restricted access The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (1991)
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THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE CYRA MCFADDEN Ab o u t t o m e e t t h e multifaceted black writer Charles Johnson, one wonders if he’ll manifest himself in a puff of smoke. The man is a novelist, a former cartoonist, a philosopher, an academic, and the coowner of a kung fu studio. His writing is equally hard to categorize . Johnson’s specialty as a novelist is slipping back and forth over the border between the fantastic and the real, taking the reader along as willing hostage. His mind plays on the page, spinning off images, and his prose is so rhythmic, you could dance to it. In San Francisco to promote the Plume paperback edition of Middle Passage, a book that won him the 1990 National Book Award for Fiction, Johnson turned out to be a self-possessed man 68 Reprinted from the San Francisco Examiner (17 November 1991), with permission of Florence Fang, Publisher. in a conservative navy-blue suit. His dark-rimmed glasses gave him a serious, scholarly look. Except for his scuffed maroon cowboy boots, he could have passed for a corporate CEO. Striding athletically into the lobby of the Clift Hotel, he apologized for a case of jet lag that didn’t seem to be slowing him down much. An international traveler, Johnson was just back from Japan and Indonesia, where he lectured on multicultural issues for the U.S. Information Service. He’s got one of those minds that can cover a lot of ground in a hurry. A few minutes into lunch in the hotel dining room, where he was relegated to the smokers’ ghetto, Johnson had mentioned the rich culture of Jakarta (“It’s gone from the Stone Age to the modern”), why he likes living in Seattle (the city is more diversified than people tend to think, with a 10 percent black population and a black mayor), and his great respect for San Francisco kung fu grandmaster Doc Fai Wong. Wong taught Johnson Choy Li Fut, the 125–year-old kung fu system that he practices. Johnson described him as “a gentle teacher” and, as he spoke, he inclined his head in a slight bow. A trim, fit man, the writer gives the impression of simmering energy even while sitting still—just as well, given his busy life. Johnson and his wife, Joan, have two children. Daughter Elizabeth , ten, is a fledgling cartoonist. Son Malik, sixteen, is a high school student, “interested in writing and the martial arts.” The writer tries to spend as much time as he can with his family, but he could use more hours in the day. Since 1970, Johnson, who’s forty-three, has published three novels, a collection of short stories, an anthology of black writing , and two books of cartoons, as well as writing and producing for public television. Just so he doesn’t wind up with time on his hands, he’s Pollock Professor of English at the University of Washington, holding the first endowed chair ever in the creative writing department. And his literary reputation keeps growing. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (1991) 69 One critic ventured that Middle Passage, an account of the voyage of a slave ship, “may just be” the Great American Novel. In the NewYorkTimes Book Review, novelist Thomas Keneally compared it to Billy Budd and Moby-Dick. Only 209 pages long, Middle Passage is both an adventure at sea and a fable about good and evil. Its cast includes a ship’s captain who’s a moral monster, the stowaway who tells the tale, and a mysterious African tribe, the Allmuseri. The narrative rips along and the language showcases Johnson’s rich vocabulary; it is a rare reader who will grasp all the classical references and not have to look up words: “thalassic,” “choriambs,” “melic,” “litotes,” “contrapletes.” Yet the scholarly author has more than a little in common with the Swamp Woman, the conjurer in his first published novel, Faith and the Good Thing, and with Falcon, the villain of Middle Passage. All three are storytellers whose subject is no less ambitious than what it is to be human. They all love to kick ideas around.You can imagine the three of them arguing about the Platonic ideal over a beer—in Greek. Johnson was born and raised in Evanston, Ill., the only child of a father from South Carolina and a mother from Georgia. His father left school after fifth grade because, with...


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