T. Geronimo Johnson, author of Hold It 'Til It Hurts (Coffee House Press), photograph by Elizabeth Cowan
T Geronimo Johnson was born in New Orleans. His fiction and poetry have appeared in Best New American Voices, Indiana Review, LA Review, and Illuminations, among others. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a former Stegner Fellow at Stanford, Johnson teaches writing at University of California–Berkeley.
His first novel, Hold It ‘Til It Hurts (Coffee House Press, 2012), explores a not-too-long-ago America, four years into war in Afghanistan and on the cusp of the devastation of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina. The novel follows its main character, Achilles, in search of his adoptive brother through morgues and into drug houses; to a beautiful and impoverished, and then ravaged New Orleans; from the trauma and loneliness of post-combat into the ordeals and imperfections of a love affair. Johnson gets his readers in close to a perspective atypical of American fiction – the sensitive as much as cynical Achilles – a black vet of the war in Afghanistan who was raised by adoptive white parents in the suburbs. It is unusual to come across a several-hundred-pages-long story so unreserved about issues of race, sexuality, and gender in a context that is still so recent and thus so raw in American history, but what is most striking about the work is the haunting quality of Johnson’s realism, which is capable of great sensuality and great coldness in the same paragraph, and can hold the intensity of memory at the same timbre of the present moment in a single sentence. From the shards of baby-doll heads, anonymous bodies, kisses in the dark, mustard-trimmed windows, muzzled pit bulls, spilled brains, nightmares of war, scratch marks in an attic, and the search for a lost brother, arises a love story complete with revelations about sexual technique, early dates characterized by awkwardness and yearning, the mutual alienation of a fallout, the warmth of routine, violent anal sex, embarrassing visits with parents, and an aged sense of mercy in ambiguity.
Interview by Rachel Cole Dalamangas
Hold It ‘Til It Hurts is a novel that is perpetually at war, exploring such conflicts as race, gender, class, domestic violence, a soldier’s life post-combat, poverty, and so on. What’s intriguing is that a great deal of the tension that propels the text is resistance. This is a novel that resists socio-political idealism, resists easy conclusions in regards to intimacy, resists – and is uncomfortably aware of – the white gaze. Moreover this is a novel that resists being segregated to the genre of African American literature while simultaneously not rejecting African American literature as an artistic history. Although not shy about cultural criticisms, this novel insists on being understood as literature, first and foremost, perhaps because the overarching shape it takes is that of a love story in the background of warfare. How does one straddle so many political, cultural, historical, and social fences in the making of serious art?
What first comes to mind is that it reflects my worldview and my hesitancy to try and wrap everything up too neatly because that would feel completely unrealistic and would undermine the power of the narrative. It also has a lot to do with point of view and a desire to write about a type of individual that has gone through these experiences and is not yet able to process all of them, and balancing the risk involved in writing the character as I did. I was aiming more for life than a neatly delineated narrative. Sometimes when I was in school I would find myself reading such stories and felt as though those narrow depictions of the world ignored the social contours that give definition to our lives.
I wanted to avoid that. The driving question of the novel is: How do you learn to care about people who are not like you? This exploration demands a broad range of experiences. This is Achilles question, but it’s also the reader’s. I suppose by opening up a person so much and hovering so close to his point of view readers then finds themselves privy to things we might not share publicly or openly. So that’s part of the straddling.
But it’s not really straddling. We’re all a combination of these myriad influences. Borges says the text is the axis of innumerable relationships; the same could be said of character. The project is more about depth than breadth, or any breadth is achieved through depth.
Another guiding notion was the distinction between what we will say and admit to publicly, what we will say in private only, what we think and will not share, and then there’s all those impulses of which we are not aware. The latter have the greatest influence in our actions and opinions, and the latter, sadly, also resist easy persuasions. Much of the novel resides in that space, and that’s where this notion of resistance is coming from. Beneath the bounds of the polite discourse, at the subconscious level, we can take a look at how Achilles’ social conditioning has formed these particular worldviews, and how he struggles both consciously and unconsciously to reconcile them. From a technical point of view that’s how I was able to straddle these different elements – by not straddling them, but by simply pushing deeper. It was more at the level of impulse than craft.
