Novelist Mat Johnson believes that America has its own unique “flavor” of apocalypse. “It’s hard not seeing the possible end of things in a variety of different ways,” he says.
Johnson’s new satirical novel, Invisible Things, serves up one of those apocalyptic flavors. Set in the future, the novel takes place on one of Jupiter’s many moons, where humans have created an artificial ecosystem designed to replicate life on Earth. But they’ve also copied some of the worst aspects of America’s class system and politics. Partisanship reigns, and the privileged — namely, those who arrived in the domed colony first — are favored.
Johnson says the book’s satire was inspired, in part, by the intense emotions he experienced throughout the Trump presidency. But, he adds, the political rollercoaster of the past few years — and the normalization of extreme positions — complicated his vision of a dystopian future.
“We’re basically living in a satire,” he says. “It was very hard to twist things further along, to come up with something that gives you enough distance to say, ‘Hey, this is crazy.’ “
On mass denialism in America
We have a nation that was formed in part on a genocide, a land grab and forced generational slavery. We don’t have a choice but to acknowledge that. It’s been wild watching people react to the 1619 Project because … the real criticism that you hear behind these very petty disagreements about historical events is that we can’t accept this reality as being the source of our nation, that we can’t have an America that’s not based on our ideals, but based on how we formed it in the first place.
I can’t deal with the world that I’m finding myself in without acknowledging that a lot of our existing prejudices. Our entire identity, is based, in part, on the way that we formed, even the issue of mass denialism. I’m scared sometimes that part of the reason that Americans are so good at pretending that what’s happening is not happening is a combination of a history of doing this — of being a nation that forms … [out] of the idea of freedom while also [having] tens of thousands of people being slaves and then also being wealthy enough to get away with it for a very long time. And that’s kind of what I fear we’re hitting the wall about.
On feeling pressure to push through his own frustrations because of what his ancestors endured
There’s so many times when things get really dark, whether it’s on a personal or societal level, the impulse is just to give up. And I think about that when I want to give up in different ways. Like, what I’m enduring is nothing compared to what my African ancestors endured, just in the sail from West Africa to the States, just that part alone, in addition to the 100 years of violent oppression and sexual assault.
And then on my white side and the Irish side, they came here from a place where they’re being starved to death. And they managed to just come out of incredibly bleak circumstances and make it across the sea and live in poverty for a couple of generations. And thank God for the GI Bill. …
I think putting it in that context is sometimes the only thing I can do that forces me to put my own frustrations and my own feelings of nihilism in perspective, because there’s an incredible strength in that, that people who endured the worst possible things that we can imagine … were able to have enough hope. Because that’s what it is — hope that tomorrow would be better. We’re talking about people whose kids were enslaved from the moment they came out of the womb. But they still had enough faith and hope that things could get better. And if they can do it, it seems insulting and disrespectful to their legacy if I don’t try to do that.
On growing up knowing his great-grandfather escaped lynching
I remember one of my most vivid recurring nightmares [as a kid] was that I was in the living room with a family that was mine, even though I didn’t recognize them. And everyone was being quiet and staring at each other in total fear as the door knob was being turned and the door was locked, but we could hear it clicking if someone tried to open it. And I guess the person I imagined to be my ancestor was sitting on a Archie Bunker-style chair with a shotgun on his lap staring at the door. I don’t know if that ever literally happened, but it definitely 100% figuratively happened. [My mother’s] grandfather ran away from a lynching. [There was] a fight over a mule and some rifles. And next thing you know, his entire life was changed. Having that kind of trauma there, some people think that’s genetic and some say it’s just something you learn from your parents. But it was present and the feeling that everything could go south any minute.
On his late mother’s long decline with multiple sclerosis and cancer
It’s so hard watching somebody you love deteriorate over a slow period of time. … I’ve been very fortunate to have a really fun career, both as a writer and as a teacher. But as all this has been happening, I’ve had this other part of my life, which has been about trying to keep my mother upright as new things kept collapsing beneath her. So it’s really weird for me not to have that at this point. It’s been two months [since she died] and I really don’t know how to deal with that. Because I spent so much of my energy in taking care of her, I haven’t come to terms with it yet.
On the specific relief he felt after her passing
I knew I was supposed to feel guilty about the relief and honestly, I didn’t. It wasn’t a relief because I was just tired. Towards the end, because my mother had dementia, she would call about eight times a day. … She didn’t mean to do it that way, but it was very nerve wracking. … The relief was not just, Oh, I don’t have to do the work anymore. The relief is, I’m not going to fail in being able to handle the amount of work that’s being presented to me. The relief was also fear. It wasn’t just tired. It was, I can barely, barely deal with this, what happens when it gets worse? Am I going to be able to handle it? Can I handle it financially? Can I handle it time-wise or do I have the answers at all?
