Mat Johnson

Novelist, essayist, graphic novelist
Headshot of a man

Photo courtesy of the author

Music Credit:

History of an Apology” written and performed by Paul Rucker, from the album, History of an Apology.

(Music Up)

Mat Johnson: When I did Pym, you know, which was a satire about race and takes Edgar Allen Poe's only novel as a launching point—the first review came in and was like, "This is laugh out loud funny. And I don’t say that about any book and this one is." And I was kind of offended. <laughs>

Jo Reed: Were you really?

Mat Johnson: Well, I was like, “What the hell is he talking about? I’m working very hard to be a very serious author here,” and I was—and I tried to figure out what he was talk—I didn’t know what he was even talking about. And then when I looked at—it was the prose. The prose was really funny and that was a real wake-up call for me. After that point, I was like, “Oh, wow. You’re a humorist”, you know, “You didn’t want to be a humorist but it turns out you’re a humorist. So you just need to kind of embrace that.”

(Music Up)

Jo Reed: That’s author Mat Johnson and this is Art Works the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed. Mat Johnson’s work exists at the intersection of race and identity. His graphic novels tend to look at these issues straightforwardly—brutality won’t be denied. Take Incognegro as an example; in that graphic novel, a fair-skinned black man passes as white so he can report on lynchings in the South in the early part of the 20th Century. And we see what he sees during that bloody time. But then, as we just heard, his novels—while no less an examination of race and identity—are funny and daring satires. His most recent novel is Loving Day. The title refers to the holiday that celebrates the 1967 Supreme Court decision of Loving v. Virginia which struck down laws banning interracial marriage. In Loving Day, Mat Johnson has fun with what it means to be black-ish in these United States. Meet Warren Duffy—a mixed-race man who looks white but who identifies as black. He declares himself “a racial optical illusion.” The novel opens with Warren returning to his hometown of Philadelphia after years abroad, only to discover he has a teenage daughter who’s even whiter than he is, and who is as surprised as he is to learn of their relationship. What follows is sharply observed, candid, funny and irreverent. For Mat Johnson, who is the child of an African-American Mother and a European-American Father, identity is an issue that will not be denied.

Mat Johnson: I grew up at a time where there was not a mixed identity. There was certainly not a biracial identity, and so if you had one black parent you were considered black, and you, for the most part, considered yourself black, and that was how society worked. And society hasn't gotten that much different, but it was the options that I was presented with were that there was no option, and so it would've been fine if I actually looked black, but I looked to a lot of people to be white or at least Hispanic but not African American, so it was constantly something that would come up. You know, whether I would be in college and join a club and be in a black group and people are like "Why is dude here?" or whether I was in a white group, you know, and somebody would say something, you know, racist basically or white supremacist and I would react to it, and they would be caught off-guard that there was like an enemy in their midst. So I'm glad that I found it interesting, <laughs> because I didn't really have a choice but to negotiate. There's a lot of mixed people who don't think about it at all. There’s three aspects of identity usually: there's how you look at yourself, there's how society looks at you, and then there's your literal connection to the identity. So if you are born looking white and society looks at you as white and on paper, you have all-European ancestry you don't have any problem with your identity. If you're born black and you feel like you're black but you don't look black, you know, there's a conflict, because one of those things is off. So anytime one of those aspects between the self and the group and then your literal connection is not on the same page then there's going to be conflicts around that.

Jo Reed: You deal with this very directly in your work, and in Loving Day, which is set in Philadelphia, where you were born, Warren Duffy has an Irish American father and an African American mother. Clearly, race is central to this book, but Duffy comes back to Philadelphia because his father has died. And almost simultaneously he finds out that he is the parent of a teenage daughter.

Mat Johnson: Right.

Jo Reed: So that signals to me that this is also a book about growing up and stepping up.

