popular in Black communities. The most common spiritual discipline for Black Americans is Christianity, which Barnes says puts the Black community in the odd position of being one of the only groups of people on the planet whose God is closer to their oppressors than themselves.
At the same time, both authors found that the values of Buddhism can go hand in hand with some of the experiences of Black American identity. In Buddhism, there is no enduring, substantive “self.”
“Identity is imagined. We are not nouns, we are verbs,” Johnson said. “Not products, but instead processes. Not being, but instead becoming. And the illusion of ‘self’ is not something we should be attached to, because that is a source of suffering.”
The Eightfold Path is available for purchase on Bookshop.org.
Amanda Ong (she/her) is a Chinese American writer from California. She is currently a master’s candidate at the University of Washington Museology program and graduated from Columbia University in 2020 with degrees in creative writing and ethnicity and race studies.
📸 Featured Image: Co-authors Charles Johnson (left) and Steven Barnes (right) released The Eightfold Path, a graphic novel that explores the intersections of Buddhism and Afrofuturism, with illustrations by Bryan Christopher Moss. Photo of Johnson by Crystal Wiley Brown. Photo of Barnes by Tananarive Due.
Before you move on to the next story … Please consider that the article you just read was made possible by the generous financial support of donors and sponsors. The Emerald is a BIPOC-led nonprofit news outlet with the mission of offering a wider lens of our region’s most diverse, least affluent, and woefully under-reported communities. Please consider making a one-time gift or, better yet, joining our Rainmaker Family by becoming a monthly donor. Your support will help provide fair pay for our journalists and enable them to continue writing the important stories that offer relevant news, information, and analysis. Support the Emerald!