Who Gets to Tell Stories?




DANA JOHNSON’S stunning new collection of stories, In the Not Quite Dark, is the kind of book that inspires writers to write. Triumphantly portraying the complexities of womanhood, race, and Los Angeles, it raises questions that urge us to redefine our notions of history and our place in it. As some of the best do, this book leaves wounds: wounds that bleed, wounds like holes that need to be filled with living and life, hope, and compassion.

My questions about the book go beyond what’s on the page and into broader issues about writing and living; that’s the kind of meaningful conversation this collection politely demands. But the first thing I wanted to ask Johnson about was the final piece in the collection, “The Story of Biddy Mason,” which had me crying in places, feeling like justice was done for Biddy, and, as the character herself concludes by the end, that there must be a God.

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NATASHIA DEÓN: Besides the distance she walked, what made you want to tell the “lost” story of Biddy Mason?

DANA JOHNSON: After I saw artist Sheila Levrant de Bretteville’s concrete wall honoring Biddy Mason downtown on Broadway and Spring Streets (between 3rd and 4th), the life of this woman stayed with me. The part of the piece detailing Biddy’s walk from south to north immediately struck me, but so many other things did as well. The fact, for example, that I am born and raised in Los Angeles but never heard her story. And the placing of the wall, which is really kind of tucked away, was haunting to me — it seemed to somehow echo or underscore my feeling of an erased or hard-to-find Los Angeles history. But even beyond all of that, my desire to write a fictionalized account of her journey and accomplishments and legacy came down to my wanting to ask a question about why some stories remain prominent while others fade away, and how our lives here and now are nevertheless informed by the disappeared. Biddy Mason started life as a slave, acquired a fortune after she won her freedom, and was a midwife and a philanthropist who helped the poor — the number of lives she changed or delivered into the world is unknowable but exhilarating to think about.

You juxtapose the story of Henry E. Huntington, who is largely credited with the birth of Los Angeles, with Biddy’s story. How did you decide to tell these two stories together? And why do you think some stories are considered less important than others? 

It’s clear that historians (historically) have made choices about whose stories are important and whose stories are disposable. In the literary world, the same has been true: people make decisions about which stories to tell; they make decisions about who gets to tell those stories, and to what kind of audience, which sends a subconscious message to readers. If I don’t see your story, then you must not exist; if I don’t see your story, that means it doesn’t deserve to be seen. I thought there would be tension in constructing a narrative that juxtaposed a famous larger-than-life narrative with a lesser-known account in order to discuss how history and knowledge is constructed. I’m not trying to take anything from Huntington in terms of his contributions to California and Los Angeles, which are well documented and highly visible via the presence of his name throughout the city. I’m even living in one of his beautiful buildings — it used to be the Huntington Building and is now called the Pacific Electric Lofts — and it’s my favorite place that I’ve ever lived. But as I researched, it was clear to me that his luck in being born white and male into a family of status was instrumental to his narrative becoming history in the first place. I was also thinking about how his contributions were typically masculine — he constructed railroads and buildings and acquired valuable paintings and books — whereas Biddy, though she miraculously made a fortune on her own after being a slave, is connected to midwifery and taking care of other people — and she erected the first African-American church in Los Angeles — accomplishments that our society doesn’t seem to value as much as showing off wealth by acquiring things.

In a biography written by James Thorpe, there’s a letter in which Huntington’s uncle tells young Edward that, rather than take a job as a porter making three dollars a week, he should work for free, because to work for so little money was beneath him. Of course that detail was a perfect connection to Biddy who worked for free until she won her freedom.

Powerful. You capture the ghosts of the past with such mastery — the way they “deliver [us] into [our] future.” And starting with the title story, “Now, in the Not Quite Dark,” you make readers keenly aware that we are surrounded by somebody else’s history — on the streets, in our homes and our cities — in many ways, your characters are haunted, even though by the pasts (and futures) of distant strangers or neighbors. You make your readers feel their sense of loss and longing so well with a sentence like this: “[H]e was the kind of kid who cried after complete strangers left him.”

Why show both the past and the present (and people trying desperately to hold on to the present)? What were you trying to do?

I’m always thinking about how we are all connected as people, no matter where we come from, and that’s why, even without my really thinking about it explicitly, there are all these ghosts in the collection. When I think of ghosts, I think of people who carried on with their lives, figured out some things and maybe not some others, but that there is always something to be learned from the fact that a person lived and died. For the characters in some of these stories, this notion is not an abstraction but a tether, a sustaining idea that helps them in their daily struggles. At least that was what I was trying to show.