On remembering who his mother was before her illness after her death
Once she left, like the next day, it felt like the version of her in my head of this woman whose body had betrayed her, who [had] completely collapsed, whose mind had betrayed her, and [who was] stuck in a chair for the rest of her life and unable to think her way through things or remember things … and then all of a sudden, it was flashback to this woman who I grew up with, this woman before all of this. I hadn’t really talked, in my mind, to that woman in so long. And then, bam! She reappeared. … I missed the person who existed, but I really missed the person who [she] was when she was all of who she was.
Sam Briger and Joel Wolfram produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Natalie Escobar adapted it for the web.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. My guest, Mat Johnson, calls his new satirical novel a parable about partisanship. It’s set in the future, when Earth is on the verge of destruction and a NASA mission sets off to one of Jupiter’s many moons to explore if it could be a place that humans could inhabit. What they find is an artificial ecosystem the size of an American county constructed to look like an American city. It’s populated with earthlings who have been abducted, dating back to 1623, and their offspring.
Life in this dome is, in some ways, a replica of life on Earth, even with products that have brand names that anyone on Earth would recognize. There’s a class system in which the privileged feel like they’ve fulfilled the dream and everyone else is shut out. The political system is designed to favor the privileged. Comfortably sitting at the top are the descendants of the founders. They run the dominant political party. The more recently you’ve arrived, the lower your status. If you ask – who built this town? – you’re told, God and God’s chosen. If you probe any further, you will be punished in truly mysterious ways. The novel is called “Invisible Things.” Mat Johnson has written several previous novels that deal with race. The main character in “Loving Day” is biracial, like Johnson. The novel “Pym” is about the only Black male professor at his college, who’s denied tenure and decides to search for the intellectual source of racial whiteness. Among Johnson’s honors are an American Book Award, the United States artist James Baldwin Fellowship and the John Dos Passos Prize for Literature. He’s the Philip H. Knight chair of Humanities at the University of Oregon.
Mat Johnson, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It’s really great to have you back on our show. You read some great personal essays on our show a few years ago. And I interviewed you when your novel “Loving Day” was published, so I’m really glad we got to talk again. I’d say – how’ve you been? – but I think that would be a very long answer.
MAT JOHNSON: Yeah. I think it’s just like handshaking. We have to come up with something new to get through the pleasantries nowadays.
GROSS: Yeah. So before we break that down – that how have you been part, before we break that down, let’s start with your new book. I want you to read something from the opening. And this is the part about the NASA expedition on its way to explore one of Jupiter’s moons. And aboard this flight is a sociologist invited by NASA to join the crew and study human behavior in space. So the name of this sociologist is Nalini. And she was chosen among many applicants. So would you read the part?
JOHNSON: Sure. (Reading) Nalini had the misfortune of coming of age during an era where there was really one existential question, would we destroy our planet before we figured out how to escape it? If humanity achieved interstellar migration, it could pollinate the universe with sentient life for millennia, avoiding extinction via diversification of location. If humans didn’t accomplish this goal, the only unanswered question would be, which combo of consequences for humanity’s collective sins would deliver the fatal blow? Climate devastation, nuclear Armageddon, systemic xenophobia, violent partisanship, pandemics – man-made or man-fault – they were all strong contenders. The range of cataclysms was dazzling. But as an academic, Nalini was most impressed with humanity’s ability to embrace the delusion that everything was fine.
GROSS: Thanks for reading that. And a cousin of that paragraph in the novel is a recent tweet. This was something you tweeted after Roe was overturned. And you wrote, this year’s theme is apocalypse – and this century’s. So it sounds like apocalypse, the end of the world as we know it, has been very much on your mind.
JOHNSON: Yeah. You know, it’s funny – when you say, on one of your recent tweets, immediately, it makes my stomach drop.
JOHNSON: I have no idea, most of the time, what I tweeted because I was just kind of, like, shooting off. But I guess it’s – a lot of times, it’s revealing. Yeah. I’ve, unfortunately, been thinking about it a lot, like a lot of people, you know, I guess, all over the world. But America has its own unique flavor of apocalypse. So it’s hard kind of not seeing the possible end of things in a variety of different ways.
GROSS: Do you think things on Earth are changing so quickly that if you want to write a politically engaged or a social commentary kind of novel, you almost have to set it in the future because the present is going to be the past, you know, in a couple of seconds? And things – I mean, if you just look at what happens every month – you know, politically and January 6, then the hearings and Roe v. Wade and shootings and then the overturning of the New York state law that restricted who could carry guns outside the home – you know, you look, it’s just all happening so quickly.
JOHNSON: Yeah. And I bet you, as you were coming up with that list, you were thinking, there’s a thousand other things I’m not bringing up, too, right?
GROSS: I know. I know. No, I was just – this is, like, the last, like, few weeks.
