Mat Johnson is a little apprehensive about his new novel, “Loving Day,” a satire of race relations and identity politics set in Philadelphia’s Germantown neighborhood. While writing it, he thought, “people were going to be pissed off. Black people were going to be pissed off and white people were going to be pissed off, and they were all going to be pissed off for slightly different reasons.” That’s because Johnson’s narrator, Warren Duffy, is “mixed,” the child of a black mother and an Irish-American father; he identifies as black, but his light-colored skin often leads strangers to mistake him for white.
Warren — who has failed as a comics artist, comics store owner and husband — returns to Philly from Wales, where he’s been hiding out from the conundrum of his own identity. He comes back to sell the decrepit mansion he inherited from his recently deceased father, a partially roofless and entirely creepy 18th-century estate house looming over the surrounding ghetto, a defunct “artifact of rich white folks’ attempt at dynasty.” Once there, he discovers he has a teenage daughter, Tal, the result of a one-night stand with a Jewish classmate. Vowing to do right by her, Warren becomes entangled with the Mélange Center, an eccentric organization that runs a charter school for mixed-race people who want to claim multiple identities. Warren calls it “Mulattopia,” and suspects it of being a cult, but Tal does love that school.
Meanwhile, Warren has seen two strange figures darting around corners and into outbuildings on the grounds of his mansion by night. Tal thinks they’re the ghosts of the first interracial couple. Warren is sure they’re just crackheads. Since “Loving Day” is Johnson’s follow-up to his celebrated 2011 novel, “Pym” — a brazen fusion of academic satire and two-fisted Arctic adventure yarn — the truth is likely to be very strange indeed.
I spoke with Johnson recently about his membership in the tribe of black nerds, his love-hate relationship with Twitter and why humor is an indispensable tool when you’re writing about race.
Before we talk about “Loving Day,” I wanted to say how much I enjoy your Twitter feed. You send out these beautiful, enigmatic, polished telegrams, although once I started reading the book, I realized some of them are lines from the novel.
Were they? I think I unintentionally plagiarized myself, because I wasn’t consciously doing that. Twitter has become a lot of different things at different points, but there was a time when I would float ideas or I’d come up with a good sentence and I’d tweet it, and then I’d go put it in the book afterwards.
It’s interesting that your writing flows back and forth between two such different media. Do you ever have bad experiences with Twitter?
Oh yeah, I hate it.
It’s become hellish. Honestly, if I didn’t need it, I probably would have been off by now. I probably shouldn’t say that out loud. But when I got on Twitter, it was 2008 and basically I was in a tiny group of writers I knew from across the country, a little cocktail party. It changed before I realized it had changed. It became a broadcast medium. Really, when they created the retweet button, that’s when everything got dramatically different.
Having worked with and on the Internet for nearly 25 years, I’ve seen over and over again this pattern where the early adopters of an online community have a great, almost utopian initial experience. Then that attracts more and more people, and these randos come in and they’re hostile or they’re trollish. Or they’re just clueless and you have to explain everything to them and they don’t get the jokes. Suddenly you’re constantly putting out fires all the time, and it stops being fun.
Exactly. I’m surprised it’s taken Twitter so long to reach this point, because the problem isn’t Twitter, the problem is humans. The more humans you get on there, even if you’re dealing with the 1 percent of people who are just balls of anger and rage, who are exploding, they have a disproportionate voice and it gets ugly. I remember once being so excited to be on Facebook, really enjoying Facebook, and then it grew to a point where I couldn’t say anything because I would offend my uncle or somebody I went to third grade with. That’s exactly when I left to go to Twitter. There, it was early adopters who tended to be a lot more sophisticated, who understood nuance and were a lot less orthodox.
You never know what people are going to take offense to. You have to develop ninja skills for ignoring stuff because if you let it get to you and you respond, it just becomes so much worse.
It almost always goes wrong. Although people don’t think of it this way, identity in general tends to be a toxic succession. Identity depends on group consensus. If you say something that other people [in your group] don’t believe, their response tends to be violent; they depend on that group consensus. It’s a defensive technique.
