The novel has two protagonists, Ben and Adrian. Adrian is a dual survivor of Hurricane Katrina and childhood sexual abuse. Her boyfriend Ben can’t make a decision about the future. So, one fears her past, the other fears his future. Then, a slave ship appears over their heads, and they have to figure out what to do. There’s a witch named Cut Mary, a doppelganger, ghosts, even a zombie. And a cat that has two origin stories. The Through also involves the town of Okahika, which I can best describe as a Southern ghost town. There’s one Okahika, but it exists simultaneously in every Southern state.
To be a bit less concrete, The Through is about the dissonance between the observable universe around us and the magical universe inside us. Sometimes those two realities fit together, and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes the observable and magical switch places. So in the book, we see the observable place in Northport, AL, and the magical place in Okahika, a.k.a. The Through, and characters who navigate both spaces.
What would you say was the chief inspiration behind the book? And how long has it been since the time you had the first kernel of an idea that eventually grew into this book?
About four years ago, I was sitting in a neo-slavery fiction class taught by Trudier Harris. I can’t remember which book we were discussing, but I had a sudden image of a woman carrying something on her head, the way women in West Africa carry things. The thing was huge. I let my imagination zoom out and saw an entire slave ship atop her head. The Through began as an exploration of that image.
Another way to answer that question is that I was an aid worker in Liberia, from 2009-2011. I saw things there that I can’t resolve without invoking some kind of magic or spirituality as an explanation. I’m not a religious person, so that inner conflict became something I needed to explore.
Speaking of that, do you identify as black or African American?
Where’s this going?
What I’m asking, I suppose, is whether you feel like your writing fits into the Black literary canon or the African-American literary canon, or if there’s any useful distinction between the two. Am I making sense?
Toni Morrison said, “In this country American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.” So Blackness was a way of setting us apart, right? We weren’t considered Americans, or at best we had a second-class status. But then we gained the right to vote, to assemble, to hold jobs, to receive an education, and there was some fleeting acknowledgement that a few centuries of systemic racism may have affected our wealth, our families, etc. Later, we started the idea of African-American, in the way some groups are Irish-American or Mexican-American. But I’m not sure the idea holds. Other hyphenated identities include some sort of immigrant journey going from one place to another place, but we’re not immigrants. We didn’t all start out in the same place. So to answer that question, I think the characters grapple with the intricacies of those identities as well. Does that make The Through fit into a particular canon? I don’t know.
So, who are your main literary influences?
When I was an undergrad (University of Texas at Austin), I signed up for the typical World Lit survey class. The instructor went over the syllabus during the first class meeting. The authors were all Europeans, plus an American and a Canadian. I raised my hand and said, “I’m sorry, but I think I’m in the wrong room. I signed up for World Literature, and these authors are mostly from Europe.”
The instructor looked at me and said, “That’s the only world that matters.”
I know, right? I dropped that class and found an African Literature class. The professor turned out to be Bernth Lindfors, who was instrumental in bringing African literature to Western audiences. Through him, I discovered Chinua Achebe, Amos Tutuola, Mariama Ba, Wole Soyinka, and a whole “world” I never knew existed. They became my literary influences. Later, I added Morrison, Murukami, Marquez, Hurston, Calvino, Borges, Ducornet, Ellison, and Asturias.
That being said, all my influences aren’t writers. Albert Ayler, this amazing experimental saxophonist, became a huge influence. I’m a fan of Dali, and I mention Willie Cole in the book.
Can I ask two spoiler alert questions about The Through?
Cut Mary gives Adrian a zombie, who turns out to be someone important. I find myself thinking a lot about the zombie. What was Cut Mary’s motivation? A test, something of her own?
Cut Mary is a hard one to figure out. She appears in some of my other stories, but my sense is that she’s lived a long time and learned from her mistakes. Her “gift” might be an apology of sorts. Or an attempt at healing. That being said, I can’t pretend I know all there is to know about Cut Mary.
Ben and Adrian both find a cat named Free Cookie. Their stories don’t match – in fact, they’re incompatible. Who’s right and who’s wrong?
Maybe they’re both wrong. Maybe they’re both right. Or something else happened. That happens in relationships. You and your partner go to the same place, have the same conversation, and walk away thinking two completely different things occurred. But the point is they don’t communicate. The reader sees how distant Ben and Adrian are from each other, but neither of them face that very well, at least not at first.
Last question. I’ve checked out your blog. You’re a fairly political person, but there’s no mention of current politics in The Through? Why is that?
I wrestled with that while I finished the book. I felt like the world was falling in on us, and nothing I wrote addressed that very directly. Unofficial was part of my response, a space to write about politics. As for The Through, part of the task of the writer is to create and hold space for our collective imagination. We have to look ahead and envision possibilities. If we don’t, no one will.
A. RAFAEL JOHNSON is the author of The Through and a fellow with Kimbilio Fiction. He grew up in New York and Texas, but now calls Minneapolis home. He holds a BA in Drama from The University of Texas, and an MFA in Fiction from The University of Alabama. His writing has previously appeared in Kweli, African American Review, Callaloo, and is forthcoming in Spaceship. Johnson co-owns TerraLuna Collaborative, a program evaluation consultancy firm. Johnson is currently working on his next book.