JOHNSON: Yeah. Yeah. It always feels like the last few weeks, you know (laughter)? That’s part of it. I think one of the first thing I started to notice was that satire – and most of the writing I’ve done has a satirical bent if not straight-up satire. And that’s less intentional. It’s more just kind of the way I look at the world and the language that I speak, right? So that’s how I usually come to the pages, the same way I go, you know – go to the coffee shop and everything else. That’s just how I see the world. But what I noticed quickly, you know, was satire, which usually is taking things to their logical extreme, to the utmost extreme, and then seeing the absurdity within them and then diffusing them because you’re pulling out the larger absurdity. And the hypocrisy becomes obvious and everything else.
That’s impossible for me right now because to my mind, we’re basically living in a satire. Things are to their complete extreme in so many different ways to point out their absolute absurdity. And yet, that’s become normalized, you know? So like, it was very hard to twist things further along, to come up with something that gives you enough distance to say, hey, this is crazy. No, it’s already crazy, so you can’t do that. The other thing that’s happening for me is that because things are moving, at this point, so quickly is that it doesn’t help for me as a writer to come up with something where I’m dealing with the specifics because the specifics are going to change so rapidly. So – and this also has something to do with kind of what I’ve been interested in. Instead, because of that, it’s not as much the specifics on individual issues, but in the larger ways that we as a society and we as individuals think about our world and these patterns of behavior that reemerge and reemerge in a variety of different ways. And, you know, for me, the biggest one when I was working on this book was mass denialism, a society-wide kind of choice to ignore certain things because they’re just too big to deal with.
GROSS: So on this moon of Jupiter, in which there’s a city that’s been created, designed to look like an American city and the population there is the people who have been abducted from Earth and spaceshipped (ph) to this moon. The abductions started in 1623. And that is, you know, approximately – I mean, that is the period, if not the – it’s not the exact year, but it’s the period when enslaved Africans start arriving in Virginia. It’s also the period, not the exact year, of the Mayflower landing, when the pilgrims first come to America. And the name of this fake city in this Jupiter moon is called New Roanoke. And of course, Roanoke is a city in Virginia. So explain why you chose this period of 1623 that coincided with, you know, both whiteness and Blackness in America from opposite directions.
JOHNSON: Yeah. The first time I jumped into the text, I really didn’t want it to be America whether – you know, or North America. I wanted it to be a combination of North America and Britain and France and all of us that were going through a very similar cultural moment – you know, Trump and Brexit and the rise of fascism in France. But what I end up finding was that I couldn’t distance it enough that I could actually still deal with the issues that we’re dealing with. And I was hoping to get to something far more universal. But a lot of, you know, what I found comes out of very specific events that happened in our history that we’re still dealing with the long-term effects. So once I realized that, I just started to try and look at a version of America that was not 1776 going forward or, you know, from some kind of set idea about what America is or the United States is and started trying to think about where the root of a lot of the – our current identity comes from. And so it really became inescapable.
GROSS: The 1600s is a period where you think American identity has created an American whiteness and Blackness.
JOHNSON: Well, I mean, you know, nobody wants to hear this, and I don’t want to say it. But we have a nation that was formed in part on a genocidal land-grab and forced generational slavery. I mean, it’s just – like, we don’t have a choice to – but to acknowledge that. You know, one – it’s been wild watching people react to the 1619 Project because I’ve seen people go after specifics, you know, and say, well, this wasn’t – you know, this isn’t accurate or this isn’t accurate. But really, the real criticism that you hear behind these kind of often very petty disagreements about historical events is that we can’t accept this reality as being the source of our nation, that we can’t have an America that’s not based on our ideals but based on, actually, you know, how we formed it in the first place.
And, you know, because I just – like, I can’t deal with this – you know, the world that I’m finding myself in without acknowledging that a lot of our existing prejudices, our, you know, entire identity is based on – in part, on the way that we formed. Even the issue of mass denialism – I’m scared sometimes that part of the reason that Americans are so good at pretending that what’s happening is not happening is a combination of a history of doing this, of being a nation that forms on the basis of the idea of freedom while also being – you know, tens of thousands of people being slaves and then also being wealthy enough to get away with it for a very long time. And that’s kind of what I fear we’re hitting the wall about.
GROSS: Well, let’s take a short break here, and then we’ll talk some more. If you’re just joining us, my guest is Mat Johnson. His new novel is called “Invisible Things.” We’ll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let’s get back to my interview with Mat Johnson. His new novel satirizing America’s divisive political system and class structure is called “Invisible Things.” It’s about a NASA mission looking to see if one of Jupiter’s moons is inhabitable. What they find is an artificial ecosystem in a glass dome that’s designed to look like an American city.