The other thing I think is wrong with this moment of great offense is that you get a cookie for getting offended about something. People are like, “If I get offended about that, it means I’m righteous.” On Twitter, you get a cookie not only from more people approving of you but from more people following you. You raise your profile by being offended. So the natural consequence of that is that people get more and more offended. Because the thing is, there’s nothing to risk by being offended. Once you’re offended, you’re partly saying, “I’m more pure than this, and as such I reject this.” There’s just nothing at risk.
It seems to be a difficult habit to break.
Part of the cool thing about humor is, I think it’s going to help an increasing backlash. There should be something at risk with getting offended. You should risk looking like a pompous, orthodox ass. I get offended too, and I have to stop myself sometimes when I’m annoyed at something, because a lot of times I’ll see something, I’ll be instantly annoyed, and I know if I say something immediately I’ll get 500 follows. So I have to hold myself back and think about it, because while I feel that critique is important and essential, we have to make getting offended riskier so that people actually take the time to think about what they’re doing. If it’s important enough, then they’ll make the critique, as opposed to just randomly defecating.
You’re a brave man to write a satire about something people are so invested in.
No, I’m not brave, and that’s the fucking problem. I just can’t write about anything else but what I actually care about. While I was writing this novel, I kept thinking, black people are going to resent that this discussion [of mixed-race identity] is even happening because some people are going to see it as people trying to distance themselves from blackness. Some people are going to see it as divisive and taking away much needed power in the black community by making it even smaller. Mixed people, my fellow mixed people, don’t tend, as a group, to have a great sense of humor about this stuff. They’re very sensitive about it and there’s a lot of trauma there, so even if they only slightly disagree with me, they’re going to be incredibly furious about that. White people, some of them are going to react by saying, “Why does it matter?” Because a lot of them are in the position where they don’t have to acknowledge how integral identity is as part of their lives. Then I was like, well who’s left?
I’ve been thinking and writing recently about jokes, and how you have to have enough shared culture with other people to be able to make jokes and feel sure that they’ll know that it’s a joke and they’ll get it. That’s why humor is so explosive at the moment, because it’s founded on the idea that we have a shared culture, and social media is constantly exposing us to people who aren’t part of that circle. You and I, even if we’re not quite in the same community, we have enough of a shared culture that we get many of each other’s jokes. That’s one of the things that defines who’s in a group and who’s not in it. With satire, in particular — the most sophisticated form of humor — if you’re going to do that about identity and race, then, oh my god, that’s tricky. That is really tricky.
Any time I make some sort of joke along racial lines or dealing with racial politics, I know that immediately there’s going to be a wave of positive response from people who know where I’m coming from and who share a basic aesthetic. The first five minutes, I know that I’m going to get positive responses. Then, minute six, it starts to go beyond that little bubble. Some people come in who don’t even recognize the humor, because humor is a declaration of in-group status. The further away you go from the center, the less they understand the context of it. Twitter is not just American. Race is completely based on context, so as soon as the discussion goes out of America, say once it gets to Britain, it gets a slightly different take. Then it goes past that and things get more and more absurd. Once that wave hits outside of America, all of a sudden people are looking at my picture going, “Why is this guy talking like he’s black?”
How do you cope with that?
Well, I also think people are just shitty. The thing is, I see offensive stuff online all the time. If I have a negative reaction, what I do is I click to the profile, and I look at the context of the tweet. Even if it’s a completely alien environment, usually by doing that I can understand it. But the people who tend to react negatively — well, there’s a group of them that are just malicious and they’ve had horrible lives and they want to hurt other people as a sort of panacea for their own pain. But there’s another group who just don’t even think. They see it and they just respond instantly. This is just a symptom of a larger issue of not really reading closely or researching closely what you’re talking about.
Often they’re not even really responding to what you wrote.