Mat Johnson: Yeah. Well, it is. I mean, there's what you think a book is about when you're writing it, a novel is about when you're writing it, and then there's what you think it's about when it comes to completion, and then there's what you continue to think about it in the decades after. When I look back now—let's see. I finished that book almost four years ago. I mean, it was on the stands two years ago, but I finished about four years ago. When I look back now I think it's about how to become a man, and I mean that in the sense of a good man in relation to the women in your life, particularly like a cisgender straight male. How do you be a good person and also be a man in a society that doesn't teach you or reinforce positive behavior for the most part? So I look back and I think there's a lot of female aspects that this character had to deal with, you know, he has to deal with a daughter, he has to deal with a lover, he has to deal with a maternal figure, and ultimately he has to deal with himself, but I think part of that exploration for me of that type of coming of age was trying to figure out—I mean, it's a clichéd phrase, but really trying to push past toxic masculinity, trying to come up with a masculine identity that also wasn't a negative one. I don't know if that's what I was thinking when I wrote it, but as a reader that's what I think is there now.

Jo Reed: Tell us about Warren Duffy. We know a bit about him, but just fill in the blanks a little bit here.

Mat Johnson: Okay, Warren is a guy from Philly. His mother died when he was about 10. He lives with his father, who is kind of emotionally unavailable. His mom was black, his father's white, he looks very white. He is into comic books and escaped into that superhero realm and became an illustrator, and he ran away from the States the second he basically could and went to university in Wales, in Swansea, and then he's forced to come back and deal with his own past and his own identity that he's kind of run away from when his father dies, and in returning to deal with the estate he's presented with a daughter that he didn't realize he left behind. And so the first chance that he tries to deal with this daughter who grew up just with a Jewish identity and had no understanding that she also had an African American ancestry he tries to basically give her a black identity, and when that doesn't work particularly well he settles for a mixed identity, which when he left the States when he was growing up didn't really exist. So in the process of entering her into this school at this mixed commune, he ends up having to negotiate mixed identity as well and see the benefits and the detractions of this kind of new way of thinking about this type of black experience.

Jo Reed: Right, because when the book begins Duffy is "There's your tribe, there's my tribe."

Mat Johnson: Right—

Jo Reed: "There’s your side, there’s my side"—

Mat Johnson: Right. It's a black and white way, yeah—

Jo Reed: and it’s black and it’s white.

Mat Johnson: Yeah.

Jo Reed: And in a way, And in a way coming up when he did claiming to be of mixed race—it was fraught. I mean, how possible was it?

Mat Johnson: Well "fraught" is the right word, and it was fraught for a lot of legitimate reasons. The primary one was that for many black people and mixed people claiming mixed race was an opportunity to distance yourself from the stigma of blackness and to reject blackness and make yourself more adjacent to a whiteness and white power, and I mean, this is always a part of the black community. The closer you look physically to a European, the more power and privilege you have in the society. Lighter-skin people have more privilege than darker-skin people in the society. Now, everybody within that group is still black and deals with the issues of being black, but there's the variations on that. So for a long time, I assumed that if you were of mixed ancestry and you didn’t—you said you weren't black and you were mixed I was very offended by that, and I took it as basically you were rejecting blackness, that that was the point. And I'll say this. There was a lot of people I met who-- very clearly that's what they were doing, so for that reason I didn't want to have anything to do with the discussion, because I saw it as this kind of splintering, really like a cancer within black identity of a way of splitting people apart and taking away larger power from that. I changed that viewpoint much later as an adult, and I think I was only comfortable with changing that opinion when I saw that there was a way that you could have a mixed-race identity that was not in any way a rejection of blackness and that was not about trying to become more white-privilege-adjacent but was about coming up with a view of self that fit you, because the other part of saying like "I'm knocking out that identity of mixedness and I'm only dealing with black identity, and I'm black and that's it" is that it can create a situation where you feel like you're forced to match-up to your identity or the name that you're giving yourself for your identity as opposed to your identity matching you. And that's what I saw with myself, was that, particularly when I was younger, I overcompensated for the fact that my skin is pale and my hair is straight, and that overcompensation over time became incredibly painful, and so it was a relief to say "This is a better description of who I am.” Now, today I still consider myself racially black. I'm a part of the African American community, I'm black, ethnically I'm African American, but I also recognize that I'm mixed, and personally I see mixed identity as an aspect of African American identity, and at the same time I respect other people's ideas about how they're going to come up with something that best exemplifies how they feel.