Your previous novels have focused a lot on race. You’re biracial. The sociologist in your new novel and one of the crew members are of African descent. But race doesn’t much directly figure into the story. But one example where it does that I want to refer to is Nalini, the sociologist, gets depressed when she’s on the moon colony and realizes she’s basically a prisoner there. And she wonders if she should do what some 19th century West Africans did after they were kidnapped and enslaved and bound for America, which is to jump overboard rather than endure captivity. And the primary reason she doesn’t act on that impulse is because she knows her own African ancestors were the ones who didn’t jump overboard. What made you think about that?
JOHNSON: I think about that all the time, really. There are so many times when things get really dark whether it’s on a personal or a societal level – the impulse is just to give up, you know? And I think about that when I, you know, want to give up in different ways. Like, what I’m enduring is nothing compared to what my African ancestors endured coming – you know, just in the sail from West Africa to the States, you know, just that part alone – in addition to the hundred years of violent oppression and sexual assault. And then, you know, on my white side, on the Irish side, I mean, they – you know, they came here from a place where they were being starved to death. And, you know, they managed to come out of incredibly bleak circumstances and make it across the sea and, you know, live in poverty for a couple generations. And thank God for the GI Bill. They finally got out.
But putting it in that context sometimes is sometimes the only thing I can do that forces me to put, you know, my own frustrations and my own feelings of nihilism in perspective because of – you know, there’s an incredible strength in that, that, like, people who endured the worst possible, you know, things that we can imagine – I’m sure there’s worse – but what we can imagine. And we’re able to have enough hope because that’s what it is. It’s hope that tomorrow would be better. I mean, we’re talking about people whose kids were enslaved from the moment they came out of the womb, right? But they still had enough faith and hope that things could get better. And, you know, if they can do it, I mean, it seems insulting and disrespectful to their legacy if – you know, if I don’t try to do that.
GROSS: You know, in “Pym,” one of your earlier novels, the main character’s the only Black male professor at his university. He’s kind of like the diversity hire, which makes him feel, like, quote, “a professional Negro.” Did you ever feel that way as a writer or a teacher, that you were being put in that category?
JOHNSON: Oh, sure. I mean, yeah. And in that novel, he gets replaced by another one. You know, like, there’s – it’s an interesting balance, like, being a Black author in particular. I mean, there’s a variety of different ways in – we can talk about American race, but the relationship between people of African descent and people, you know, of European descent is a very distinct dynamic. You know, and one of those dynamics plays out in literature. And in literature, historically, the idea has been that Black authors hold a mirror up to white America and let them see themselves as they really are.
And in the teaching aspects on the job, that’s – you know, it’s very similar. I mean – years ago, somebody told me the hardest job of – for a Black person to get in the English department would be as a Shakespeare scholar, you know, because they have – there’s tons of white Shakespeare scholars who – you know, who are working at Burger King. Like, there’s no way they’re going to hire a Black woman for that role, ’cause if they hire a Black professor in the English department, it’s going to be to teach African American lit. And oftentimes, even if they teach something else, it’s also teaching African American lit. So, like, there’s an idea about a set role that you’re supposed to play. And within liberalism, the larger – you know, I’m – like, I consider myself liberal, but in the larger kind of area of liberalism, there is this idea of checking off boxes, you know, sometimes and, you know, a – finding yourself – that you’re there in part so that somebody can check off a box is a horrible feeling and something you kind of always have to balance and deal with.
GROSS: You know, and one more thing about – you know, in “Pym,” the professor goes in search of the source – the intellectual source of whiteness, in order to understand the twisted, mythic underpinnings of modern racial thought and how this illogical sickness formed in order to help cure it. So what is whiteness, from your perspective, as the son of a Black mother and a white father who – you have very light skin, and as you’ve told us on the show before, you’ve often been mistaken for white. So what does whiteness mean to you and the thought of, like, what is the intellectual source of, quote, “whiteness”?
JOHNSON: Yeah, I – it’s weird, I’ve had a bunch of conversations with my editor about this. Whiteness to me is not, like, a European identity, and it’s not simply being white or defined as white. Whiteness, to me, is a bunch of assumptions and parts of a worldview. And, you know, the – I make that difference because, you know, it’s not simply that, like, the effects that we deal with that are, like, the larger implications of having a history of white supremacy – that they’re innate, you know, that, like, somebody is born in Poland and immediately has these things. It’s more of a set of principles and ideas that lean on each other – usually subconsciously, you know, not always overtly – that, you know, impact us in ways we don’t even realize.
You know, one of the things, like, that I find professionally is that, you know, I’ve seen, for example, Black women go into job interviews or reviews and be judged on their performance and how, you know, effectively they proved their worth. And I’ve seen white men go into job interviews and reviews and have an assumption of competence immediately and have the information come in all – after the assumption of competence is already established, which is a very – it seems – you can see how the people could see they’re the same thing, but they’re not, you know, and I think things like that are just – they’re not conscious. I mean, people, you know, don’t wake up and decide to have these prejudices. They’re built on intellectual discussions that go back, you know, hundreds of years. And, you know, we all have, you know, in this country, digested parts of all those discussions, whether you’re actively trying to dismantle those things or not. And that, to me, is whiteness. It’s not simply an identity. It’s also a group of assumptions and prejudices which impact how we deal in a variety of different ways.
