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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Geronimo T. Johnson talks race and writing


W@G - Sydney Steinle
Johnson talked to Grinnellians last Friday, Nov. 14. Photo by Sydney Steinle

Last Friday, Nov. 14, T. Geronimo Johnson regaled Grinnell students and faculty with passages from his work and advice about the writing process.

The event was part of the Writers@Grinnell program, which brings writers to campus and facilitates discussion between students and established authors. Johnson, a teacher at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, has also spent part of the fall semester teaching a short course on writing to Grinnell College students.

Johnson’s opening remarks foreshadowed the dark humor which permeated his work, as he explained that he usually begins his presentations by reading a scene from his first novel, “Hold it ’til it Hurts,” which portrays characters being rescued from a rooftop in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

“And then everything seems funnier when you’ve been that close to death,” Johnson explained.

During his presentation, Johnson read from his most recent novel, “Welcome to Braggsville,” which is slated to come out in February 2015. His work explores the presence of racism its four protagonists encounter on the supposedly liberal college campus of the University of California, Berkeley, a topic which resonated with its audience, drawing laughter throughout the reading.

But the humor of Johnson’s work doesn’t negate its political weight, which he says is revealed in its ability to make readers question the instances of prejudice they encounter.

“People will ask questions, people will demand answers, and when they find that there are none, that will be the beginning of a reckoning,” Johnson said. “The book is largely about the four students trying to counteract it. They feel very disillusioned at Berkeley.”

Johnson said that the novel reflected his own dismay at encountering racism in spaces that he expected to be socially progressive.

“[Berkeley] is supposed to be the most liberal school in the country,” Johnson said. “That leaves you very brokenhearted.”

Following his reading, Johnson explained his own unconventional path to working as a professional writer.

“I came to writing accidentally,” Johnson said. “I’d been working all my life, and then I went back to school.”

Johnson was advised to study at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop as a student, and later returned as a faculty member. He said the program was valuable for him because it instilled a sense of confidence in his craft that later propelled him through difficult times.

“You need it to seem as real as possible. It’s hard to be you alone … trying to get this work done and no one cares if you do it. The MFA program is a time to believe in it,” Johnson said. “So the most important thing, if you want to write, is to honor that urge, you’ve gotta give it time.”

Johnson talked to Grinnellians last Friday, Nov. 14. Photo by Sydney Steinle
Photo by Sydney Steinle
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