Sarah Ruth Bates interviews EXTINCTION contest judge Lacy M. Johnson
Lacy M. Johnson read from her latest book, The Reckonings, at the University of Arizona this November. Near the end of the Q&A, an audience member asked her about the meaning of her tattoos. Johnson paused. She told them she was going to try to answer gently. She said that she doesn’t answer questions about that (honest answer), and that generally it’s considered rude to ask people about their bodies (offered lesson), and then added that, yes, the tattoos have a meaning, and it’s one that helps her (empathetic extension).
That moment demonstrated Johnson’s way of being with others. In writing and in conversation, Johnson is gentle and firm, generous and bounded, associative and direct. Her work considers ancient questions, and freshens them with earnest and personal engagement, making for a scope both deeply universal and closely personal, both cerebral and lived into.
Johnson is judging the Sonora Review’s 2020 Nonfiction contest, EXTINCTION (submissions open now, closing on March 27, 2020). The contest is in partnership with the UA Consortium on Gender-Based Violence.
Johnson sat down with me in Tucson, on a rare rainy afternoon. We spoke about the tidiness, or lack thereof, of essay endings; her inclusive moral framework; and the purview and boundaries of an essayist’s work.
The following interview has been condensed.
Sonora Review: I saw that you wrote recently on Twitter, “One thing no one tells you about being a writer is how to cope with the fact that your thinking keeps evolving, while the things you have already written stay the same.” Do you think that’s a necessary evil of writing?
Lacy M. Johnson: I do think it is a bit of a necessary evil, because each text represents where our thinking is at that point in time, but we obviously continue to grow, and our thoughts change. The text, once it’s published, becomes static. It’s not dynamic in the way that we are. I guess for me, the heartbreaking thing is that a reader encounters that text that represented a former way of thinking for me, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that’s what I think right now, just what I thought—the place that I arrived in at that moment. But one of the reasons that I dislike the impulse to tie things up in a neat little bow and to find an answer for the questions that I’m asking in these essays, is because I’m hoping to show that none of these journeys are done, and that I end in a different place from where I began—I will continue to change and grow, and my thinking will evolve.
Sonora: I’m curious about the final essay of The Reckonings, and something that you just said about not wanting to tie things up—I love that about your work.
Johnson: Oh, thank you.
Sonora: That essay is so much about how we move forward, and I was curious if the book could have felt done to you if you hadn’t had that piece of it? Did you feel you needed to end with, here’s how we continue?
Johnson: Well, I do think I wanted to include that essay because—and I waited ‘til the very end to write it, partly as a carrot that I was holding out for myself, like, I will write these essays about this terrible awful violent genocidal stuff over multiple generations, but at the end, I’m gonna let myself write about joy. And I did think it was important to move in that direction, because I do think that is how we move forward, which doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s tied up in a bow. But I think that is the kind of justice that we can seek, and that isn’t given to us by the judicial system, which only perpetuates more injustice on bodies of people that it holds accountable, and on families. There’s no victim in joy, there’s no person who suffers, it’s only celebration of life and being open to possibility. Thinking about justice that way, rather than as retribution or in a punitive way, to think about, what changes do I have to make in my own life, or what things can I do in the world, to help make the condition of joy a possibility: that felt more like the answer to all the questions that I had been asking. So I did feel like it was totally essential, and I don’t think that the collection would have been done without it.
Sonora: Yeah, I thought that was such an interesting tension to navigate, of coming to an end, a close, but not a tidy one.
Sonora: And I was wondering—so, I loved your New Yorker piece about the glacier.
Johnson: Oh, thanks.
Sonora: And I feel like part of your way of conceptualizing justice, and this generous formulation of it, is this inclusivity, of growing our “us” and our “we.”
Sonora: So, I wonder if you think about your environmental writing in a similar way, because the glaciers in the piece are so personified?
Johnson: Right. Well, other people have said that it’s personified, and I don’t think that I’m personifying. It’s not a person, it’s a being, and I don’t think that “person” is the ultimate form of being, right?
Sonora: Oh, I love that, yeah.