GROSS: Let’s take a short break here, and then we’ll talk some more. If you’re just joining us, my guest is Mat Johnson, and his new novel is called “Invisible Things.” We’ll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. Let’s get back to my interview with writer Mat Johnson. His new novel, “Invisible Things,” is a futuristic parable about partisanship, satirizing America’s politics and class structure. Johnson has written several previous novels that deal with race. The main character in “Loving Day” is biracial, like Johnson. The novel “Pym” is about the only Black male professor at his college who’s denied tenure and decides to search for the intellectual source of racial whiteness.
Your family has a history of escaping. Your great-grandfather fled north to Chicago to escape being lynched. Your mother and aunt fled from the Midwest to Philadelphia?
GROSS: To escape their abusive father. In a personal essay that you wrote for our show, you talked about how your great – you found out about your great-grandfather escaping being lynched when he was 11, but you didn’t know the whole story until later. But through your childhood, you had nightmares about that. Can I ask what those nightmares were like?
JOHNSON: My mother told me a story. And honestly, I don’t know how accurate it was. My mother was not known for accuracy.
GROSS: Can I back up? I just want to add one thing – that your mother told you that your great-grandfather, when he escaped north to Chicago, he used to sit in front of the door – facing the door with a shotgun by his side, in case the people looking for him found him. That’s the kind of fear he was living with. So tell us more about the impact that had on your childhood.
JOHNSON: Well, I – you know, I used to have nightmares about that. I remember, like, one of my most vivid nightmares when I was a kid was that – and recurring nightmare – was that I was in the living room with a family that was mine, even though I didn’t recognize them. And everyone was being quiet and staring at each other in total fear as the doorknob was being turned. And the door was locked, but we could hear it clicking as someone tried to open it. And I guess the person I imagined to be my ancestor was sitting on a – you know, an Archie Bunker-style chair with a shotgun on his lap, staring at the door.
And, you know, I think – and I don’t know if that ever literally happened, but it definitely, a hundred percent, figuratively happened. I mean, that’s – you know, my – her grandfather ran away from a lynching that – a fight over, you know, a mule and some rifles. And next thing you know, his entire life was changed. Having that kind of trauma there – like, you know, some people think that’s genetic, and some, you know, say it’s just something you learn from your parents. But it was present – and the feeling that everything could go south any minute, you know?
I remember at one point, I was living in Philly in West Mount Airy. And in our building – my mother was friends with the woman who lived directly downstairs. And it was interesting because the woman who lived directly downstairs was Jewish and a descendant of survivors of the Holocaust. And they would talk sometime. And it was clear – like, at one point they even said, you know, both of them had this one thing in common – that they were mentally willing to pick up in the middle of the night and go – you know? – that that was, like, just a part of their reality. It was just – ugh.
And even, you know, we’re talking – well, it’s, like, not that much difference in time. Because with my mother’s family, we’re talking about the 1920s. And with her family, we’re talking about the 1940s. But the impact of that and the way they look at reality was incredible. And it also affected the way I looked at other people who weren’t acting that way. And it seemed so odd to me.
GROSS: Well, you know, with your great-grandfather, he escaped lynching. With your mother and aunt, they escaped their father. So one of them was, like, you know, an enemy in post-slave times – you know, this white man who was very powerful and very wealthy and obviously was not going to respect a Black man. But with your mother and sister, they were just escaping their own father. So what did it say to you that you might even have to escape family? I mean, not necessarily you literally, but that that could happen.
JOHNSON: Yeah. Well, I mean, just like every – unfortunately, every other woman – you know, the knowledge that there could be violent men out there who are going to be protected by the larger society who could kill you just because they’re having a bad day, you know, that’s just – unfortunately, that’s just kind of normal, you know? But it did create this feeling that – really, on a lot – I mean, a lot of levels – so larger society level, but on a larger personal level, this larger feeling of insecurity – and it impacted us in a variety of ways.
Like, I was just thinking, I remember as a kid and walking around Philly, the biggest thing that told me that spring was coming would be that I would go to walk through Penn’s campus, through the walkway…
GROSS: This is University of Pennsylvania.
JOHNSON: …And I’d see white boys walking around in shorts. And this sounds ridiculous, but it would be, like, 37 degrees, you know? And they would be walking around in shorts. And at – my first – oh, spring’s coming. And the reason, like, I think about that is because they felt so protected – you know, as people, as their position in the world, even their physical health – that they weren’t worried about catching pneumonia, you know? They catch pneumonia, they went to the doctor and they dealt with it. They weren’t really thinking that the larger world really can have as much control over them as they can have on even the natural world.