I’m concerned that white readerships sometimes regard literature by a person of color who is writing about the struggles of people of color, with patronization - particularly in an era like ours that is witnessing a resurgence of overt racism and misogyny and the white guilt that accompanies such. How do you think the reception of American literature written by people of color will shift? How do we address this issue as we move out of post-modernism?
Very often literature by or about people of color conforms to our ideals of this country. It too often takes on the arc of a racial Horatio Alger narrative. Those served a clear social purpose in the past, especially in slave narratives where the thrust was the inosculation of literacy and enlightenment. If you are able to read, you are enlightened. Now North-North America will accept you as a human because it was only a lack of education that defined otherness, and if everyone had known all along that you could read they would have never offered you those agricultural jobs in the first place. We’ve moved away from that but it still often feels that stories about people of color have to conform to that particular kind of arc and characterization called for in Aristotle’s Poetics. I cannot abide that.
We are plagued by the myth of universality. While we do share impulses, needs, desires; while we are ninety-nine-point-nine-x-with-a-smile percent genetically identical; while the Russians love their children too (we hope!); our constructed social identities frame very different social realities. As one author writing about single motherhood said, Even if the story is universal, the truth is in the details, and the details are what matters. In her essay, that author, a single white mother explains how much her reality differs, profoundly differs, from that of a mother in a two-parent household and how the differences in lived experience affect everything from a sense of time to the use of pronouns. I live in a very different world from the white reader. Social space bends differently around me. And this is the problem: How does one present those differences while still reassuring readers of our commonality and of the ultimate beneficence of our society? I’m not sure that we always can, but that is what many readers often want.
Marketing is an issue as well.
For example, a few editors said it was admirable that I didn’t follow the clichéd route and end up on the other side of the rainbow, but they couldn’t sell this kind of story. They think they’re conforming to the market when they are creating it. (At this point I have to say thanks to Jon Sternfeld and Anitra Budd!!) There’s this market pressure for writers of color and the stories about people of color to conform. Authors then are (inadvertently?) expected to do what in any other medium would be a shuck and jive. This pressure to perform a ritual of atonement goes back to the slave narrative. Even on my end, I had to, towards the final stages, interject purposefully a few details and asides to assure the reader of Achilles humanity – because it is not always assumed of black characters (readers don’t fill in the blanks the same way). And those details I inserted, which I will not list here, worked, sadly, as anticipated. That’s not your question, but understanding the pressures that black authors feel when reaching out to “wider (whiter)” audiences is necessary before we can even imagine a shift in perception or shift in reception. And I don’t know how that will resolve itself. If we don’t acknowledge who we are, how will we become?
I will not list any novels here, but the pressure is real. I have been wondering whether or not I would publish through the traditional channels anymore, at least not when you have a group of people who don’t know your experience deciding how you should best represent that experience. So as we move into a new era, I’m thinking less about the Gestalt or political evolution or theoretical shifts. As we move away from post-modernism (if we can, it’s the theoretical equivalent of Saran wrap and has the kinetic energy of Christian typology), as we move away from post-modernism, hopefully shifts in technology will enable people to tell other types of stories without bowing to a mediator. People can build their own markets.
I suppose it can be summed like this: in my artist statement I say that I write for the ones who didn’t get away. In the world we live in, for understandable reasons, people want stories about those that do. I understand that we need those types of stories, but it’s equally important to acknowledge that there are so many other narratives that are lived everyday and in many of these people are not fairly rewarded. (See Turing in the machine.) And if our society does not face these narratives, we will keep writing them - in bone, on flesh.
You said something interesting about how technology will make it easier for people to tell other types of stories – can you expand on that? How do you think technology may facilitate the telling of marginal stories?