Jo Reed: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. And you have Warren that "while race really doesn't exist tribes do."

Mat Johnson: Yeah. The discussion on race is always difficult because race obviously is an artificial concept—basically a fake caste system that we still have to uphold. I mean, race isn't real, but we actually have to deal with the effects of race, though, every day, because they affect our lives. The effects of the racist ideologies in our culture are real. But, yeah, in my mind a lot of discussion about race is tribal, and I find it really helpful to think about these issues as tribal because the issue of race and white supremacy is so loaded and has such a horrific history. Anytime we have any discussion about it people are apt to shut down because when you say somebody is racist you're not talking about an ideology. You're saying "You are a bad person." That's what they're hearing, so, you know, immediately the conversation ends, because you say "Well, that was racist." Well, I couldn't have said that, because if I said the racist things that would mean I'm racist and being racist means I'm a bad person, and I know I'm not a bad person, therefore I can't be racist, therefore I couldn't have said anything racist, right? It just immediately stops any kind of intellectual discourse.

Jo Reed: It's like calling somebody a Nazi.

Mat Johnson: Right, right. Yeah, you're not talking about membership in the National Socialist Party when you say Nazi. You're talking about all the stigmas around it.

Mat Johnson: Right. So one way for me to be able to sidestep it even in my own thinking but also in discussions with other people is to talk about tribalism because tribalism is something that we all engage in at some level, you know. We have ways of thinking about who we are, our group, their group, and it's also how the human brain works. Sometimes young, very innocent, very optimistic kids will come up to me when I give talks and stuff, and they'll be like "Well, when do you think racism's going to be over?" And I’m like—just it's heartbreaking because you're like "It's not going to be over, and even if it was it'd be because we had some other class-based system to define people." Race is a symptom of a much larger issue about how humans think and how humans strategize with tribes to retain power. So when I talk to people I like to try and frame things within this sort of tribalism discussion, because that's in many ways less fraught and if you start looking at it along tribal lines it just starts to make more sense.

Jo Reed: You say that Loving Day is your coming-out book, you’re coming out as a "mulatto", which is a loaded term, as well you know.

Mat Johnson: Right. <laughs>

Jo Reed: So how are you coming out, and why the term "mulatto"?

Mat Johnson: Okay. Well, coming out and saying "No, I actually think of myself as being mixed" was a big deal in itself, because really there haven't been a lot of black-identified voices who talk about this directly. I mean, because I'm still black-identified—I see mixed as being a part of that experience. And also just the discussion itself was seen as something you just don't do. And then the other aspect of it—and this was the answer—was to talk about the word "mulatto," and I wanted a discussion about that, and I was open to being challenged and corrected about usage of the word, but there's a contemporary idea that the word "mulatto" comes from "mule" and therefore is offensive, referring to Beasts of Burden. But there's a very strong argument that-- we don't know anything for certain but a very strong argument that it actually is derivative of an Arabic word that meant "of mixed ethnicity"—there wasn't race then, so it's a mixed tribe, mixed ethnicity—and therefore that mules were named after us as opposed to the other way around. So there's all this connotation of it, and also it harkens for many people to slavery, and it was very fraught, but it's not simply the word that people are freaking out about. The level of emotional energy that goes into it is not simply the word. It's the entire discussion about African American mixed-race identity is that hostile, and so I really wanted to challenge people to look at that and look at the definitions behind the word, look at the context and start to move past that initial gut reaction of shutting down conversation and being forced to push past. And here I am a person who's incredibly proud of my African American ancestry. I am a part of the African American community. I have been dedicated to the uplift of my ethnic group in this country. I'm not saying any of this as a way of distancing myself from blackness. I'm not trying to become more white-adjacent. I already look pretty damn white, <laughs> so it's like names are not going to change my level of privilege, but I do think it's important because I think it allows people, you know, who, like myself, didn't feel like they fit in, didn't feel like there was a place for them, constantly felt like they were seen as lesser in the sense of "Well, you're black, but, you know, are you really black? But, wait, you're trying to not be black. You're black. Why are you doing that? But are you black enough?" And so there's this constant thing of trying to prove yourself, and I don't want another generation to have to deal with that crap because it's exhausting and pointless and doesn't get anybody anywhere. What I would like at the end of all this is for the big tent of African American identity to also include specifically a mixed-race identity as being part of that experience and not this position where people who whether they grew up in households that were predominantly white or because of the way they look are in a position where they constantly have to reaffirm their membership to stay in the club.