And whereas, from my perspective, like, in a predominantly – going to predominately Black schools and coming, you know, in part from the African American community, we felt much more vulnerable, you know? Like, we were not wearing shorts when it – just because it was April, if it was 37 degrees, because, you know – and I know this from – also, I’ve been dealing with my mother’s health stuff for many years. Like, not everybody had insurance, you know? When you get sick and go to the hospital, people are not treated the same.
You know, I’ve never acted whiter in my life than when I’ve been pulled over by the cops, you know, for whatever driving stuff or I’ve gone to the hospital to deal with my mother’s issues because I know if they just looked at her like just another, you know, Black or brown person, she – there’s a good chance she was not going to get the amount of care that she could have gotten. So, like, it impacted kind of – you know, the impact was so broad that, you know, even something like wearing shorts, you know, became a part of that.
GROSS: Yeah. Well, let’s take a short break here, and then we’ll talk some more. If you’re just joining us, my guest is Mat Johnson. His new novel is called “Invisible Things.” We’ll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let’s get back to my interview with Mat Johnson. His new novel satirizing America’s divisive political system and class structure is called “Invisible Things.” It’s about a NASA mission looking to see if one of Jupiter’s moons is inhabitable. What they find is an artificial ecosystem in a glass dome that’s designed to look like an American city.
Did the fact that your great-grandfather did escape lynching and your mother and aunt did escape their abusive father – did that also give you a sense of resilience, that escape was possible, that you could survive and go on to a different life?
JOHNSON: Yeah. I mean, that’s the American paradox, that, like, they were able to create far better lives for themselves. And they were also able to break cycles of violence and substance abuse. And, you know – and I’m just still in all of both of them. But yeah, it was that hope to be able to do that, and that doesn’t come everywhere, you know? Even the belief that you can, you know, do better for yourself no matter what, you know, the reality is, you know, comes from that. And so there was strength in that.
I mean, I spent my life – you know, most of my earlier life watching my mother fight her way into the middle class, you know? And, you know, that was a very American type of hope. You know, I lived in Britain for, you know, many years, and it just wasn’t the same thing. I didn’t realize how unique that was to hear, you know, that that’s just a part of the way we think about things, is that those possibilities are out there.
GROSS: What did your mother do to fight her way into the middle class?
JOHNSON: Well, when my parents got divorced, I was about 5 years old. And my mother immediately went to go get her undergraduate degree in social work and worked full time, you know, at the financial aid office at Temple University. And really, about the same time this happened, she also had a complete physical collapse. We thought it was a stroke at the time, but it was the initial impact of having – of being diagnosed with MS, multiple sclerosis, which also, like, made it so she could only work so hard or the symptoms would come back. And, you know, with no financial, really, support outside of, you know, herself and MS and no larger family – I mean, her sister was very supportive. But, you know, the large family was not around.
She was able to get a undergraduate degree. She graduated – had her graduation on a Saturday, and Monday morning, she was in grad school. And then, she went from a series of jobs after that that were always little better than the last one. And it was never a question of, like, the exact place she was going to. It was always to a better life, you know? And I – it had a massive impact on me ’cause I just thought that’s how everybody does, that that level of work and that level of hope and that level of focus on the future was how you, you know, are supposed to live. I mean, I wouldn’t be here right now if that hadn’t happened.
GROSS: She died a couple of months ago. So I – you know, I’m really sorry. And I know you took care of her. You moved her wherever you moved, you know, toward the end of her life. So do you think of yourself as having given back to her what she gave you?
JOHNSON: Well, she gave me life (laughter).
GROSS: Well, yeah.
JOHNSON: You know, right? Like, it’s a (laughter) – I couldn’t give her life. I mean, that’s – it’s sort of impossible. But no, I mean, honestly, it’s just never enough. Like, I know that it’s never enough, right? And I can accept that rationally, but it’s never enough, you know? So I think it’s so hard watching somebody you love deteriorate over a slow period of time, right? And it’s insanely hard seeing somebody you love and – just disappear overnight. And it’s just utter shock. But watching them, you know, kind of disintegrate in front of you over 15 years was no picnic either, you know? And, you know, I tried to do everything I could.
It’s funny. We talked about – last time we talked, it was with Loving Day and – where we talked directly. And that was really – like, as somebody from Philly, getting to talk to you was – well, it was a bit of a big deal. It was very exciting. And when the audio came out, like, you know, it was big, you know, life event. And I spent the entire day clearing out my mother from one studio apartment in an elder care home into another studio apartment, cooking her dinners for the week, trying to get her to get rid of some of her stuff.