I alluded to this above, but the slap of selling a novel guided by a marginal voice is that people alien to the experience are empowered to tell you how to render it, and I’m not talking about craft here. Your life is mediated through alien eyes. The mask and veil become huge zip lock bags, but we can make out faint contours, a ridge there or here, a chin, a mouth in vain. But that frustration is born of a specific publishing model and cultural aesthetic (Long live CHP!). Instead of delayed and hierarchical, distribution is now immediate and lateral (as poets have done for years with chapbooks). Modes of expression are changing as well. A scholar (I won’t name here) of fandom and transmedia heralds the latter as the great narrative equalizer. As the term is currently used, and the theory is currently practiced, transmedia means extending narratives across different media. From this scholar’s perspective, a show such as (I won’t name here) develops minor characters through webisodes and other low cost avenues. He claims this is beneficial for gay characters and others who may not receive ample screen time. (I want to call this ghettoization. Maybe I just did. Who knows?) From my perspective, though, transmedia a way for alternative voices to collaborate in unimaginable ways. Of course self-publishing and micro-publishing are growing, especially in the urban lit genre. And ebooks have enabled many new voices to connect directly to readers. But transmedia is exciting, and it’s probably what I would focus on if I were just starting as a writer today. A story is a cloud, a novel a storm, a transmedia narrative an entire climate.
A particularly interesting and uncomfortable thread through the novel is the intersectionality of gender and race. I hope this line of inquiry isn’t facile because I think it’s still at the heart of much overtly political American fiction: Can white American authors authentically approach writing about the experiences and perspectives of people of color? And can heterosexual male authors authentically approach writing about the experiences and perspectives of women? Essentially, can people of one privileged class effectively portray the perspectives of people who are of a corresponding underprivileged class?
Immediately that struck a cord for me because one East Bay interviewer asked the same question. She’d reviewed me and Chabon over two consecutive weeks. Chabon’s book features black characters and mine white characters. I feel like everyone has the right to undertake the challenge of portraying the lives of others, but it can be difficult. If I want to write about the female experience, I must not only acknowledge my privilege, but also acknowledge what it’s like to live without it, and how that frames the world differently, and acknowledge that I am a partner in oppression. What’s worse is that this involves interrogating my assumptions of what I have actually earned in this world. I think that’s what’s so hard about writing people who are unlike yourself, especially people who are at the other end of the continuum. To do it well, and burrow deeply, you have to move beyond that sense of, “Oh, I make less money,” or “Oh, I have babies,” of “Oh, people think I’m a bad driver,” and consider how deeply engrained sexism is, realize that it is, sadly, rebar embedded deep in the foundation of our culture, so deep that it defines language, self-perception, school performance, that it operates beneath the level of consciousness. I’d also have to consider how that can manifest as resentment and how also no matter how fair or good of a person I may want to be, by virtue of my privilege, I’m still an extension of an arm of oppression. I feel like it’s hard for people to really wrestle that and to face that and to harness that. For example, passive-aggressiveness is associated with femininity, but it’s simply the most practical solution for the acute angle in any asymmetric relationship. So then one wonders how to effectively dramatize that and critique the system at its source, as well as the less informed critiques of the strategy.
To consider a spoke of identity at the end of which is a character with more privilege than me is to face the challenge of avoiding bitterness or resentment, and rendering faithfully a full spectrum of humanity. Perhaps one of the best ways to think about those continuums is to mine the angst that resides where you are least empowered. This then is limited by your social profile. There’s a clear hierarchy in the world, some people have fewer restrictions no matter how you spin it.
Being a black male, if I wanted to write about a white female, at least to some extent I can think honestly about how a black male interprets situations where he is treated unfairly in relation to someone who is white. It’s very ugly because we want to tell stories that are reaffirming. I think, in fact, this is hardest for liberal white males who may want to believe, with all their hearts that we are alike (and tread carefully for fear of being accused of racist depictions). With Achilles, for example, I imagined what would happen if you were to go back 25-years and remove from a black male’s psyche all immediate, personal, positive experience of blackness. The vacuum that remains is filled by popular media. The result is different for a white male than a black male. A white male who meets his first blacks on COPS may be anxious in a dark alley, but a black male who meets his first other self on COPS might be anxious alone in a dark room (as I asked in my official CHP author interview, “How do you duck when you are punching yourself in the face?”). To conceive of that I must be capable of recognizing patterns of representation that are negative and deleterious even though they may not appear so at first observation, such as the color line and good/hair bad/hair debates, and these are the very realities we avoid facing. (Look at the revisionist Harriet Tubman in that Lincoln movie.) It’s hard for people to unravel the cultural threads in their security blankets.