No. Everyone is talking about themselves: “This is me.” And also, “Well you talked, so now I get to talk about me and I’m going to pretend it’s me talking about you.” Everybody is coming in with their own baggage and pain when it comes to identity. Even white people are coming in with the same sort of thing. I’m not trying to validate it, but there are white people out there who are like, “I’ve worked so hard my whole life and the world was against me. I managed to do this thing, I managed to succeed, and now you’re coming and telling me my success doesn’t matter because it was all easy for me because I’m white.” There’s pain there. Or, “I failed completely and now you’re telling me I had a 10 minute head start.” I’ve tried to look at, OK, this person is really angry, why are they angry? What do you think is there? They’re trying to hurt me, or others who think the way I do, so why is that? And that to me is a really good way to defuse the bomb.
This gets to the heart of your new book, with the concept of identity as having a body of shared feelings, ideas and experiences with someone. Warren’s problem, when he’s trying to decide if he wants to be part of Mélange, is that he also hears the voice of his old friend Tosha, the voice of the black community. She is really, really skeptical of the mixed community. One of the reasons why people don’t want to look at the context of that is because they’re so invested in the idea that everybody in this identity has to believe certain things or feel certain things.
Right. Any time you have a belief system that is dependent on group consensus, you’re going to get violent reactions. The biggest example is religion. People ask me that question that every author gets, “Is this you?” My set response is, “Every character is me.” Tosha’s way of looking at it is how I looked at it for most of my life. That voice, that fundamental voice, still pops up in my head sometimes. When I was writing this, I would call my editor up, Chris Jackson, who’s a prominent African-American editor, and I’d be like, “I can’t believe I’m doing this. This is crazy, this is sacrilege. Maybe we should kill this now.” We had to talk our way through it. He’d say, “Why do you feel that way?” And sometimes when you start examining the why’s, something that feels very rigid and solid all of a sudden becomes very porous and loose. I just wrote a piece defending the word “mulatto.” There’s a lot of knee-jerk response to the word “mulatto.”
You just really go for it, don’t you?
That’s another one of those cases where there’s immediate gut response, like this is an offensive word. OK, well, why is it offensive? “It’s offensive because it comes from ‘mule.’” Well, actually it doesn’t. It’s about 2,000 years older than the word “mule,” and it originally was an Arabic word for somebody of mixed ethnic heritage. And then there’s this kind of silence. “Well, it’s offensive because it’s always been offensive.” Then you start pulling that apart. If gay people can recycle and reuse “queer” in a really powerful way, there’s no reason you can’t use "mulatto."
So much of what comes up in “Loving Day” is absurd. Warren’s whole situation is absurd. He’s the parent of a stranger. Then he’s got this ridiculous house. But most of all, he’s trying to have two seemingly mutually incompatible identities at the same time. We’re at this historical moment where it’s so difficult to point out the absurdity of such things.
Most of the stuff in “Loving Day” is really a case of me holding up a frame to something that already exists. The frame says at the top: “Funny.” Because the thing is, most of the absurdities in there, they’re absurdities that I’ve encountered in some way or another, in life. Part of the job of the satirist is not just to twist reality, it’s to look at existing reality and put this frame around it so you can actually see how crazy it is.
A lot of the race discussions are nuts. Somebody was talking to me the other day about that question of his two conflicting identities: Is he black, is he mixed, is he biracial? How are you going to define it? But if you have a mom who is Jewish and a dad who is Italian, and you say, “I’m Italian,” people will be like, “Yeah, I know you’re Italian, I met your dad.” And if you say, “I’m Jewish,” people will be like, “Yeah, I met your mom, I know you’re Jewish.” There’s no conflict there, we allow for dual ethnicities without even questioning it twice!
But when we enter into blackness and whiteness, there’s this conflict that we immediately apply to it. Partly that’s because we’re not just talking about ethnicities, we’re also talking about racial caste systems and where you fit into the racial caste system. But it’s completely absurd. My family loves “Blackish.” We watch it all the time. One of the first episodes, it starts with the black father telling his biracial wife, “You’re not really black, you’re mixed. You don’t know what real blackness is.” Then later, in the exact same episode, he complains that his kids don’t know enough about Obama, the first black president!
