When Myles E. Johnson releases a new project, you’d be wise to pay attention. Naturally, we were ecstatic to get a chance to dive into it. Writer, social commentator, author of the critically-acclaimed children’s book, Large Fears, and beloved friend to The Scribes, we got the chance to catch up with the brilliant storyteller and pick his brain on his latest masterpiece focused on queer folks and fantasy, Fairytales For Giovanni.
*WARNING: SPOILER ALERT*
Willie Kinard: So who gave you the right to snatch my edges like this?
AsiahMae: I’ve been trying to grow my edges back. If you do nothing else when this is released, please pat yourself on the back for writing a piece of this caliber–for the culture.
Myles E. Johnson: Thank you, thank you guys so so so much. Don’t make me cry, y’all. Thank you.
WK: You’ve released quite a few essays and short works this summer, from Revenge as an Heirloom to critiquing Beyoncé and LEMONADE to writing on relationships and hyper-masculinity–all things that haven given glimpses of Fairytales. Were you intentionally trolling or taunting us and if so, how do you feel about teasing us only to snatch the rug from under us like this for this project?
Johnson: [Laughs] First off, thank you for understanding that! On trolling, I don’t want to say I have an inflated view of the future, but sometimes I’ll have a vision of myself and who I want to be in 10, 20 years or less, maybe 5, and it excites me to think that someone will be able to read what I wrote and connect things. I like being able to look back on work or on a particular era of an artist and connect their pieces. I love when [they] do those type of things and I wanted to create similarly. I’d love for someone to look back on the work [I put out] between 24 and 26 and say there’s a consistent era and theme and tidbits of this and this. Inside of Fairytales for Giovanni, in the piece “The Point of View from a Rocking Chair,” I [added] a character named Jeremiah that McGregor was talking to that hinted at Large Fears. I thought that before I released Fairytales, it’d be cool to release all these essays and independent works that structured or threaded together.
AM: Well, that confirms our thoughts as a nod to Jeremiah Nebula. We noticed McGregor described as “a boy that seems to be part human, part lion, all cosmic,”—glad to know that you’re slowly creating this literary universe that your readers get to explore.
Johnson: That’s exactly what I want to do. It’s important for me that my work be good, but [since] it caters to queer Black people, it’s very important that I put the same type of integrity type that [many of] my favorite artists do in my work. For me, if I know that I’m a decent writer and creative person, then I should push myself to be the best that I can be for my community because there aren’t a lot of visible people creating that type of thoughtful, intellectual, smart content for Black queer folks. That’s why I keep reading–so that my I can get smarter, so can my work can get smarter, so that we can have smarter work. I’d wouldn’t want someone to say, “Well, he kinda tried it with this story or this essay. It could’ve been a tad bit more sophisticated.”
In a weird way, for kids in the 90s, we have an Afrofuturist DNA.
WK: Speaking of smart and thoughtful, in one particular chapter, you write of this character having “hyper-memory.” Referencing this innate ability to know beyond memory essentially, it’s very intriguing, hinting at omniscience as if he was one with God’s mind in a sense. It feels straight out of a sci-fi movie and lends itself back to Afrofuturism. Given that context, what role did Afrofuturist writers like Octavia Butler play into the creating of Fairytales for Giovanni? And how do you think other writers and authors before them, noting your Zora Neal Hurston/Their Eyes Were Watching God nod in that same chapter, lend their voices and allow for creating a space for Afrofuturism, specifically in your work?
Johnson: Afrofuturism totally informed all of the work in Fairytales. Even the things that I had in the present and the past because I wanted it to be kind of fantastic. In my heart of hearts, in the first chapter where the man dies in “Runner’s High,” I didn’t want it to be a sad thing. I wanted it to be sort of exciting, making the readers ask, “What the f*ck is going on? He’s losing all of these body parts–is he dying or being transmuted into a different dimension?”
AM: [Laughs] And we did.
