Writing past wrongs: Author Jocelyn Johnson looks for new American truths

On October 26, Jocelyn Johnson will read an excerpt from “Control Negro” at New Dominion Bookshop. The story was selected by Roxane Gay for inclusion in Best American Short Stories 2018. Publicity photo On October 26, Jocelyn Johnson will read an excerpt from “Control Negro” at New Dominion Bookshop. The story was selected by Roxane Gay for inclusion in Best American Short Stories 2018. Publicity photo

When local author and teacher Jocelyn Johnson started receiving Twitter direct messages from literary giant Roxane Gay, she thought to herself, “Something good is going to happen.” Just like that, a series of emphatic pings announced her arrival into a rarefied sphere: Johnson’s story, “Control Negro,” was hand-selected by Gay to be featured in Best American Short Stories 2018. The collection, which is compiled and introduced by a different guest editor annually, celebrates the year’s best work within the form. Only 20 pieces are deemed worthy of inclusion, and Johnson describes the accolade as being simultaneously thrilling and surreal. For many, acceptance into the anthology is commensurate with reaching a career peak—an artistic endpoint. Johnson has a different mentality: It only goes up from here.

Gay had praised Johnson’s work to her half-a-million Twitter followers in August 2017 (“‘Control Negro,’ in Guernica, is one hell of a short story.”), so the minute Johnson learned Gay was assembling the anthology, she jumped to submit the piece. A few months and a stuffed inbox later, Johnson would finally be able to answer “yes” to her parents’ most persistent question: “Can we get [your work] in a Barnes & Noble?” She is now folded into the pages of an industry standard, a text she had personally devoured “for years and years.”

Just as Johnson has always been an avid reader, she has always pressed her pen to paper. There has never been a time when she wasn’t an artist—a multimedia envisionist with a penchant for producing drawings and manuscripts alike. When she was still teenager, Johnson set to work on her first novel, typing pages on the keyboard of her IBM personal computer after devouring The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton.

Johnson teaches visual arts in Charlottesville public schools, which grants her life-inspired fodder for her writing. Being a full-time art instructor and mother means her craft truly hinges on self-discipline; she carves drafting sessions out of summer months and rare pockets of weekend quiet.

Johnson studied art and education at James Madison University, but a year of international exploration with her husband, and the creation of a related blog, allowed her to envision writing as a viable complement to her teaching career. She credits travel with reframing her artistic brain because it affects writing and how you “interact with things when you’re taken out of place.”

Johnson’s writing does just that: It grasps the reader and jostles her into a separate reality—often, the reality of a person whose voice is traditionally and systematically repressed. She opts to embody the brains of characters harboring “troublesome” mindsets, as in the protagonist of “Control Negro,” an elusive black father and scholar who scrutinizes his unknowing son from afar and uses him as a pawn in a race-based social experiment.

Such an exercise, Johnson says, affirms the “power of fiction,” drawing on the writer’s and reader’s ability to align herself with an alternate perspective and see the world through someone else’s eyes.

This is precisely what Gay means in the anthology introduction when she says, “I am not avoiding reality when I read fiction; I am strengthening my ability to cope with reality.”

Johnson’s fiction employs real and universal themes, such as surging water as a metaphor for swelling life pressures. But, each piece she writes also offers its own set of truths—ideas that put strain on the lopsided, majority-favoring realties many citizens sustain.

“As a mom of a child of color and as a woman,” she says, “…I want to have an influence by sharing ideas that let people…have [more]…awareness or even just a little bit more empathy for someone they might feel distant from.” This desire to establish a new American truth has contributed to her rise in the writing world. Johnson credits her work on August 11 and 12, 2017, including her article in C-VILLE, with helping propel her career. Those essays, like her short stories, responded to questions sweeping the nation: “Who are we, and how do we want to respond to things that we may disagree with strongly? How do we feel like we have power and agency?”

In the next phase of her career, Johnson plans to complete her first collection, Virginia Is Not Your Home, and continue grappling with socially relevant themes. She finds an artistic identity in braiding together a moment’s lingering strings —in “making something that’s bigger than [herself]” through writing.

Johnson considers her craft a rich gift, an opportunity to seek out the spaces and faces in her community that are routinely ignored and hone in on their truths. While she acknowledges such a task is not always easy, it’s indisputably worthwhile. “I would rather the world be more comfortable for everybody, honestly,” she says, but, “if it has to be uncomfortable, I think we should take that opportunity.”

On October 26, Jocelyn Johnson will read an excerpt from “Control Negro” at New Dominion Bookshop. The story was selected by Roxane Gay for inclusion in Best American Short Stories 2018. 

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