We’re unexpectedly in my closeted space and it’s hard to answer because some of this comes from conscious analysis and some of it comes from artistic impulse, that thing that strikes you in the heart and then drives you to respond.
One of my concerns about the novel, because it’s not exactly hermetic, but it’s so close to Achilles’ perspective, was that people would not catch the flags and would read over the gender issues. Achilles is a Gordian knot of anxiety and negativity about black females. It’s been interesting to hear readers’ responses to the book because a lot of people don’t pick up on the intersection of race and gender. The first who did was a reviewer in New Orleans, a black female who tackled that issue directly in an interview and review because she realized that the issue was not resolved by book’s end. In the process of writing, I felt that if I put too many flags in or resolved that (which would be unrealistic in such a short span), that would undermine the experience for the reader. I didn’t want to narrate the experience for the reader. I also knew I was writing two books.
I believe you are from New Orleans and a huge portion of this book addresses the horrors of Hurricane Katrina. How does one write so closely to one’s own losses? What are the complications inherent to writing about very recent history?
Well, I’m actually in New Orleans right now. Ten minutes ago, I was taking a picture of the house my parents lived in when I was born. That neighborhood is being gentrified. But because the improvements come in the wake of an exodus, I think they call it revitalization.
I always wonder how you don’t write about what’s really close to you. What other purpose can sustain you as an artist in a society that guarantees no validation, financial or otherwise. Without that sense of purpose, I don’t know that I would be able to continue writing everyday. I must be fully engaged and invested and committed to a story that I want to tell, whether or not anyone wants to read it, a story I would be willing to give away. In the case of HiTiH, the research does take a toll on you because you’re processing so many painful emotions – reading morgue lists, looking at pictures, interviewing people, and reading newspaper accounts. It’s a harrowing experience because it feels like you have to read a thousand pages to distill it into that two or three sentences that really capture the essence of the experience.
In terms of writing about recent history, that can be difficult because the world is changing right in front of me, especially in New Orleans – this is my second time here in six weeks. I find myself wondering how much of what I remember is accurate and which memories are glamour shots fogged by nostalgia, and, even, how many of the structural changes are real. Recent history is so illusory. I guess that’s a challenge for all artists who are responding emotionally or critically to conversations not yet being had publically about, for example, demographic shifts. Here, I see white musicians where I used to see black musicians, and white artists where I used to see black artists, and even white beggars at intersections where I used to see black beggars. What am I to make of that? How am I to address and acknowledge my latent fears and anxieties about this shift? How am I to make sense of them to myself, let alone to a reader? Can a tent city be gentrified? Am I feeling saudade myself or mourning someone else’s? Can one even mourn the loss of saudade?
There’s a lot of uncertainty in writing about recent history because there are no fixed landmarks, but in the end - this is so corny – but I feel in the end I was guided by love. I was provoked by frustration and anger and then guided by love in the execution. My biggest anxiety at end was whether or not New Orleanians would feel that I misrepresented the city. I also had this feeling that if I didn’t do a good job, it would look as though I used Katrina as a mere plot point and that would be unforgivable, absolutely unforgivable. I suppose that takes a little more work to write about these types of events because you know that you can’t convey everyone’s experience, but you’re hoping that in some way you can reflect it accurately enough so that someone who wasn’t there can feel it, and it will be remembered when it is not longer so recent. Bradbury said we write about futures so they won’t happen. Maybe we write about pasts we hope not to revisit.
When say you were motivated by frustration and anger, this makes me think of Virginia Woolf’s idea about how social trauma – what she calls “impoverishment” in A Room of One’s Own – is ultimately disfiguring to art and her concern that marginalized writers (in A Room of One’s Own – women) have this special psychological struggle to make art. Although I wouldn’t presume to know how Woolf would assess contemporary American fiction, Hold It ‘Til It Hurts is not what I would rate a “damaged” or “disfigured” novel. The portrayal of Achilles is that of a character warped by the traumas he experiences – particularly evident in how he relates to language, but the novel itself is intact – at the level of narrative arc and sentence, and in the novel’s engagement with beauty. Did the frustration and anger that motivated you present struggle in your process? If so, how did you strategize?