And I’m a – you know, I left, you know, after working from, like, 7 in the morning to, like, 7 at night, covered in sweat and dirt and exhausted. And, you know, it’s still my mom, so we’re, like, you know, arguing and laughing. And, you know, emotionally, it’s draining. And I got in the car, and like a lot of times when I got in the car, I just started screaming, which was how I would deal, you know, because it was so emotionally exhausting. And I would just scream and curse at MS and – you know? And then, I turned on the car and connected my – you know, my phone and listened to the interview, you know? And that’s kind of how it’s been.
I mean, I’ve been very fortunate to have a really fun career both as a writer and as a teacher. But as all this has been happening, I’ve had this other part of my life, which is a bit about trying to keep my mother upright as new things kept collapsing beneath her. And, you know – so I’m – it’s really weird for me not to have that at this point. You know, it’s been two months, and I really don’t know how to deal with that, you know, ’cause there’s just – I spent so much of my energy in taking care of her that it’s kind of – yeah, I haven’t come to terms with it yet.
GROSS: Do you feel any sense of relief that – I don’t know how to put this without sounding – ’cause…
JOHNSON: I know, right?
GROSS: But – right. No, I know. Because…
GROSS: When you’ve watched somebody slowly die or, you know, just, like, regress over a period of years and – you know, your mother had dementia, too, so, you know, that figures into it, also. And she had the MS. It was – I’m sure things were really rough at the end. But it’s hard to – I think it’s hard to allow yourself to experience or to claim the relief that you might even think you’re experiencing.
JOHNSON: Yeah. You know, it’s weird because I’ve thought of – like, it is hard even framing the question, are you happy your parent died? Like, obviously, that’s not what it’s asking. And I knew I was supposed to feel guilty about the relief. And honestly, I didn’t. It wasn’t a relief because, like, I was just tired. Like, you know what I mean? Like, towards the end, because my mother had dementia, she would call about eight times a day. And so sometimes I’d be in class, teaching. And I see the phone and it’s ringing and, you know, it’s her. And, like, every – you know, I walk out of the room and it’s ringing. And it was just kind of like, you know, she didn’t mean to do it that way. But it was, like, very nerve-wracking, you know? So there’s a relief of that. But you know what? Like, the relief is so quick, honestly, in my experience. Like, it was like – the relief was not just, oh, I don’t have to do the work anymore. The relief is, I’m not going to fail in being able to handle the amount of work that’s being presented to me – you know, here, you know?
And that was – the relief was also fear, you know? It wasn’t just tired. It was, you know, this is happening and I can barely deal with this. What happens when it gets worse? Like, am I going to be able to handle it? Can I handle it financially? Can I handle it timewise? Or just, will I have the answers at all, right? And so when she passed, at that point, she was in this nursing home. I’m in Portland. She didn’t know anybody in this nursing home. It was just, like, she couldn’t leave. And then with COVID, I mean, I spent COVID going with her to chemo, you know, which was incredibly scary, you know? I mean, this is, like, you know, like pre-vaccine. And she’s, you know, got cancer. And, you know, like, we’re leaving the house. I mean, it’s just – all these nursing homes across the country were having these epidemics. It was really scary. In some ways, I’m thankful for it because I got to see her. But still, you know?
GROSS: And you had written that you were afraid you would die during the early days of COVID because of your comorbidities. So it probably was even more frightening to feel exposed during that period.
JOHNSON: Yeah. It was really terrifying. But, like, when she was gone, there was a sort of relief like I’d made it to the finish line. But then, immediately, like, the loss – it was a couple of things I did not expect when she died, and one of them was that the relief was not as prominent in my head as the person I had lost. And it wasn’t just the person I had been dealing with for the last 10 years. Once she left – like, the next day, it felt like – the version of her in my head of this woman whose body had betrayed her, who was completely collapsed, whose mind had betrayed her, you know, and stuck in a chair for the rest of her life and unable to think her way through things, remember things – I mean, half the time when we were doing chemo, she didn’t remember.
And then all of a sudden, it was flashback to this woman who I grew up with, you know, this woman before all of this, right? And, like, I hadn’t really talked in my mind to that woman in so long. And then, bam, like, she was, like, reappeared. And it’s really – I never heard anybody describe it that way with those long-term illnesses. But, like, I miss the person who existed, but I really miss the person who was – when she was all of who she was, you know? And that was the biggest feeling and kind of shock.
GROSS: You were lucky in that respect because I think for a lot of people, what they remember for an extended period of time is the person who was nearing death for an extended period of time, you know, because you’ve been so exposed to them. And it’s so upsetting. And it kind of imprints on your brain. And it often takes a while to recapture who the person was before they went into serious decline and got sick.
