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AUTHOR NAVIGATES UNCHARTED WATERS Middle Passage Takes Readers on Spirited Journey M. L. LYKE Fo a m y - m o u t h e d d o g s chew fingers off human captives. Sailors thrashed by seas as high as mountains succumb to oozing boils and chancres. A dwarf of a captain who makes William Bligh look like a saint brags about barbecuing a cabin boy for dinner. Mutiny is afoot. Sound like serious fiction? Serious black philosophical fiction? Charles Johnson, University of Washington professor, novelist , essayist and literary critic, is quick to describe his fastpaced swashbuckler Middle Passage, a book that’s up for an important National Book Award next Tuesday, as “accessible,” especially in comparison with earlier, more complex works such as Oxherding Tale (1982). 42 Reprinted from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (20 November 1990), with permission. “It’s more entertaining, more fun, more spirited in some ways,” says the forty-two-year-old writer, who plays with literary form and tone the way some painters play with pigment. Yet only a dimwitted, high-seas mongrel would describe this adventure, told through the eyes of a thieving scoundrel who stows away aboard a nineteenth-century square-rigger, as simple entertainment. That’s too easy. And Johnson, a front-line warrior in the battle against simplistic thinking, is not into easy. Highly praised as a “novelist of ideas,” he’s one of the major players helping to redefine contemporary black American literature with complex, thoughtful fiction based on character, not ideology. “There’s an attitude about black writing in this country,” he says, “that if it’s not the protest novel, then what is it?” Consider: The scoundrel in Middle Passage is black, a former slave freed by a master who schooled him in deep philosophy . The reason he’s fleeing? The woman he loves wants to marry him. The ship, unbeknown to him, is a slaver. As the sole black crew member, he’s in a moral pickle. But that’s not all. The buyers and sellers of the ship’s human cargo, a tribe of mythical African sorcerers whose shape-shifting god has been trapped and carted aboard, are not necessarily white. All of which can lead a young black thief whose soul is adrift to some serious philosophizing. Aye, matey. “Art should be a form of discovery,” says Johnson, relaxing back into a chair in the small University of Washington office he has occupied for fourteen years. “If you only see what you think you would see, art is not doing its job.” He looks positively professorial in this room of free-flowing ideas. His hair is frosted gray, his glasses are the quarter-inch Author Navigates Uncharted Waters (1990) 43 variety, and his speech is thick with literary references, historical anecdotes, statistical revelations. Sentences sometimes end with a questioning tone, as if to ask a student, “Do you get it? Understand?” But look again. This teacher-writer is as unpredictable as the fiction he writes. An Episcopalian-turned-Buddhist, he meditates an hour every day, teaches Chinese martial arts at a school he co-owns on Phinney Ridge and, despite the incredible discipline he brings to his work, confesses to writing in binges. “I get onto something and I’ll write for twelve hours. I’ll binge write, then I’ll go to sleep, get up, and I’ll binge write some more,” he says, lighting up an Old Gold Light. A cigarette? “It’s my writer’s habit,” he says with an easy chuckle. Johnson started writing at twelve when his mother gave him a diary. His home was Evanston, Illinois, a place he has described as a “progressive ‘Leave It to Beaver’” town. And his goal was cartooning, not writing. But by the age of twenty-six, he had published his first novel, Faith and the GoodThing, showing the rich characterization and heady mix of the real and the surreal that would quickly bring him critical acclaim. By twenty-six, he had also established careers as a political cartoonist and a journalist, and had launched a television career that has continued into the ’80s with such gems as Booker, the 1984 PBS show he co-wrote on Booker T. Washington. Under his belt, he had two degrees from Southern Illinois University—one in journalism and one in philosophy. He would nearly finish a third—in phenomenology and literary aesthetics—before being wooed west by the University of Washington at age...


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