Provocation is necessarily separate from execution. We’re exploring the gap between impulse and execution, and the gap between execution and interpretation. This is where craft—and its myriad of definitions—comes into play, this is where it becomes obvious that what I must write is a novel that appeals to a wider (whiter audience), this is where it becomes obvious that plot must be a generous machine. So the novel tells two stories, one for blacks, one for everyone else. This is not to say that only black readers will divine the story in the song lyrics, religious references, cultural signifiers, etc., but from the beginning I was conscious of the need to play several hands at once.
This became evident in my workshop era when I presented the first chapter. Readers of color read tension in the foreshadowed unraveling of racial identity. Many white readers (usually white male readers, but some females, too) would read chapter one, and say, “This cannot be a first chapter. It presents no driving, enduring question.” or “What is it about?” or “The story must be about more than whether or not he finds his brother.”
In retrospect those experiences strike me as odd because the response to the book has been positive and receptive. But, because of those responses, while I knew there were receptive readers, I also considered myself to be, on some level, writing for a hostile audience, or at least an audience alienated from the day-to-day reality of my characters.
So there was much strategizing (I am embarrassed to admit). Many of Achilles’ less favorable thoughts merely reflect common discourse, but I knew if I put those thoughts and words into the mind and mouth of a white character, the wider audience would recoil (not necessarily with self-recognition, but that would be the case with some). Likewise, Ines’ more strident race comments issued by a black male would alienate the wider readership. In fact, Ines has been referred to at times as “serving only to teach Achilles lessons” and “strident,” but what she is really doing is making comments usually heard only behind closed doors. This is part of what gives HiTiH some of its gravitas; the reader gets to be a fly on the wall. Conversations and attitudes that are of import but marginalized are brought to center stage where they can be juxtaposed against a more forceful articulation of conservative white values. Ines sounds strident only if one doesn’t know that a lot of black people agree with her. There is also a significant amount of ambiguity and doubling. In addition to a few other elements, the brothers’ names, for example, signify Greek myths, but that allusion is an allision. Craft, strategy, and privilege intersect here. Stanford and Iowa were not only exceptional educations, and sites of valuable exposure to how different people read, but also intensive extensions of my continuing education in biculturalism. At end, I am lucky to have both the social capital to get this book out, and a keener sense of how to balance the competing interests, desires, and dreams. Yet capitulation remains a concern.
As for Woolf, though she has much useful to say about the connection between art and financial independence, I’m unresolved on her observation about Bronte, and there is one point in A Room of One’s Own at which I bristle. Early in the essay she describes the narrator sketching a professor whilst pondering several treatises on the inferiority of women. The narrator is shocked when she notices that the professor is distorted. “Anger had snatched my pencil while I dreamt.” The narrator doodles cartwheels and circles all over the face until it resembles nothing more that “burning faggots on Hempstead Heath.” That distorted face, I argue, is a valid point of view. In brief, this is connected to the slave narrative and the concept of literature defined by the necessity of the time, but I’d argue that we need more “anger snatched pencils” and fewer fires on the (distant?) Heath. At the moment she blankets her expression of honest rage with innocuous doodles, she commits a violence to herself and her art, the same violence that is done when mainstream sensibilities and politesse silence marginal voices. I accept the efficacies of craft, but reject the assertion that rage is disfigurement.
I thought that the complex character compositions were especially successful in this work. In the first pages, Achilles’ adopted (white) mother encourages him to find his (black) birth parents, warning him that he shouldn’t leave himself, “undone.” Many of the characters are “undone” in some deeply personal fashion that is entrenched in larger cultural issues, but none of them can be categorized via easy assumptions or stereotypes. While it’s very clear that Achilles is not a mouthpiece of the author, are you concerned that readers will assimilate you with him?
