“Hello, Braggsville. You don’t know me. I’m Chinese, but I’ve had a normal American upbringing otherwise,” said the tall African-American man wearing a wool cap, sitting Tuesday afternoon in front of the classroom at McKinley High School.
The contrast between the man, author T. Geronimo Johnson, and his second novel, “Welcome To Braggsville,” from which he was reading, was clearly too much for some of the students crowded into Room C101.
The darkly comic book, the 2015 recipient of the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence, follows four University of California, Berkeley, students who stage a protest during a Civil War re-enactment in rural Georgia.
The foursome have definite ethnicities and backgrounds, and Johnson inhabits them all in the book. He likened it to the way an actor plays different roles.
“Why is the main character a white kid from a small town and not a black man?” asked Saida Mizyet, a senior at the Baton Rouge public high school.
“I had to shift the lens,” responded Johnson. He elaborated: “This shift in focus allowed me to talk to the audience that most needed to hear it.”
Employing a white main character is just one of the strategies Johnson said he used to broaden the potential audience for his novel. Another is employing ample doses of black humor, he said.
“Sometimes I say I’m more of a life plagiarist than a novelist because I’m just taking things that are all around us and making them visible to people who refuse to see them,” he said.
The Gaines Award, which Johnson will accept Thursday night, has been given for the past nine years to promising young African-American writers. Along with the $10,000 prize, Gaines Award winners must speak to school groups.
Johnson, who teaches writing at UC-Berkeley, was clearly at ease in front of the more than 50 students but made clear he would do as much listening as talking.
“I’m not very interested in talking to you,” he said. “I want to talk with you.”
The students present were a mix from Lena Barrow’s gifted English class and students from Destiny Cooper’s “Humanities Amped” class, a program drawing students from multiple academic tracks.
Several of the students present Tuesday participate in spoken-word poetry contests and read Johnson selections of their work. Senior Robin Lofton gave Johnson the name of three of her poems to choose from.
“ ‘Ventriloquist’ sounds interesting, just the title alone,” Johnson responded.
Lofton then stood at the front and transformed into a puppeteer who broke her puppet on purpose for fear it would break free from her and live on its own.
Afterward, Johnson joked that poets are the “smart people” because they can write their work in one sitting rather than working day after day for years.
Writing, for Johnson, was a compulsion from a young age, he said, one he continued through circumstances that might have led others to quit. For instance, he said he kept writing during one period even as he worked all day at a shoe store and most of the night at a Kinko’s.
A native of New Orleans, Johnson has lived all over, including Maryland and Virginia, and received a scattershot education along the way. He recalls being in ninth grade in the 1980s at Warren Easton High School in New Orleans and learning that the United States has two legislative chambers, something he was taught in sixth grade at his school in Maryland.
He said he also briefly attended LSU, where, he joked, he majored in frequenting bars, before eventually earning his bachelor’s degree from Oglethorpe University in Atlanta.
While Johnson said he feels cheated by the advantages and support others had as they made their through school, his own lack of formal training had an upside in that his creativity had not been killed in school. In his teaching, he said, he gets students who’ve lost track of their creative spark and he tries to help them regain it.
He enjoyed reading, but the books were not enough, so he decided to become a writer himself, he said.
“I couldn’t find books that related to my experience of the world,” he said.
It’s an experience where disappointment abounds and life is usually unfair: “The people who work the hardest are often the people who make the least amount of money.”
Humor, he said, helps him to process this reality. For instance, he said enjoys standup comedy. He recalled fondly a duo who perform in San Francisco and make jokes out of ethnic confusion. One of them is a Jewish man from India.
Also comedians are natural storytellers and, he said, do one important thing all storytellers need to do: “Comedians know how to end a story.”