Johnson: Right. As for Octavia E. Butler, I want to call her my god, but my belief in Butler is less wavering than my belief in god. [Laughs] I’m not agnostic when it comes Octavia. I never have doubtful days in regards to her belief in herself or her work. When you read her notebook of her writing what her life was going to be like or her work where she’s putting political theme inside of these futurist idea, she totally inspired me to push the boundaries of the theories that I came up with. Aside from her, Sun Ra‘s music and his film, I really gouged myself and explored them. Hyper-memory kind of emerged there. For aesthetic, looking back to the 90s, that was our thing. Thinking of Erykah Badu, Kelis, TLC and FanMail, which was more of our era & an Afrofuturist look. In a weird way, for kids in the 90s, we have an Afrofuturist DNA. We saw Raven-Symoné in space, in Zenon, not in the Cosbys. We grew up in it, but didn’t really have a name for it.
AM: I don’t think we knew of anything different. It was what we were used to.
Johnson: Exactly. As for other writers that came before that, any writers that I’ve worshipped that weren’t necessarily Afrofuturist, I tried in some way to worship them in this project. Even if it was blatant or if only I knew, I’m proud. For me, knowing who I am and just knowing who my references are, to be able to go and pick out a line pointing to Zora Neale Hurston or Toni Morrison or Alice Walker or James Baldwin or Prince or Fiona Apple–I really am proud as that they’re in there. They’ve changed my life as an artist and have pushed me to be the artist that I am.
WK: Now I’m thinking back to the Missy Elliott video for “Supa Dupa Fly,” that iconic trash bag and Michael & Janet’s “Scream” in sheer amazement at how true that is.
AM: Looking at you too, Busta Rhymes. [Laughs] Everything was metallic and neon plastic and fun.
Johnson: We were definitely informed by that, seeing Black people in the future so it makes sense that it’s just a part of who we are. Thinking of The Fifth Element or The Matrix and what we liked, whereas white people focused on technology and domination, for us creating a future version of ourselves, we were concerned with how can we make it cool and fashionable and rendering our people naturally.
I liked the idea that someone could Google [and] understand that Black queerness is as ancient and traditional as Blackness in itself.
AM: Yes, definitely. Going to the other side of science, always formerly known as magick, you write of it and supernatural ability in a powerful chapter, “Savage Autopsy,” set in Ghana. Such a lovely nod to the Yoruba orishas, mysticism and even the criticism and skepticism of said mysticism/magick. Of that, we wouldn’t expect one without the other, but why did you choose to incorporate this specific set of culture and spirituality while speaking of Afrofuturism?
Johnson: “Savage Autopsy” wasn’t originally going to be in the project. I had the most psychic, emotional and spiritual experiences writing it. The things that informed “Savage Autopsy” helped me see things clearer, and when I was heavily into it, it was almost as if someone was writing it for me or whispering it to me–it kind of bled out of me. It was one of the oddest experiences that I’ve had writing, aside from writing Revenge as an Heirloom. It scared me as I’d never so clearly written of what revenge might look like for Black people. But, a friend of mine interested in spiritual practices read it. He loved it and dared me to put it in. I wrestled with it, but added it later, because I liked how it flowed and it felt right. For these to be stories that represented Black queer people, I felt like there needed to be something that could be seen as both indigenous, native and older, but current and happening, so I thought of where that would take place. I thought of where someone could go that’s both Black and queer to have a taste of what their ancestors had and that could only be in Africa, or maybe the South as some places haven’t changed since construction. I didn’t know how I was going to start, but I researched the Orishas and started talking to my friend of Erinle, and how he was queer and divine and connected to elephants and how he hunted and healed. I wanted to make it very clear, through poetry and words that he would say, that an African deity was present and being the one getting even. I thought it was powerful that the Black queer character in this story was a god and I liked the idea that someone could actually Google him and understand that Black queerness is as ancient and traditional as Blackness in itself, without directly saying it.
WK: I need “I came to hunt and heal” on some Fairytales merch to be honest. I love the insertion that Black queerness is not new at all both in this story and in the one of McGregor and his grandfathers. I know reading “They were rainbows on fire” got me for a minute. We both also really appreciate your inclusion of queer Black women and queer Black femmes in this, specifically in “Nefarious Flowers.”
AM: Right. In many works by queer black creatives, often times, queer black femmes are often completely disregarded or omitted in their storytelling. These two in particular are quite interested in creating a narrative of their own within the space you made for them. Why was it important for you to include queer femmes that defined magic and history (or herstory) on their own terms in Giovanni’s Fairytales, a set of stories that could be said center a black queer man?