JOHNSON: Well, you know, one of the first things I did after she died was, I was – I’m more of a mess. I’m a mess in general but more of a mess at that time – was I went back home to Philly. And, you know, we used to live at South Street, you know, 8th and South. And we used to – you know, that’s far on the east, near the Delaware River. And we would walk sometimes, like, when I was in high school, over to the art museum and then around, which is, I guess – I don’t know. It’s a couple of miles. But it was – we loved the city. And we loved walking around. And there was always stuff to see. And, you know, it was – we just – you know, that was something we would do on a Sunday. It was free, you know? And she never had a lot of money. But it was just – also just glorious. And so I went back. And, you know, I wanted to see some family members, definitely. But one of the biggest reasons was I wanted to find that person that had been there. And that really brought it back to life. And it was kind of a thing. People were like, well, why are you going? And I couldn’t kind of put my finger on it. But just walking those pathways again brought a lot of that back.
GROSS: Well, let’s take another break here and then we’ll talk some more. If you’re just joining us, my guest is Mat Johnson. His new novel is called “Invisible Things.” We’ll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF ELVIN JONES’ “ANTHROPOLOGY”)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let’s get back to my interview with Mat Johnson. His new novel satirizing America’s divisive political system and class structure is called “Invisible Things.”
So we were just talking about your mother and how your mother had MS and in her last final years was, you know, in a pretty steep decline and how you took care of her and how, you know, exhausting and emotionally exhausting it was. While that was happening, your wife was diagnosed with a brain tumor that seems to have been treated successfully. Am I right about that, that things are good now?
JOHNSON: Yeah, a hundred percent successfully, thankfully. Yeah.
GROSS: Fantastic. I’m so glad to hear that. So, like, as difficult as what happened with your mother sounds, you add your wife’s, you know, trauma to that, and that’s a really difficult place to be.
JOHNSON: Yep. Yeah. I mean, it – you know, I guess we’re all living our own little difficult places, so it doesn’t seem like that much at this point. But, yeah, I – at one point, yeah, it just seemed like the larger world was just kind of falling to pieces in general, both on an independent, personal level and on a massive level. But it also been, like, fortunate too, you know? Like, my wife was able to come out of this a hundred percent fine, which we did not think was going to happen for the first couple months that it was going on. The trauma of that experience is still, you know, very present. But the experience itself, we were able to move past it.
And then, you know, with my mother, similarly, like – yeah, it’s just put things in perspective – you know? – that all these things that I thought were incredibly important when I was in my late 20s turned out to be almost meaningless, you know?
GROSS: Things like what?
JOHNSON: Well, like, you know, I always – I love books and I always wanted to write books. And it was, you know, that books were my whole life. And, you know, just something as simple as becoming a father just immediately changed all that, you know? Like, I mean, most of my personal life is about being a dad now, you know? And I have three children – one of them is a undergrad, and two of them are finishing up in high school. And, you know, that – I mean, it just doesn’t remotely compare to, you know, my own, like, artistic, you know, expressions. And, yeah, and I think, like, some ways, it makes the writing easier – not timewise, but it takes a lot of the weight off ’cause it doesn’t matter. It’s all going to turn to dust anyway. So, you know, I can have fun and not feel the weight of the universe on my shoulders in that regard, which sounds very dismissive for somebody who’s just got – came out with a book. But, you know, it does make life, daily life, a lot better.
GROSS: As a father, when your wife was dealing with the brain tumor and your mother was dying, did you try to not let your fear and anxiety show to your children?
JOHNSON: No. I – you know, my dad is good at that. My dad doesn’t, like, readily show emotion. And I’m just not capable of it. So what I tried to do is come up with a healthy version of letting my kids know how I’m doing. I – one, I want I don’t want to set up unrealistic goals for how to deal with things. I want them to know their dad is very human, which, you know, they very much know. And I – like, I think, like, trying to find a way to not do the model of men kind of hiding their emotion – because, for me, it doesn’t work. It just turns to anger, you know? It turns to frustration. It gets bottled up. It goes sour. So, you know, my kids saw me deal with stuff and, like, I think hopefully they got something positive out of it.
GROSS: Well, Mat, it’s really just been great to talk with you again. Thank you so much.
JOHNSON: Thank you.
GROSS: Mat Johnson’s new novel is called “Invisible Things.” He’s the Philip H. Knight chair of humanities at the University of Oregon.
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we’ll talk about the Proud Boys and their role in the attack on the Capitol. They took the lead in removing police barricades and instigating breakthroughs in several locations. My guest will be Alan Feuer, who covers extremism and political violence for The New York Times and helped analyze Proud Boys court documents, text messages and videos. He also covered yesterday’s January 6 committee hearings. I hope you’ll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARCUS ROBERTS’ “IT’S MARIA’S DANCE”)
GROSS: FRESH AIR’s executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley, Joel Wolfram and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I’m Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARCUS ROBERTS’ “IT’S MARIA’S DANCE”) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.