Very, very. I’ve come to realize that maybe that’s a compliment. I had written a story that was in Best New American Voices a few years back, and it involves an African American graduate student who struggling with a cocaine addiction. He relapses toward the end. At some point shortly after that came out, I was at a dinner with a group of writers. I ordered a drink and a person in authority asked me if it was okay for me to be drinking. And I said, “I think so, I mean I paid for it.” (Consider, reader, that answer). It was one of those events where the institution pays for your dinner, but not your drinks. (Probably always wise with writers). “But you’re drinking,” said this person. And I said, “Yeah, why not.” And this person said, “But you’re drinking,” and repeated it two or three times, and it was a little bit odd. And finally the person said, “But what about your story?” And I realized that this person thought that the story (Winter Never Quits) was autobiographical. (So, now I have to ask myself why I am even at the event? Is it charity?) There are many reasons, there are many reasons to be offended by this exchange. But one thing that I’ve taken from it because I’ve told this story a couple times, is that to some extent it means that the story was convincing enough that it seemed based on personal knowledge. (Talk about wrestling an angel).
Rationalizations aside, this compliment is always problematic because the underlying assumption, as Sapphire argues, is that artists of color lack sufficient imaginations. This may also be connected to complaints that people of color write so often about race. But the same charge of lack of imagination could be lobbied against people not of color who never do.
With Achilles my concern is not that people think that I’m Achilles. My concern is that people will not read Achilles critically. I’ve never worried too much that someone will assume that I think about the poor or the homeless the same way Achilles does. My fear rather is that someone doesn’t stop and ask why Achilles thinks that way and consider how his opinion reflects our society. Achilles is a mirror. We’re all undone.
I found the juxtaposition of the progressive, compassionate, and educated Ines to the skeptical, disenchanted, world-weary Achilles interesting. Even their approach to social critique is disparate: Achilles criticizes culture frequently through profanities and his “soldier’s humor”; Ines through an academic vocabulary and passionate seriousness. I expected this “war” of sorts to be settled between them, with one worldview winning out over the other. Yet, these perspectives are never resolved – they’re given space, eye-to-eye, both uncomfortably undefeated beside each other. Why did you choose to leave the conflicting perspectives in this world shifted, but ultimately unresolved?
I couldn’t have resolved them within the book and written a believable story. That’s the first thing. The novel went through several drafts and several endings. I knew that the ending would be to some extent unsatisfying. Initially I didn’t think it could have an ending that would be satisfying at all. Where it has landed is a miracle of the third order.
The thought that Achilles could in such a short period become a different person is just so implausible. What’s really unfortunate is that Ines could become a different person, I think, more quickly than Achilles. Horrors and atrocities change us much more, and much faster than does love. Achilles’ active duty experiences, which are compounded by Katrina, are another reason the novel must resist too neat a resolution. He’s been exposed to disaster and violence on a scale that is overwhelming and so constant that some measure of desensitization is the only hope for survival. I have a lot of friends who’ve served and a lot of friends that are cops, and that’s one of their coping mechanisms, of course.
I was also resistant, in this novel, to over-narration. The experience of reading is more pleasurable and fulfilling if both of these worldviews have their time on the page to express themselves fully for readers to examine on their own as opposed to if I were to try to lean too much in one direction or the other, or contrive what would clearly be an artificial resolution. The worldviews are also part of the symbolic structure of the story, and are intimately intertwined with notions of assimilation, acculturation, mental colonization, the body as metaphor, internalized oppression, fear of intimacy, the burden of masculinity, love as balance, and a few other things.
From the perspective of a writer, the most realistic arc would be a falling out, a falling apart, shattering, not a coming together, and certainly not a full conversion. Achilles can’t be Saul on the road to Damascus. HiTiH is not a parable; it describes the arc of a life.
The social critique that unfolds in this novel rejects depictions of race and poverty by mainstream as well as academic perspectives. Facile good-intentions, armchair progressiveness, and superficial resolutions are rendered irrelevant by violence, marginalization, and grief. And yet, compassion ultimately survives in the world of this text. For example, one of the most disturbing moments for me was when Ines verbally and physically attacked a child for his response to Hurricane Katrina. This is an unexpected thing for her otherwise tolerant, socially responsible character to do. And yet, while this episode certainly adds darkness and dimension to Ines, it doesn’t ultimately tarnish her activism and humanitarianism. I would call the voice and perspective of the text, “a ruthless compassion.” How do ruthlessness and compassion figure into artistic process for you?
