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Charles Johnson's Ship Comes in with a Book Award for Middle Passage, His Seafaring Saga of a Freed Slave

updated 01/14/1991 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/14/1991 01:00AM

Here is what Charles Johnson did before writing his latest novel, Middle Passage. "I went back and read Conrad, Jack London, all of Melville—every sea story I could find," he says. "I looked at ships' logs and nautical dictionaries to pick up the blend of 19th-century diction and the language of the sea that I wanted to use. When I do a book, the research is enough for a dissertation."

Yet if you ask Johnson—who also teaches writing at the University of Washington and martial arts at a Seattle kung fu club—to tell you the most important thing about him, he will say it is that he does not do enough. "I should work twice as hard as I do," he says. "You create your essence through what you do. I really believe that work is prayer."

Johnson, 42, must be doing something right, however. This fall, his prayers were answered. Middle Passage, the story of a freedman who in 1830 stows away on a slave clipper bound from New Orleans for Africa, won the prestigious National Book Award for fiction. Part seafaring adventure, part philosophical musing on the nature of slavery, the novel beat out four competitors, including Joyce Carol Oates's Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart. The award was an honor Johnson says he has "waited for all my life."

He is less pleased by the attendant publicity. Even as the NBA selections were being made writer Paul West, a member of the fiction jury, told the New York Times that "ethnic concerns, ideology, and moral self-righteousness" had clouded considerations of artistic style and literary significance. But other judges refused to see any political conspiracy in the fact that relatively obscure books by Spanish-born writers Felipe Alfau and Elena Castedo were nominated rather than the year's big books from major publishers. Few press accounts, however, failed to trumpet the fact that Johnson is the fourth black writer in nearly 40 years to win the National Book Award.

Johnson downplays the controversy. "I think it was inflated far beyond what it actually was," he says. "I think there was a good panel of judges."

He also objects to the attention that has been paid to the color of his skin. Though he writes about African Americans, he says, he is one writer with one voice—not a spokesman for his race. "I think the perception of the white world is that black issues are so simple that one person can articulate them, so only one black writer tends to be praised at a time," he says. "There are 30 million black people in America, so where are the issues we all agree on? It's just a kind of human laziness, I suspect,-that wants to single out one person so you don't have to worry about all the other contenders."

Johnson comes by his dislike of laziness naturally. Growing up in Evanston, III., he had as a role model a father who worked hard. "He was a construction worker, a night watchman; sometimes he'd work a day job and a night job, and then he'd do a sort of weekend thing with a white family who needed help around the house," Johnson says. "I swear, it was right out of Driving Miss Daisy. My dad was so much like Morgan Freeman in that movie."

Johnson's mother had hoped to be a teacher, but health problems forbade it. Instead, she helped educate her son. The house was full of books. She gave Charles his first diary at age 12 (he has kept a journal ever since), and she encouraged his early interest in drawing. He was 17 when he published his first cartoon, in a magic company's catalog. Later, as a journalism and philosophy major at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, he was inspired by visiting black essayist Amiri Baraka (the former Leroi Jones) to address serious issues in his cartoons.

"Baraka said a black artist should bring his talent back home to black people," says Johnson. "I cut classes for a week and just drew, all day, all night."

That work became the basis of his first book, a 1970 collection called Black Humor. Johnson hosted a 52-week Public Broadcasting System series on drawing, Charlie's Pad, the same year. A second cartoon book followed in 1972. Realizing he needed language to express himself more fully, Johnson moved on to writing, publishing two novels, a collection of short stories and a volume of criticism. He has had an up-and-down career: Faith and the Good Thing, about "a quest for the good," was called "brilliant" when it was published in 1974; Oxherding Tale, a slave story, was rejected by 20 publishers and did not appear until 1982. Johnson, who began teaching at the University of Washington in 1976, says he was never concerned. "I always knew the book would find a home," he says.

Married to former schoolteacher Joan New, now 42, for 20 years, with a son, Malik, 15, and a daughter, Elizabeth, 9, Johnson now lives in a three-bedroom house in North Seattle, not far from the university. He writes sporadically, some days for 12 hours, some days not at all, fueled by countless cups of coffee and by the cigarettes he swears he'll one day give up. For relaxation he meditates or practices his karate kicks on a life-size canvas dummy in his study. "The martial arts," he says, "are about a self-discipline that prepares you to be a better father, husband, friend, teacher."

It may be self-discipline, too, that keeps him from taking his moment of fame too seriously. His favorite story about the National Book Awards involves fellow fiction nominee Elena Castedo. Her name turned up in a crossword puzzle. "Now that's celebrity, man," says Johnson.

—Joyce Wadler, J. Kingston Pierce in Seattle

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