Jo Reed: So by asserting yourself as somebody who's mixed you're able to still claim your African American identity but at the same time also be part of your father's group, which is Irish American, and I'm sure you have relatives whom you love very much on his side.

Mat Johnson: Yeah, it allows for a larger viewpoint of yourself, and I can tell you how this affected me. One, when I was growing up I was constantly in a position where I had to prove to people that I belonged, you know, that my blackness was real and not something I was just putting on as a sort of affectation even if I did have a black mom. And I also I think limited myself in things from the type of music I would listen to, to what I would allow myself to do. It was like what was black and what was not, you know, what was out of range, and that's something that happens with a lot of black people in general, but with mixed people I think it becomes more extreme. Yeah, and I also wanted to think of myself in a way that incorporated all of culturally who I am. I was never going to not talk to my dad or his side of the family less because of how I literally define myself, but it allows me to see myself better, to look at myself within this other larger cultural tradition, you know, which when you look at my work is there. A lot of my sense of humor comes from my father. My father—if you met him you might not know he's funny, but he mutters under his breath some of the funniest stuff I've ever heard, and he's got this kind of dry Irish-Catholic sense of humor, and you know, that's in my work. My cousins are mixed, black and Jewish, and I had a lot of Jewish influences growing up, including my stepmother, who's Jewish, and that Jewish sense of humor is in my work. It's a multicultural work that comes out of my larger experience, and identifying myself in a way that actually fits who I am has really helped me kind of center myself.

Jo Reed: Did you grow up with both your parents?

Mat Johnson: My parents got separated when I was about four—well, separated and basically divorced when I was about four, but they only lived a mile or two from each other. One lived in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, one in the Mount Airy section, which is only separated by really couple blocks. So my father was very much in my life. I lived with my mother, but I would see my father, you know, every Wednesdays and every other weekend and stuff. I look back and think of all the horrible choir practices that he sat in the back for bravely. So I think today the definition of something like that would be co-parenting because it wasn’t like I didn’t see my dad. He was very active and took me out of the city and into the country hiking and things like that. So that was there. So both of those influences was there. And also, his parents, my grandparents, I spent a lot of time with. He was—they had me very young. They were pretty young when I was born. I think my mom was 22. He might've been 23 and so when I was like 6, my dad was like 28. Sometimes I would go to my grandparents for the weekend, his parents. And so they had a really big connection to who I became as well and, you know, they're very much working class Irish Catholic Americans.

Jo Reed: Would you code switch?

Mat Johnson: I mean, everybody code switches—

Jo Reed: Everybody code switches but did you do it consciously?