Johnson: Though in our society, and in the way that we think, it certainly is. People have more rights than any other kind of being, or any other kind of life, and certain people have more rights than any other kind of life. There was a recent article by Robert Macfarlane in the Guardian, and the title of it—and quite possibly he did not pick his title, because often writers don’t pick their titles for those kinds of pieces—but the title was something like, should this tree have the same rights as you? and Emily Raboteau brought up the very excellent point that, who is the “you” in that formulation? because not even all humans have the same rights as one another, so, which humans are we talking about? And to start giving rights to trees when we haven’t fully extended rights to humanity is complicated, right, and is part of, to me, one of the fallacies of the environmental movement, is that thinking about who the environment is for, and who gets to benefit from it, and that it’s valuable when it’s beautiful, and
Sonora: not when it isn’t
Johnson: not when it isn’t, and that, in many ways, to me—the way that we define nature—contains within it nature being out there, the sort of dualism, right, of body and mind, that the mind is the human and the body is the world. But that definition contains within it all the permission to commit violence against the environment and one another. Saying that some of us are closer to nature than others gives some people permission to commit violence against others,because those “others” are more like a body and less like a mind,in the white supremacist conception of nature. So, in a piece like that one, I’m trying to navigate some of that. I don’t necessarily think that personhood is the matrix on which we should consider whether or not something has value, is worth saving, and to me, the work of doing that is the work of recognizing the beingness of something like a glacier—rather than lifting beings up to the level of personhood, perhaps we bring personhood down to the level of nature, of the environment, or of all beings. That may be the path towards more equality and justice, to, as you say, extend and broaden our “we.”
Sonora: Yes! I thought about that line where the scientist says they want to baptize all of the glaciers, and that, for me, was saying, we’ll bring them into this humanoid conception, but you’re totally right—beingness doesn’t have to be human.
Johnson: Right, beingness doesn’t have to be human, and the way that we elevate human beings above all other beings is maybe not right or just. And so, rather than lifting up, we can just—(Johnson holds a hand parallel to the ground and circles it, palm down)—bring it down—
Sonora: Bring everyone down—
Johnson: Not bring everyone down, just sort of—get some equilibrium going. Some people’s sense of the importance of their own humanity and personhood is so inflated and outsized, which has to do, again, with that dualism, and with that binary, which I think doesn’t exist. And so it may not be bringing something down or bringing something up, as much as just doing some dissolving work, and realigning our way of thinking about the world.
Sonora: It’s a big grapple.
Johnson (laughs) Yeah. It’s a big ask. But, you know, the time calls for it. Right?
Sonora: Absolutely. And do you—I’m curious, because the questions that you grapple with are so essential, and have been considered for such a long time. One of the things that I have trouble with as I write about such large questions is when to feel like I’ve done enough reading.
Johnson: Oh right.
Sonora: I wonder how you manage that?
Johnson: I think I just don’t necessarily feel the urge to be comprehensive. I don’t have any illusions that even that’s possible.
Sonora: That’s not your work.
Johnson: No, this isn’t a reference book, it’s not an encyclopedia, and even encyclopedias aren’t comprehensive—there’s no such thing as comprehensive knowledge about anything. Everything is curated and constructed and formed, and so I think I just try to be transparent about that, partly in the way that I write about things, but also in my notes, saying, my ideas are coming from this place and this place and this place, and this tradition of thinkers. And with some of these really long questions that have been argued through time, you can often go back a generation or two and find a person who’s giving like a pretty comprehensive overview, as much as such a thing is possible, right? I don’t feel like I need to read all the people that they cite, you know, it’s like Sparknotes (both laugh). You look at the last one.
When I worked on an essay like the fallout, I did feel more of a push to be slightly comprehensive about finding all the radiological studies that have been done on different sites, at least partly because it was interesting to see how much variation there was between them. Even though there was this tremendous variation, there was overall a consensus that, this is not good, but that had gotten buried, and so I spent a whole summer, I think, at least, reading these once-classified 300-page government reports. And it was super snoozy, and sometimes I had to write to a physicist and go, can uranium explode if you set it on fire? Okay, no. And so, I’d think, okay, great, that’s helpful, so there’s not going to be a bomb going off.
I also don’t think it’s useful to pretend to be an authority, necessarily, on all of these things. I learn enough to be able to ask what I consider good questions, and then move from there, and learn as the essay goes, but the idea that anyone knows everything, to me, is a very masculinist conception, and is a little delusional.
Sonora: Oh, definitely. This reminds me of something else I’ve wondered about as I’ve read your work. You make this wonderful consistent call for taking certain kinds of action, for trying, and making efforts and extending ourselves even through discomfort.
Sonora: And I wonder about exhaustion, and how you seem to know your boundaries? Maybe that’s something that’s learned through just ongoing life, but I feel like the onslaught of “should”s gets really tricky.
Johnson: Oh, sure. Yeah, I do think it can be tricky, and you’re right, it can be exhausting. But I try to remember that, as exhausted as I am, I have a lot of privilege that many people don’t, and it’s those people I’m fighting for. So it feels difficult sometimes to take a break from that, knowing that those are my moral commitments, but at the same time, it’s like an oxygen mask on an airplane, you’re supposed to put your own on before you put on anybody else’s. It’s not doing anyone any favors to exhaust myself to the point that I’m ill, or can’t function, or depressed, or having a lot of trouble with my trauma and stress.