Johnson: As a creative person, I think that it’s always important to know when to venture into something and when to mind your business. [Laughs] It’s an interesting thing to straddle. My mother and my best friend are lesbians and I’ve always been surrounded by queer women and femmes and being apart of that community, it felt honest. It felt not only like a story that I had been told, but one that I could write about through observations with people. It added variety and it felt like something I could write without it being too much, so I could mind my business. I’d need to be able to live a bit more to be inspired and be able to write more on them thoughtfully and intellectually and artistically. I wrote it like three times, the last time being after Prince died and it felt honest. You can see all of the allusions to him in it. It’s also the story with the most sex in it and I found it interesting and powerful to me that beautiful and artistic lesbian sex scenes be included. I thought it’d be boring only mirror people that I identify with.
I think that it’s important to remind people that this flesh is definitely finite… But, the work that you do, the impact that you have, the people that you touch, the scholarship that you create–all of these things outlive you through the people that consume it and reimagine it.
WK: To see Black queerness in elders with this wisdom and magic, referring to McGregor’s grandfathers that also encourage his curiosity, it’s so satisfying. It lends to this “contemporary” oldness, or more this attainable state of age and happiness and peace and grace. In that, I noticed that there’s this thing of being infinite (that hints at perfection) throughout all the stories. Simultaneously, this sensation of being finite, but being genuinely purposeful, temporally, is also there. Not was this intentional, but what of this feeling of infinity is so important for readers to understand and why do you include defying this sense of time so much?
Johnson: I think it’s important for [people] to see us wholly, as a body of queer Black people that may definitely live longer than the generations before us. We’re a people wrought by poverty, brutality, the AIDS epidemic, and those things took away a lot of brilliant speakers and thinkers that may otherwise still be here today. In seeing things like Paris Is Burning, I love it, but I get really heartbroken because everyone in those stories expressed this desire to be a superstar. To me, on a spiritual and emotional level, that means to really be actualized, to arrive at your highest self which is something I think that everyone has a desire to do. As queer Black people alive right now, we come from a line of people that did not get to arrive at those moments. When I think of some of [them] and how old they were when they died versus the type of work that they did, they were truly infinite. They were operating out of that space. I think that it’s important to remind people that this flesh is definitely finite and that the older you get, the more that you’ll be grateful that it is. But, the work that you do, the impact that you have, the people that you touch, the scholarship that you create–all of these things outlive you through the people that consume it and reimagine it. Thinking of how Audre Lorde and Essex Hemphill and so many others can be infinite through us, to think like that is thinking in a really divine space. If I have anyone that’s queer and Black reading my stuff, I have to tell them that they’re infinite, that their history is rich, that they have ancestors looking out for them, as much as possible because who else will?
AM: Whew. We really need to be thanking you for this. I’ve told you before that your voice is so needed. To see you continuously pushing out these things and manifesting those words and making folks realize that they’re needed, it makes my heart feel good. I have a bit of a Mama moment.
Myles E. Johnson: That makes me feel so good. Because [my goal] was to largely stay in the house and avoid the heat, the goal was really to write a lot and to read a lot and I’ve been able to do both of those things. Thinking about the amount of essays that I’ve been able to write, this time last year I was doing press for Large Fears or dealing with the agent or the publisher, so I never really got the time to just say, “Let me write about this current event,” or flesh out an idea, like Revenge As an Heirloom. It feels good to be able to write a short story or an essay, just building my language and my repertoire.
WK: We definitely appreciate you for your time, Myles, as always. Before we go, thinking back you dedicated to Large Fears to the kids. For Fairytales For Giovanni, you dedicate it to the victims of the Orlando Pulse shooting while elaborating this reference that the truest and most powerful type of magic comes through freedom and staying free. Are we correct in saying that all of that is intentional?
Johnson: Definitely, that is all super duper intentional. Besides the mantra of dedicating your life to finding infinity and being infinite in this finite world, the other that I was definitely intentional and deliberate on was freedom and staying free and that is the common thread in everybody’s story. Whether they arrive at it tragically or beautifully, it’s all about freedom. With Giovanni being jailed in a sense, through every story and character, he finds freedom in falling.