Mat Johnson: I do. I'm very good at it <laughs>. It’s funny because I didn’t realize everybody code switches till I became a professor. And then you hear the professors talking one way in a faculty meeting, one way in the coffee room, and then another way in front of the students, right? So, I think I code switched more when I was younger. When I went to my father's house, my English was probably more traditional English. My mother, though, was from the Midwest so I didn’t have an east coast African-American accent really, except when I was out hanging with my friends and that, you know—the kids in my neighborhood. And then I had a basic Philly black American accent that I used. There was times in my life where it was more active code-switching. Now I'm old. I'm old-ish. I'm 47. And so I just can't be bothered to code switch now. Honestly, the biggest difference when I talk is when I have something to drink, <laughs> which isn’t that often. But, when it is, all of a sudden, I definitely sound like a <laughs> working middle class, African American kid from Philly, a working middle-class African American kid from Philly. I sound like I'm at the Eagles parade.

Jo Reed: <laughs> Oh, should I congratulate you by the way?

Mat Johnson: Yes, you should. I and every person who's ever lived in Philadelphia more than six months should be congratulated, yeah.

Jo Reed: Congratulations.

Mat Johnson: Thank you.

Jo Reed: The house Duffy inherited is in Germantown.

Mat Johnson: Yeah.

Jo Reed: I was really intrigued by that neighborhood in Philadelphia. And it figures so prominently in the book—it almost feels like another character.

Mat Johnson: Yeah, Germantown's where I grew up. It's about 15-minute drive from Center City. It's a historic area. At one time, it was a country retreat to urban Philadelphia, particularly when disease in the summer was a major issue. Later, it became an industrial area in the 18th century. Sorry, in the 19th Century going into the 20th century. And then, when nationwide industrial urban America kind of fell off, it became a Jewish and Irish working-class area. And then, right before I was born basically, probably within five/ten years before I was born, it had a dramatic shift overnight to become a black neighborhood. Parts of it were upper middle-class black and parts of it were very working-class. And I lived in a working class part of it. There was like two people on the block, Irish people that were leftovers from the early world, senior citizens who just hadn’t moved yet. So it's this place with these gorgeous Victorian homes and mansions, some of them been cut up to be apartments for nine different people. And it's got this incredible Quaker history there and—

Jo Reed: Oh, of course.

Mat Johnson: this really odd mix of, when I grew up, a black working-class environment and a white and black middle class. A very liberal middle class that was there. Part of why it comes up so much in my work in addition to being an anchor for my identity going forward is that I realized later it was basically a metaphor in many ways for my own identity. That you had this neighborhood that was built for a wealthy white upper class and that's now being populated primarily by a black working class. And I think that definitely affected the way I looked at the world, I think. And also, I didn’t think I realized that mirroring. I just thought this is the way the world is.

Jo Reed: That makes perfect sense as somebody who was brought up in New York.

Mat Johnson: Yeah.

Jo Reed: I get that completely.

Mat Johnson: Yeah.

Jo Reed: I think New Yorkers are the most parochial people in the world.

Mat Johnson: Right <laughs>

Jo Reed: If it doesn't happen in New York, it doesn’t exist. I'm sorry.

Mat Johnson: Yeah, I've never realized I've met people in Manhattan who had never been to Brooklyn.

Jo Reed: Oh yeah <laughs>

Jo Reed: Over the course of your career you've written novels, graphic novels, comics, non-fiction. How do you decide which medium you're going to work in when you get an idea for a story?

Mat Johnson: Right. Those are the questions I ask myself at three o'clock in the morning, “How did this start?” <laughs> “How did I get into this?”