One of the things that I love most in this book is how you talk about race. And how sometimes race matters tremendously to the story, like in “Rogues,” and other times, it’s not so prominent. But even when it’s not prominent, race and culture inform the characters in a way that feels authentic. So none of them, whether white, or Colombian, or black, or other, feel flat.

When writing across race and culture and gender, did you approach the characters in the same way? Differently than you might an all-female African-American cast?

I approach all my characters in the same way, with the idea, simply, that they are meant to represent human beings on the page. Whether I’m writing women or men or whatever, as a woman of color, my goal and intent is to write whole, nuanced characters. There is a lot of talk about the legitimacy of writing outside our experience, and this is an important discussion for reasons that I mentioned earlier — who gets to tell stories and how we tell them has deep and serious implications for representation — but I reject the idea that as a black woman, I’m relegated to writing black woman exclusively. That is not what being a writer is for me. On the other hand, if I’m going to write outside my experience, I have an obligation to go beyond stereotype, beyond mere idea, or dogma, or to make some kind of point about diversity. Years ago in a workshop, I learned a lesson. I had written a story through the point of view of a young white man. Before the workshop, I happened to be standing next to a young white man, also in the class, who was going on about how much he loved the story, that it was badass and that he couldn’t wait to meet this Dana Johnson. This was very early in my writing life, and I remember it was so cool to hear that kind of appreciation. But in the room, once he saw that I was not the white guy he thought I was, he had nothing but criticism for the story. I sat there with my mouth hanging open. And so I realized: If I’m doing my job as a writer, then readers will connect to characters with whom they identify regardless of race and gender. If I get it wrong, I’ve failed and it’s my fault, and that’s a serious issue for reasons we’ve talked about, but if I get it right and you deny the truth of that based on who you think I am, then you’ve failed as a reader and that’s your fault.

Yes, yes! The character I’m asked about most frequently in my novel (Grace, Counterpoint, 2016) is Cynthia, a Jewish woman who is detached from her family and culture and is a business owner — which makes her an outcast. Her character was based on a real person whom I knew briefly, and who died. Before I wrote her, I remember thinking, “I want to honor her.” It occurred to me later that, as writers, we are honoring all of our characters, or at least showing a truth in them. As you said, if we’re successful, we’re delivering them “believable and whole.” 

I want to shift the conversation a bit to one of your stories, “Because That’s Just Easier.” The characters in the story are assaulted by images on television — zombies eating flesh, blood, and bone; and in a beautiful twist, we, the readers, are assaulted by images of them — like the homeless man taking a dump on the street, then using his hands as tissue. You seem to be saying that people have become desensitized to the plight of others because we’re constantly assaulted by uncomfortable and even painful images. I wonder if the way to rescue humanity from itself lies in gaining understanding from what we see. But it seems that people want to quit seeing.

I agree. In this story I was absolutely wrestling with the notion of what we don’t want to see. Because I live downtown, I see all manner of people who are homeless. People who simply have nowhere to go through no fault of their own but because it is simply harder and harder to afford to live. There are people on drugs, people with mental health issues, and people who look just plain abandoned, as if they were dumped and just left to die in the streets. Nobody wants to see that, and there’s a feeling of helplessness, that the one-dollar bill or five-dollar bill I might give to someone will do absolutely nothing to improve their quality of life. Or the contribution to a larger homeless advocacy organization won’t reach the person I’m looking at in the here and now. And so, to a certain degree, in order to not be a devastated human being looking at other human beings who have been discarded by their community, I’ve felt I’ve had to become numb in some way. In “Because That’s Just Easier,” I was trying to examine all of that, how we can in fact become zombies ourselves in trying to forget and not see. It’s incredible what I’ve gotten used to. When I go to other parts of the country like, for example, smaller towns in Alabama, where my husband is from, you will not see a single homeless person, and if you did, you certainly would not normalize it like we do here.

That’s interesting. We sometimes assume we’re progressive in places like Los Angeles, and that places like Alabama are less so. Do you have any thoughts on why we tolerate homelessness this way in the West?

This is a large and far-reaching question that I don’t have the answers to, but I do think that there is a phenomenon of getting “used” to something because it’s so ubiquitous, when in another setting or situation, to see a person lying on the street immediately calls on you to ask what’s wrong or if there is some way you can help. It’s just clear that in our larger American cities and at the local, state, and federal government level, this issue has not been addressed in any consequential, substantial way.

