by Allison Manuel
Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2018.
Allison Manuel, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Lacy Johnson about her book The Reckonings: Essays (Scribner) which is among the final five selections in the category of Criticism for the 2018 NBCC Awards.
Lacy Johnson’s work takes an unwavering look at injustice with the aim of repairing harm and reclaiming joy. Johnson is a writer, professor at Rice University, and founding director of the Houston Flood Museum. She is also a survivor of rape and attempted murder at the hands of a man she once loved—a story she shared in her critically acclaimed memoir The Other Side. While touring for the book, Johnson faced readers who asked if she wished death upon this man, to which she responded, “I don't want vengeance. I want a reckoning."
In The Reckonings, Johnson invites readers to walk with her through a mosaic of issues—healing and accountability around sexual assault, abolishing white supremacy, police murders of Black folks, the human and environmental toll of the BP oil spill and nuclear warfare. In doing so, she asks critical questions about the meaning and practice of justice, mercy, evil, and hope. Johnson does not preach from the moral high ground or push a platform of next steps. She speaks from the pain, possibility, and particularity of her lived experience. In assuming responsibility for her ongoing process of personal transformation, she asks readers to interrogate their own lives and find their own answers. We delved deeper into her creative intent and process as well as the questions that unsettle and guide her.
Allison Manuel: How have readers responded to the stand that you take around a reckoning as a reframing of popular notions of justice?
Lacy Johnson: People who have actually read the book respond really positively. I hear from a lot of people who are touched by this generous way of talking about justice. Especially for victims of sexual assault, everything about the whole conversation just perpetuates more injustice. From the way that you have to go to the hospital and experience further violations in the name of getting evidence because your word doesn’t count as evidence to being questioned by police officers. If the person is arrested and there's a trial, then there's a way that you yourself are on trial. Maybe the person goes to jail for a minute. But nothing about your life as a survivor changes. Women will be attacked every minute of every day. That to me is not what justice is.
It's been 19 years since I was kidnapped and raped, so I’ve had a lot of time to think about what I would want to happen or what would make me feel better. And imagining his suffering doesn't do it. It makes me feel worse. I just want him to say to my face what he did, and to acknowledge the harm of that, and then for him to spend his life in service of other people's joy, and for us to part ways, and for me to find my own pursuit of joy. That was honest for me, and I think it resonates with people who've had a similar experience. One person told me that it gives her a place to orient her attention in looking toward the future instead of thinking about the past, and that it has been so healing.
Alternatively, when people have not read the book, I get challenged on certain things. People really don't want to give up the idea that people who murder other people should die. They don't want to give up the idea that people who molest children should die. And I say, if you are imagining that I'm saying he should get away with it, I'm not saying that. And if the only two possibilities that you can imagine are he dies or he gets away with it, that to me is just a failure of imagination because there's a whole spectrum of accountability between those two extremes.
AM: You talk about how you consciously did not write a “how to” essay in this collection. Your essays forward critical reframings of popularly held notions of justice and mercy and hope and joy without putting forth a platform. How would you describe your aspirations for these essays and what you hope readers carry forward from them?
LJ: These are my genuine questions that I am working through in my own life. I'm thinking if I don't know the answer to this question maybe other people don't either. Can you come along and wonder about this with me? I don't like to be didactic in my writing and say these are the steps that you need to undertake, because that's so prescriptive. It has more to do with putting into practice these deeply held convictions that I've arrived at. What that looks like in practice is different for me than it would be for other people. I'm very conscious about not trying to tell you or anyone else how to live your life. I think people might be frustrated by that because they say, it would be so much easier if you just tell me what to do instead of leaving people with this sense of, “I need to change things. I need to reorient my beliefs. I need to rethink the way I am living my life.” But that's what I want you to do. That's what I'm doing. And so if readers arrive in that same place, then I feel like it's succeeded. That need and that compulsion toward action is exactly the effect that I want these essays to have.
AM: I was struck by how you speak to the ways that you are personally implicated in systems of oppression. You make visible how you've been hurt by but also participate in or benefit from systems of power. Why were these important choices for you as an author?
LJ: I have to be willing to put my own skin in the game. I didn't want to write a book that's all finger pointing and pretending like the problem is elsewhere. I think you have to open your perspective enough to be able to see yourself in these structures that you are writing about. The essays began with different problems or issues that upset me that I want to think about in a public way. Each of the essays begin with looking at the symptom but then tries to trace the problem up the chain of causality and responsibility to figure out what is it within the culture or other institutions that make something like this not only possible but permissible. And every single time I did that, I found myself implicated by those beliefs, because in some ways I believe them too, or I have believed them. It's always broader and more structural, and I am in that structure. So necessarily I have to point out those ways in order to help my readers see the way that they are also implicated in those structures. And by modeling how to hold myself accountable, I hope that I'm showing others how to do that in a way that isn't ego shattering.
AM: In "Goliath," you write that, "Any story that cannot accommodate nuances is not interested in the truth, but in obscuring it instead." How do you understand the power and possibility for nuance in light of a popular and social media culture that is increasingly sound bite oriented?