Jo Reed: "How'd I know?" <laughs>

Mat Johnson: Yeah. With comic books, one, it has to be a very visual story. But also I'm interested in doing stuff in any medium that hasn’t been done specifically in that medium before. So talking about lynching and ideas of racial ambiguity hadn’t been done in comic books at that time. So it was wide open. If I had done that as a novel, it would not be a big deal. There's tons of novels by African-American literary authors who write about violence and white supremacy. But doing it as a comic made it instantly innovative and so, same thing is going sometimes with prose. I'm thinking less visually with prose and more about ideas I want to explore. But I'm also thinking about what can I do here that hasn’t been done in this form or hasn’t been done this way in this form. And so I think—I have a new novel. I'm already thinking about the next three novels. I tend to think novel first and, if it doesn't quite fit as a novel because it's too short of a story and too visual, then it goes to comic books. Well, here's an example: I'm working on a pilot right now for a half hour dramedy, comedy/drama. And it's an academic story. Well, there's tons of academic novels and there's tons of academic satires because it's hard to write an academic novel that doesn’t become a satire. But I haven't seen a TV show like that, one that accurately depicts what it's actually like to work in modern higher education. You know, that was going to be a novel and then I realized, well, Richard Russo's The Straight Man is already there. Mary McCarthy's done her stuff. Let me go over to this genre. Nobody's done this over here. Now it becomes interesting. And obviously, you wouldn’t want to do that as a comic book, because academics are too boring to do that. You'd have to ratch up the absurdity to a degree that wouldn't be worth it. So, yeah, and so it's ideas like that, that they tend to fall into does this fit the strengths of the medium and is this innovative in that medium?

Jo Reed: Choosing to write satirical novels, especially satirical novels that have race and identity at its core, is not for the faint-hearted. Tell me what about satire appeals to you.

Mat Johnson: Honestly, I had never tried to do satire. I never wanted to be funny.

Jo Reed: Are you joking?

Mat Johnson: No, I'm not. People think I'm crazy when I say this. It actually sounds a little bizarre.

Jo Reed: You are laugh out loud funny!

Mat Johnson: Well, thank you. When I did Pym, you know, which was a satire about race and takes Edgar Allen Poe's only novel as a launching point—it came out of a series of lectures that I did for a class that was based around Toni Morrison's "Playing in the Dark," which explores the ideas of whiteness and blackness in American literature. So my concern was, “How do I get this discussion of ideas across in a way that isn’t boring?” And the whole thing, it becomes ice monsters under the surface in Antarctica, and it's a whole big crazy thing. But I was trying to pull off this thing of making an interesting discussion of ideas that maybe you didn’t even know was a discussion of ideas, right? So, when the first reviews came back, the first review came in and was like, "This is laugh out loud funny. And I don’t say that about any book and this one is." And I was kind of offended.

Jo Reed: Were you really?

Mat Johnson: Well, I was like, "What the hell is he talking about? I'm working very hard to be a very serious author here," and I was—and I tried to figure out what he was talk—I didn’t know what he was even talking about. So I went back and read it and meanwhile more reviews are coming in. In every review, the first thing that's going is, "Holy, bleep, this is really funny." And I'm reading it and I realize, "Oh, god. It is funny." And I knew of one scene that was funny. There's a DNA test scene—

Jo Reed: Oh, god that was funny.

Mat Johnson: --that was in part about trying to reject blackness. An organization of African Americans who identify as Native American and they have a DNA test to prove their case. And, when the case comes back, it turns out that they have an extremely small amount of Native American DNA and everybody basically just loses their mind. And this is after people are showing up in headdresses and stuff. I knew it was funny, but I didn’t know if there was—I really couldn’t think of any other funny part in the whole book. And then, when I looked at it, there was all—it was the prose. The prose was really funny and I realized that I write in three-page to five-page seconds. And I'm always just trying not to bore myself. And, because of that, I keep putting this humor in to wake myself up at different points, and because my humor is the way I actually see the world. It's not artificial. This is what goes on in my head. When I'm stuck, you know, in traffic, when I'm stuck in the personnel and planning meeting for two hours, that's how my brain thinks, right? But I didn’t realize on the page, me keeping myself awake every three pages, over three hundred pages, is a lot of humor. And that was a real wakeup call for me, that after that point, I was like, "Oh, wow. You're a humorist”, you know, “You didn’t want to be a humorist but it turns out you're a humorist. So you just need to kind of embrace that."

Jo Reed: Well, when you talked earlier about working on a pilot for a series about the academy, I immediately thought of the beginning of Pym—

Mat Johnson: Right. Yeah.