And sometimes it’s not even navigating those various “should”s that makes me have to tap out, it’s the triggers of the world, and I don’t—I tend to dislike the way that “trigger” has become used, in popular culture, I think it’s used by people who have no trauma, you know, who say they have been “triggered”—but I do think it’s the right word to describe the effects of certain stimuli on people who have suffered trauma. It’s like an inflammation, like something that makes you allergic and triggers your symptoms. And it’s really hard to predict the thing that makes me unable to function for a few days, or at the level that I have come to expect, or that I need.
Sonora: Or that’s being asked of you.
Johnson: Or that’s being asked of me, and so I just have to—yeah, it’s taken a long time to feel comfortable saying no. And sometimes, no doesn’t mean no forever, it means no for now. And if I have to say no to something or step back, I try to make it possible for other people to step forward into the space that I have left open. Nothing gets created by anyone alone, and in those times I think it’s really important—really, in all times, I think it’s really important—to lean on your community, on your various communities, and to know that you are just only person in a much bigger movement or system that’s trying to accomplish something.
Right now, for example, I’m working on a project called the Houston Flood Museum, which is a website, but it’s also a really huge network of people, individuals and communities and organizations, who are working on issues of flooding, gentrification, overdevelopment, climate change, oil transition, things like that in Houston. When you connect your work to a broader network, it doesn’t feel as bad to say, I need to take a little break, to step away, because you know that the work goes on, right?
Sonora: Yeah, it seems like organizing is a huge part of how you do your human work, as well as writing.
Johnson: Yeah, absolutely.
Sonora: I love the idea of bringing those two kinds of work together.
Johnson: Yes. With the Flood Museum, a lot of people’s stories are part of that space. Part of what we do is collecting people’s stories, and some of that has to do with where the project came from, which is the need for public remembering about catastrophic flooding. In a place like Houston—it’s very amnesiac. People think that catastrophic flooding started happening recently, but every single decade since Houston’s founding, there have been at least three major catastrophic floods. But we continue to think, oh, we can pave over the city, over more and more coastal prairie, and there won’t be consequences. So on the one hand, the remembering works to counter this amnesia. But on the other hand, I also know the role that narrativizing a trauma can play in the process of healing. There’s a counseling type of work, or a post-trauma work, being done in that narrativizing about the flooding, at the same time that that work is helping to address some of the causes for the flooding itself.
But we also—before we began collecting stories—my board of advisors helped to come up with a mission for what the flood museum is. It seeks to exhibit the connections between human activity and catastrophic flooding, especially as linked to wealth inequality and racial disparity. So that helps, then, to drive the collecting of the narratives. We think about whose stories aren’t coming to us, and whose stories we’re going to have to figure out how to amplify, and that may require extra work on our part, to collect those, because they don’t necessarily—like, the system is not—
Sonora: They don’t percolate
Johnson: Right, they don’t—everything is set up to suppress them, rather than to allow them to rise to the surface. So, some of what we do is that work of raising people’s stories to the surface.
Sonora: The metaphors get tricky.
Lacy M. Johnson is a Houston-based professor, curator, activist, and is author of the essay collection, The Reckonings, as well as two memoirs, The Other Side and Trespasses. The Other Side, a haunting account of Johnson’s experience of sexual and domestic violence at the hands of her ex-boyfriend, weaves together a richly personal narrative with police reports, psychological evaluations, and neurobiological investigations, provoking both troubling and timely questions about gender roles and the epidemic of violence against women. The Reckonings also draws from Johnson’s personal experience of gender-based violence, as well as from philosophy, art, literature, mythology, anthropology, film, and other fields, to consider how our ideas about justice might be expanded beyond vengeance and retribution to include acts of compassion, patience, mercy, and grace. The Reckonings was named a National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist in Criticism and one of the best books of 2018 by Boston Globe, Electric Literature, Autostraddle, Book Riot, and Refinery 29. 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, and 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. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Paris Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Tin House, Guernica, Fourth Genre, Creative Nonfiction, Sentence, TriQuarterly, Gulf Coast and elsewhere. She teaches creative nonfiction at Rice University <http://www.rice.edu/> and is the Founding Director of the Houston Flood Museum <https://www.houstonfloodmuseum.org/>.
Sarah Ruth Bates is the Managing Editor of Sonora Review, and a first-year MFA candidate at the University of Arizona. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Boston Globe Magazine, Off Assignment, Appalachia Journal, and WBUR Cognoscenti.