LJ: I've been thinking a lot about these Me Too moments. It's obviously a movement but there are moments within it when there's a wave of recognition. It's interesting to see the range of behaviors that are called out. It's interesting how social media has a flattening effect on them--that they are all equally reprehensible. A relationship that is not built on mutual respect somehow becomes the same as a relationship that is physically or emotionally abusive. I don't want to suggest that both of those things are not wrong and there's not an imbalance of power, but I think we do everyone a disservice by treating them as exactly the same. There are nuances that get obscured. Is every relationship with a power differential an abusive relationship or is it operating on a spectrum? How do we create within our culture and within our relationships a situation where we can recognize when there's a difference of power and repair it or make those relationships more equitable? I think that is a useful conversation to have that social media can't accommodate.
I don't think that every person who does a bad thing is a bad person or that when you do a bad thing that means that you're irredeemable. If I believe that people who are on death row should not be executed, then I am challenged to ask, are there ways that we shouldn't throw other people away either? Bryan Stevenson says, “Each of us is more than the worst thing that we've ever done.” I believe that too. Social media is a good place for outrage but not necessarily a good place for having some of these difficult nuanced conversations. I think it's important that none of us lie to ourselves about our own perfection. There's a line in one of the essays: “The first lie of righteousness: that other people are not as human as we are." I see a lot of that at play in call out culture. When a person makes a mistake, somehow they give up their humanity, which is something that I resist.
AM: In “Speak Truth to Power” you write, “Many women have told the truth about their lives, however impossible that may seem at the time, and the world has gone on pretty much as before.” In “Against Whiteness” you write about how “whiteness demands violence: that we either commit it or accept it.” I find myself grappling with a historical legacy of white women that falsely accused black men of sexual assault who then faced deadly consequences in the form of lynching. And I see that this continues with examples like Cornerstore Caroline in Brooklyn who called the police claiming a 9-year-old black boy had sexually assaulted her, yet video footage revealed his bag had simply brushed her. How do we hold this tension that women must be believed while also reckoning with this legacy of white women who have falsely accused black men and boys of sexual assault in service of white supremacy?
LJ: White supremacist patriarchy in particular, right? I don't know that I have the answer to that question, because it's something that I'm working through as well. One thing that occurs to me is the way that believability--there's a hierarchy of it. The issue of believability also applies to black men and women who have been saying all along that they're harassed by police and that they're being killed by police. There was an issue of believability around that until there was video footage. And it's not that it's new. It's just that suddenly we can see it. And the conversation has changed since we've been able to see it more readily.
Cornerstore Caroline said this person assaulted me. But the boy said he did not. There's a differential of power there that's worth examining. Part of the harm happens when we automatically believe everything that one person says and never believe anything that the other person says. When we say that these people are trustworthy and these people are not. That's when an injustice occurs. But if we are able to extend the potential for truth telling to anyone's experience, then I think we go back to that question of nuance and of grappling with experience.
It’s hard to tease out patriarchal violence from white patriarchal violence from white supremacy, because it's all tied together. I don't think there are any hard-and-fast rules across the board that we can live by except to move through the world with love and hold one another accountable in loving ways. The whole historical narrative around white womanhood is one of a protected, victimized status--like private property. It is not exclusive to white women, but white women in particular sometimes identify with the white patriarchy because they are attaching to the power of whiteness rather than with other people who experience oppression on various axes. That's certainly not where my head goes or where my allegiances go, but they clearly feel like they have something to gain in doing that.
AM: Your essays forward an unwillingness to give in to cynicism in the face of overwhelming realities of injustice as well as the radicalness of hope in supporting that. What have you learned about hope in writing The Reckonings?
LJ: Some things are worth doing not because there's any guarantee that they will work or that there will be any success, but just because it's the right thing to do. And if we don't do anything, there's no chance of success. That's just despair. And then we're swept along in in the tide of catastrophe and chaos and violence and war and destruction. And it's hard. I know how naive it seems sometimes to believe like I'm just one person I can do a thing or say a thing, and it will have some effect, but I don't think the idea that it has an effect is what hope is. The idea is I'm going to do it anyway, even though it seems like it's not going to work, because my spirit is oriented toward justice.
I'm not naive enough to think that perfect equality and freedom is near. I know that these are historically entrenched, structural problems, but I think they're worth addressing, as messy and confusing as it is, simply because it's the right thing to do. This sort of orientation toward love, toward fostering mutual joy is a good guiding principle. It doesn't make the world any less heart breaking, but it gives me ways to mend my own broken heart.
Lacy M. Johnson is a Houston-based professor, curator, activist, and is author of THE RECKONINGS (Scribner, 2018) and THE OTHER SIDE (Tin House, 2014). For its frank and fearless confrontation of the epidemic of violence against women, The Other Side was named a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Autobiography, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, an Edgar Award in Best Fact Crime, the CLMP Firecracker Award in Nonfiction; it was a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writer Selection for 2014, and was named one of the best books of 2014 by Kirkus, Library Journal, and the Houston Chronicle. She is also author of TRESPASSES: A MEMOIR (University of Iowa Press, 2012), which has been anthologized in The Racial Imaginary (Fence Books, 2015) and Literature: The Human Experience (Bedford / St. Martin’s, 2013-2018).
Allison Manuel is pursuing a Masters in Fine Arts at the New School’s Creative Writing Program for nonfiction and fiction. She has been a multimedia storyteller and community organizer in the Bronx, NY for ten years. Currently she serves on the board of the Bronx Cooperative Development Initiative, a community-led effort to build an equitable, sustainable, and democratic Bronx economy.