I suppose I have to talk myself into this answer. There are several different types of personalities in the book. I wanted to depict – obviously Achilles and Ines are at opposite ends of the spectrum with other people in between – I wanted to depict everyone as fairly and clearly as I could. While hope is a requirement to sustain oneself in the face of adversity, being progressive feels like a privilege. I like the phrase “ruthless compassion.” Along that vein I was thinking of a clarity of vision, a vision of a whole person, and compassion is a prerequisite, or co-requisite, for apprehending the whole.
Often we require personal security before we can extend compassion and concern to others. When you do not feel safe and secure, emotionally and financially, it’s hard to reach out to those who are less fortunate than you. Of course there is the story of the old lady in the bible, but that only proves the point.
Also, it seems that progressivism and liberalism are not always open to critique, or at least are difficult to critique because of their porosity and malleability. But nonetheless, it depends on a sense of security – it’s an issue of worldview. None of this is meant as a critique, as much as an acknowledgement of how frail our positions are. And that even is not a critique, but reminds us that much work and energy goes into maintaining a life about which one can feel good. I suppose in this case the critique is offered by way of juxtaposition and the novel is eidetic because part of the project is to humanize unpopular positions and to explore how people arrive at conclusions that we may not want to agree with or that we may actually agree with but not want to acknowledge harboring.
In terms of the process, HiTiH had to be eidetic. It had to be a realistic depiction of events instead of being overly impressionistic, though it is at times. And it had to be so close to Achilles’ perspective that we could come to this understanding that even though truth is personal and subjective, it is experienced as an absolute.
The force that this novel reaches for with agitated passion as well as with severe tenderness - and no less political than any of the other motifs - is love. One way that love works in this text is through subtle clairvoyance and the faintest suggestion of magic: early in their romance, Achilles claims to “hear” Ines’s thoughts, for example. Indeed a great deal of their dialogue – whether flirtatious banter or heated argument – is at a slant. This got me thinking about how literature itself is essentially a psychic leap across planes, a bridge between cultures that are really still terribly alien to each other. Where is the novel as an entity situated in the great landscape of cultural discourse?
It’s hard to say exactly where it’s situated. So many novels claim to be about or are described as being about the healing power of love or the power of humanity. I feel like that’s no less so the case with Hold It ‘Til It Hurts. But my philosophy is that we often love people in spite of who they are and not because of who they are, or, in spite of who they are as much as who they are. They say love is without judgment. I suppose that’s often true, but it has to be about understanding on some level. That driving question, again, is: How do we learn to care about those unlike us?
Achilles and Ines don’t always understand each other, but the hope is that the reader can understand both of them, and then share in their subjective gazes, which are driven by rich desires. But as you say, there is this “subtle clairvoyance” between the two of them, and yet we see them more fully than they see each other. Without this gap, the reader would feel less for them.
In the cultural landscape, the novel is opening the box to take a closer look at what we may not openly discuss or otherwise acknowledge, putting unpopular positions on the stage. I think that there are a lot of people like Achilles, but they’re not writing books. He’s been described sometimes as an anti-hero and I don’t know that he’s an anti-hero, but I think that’s more telling about our expectations of literature and expectations about the architectonics of stories and characters and whatnot, and points to a cultural divide.
While writing I knew it might be a story that people would not want to read and once I made peace with that, it freed me to be open. But where does that place it? I hope that it’s an un-varnished mirror. But in terms of cultural discourse, I don’t know if I have a good answer for that, because everyone’s reading the book so differently. Some people see the racism, some people see the gender, some people see only the war story. I suppose I’m still waiting to see how it will be positioned. I do like your concept of the psychic leap. I’ve always thought of written texts as alchemical bridges.
This is a novel preoccupied with appearances particularly in regards to how people are classed based on their appearance and in regards to how skewed mainstream views of disaster frequently are. What are your thoughts on other depictions of American involvement in conflicts in the Middle East? Why examine the reality of contemporary American warfare in the context of fiction?