That’s one of the interesting things about mixed identity: It allows you to see the absurdity there and the fact that race is actually a strategy. Part of the reason people get so upset about it is because deep down, I think they know that this thing that they pretend has really solid foundations is actually extremely fluid and can change at any time.
That’s true. But Tosha is saying something legitimate as well. She’s saying, “Are you renouncing this amazing culture that we have? Yes, it was formed in a crucible of horror and oppression, but it is a glorious thing. Are you repudiating that?” You have Warren claim that while race doesn’t really exist, tribes do. That makes sense. We think of our tribe as a cultural identity that’s really fundamental to who we are. So how can we be fundamentally two different things?
I think we are in multiple tribes. We’re in the writer tribe, and then we have our ethnic tribe, and then we have our place tribe. We do have these identities that are different. But specifically with black identity, there’s no question of blackness for mixed people. If a cop is walking down a street and sees a mixed person that he’s suspicious of, he doesn’t really care that they’re mixed. He’s looking at the blackness. So it’s a caste system, I don’t think there’s a question of that.
Within African-American culture, though, I do think there is a mulatto experience. And yet African-American people, on average, are mixed people ethnically and genetically. The average African-American has 24 percent European ancestry. My mother, my black mom who doesn’t have any white ancestors on legal paper all the way back to slavery, is 50 percent African and 45 percent European, according to her DNA test. I’m mixed, but I’m coming from a community that’s already mixed. Really what’s changed is the cultural context. Mixed identity has been largely defined by slavery, and specifically by slave rape and the denial of white parentage under slavery, the children being cut off from their white ethnic heritage. Now, the connection between genetic heritage and parenting has totally changed. So it makes sense that definitions are going to change, too.
Warren and [his love interest] Sun also have a shared identity as comics fans, which is the thing that they bond over more than anything else.
My first tribe is black nerd. If the war goes down, that’s the camp I’m going with. We’ll be over there with our Star Wars paraphernalia fighting off the zombies. To me that was a very specific experience. We didn’t fit in in the larger community and we all would see each other at the comic book store. As we were facing these societal images about black male power and black female sexuality that we didn’t fit into, in this geek world we created these utopias and ideas about — for me and a lot of other boys — masculinity that we could escape into. That’s more important to me. It’s funny because I know that the mixed thing in “Loving Day” is the first thing everybody hits.
Despite what you say about having viewed mixed identity the way Tosha does for most of your life, I have to say there’s something so mixed about everything in your work. From the way you mix genres to the way you keep making up these crazy portmanteau words that are so hilarious. There’s “mullatopia,” in “Loving Day,” but my favorite, from “Pym,” is “blackademic.” That needs to be the title of a ‘70s-style blaxploitation film.
I would love it, if somebody gave me the money I would do it.
I wonder, on the poster, what weapon he could be holding with which to put down the Man.
“Blackademic vs. the Tenure Review Board”: That’d be great!
You take two different words and you put them together. “Incognegro” is another really great one.
I had no idea I was doing that. Nobody’s ever pointed that out. I think there’s an African-American relationship to language and names where you basically say, “This isn’t quite for me so I’m going to change it.” For me specifically, the world never really matched what I wanted and what I needed. So I was always picking things from here and picking things from there. I guess because of my own hybrid identity, I had no respect for the differences and borders between things.
I opened “Loving Day,” thinking, this is going to be a great, hilarious satire of mixed-race identity. And then I read the first paragraph and thought, “Hello, gothic!” You’ve got a main character who inherits a big old house with weird stuff going on. That is a gothic opener, although I’ve never before read a truly urban, a ghetto gothic novel.
Well, you’ve got to go to Germantown, because it is totally urban gothic. There was the big, gorgeous German Tudor architecture, Victorian architecture, an inheritance from an upper-class, wealthy, white elite that now was in a majority black, working-class neighborhood. Germantown was my ethnic identity. There’s a lot of black working-class people, there’s some black middle-class people, and there’s a bunch of liberal, white, middle-class people there, and it’s a real mix. So I started expanding from there. I didn’t intend for the book to have ghosts, I just wanted it to have crackheads.
