Part musician, part painter, and wholly brilliant writer, Dana Johnson’s stories riff like musical compositions. On Wednesday, February 18, 2009, at Saint Mary’s College of California, Johnson read from her short story collection, Break Any Woman Down, published by Anchor in 2003. “Act your age, not your color,” a character hammers in the piece read about the trials of an American interracial relationship juxtaposed against the paradox of museums’ preservation and archive of History and Life.
Johnson’s work is solid. Her imagery and characters are so real, so palpable, you can feel the hotness of their breath as they break each other down, a reflex from social and racial conditioning. We sense their tightness of muscles while they struggle to contain themselves in a world rife with contradiction. Nona, our African American main character, is turned inside out during what at first seemed an innocuous road trip with her Euro-American boyfriend. They stop at gaudy diners and poke fun of tacky museums, meanwhile their perception of self and each other becomes twisted and contorted in the cruel and skewed “fun” house of American culture.
As writer, Wesley Gibson, pointed out during the Q & A, Johnson is not only adept at breathing life into her characters, she also scaffolds her stories with specific and concrete images that serve as foundation and nuance to character and drama in scene. The imagery of museums, these cold, glassy, and removed edifices of History, punctuates the tension of racial prejudice between two young characters who struggle to live and love despite the cultural history they’ve grown up in.
Throughout the story, Nona’s thoughts flow in rhythmical stream of consciousness. What makes Johnson’s writing so wonderfully evocative is how she hooks onto an idea, an emotion, a philosophy, and holds it close like a precious gem or a thorn at one’s side. She embraces repetition and exploits a word or image, wrapping it around a character, pinning down a scene, and threading fragments of the story, and essentially ourselves, together. These repetitions become beats that don’t let go long after the scene has moved on or the story has ended.
Smart, truthful, wry, and down to earth, Johnson urged the audience not to be afraid to confront our harsh reality. That evening she spoke about fearlessness and dared us to face the dark, ugly corners of ourselves and our world, head on. In her cool, calm, and savvy collected manner, she showed us how to find strength using our fears as guide.