We’re never really at war only with the other. We’re simultaneously waging internal battles, collectively and individually. This is important because part of going to war has always meant dehumanizing the enemy in the minds of both the troops and civilians. As of late, we’ve gone from communism as the specter to terrorism to alienism. It seems very much worth exploring how that type of ideological campaign affects both those at home and those who execute the mortal arm. Then especially what it means when they come home after having been conditioned and trained to kill – to cross the line. So, writing about the war is the same, to me, as writing about home. And not writing about a war that’s been going on for ten years seems to me an act of willful blindness that I find puzzling. Ernest Gaines once said that unless white students know the stories of black folks, they only know half their own history.
I didn’t read any fictional accounts of the American involvement in the Middle East while writing this novel. There weren’t that many until recently. I read primarily nonfiction accounts. This year a slew of books about the war have been released, and I will be reading several of those.
Who goes to war is also worth examining because those kids often have few other opportunities. That complicates the experience as well, especially for minorities. In Achilles’ case, the first time he’s ever in an environment where the majority isn’t white, he’s on active duty and everyone is in his sights so to speak.
One of the most sophisticated – and yet understated – gestures of this text is the uncensored exploration of a traumatized inner life. What’s radical about this quality of the novel is that it’s a rare, raw look at how one individual – privileged in a couple ways and extremely marginalized in others – is processing the culture wars of America. We see Achilles – via frequently painful self-awareness – sort his feelings about domestic violence, addiction, poverty, sexuality, and so on. At a time when it’s artistically “in vogue” to write about contentious subjects from multiple perspectives, why did you chose to write this work from a single relentless perspective in depth?
As much as I love multiple perspectives and even use them the larger section from which this novel is taken, that would be too easy. The aim was not necessarily to reveal each perspective as an incomplete, or insufficient, account of the world, though that is suggested at times. The novel is not about seeing or hearing the perspectives, but trying to process them. The aim was to explore what it means to live what you believe.
The depictions of poverty were particularly visceral. One thing I think about when I attempt to write about trauma is what gets censored and what doesn’t. Your novel is a work that refuses to look away – refuses to not see the most disturbing, the most difficult, and thus also the most intimate, ranging from a merciless slaughter of dogs to shit on Achilles’ penis after having rough anal sex. Yet, this isn’t torture- or poverty-porn. I don’t get a sense that the gaze is voyeuristic – searching and insistent yes, but neither leering nor paternalistic. What advice could you give to writers seeking to presence difficult subject matter?
The saying is “To be cruel, be cold.” Be as clear as possible, almost clinical in your descriptions of those heightened events. I’m now apostate in all things craft, so I don’t follow this advice faithfully, but there is always a draft, be it the 1st or 10th, where it is helpful consideration. And I don’t know if this is good advice, but to avoid poverty-porn, I tried to avoid erecting a language barrier.
As literary writers we want it to be beautiful and we want sentences that no one has written before. We want the language itself to be the experience. But the odd thing with a story like this is that, even though the language (words) is the first level of experience, the medium of apprehension, I didn’t want the language (diction/figurative language/etc.) to filter or impede the experience. I guess I’m saying that there are times when extremely poetic language can be very effective at provoking emotion, but there are other times where you demand clarity over all else so that readers can have the response that’s appropriate for their own lived experience. You’re hoping that there’s enough clarity that the reader will have this accretion of responses resulting in a significant emotional experience that is more profound than it would be if obscured too much by language. I’m not making an argument for pedestrian language. I’m saying that there are times when prose can be so lush that the words themselves obscure vision and experience. And because Achilles is traumatized by what he sees, I wanted to present those same images to the reader. I wanted people to see so that they could feel.
What forthcoming works do we have to look forward to?
This was part of a novella collection set in Atlanta and New Orleans, and each features a character that does not know how he or she is impacting the others’ lives in critical ways. That project includes Wexler, Troy (Achilles’ brother), Pepper (the drug dealer that Achilles sets out to kill), and a few others. I have another project about four students who protest a Civil War reenactment by staging a lynching. But that doesn’t go too well because being city folk they are not good with knots. It’s funny. Then there is one about the seventh coming of Christ. I’ll say only this - Cover you eyes.
Those are the three projects I’m working on now. And a very short Trayvon Martin essay.
Read at excerpt of Hold It 'Til It Hurts here: www.zingmagazine.com/tgeronimojohnson.pdf