I don’t know if this is intentional or not, but given that Warren is Irish as well as African-American, the way that he thinks about and talks about crackheads is exactly the way Irish people talk about fairies. He does everything but sprinkle salt on the threshold to keep them out! He never actually sees any real crackheads, but he has the idea that they’re getting into the house and he has to set up these cameras, like charms to keep them out. They’re up to all this mischief and who knows why they do the things they do. They have almost supernatural powers.
Totally. I grew up in the ‘80s, and that’s what it felt like. It wasn’t that you didn’t see them, but that we spent more time thinking about them than actually having to deal with them head on. But it had mythic qualities. A friend of mine’s house was broken into and there was an incredibly small opening. I remember looking at it and trying to figure out how this guy got in, because we knew who did it. We imagine that his head collapsed like a mouse’s skull is supposed to be able to collapse.
One of the reasons I’m adamant about having an identity that incorporates more of who I am is because those Irish things do pop up. A lot of my humor I think comes from this Irish interpretation of the world.
And the wordplay is a big Irish thing as well.
Yeah, definitely. There was a black academic pathway through W. E. B. Du Bois and Frederick Douglass, Alain Locke — all these people from the Harlem Renaissance, that really interests me. But I also was really heavily influenced by this working-class, Irish intellectual pathway. I’ve been published for 15 years now, and the attention has been mostly to my identity as an African-American novelist, which I am. Everybody, since I’ve come out, everyone immediately goes, is this a Ralph Ellison-type book?
I have to admit I have that name on my notes.
Everyone does, and it’s true, that’s part of it. But equally so for me, probably slightly more so for me, was Joseph Heller’s “Catch 22.” When I read that, it was one of those things where the ceiling opens up and the heavens start shining.
Now that you mention it, that makes perfect sense.
I reread it and reread it and then I started trying to figure out the structure. To me, that was the gateway drug. I read “Invisible Man” later, in college. I was late to class the day we were supposed to discuss it. I showed up all out-of-breath because I wanted to finish it before I came. I sat down, and they said, “Anything else we want to talk about?” I raised my hand to say, “This book is hilarious!” I could see the looks of horror on all the other students. What’s wrong, what did I do? And the teacher said, “You found something funny here?”
That’s tragic. It’s such a funny book.
It’s hilarious, but you know what’s weird is, I’ve seen that interpretation by a ton of academics, black and white, who don’t even understand or seem to understand that it’s a satire. They don’t see the point of the humor. Of course, most satires don’t win literary prizes, and “Invisible Man” did. I really think part of that was because they didn’t understand it. It’s a trip.
I suppose people feel that you can’t talk about race except seriously. Unless you’re a comedian, I guess.
The opposite should be true. You look at satirists in America, and there’s two major themes that we deal with: war and race. The reason we do it that way is because both are absurd and the only way to deal with the absurdity, to deal with the tension around that, is to use humor. It’s the only tool. I think one of the differences for me now, looking at this book, is that when I wrote “Pym,” I didn’t think it was funny.
Well, no. I swear to god. I thought there were several scenes that were funny in themselves. But I wasn’t thinking of it as a funny book, Because the thing is, humor’s not hard for me, humor is how I communicate with the world. So I’m not trying to be funny, usually. I think with “Loving Day,” I’ve accepted the fact that I’m a comic writer, because I didn’t want to be. I wanted to be a humorless, highly respected author. There are points where I’m writing a joke and it’s like, OK, there goes that prize. I’d have panic attacks. Let’s face it, in literary fiction you depend on either the high falutin' accolades, or hope that somehow you get sales that will keep you alive. I know that my work is probably not going to get the formal accolades because humor isn’t really valued that much. On the other side, it’s going to just annoy a ton of people. I realized eventually it’s just for people who want to come giggle in the dark with me. And that’s OK.