Jo Reed: where Chris Jaynes is a professor who did not get tenure and we see him, you know. He's been under his desk for three days. <laughs> That's funny.

Mat Johnson: Yeah, it is. It’s funny because I'm actually in that world right now, <laughs> so it's like not as funny because it's almost realistic. You know what I mean? That's the thing is I think I—I had a student a couple years ago come to me and be like, "I want to be funny. I've heard you're funny. Can you help me be funny?" And it was a very talented author and I couldn’t. Honestly, I can't not be funny and I'm not saying like a brag—I've tried to write without the humor and it's lacking. It's okay but it's just okay. And I think part of the path of a writer is getting past trying to be the writer you want to be and accepting the writer that you actually are and building on that person. I wanted to be a very sober, like Toni Morrison, but that's not who I am. And so, trying to actually find out who I am and run in that direction, that's allowed me to do much better work.

Jo Reed: You're working on a television pilot.

Mat Johnson: I'm working on everything. I tell my students sometimes—and one of the things I enjoy doing today is I teach other people to write. I mean, that's one of the more rewarding things that I get to do. So, I'm always telling them, "I'm working on this project. I'm working on that." A lot of times, you're just throwing a bunch of stuff on the wall and seeing if it sticks. And that goes for novels too. I'll write 70/50 pages into a book and see if it's working. And so sometimes I work on scripts too. I—with Loving Day, Loving Day was picked up by a network that I shall not name for a TV show. And so I worked for a year with show runner Sam Bain who did a show called Peep Show in Britain and we worked on a script together. And the show didn’t get picked up but I learned a ton getting to work with him. And one of the things that's been exciting is constantly getting to learn as you write, constantly getting to grow. And so I enjoyed that process so much and I enjoyed the collaborative process of it too, which is something I enjoy about comic books that I started to keep going with it and keep writing more scripts after that.

Jo Reed: We're running out of time but tell me briefly, had you always wanted to write?

Mat Johnson: So when I grew up in Germantown, my neighborhood was not the best. My mom did not let me go out much initially, and so I started reading to get out, at least in my head. And I read comic books a ton. I didn’t switch to novels until I realized, well, for $1, I can buy a comic book I'm going to read in 20 minutes. But, for that same dollar, I can buy this used novel over here and I'll read that for two weeks. And that was how I got into the novel. And then, I think I just always just loved reading. It was the reading first and from that love of reading I was like, "Well, this seems like the best thing." Plus I just—the idea of not having to go into a physical job was really, really attractive. Of course, I became a teacher so I'd still have to go in but I don’t have to go in that much. So it was that but I think I was initially loved being immersed in other people's worlds on the page, and I loved the idea of being able to create my own worlds. And then when I'd—you get into it first for a lot of different reasons. But, once you get there, there's other things you fall in love with, you know? It's like moving to a city. You go because, you know, the weather but you get there and you love some other aspect of it even more. And I think, with writing, I loved being able to create my own world and show my reality that I didn’t get to do before. But I think the other thing, and when you look back at that work, particularly with Incognegro and Loving Day as I created a space for myself to exist. A couple years ago I did a teaching thing with Jane Smiley and she talked about, from a feminist perspective, creating a universe on the page and where she could exist. And I think I definitely did that. I exist in the imagination. A person like me can exist in the imagination more after I create a work that sort of defines myself.

Jo Reed: That's well said, Mat. Thank you. And thank you for creating those worlds because I love the worlds you create.

Mat Johnson: Aw, thank you! Thanks for coming in. <laughs>

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Jo Reed: That’s Mat Johnson—he’s the author of the novel Loving Day—which is available in paperback; and his graphic novel, Incognegro has just been rereleased with new material. You've been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. And please subscribe to Art Works wherever you download your podcasts and leave us a rating on Apple. It does help people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

His novels take a satirical look at race and identity.