That’s a nice bridge into the next question — about what people deserve. In the opening paragraph of “She Deserves Everything She Gets,” you’re describing Gertrude, this perfect teenager, who believes “all of [this] is what happens to people who are good.” The idea is that if you’re a good person, then of course good things will happen to you. And, in reverse, if something bad happens, it’s your fault. Women especially absorb this message. But it seems to be a terrible way to determine self-worth: we’re more complicated than that. Situations are more complicated. And you show that so subtly and brilliantly in the rest of the story.

What inspired you to explore the issue of what we deserve and what we think others deserve?

I guess I’m just so tired of the notion that those who are well-off somehow deserve to be well-off because they were good people or worked hard, when — and this is not a revelation — luck has so much to do with where we land in life. Yet this mythology persists in our culture: it’s your own damn fault if you’re broke. Particularly, if one happens to be African American — there’s a deep denial in the United States about the systematic oppression that has made it very difficult for African Americans to earn anywhere close to the wealth that whites have acquired. Conversely, there are a lot of choices that have to be made in the aspiration for upward mobility. If we aren’t careful or really don’t care, we can end up exploiting situations and people and cause great harm.

T. S. Eliot wrote, “Half the harm that is done in the world is due to people […] who don’t mean to do harm but the harm does not interest them.” Do we spend too much time on the good things we have and turn away from how we’ve gotten them and who or what’s affected? Our planet? Other people?

It certainly seems so! Like, what number iPhone are we at, for example? We’re on iPhone 115 or something, and yes, I’m exaggerating, but barely. But how much profit does a company need, and how are the people who are making these things affected, and what is such consumption and technological excess doing to the world? That’s a perfect example of how far away we’ve gotten from the questions you’re asking.

And that’s exactly one of the things that I love about this book: how you bring readers back from wherever we are, all off-target and forgetful, and for me, it seems you are asking us to start at the beginning — to talk about what’s right here in front of our faces. It’s all us. There on the street or here in this apartment. But sometimes, we here dismiss them there with a label. Speaking of which: in the story “Rogues,” your opening includes the use of a racial epithet — the n-word. As a craft issue, was there anything you wanted to achieve by giving your character, Kenny, this word?

I just wanted to write real characters. I don’t live in a world in which no one uses this word. I hear this word all the time. And so in my fiction, I was absolutely going to include it in dialogue, as something that someone would say. At the same time, I integrated the debate about the use of this word between brothers who happen to be African American. One brother is comfortable using that word, and one brother is not. At the end of the day, this is what it comes down to as an African American: either you’re comfortable using it or not. And if you’re a white person who’s comfortable using that word, God bless you. I cannot tell you how many times in my life I’ve been asked by someone who was not black, “Black people call each other that word, so why can’t I?” And the answer, obviously, is that not all black people use that word! And the question following that, obviously, is why do you insist on ignoring the context and power dynamic involved in who says that word to whom? Why in the world are you so eager to reclaim it or retrieve it from its racist origins just because some black people now own the word and use the word in ways that speak to them culturally?

Word. Thank you for that. My final question is about one of my favorite characters in this collection — La Donna in “Sunshine.” It’s such a beautiful, thought-provoking story.

La Donna is smart, has goals and hopes, and has some sense of who she is. She is sunshine. But she settles. And you brilliantly and carefully craft her relationship with the boyfriend who demeans her by using a balance of love and abuse. Did you, as the writer, have specific goals in telling this story? Or is the story just the story?

Thank you for that. I love complicated, flawed characters who aren’t superheroes, who figure everything out by the end of a story. At the same time, I’m interested in resilience and the emotional intelligence of people (or lack thereof) — so maybe my characters are on their way to figuring things out by the end of the story. But I will not deliver to the reader a conclusion wrapped up in a neat and tidy bow of enlightenment. This can be frustrating to readers who need their characters to represent some kind of affirming idea of blackness or gender or sexuality or you name it. Believe me, I’ve heard from them! So La Donna is a stripper who happens to be smart and emotionally intelligent, except for this blind spot she has about the man she loves. And there’s all kinds of exoticization of her by her white boyfriend that are very complicated and fraught. In that story, in these characters, I just wanted to explore the entanglements of all these issues, which are all part of the human condition.

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Natashia Deón is the author of the critically acclaimed debut novel Grace and is the recipient of a PEN Center USA Emerging Voices fellowship. Recently named one of Los Angeles’s “Most Fascinating People” in LA Weekly’s People Issue, Deón is a lawyer, law professor, and the creator of the popular Los Angeles–based reading series Dirty Laundry Lit.


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