Friday, March 25, 2011

CHARLES JOHNSON TALKS ABOUT SOULCATCHER AND OTHER STORIES

If I'm not mistaken, Africans in America is the only history book to ever contain original short stories, 12 in all, composed by a contemporary writer to dramatize the historical record on American slavery. Looking back at this companion book for the PBS series in 1998, I'm pleased with these stories and feel privileged that I had the opportunity to write them. But doing the stories was psychologically and spiritually difficult---even slightly damaging---for me. 

One of the producers for the PBS series told me that the goal was to make viewers of the four programs and readers of the companion book feel what it must have been like to be either a master or a slave. With that directive, I knew I was about to begin a very painful, imaginative experience. I deliberately put it off for a full year, partly to complete my novel Dreamer after seven years of working on it, and to do two weeks of research in Thailand for an article Microsoft requested for one of its on-line travel magazines. 
Tired from those experiences at the end of 1997, I almost backed out at the last minute from doing the stories in early 1998, because looming ahead of me was six weeks of book promotion away from home for Dreamer starting in April. But I couldn't back out. I'd made a promise and signed a contract. In my study were boxes of primary research provided by historians at Harvard and other  universities. Furthermore, if I didn't deliver those 12 stories, the companion book for the PBS series would not be completed by the time the series aired in the fall of 1998, and that would damage a decade of work that executive producer Orlando Bagwell, an old friend from my days of working on film projects at WGBH in the 1970s, had invested in making this powerful series on slavery a reality.

When a writer creates a character, he (or she) must fully enter into that fictitious person, feeling the character's life and emotions from within. This process is  identical, psychologically, to what an actor must do when playing a role. In order to do this for the characters who were slaves, I knew I would have to make myself experience in the depths of my imagination and soul the full gamut of negative emotions: anger, outrage, even murderous hatred. All the things that Buddhists work to eliminate from their minds. Worse, I suspected that these emotions---so necessary for writing about slavery---would, to some degree, remain with me long after the stories were done.

So I decided to write all twelve during the month of January, 1998, mainly to shorten the time I would have to dwell emotionally, night and day, on the horrors of the hate-inducing Peculiar Institution. On all that centuries-old violence that I would have to make come alive within me. I told my wife and children that I would be physically at home for the coming month, yes, in case they needed anything; but they had to understand that in his head Daddy would be living in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.


When I began to write I had no idea what the 12 stories would be---only an idea for the first one, "The Transmission," which would dramatize the Middle Passage. I did have a list, though, of literary forms and different viewpoints I wanted to use to aesthetically diversify the stories. (You should expect that from someone who taught creative writing for 33 years.)

I tentatively began "The Transmission," not using the style I'd employed for my novel Middle Passage, but instead one of strict naturalism. I wrote about two brothers in the hold of a slave ship; they'd lost their world and were on that nightmare journey to the New World. I had to imagine and feel every detail of their terror and dehumanization. But, then, as I began to ask myself questions about who they were in their village before they were captured, it occurred to me that the older brother might be a griot, a living library containing all the history, culture, knowledge, and rituals of his people. A human book. It was then I realized that he, dying, would use that terrible voyage to orally transmit to his younger brother a detailed vision of the world they had lost. This transmission, from brother to brother, saves them both from going mad in the belly of that boat. In other words, that knowledge and cultural experience were things of tremendous value the white man could never take away from them. And after the older brother dies, the younger one knows that he is the new keeper of their culture and history, and that he is obliged to add new stories to it when he reaches America. Yin and Yang: in the midst of the worst experience imaginable, I mercifully stumbled upon some light in the darkness, an approach that could show the human capacity to snatch something good out of evil. The "Transmission" took about two and a half days to write. Once it was done, I saw how I could do three stories a week for four weeks, working night and day, pausing only to sleep and hastily eat a meal. (I have no recollection whatsoever of  events happening in the world outside my study during the month of January 1998.)  And even better, I saw how I could portray strength, dignity, and personal agency in the slave characters I had to write about, and not present them as helpless victims.


Today, those twelve fictions comprise my third short story collection, Soulcatcher and Other Stories, which is used in classrooms every year for students ranging from middle school through college. Some years ago, I was delighted during a radio interview when the host for that show told me that she at first thought all twelve stories had been written by different people, that I'd only served as the editor who assembled them. That was exactly the affect I wanted to achieve through artistic variations. "The Transmission" uses authorial omniscience (third-person limited) viewpoint. "Confession" shaped itself as a third-person monologue (until the very end of the story, only the slave Tiberius speaks). "Poetry and Politics" is a single scene entirely in dialogue (no narration or description) because I heard rather than saw this exchange between Phyllis Wheatley and her mistress. "A Soldier for the Crown" is cast in second-person viewpoint (which prevents readers from knowing an important fact about the protagonist until the story's end). "Martha's Dilemma" is written in traditional first person, and "The Plague" is rendered as fictitious diary entries by Rev. Richard Allen, founder of the African Methodist Episcopal church (AME) that I was raised in as a child. An epistolary approach (letters) felt best for "A Report from St. Dominique," and in "The People Speak" I could not resist (being an old journalist) the mock-newspaper article as the story's vehicle. By contrast, "Soulcatcher" uses full authorial omniscience as it switches from the viewpoint of a slave hunter to perching on the shoulder of his prey (I've only done this approach once before, in the story "Kwoon"). In "A Lion at Pendelton," mixed prose and verse (George Moses Horton's poem "The Slave's Complaint") structure that narrative. The dominant feature of "The Mayor's Tale" is, obviously, the "Once upon a time" narrative voice usually heard in folk-and-fairy tales. And the final story, "Murderous Thoughts," is composed of alternating first-person monologues, each with a different voice and diction, delivered to an off-camera reporter.


So those are the inter-connecting slavery stories. If I had my druthers, and could do an assignment like this again, I'd pick the period between Emancipation and the legalizing of racial segregation ("separate but equal") in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case, because those thirty-one years of American history (they produced people like James Weldon Johnson, boxer Jack Johnson, and W.E.B. Du Bois) have not often been dramatized, years during Reconstruction and after it when life and the possibilities for black Americans were (relatively and briefly) more fluid, and richer in possibilities before Jim Crow became law.

 But, yes, as I feared, my month-long immersion in the experience of slavery for the Africans in America stories (which was rather like going on an extended meditation retreat) did leave in me a residue of "murderous thoughts" whenever I think about this subject (or any matters pertaining to race). The stories took a lot out of me. But for a writer, even a black, practicing Buddhist, that was just part of the territory this assignment demanded that I traverse, and ultimately a small price to pay for bringing those stories to the page.

1 comment:

  1. I've used this collection of stories in a number of courses: a freshman-level composition course (the students later wrote research papers about slavery); a sophomore-level survey of American literature; and a senior-level seminar focusing on Dr. Johnson's ouevre. Although I think Middle Passage is definitely his masterpiece, Soulcatcher has been seriously underrated as a collection of stories. The range of voices and narrative technique is truly remarkable. But this experimentation is always in service to the story and never "gimmicky."

    P.S.: I've just discovered this wonderful blog and will need time to catch up!

    Best to Ethelbert & Chuck!

    Jim McWilliams

    ReplyDelete