10/01 assignment

Brittney Decker

I watched the Charles Johnson Interview with American Book Review. What struck me was Johnson’s advice to budding writers. He said you must be a reader with more than just a love of writing. A young writer must ask him or her self, what can I contribute to American literature? What void can I fill? Why am I doing this? What is my aim? Johnson wanted to bring something to black American literature that he didn’t see already being done. He claims that when you do this many other doors open.

Although this interview didn’t change my view of the stories, it informed as to the motivation behind writing them. Moving forward as a writer I will definitely take his advice and really think about why I am writing my story, instead of focusing so much on what my story is about or where it is going. Taking this new approach, I will consider what I am trying to accomplish with my story and see what direction this way of thinking takes me in.


There is a sentence in the book Understanding Charles Johnson where the critic asserts that Johnson has in mind Emerson's essay "Nature."  In that chapter of the book titled "Faith and The Good Thing," the author refers back to Emerson a numerous occasions, connecting passages of Emerson to Johnson's work.  
This informed my understanding of Johnson's work in that both stories struck me as taking, and committing to, a moral position about human life.  There is no moral ambiguity, nor moral depravity; no luring of the reader down a path of enjoying perversion, no invitation of voyeurism.  
It seems clear to me that Johnson exists as an artist with an agenda based on his complex views of race and metaphysical and moral philosophy.
I found it refreshing, where I think some might consider it preachy.  He might even disagree with my sentiment that he has an agenda, but it is one that he manages to slide by the reader with good writing and good storytelling, and only through thinking about the stories, and reading the reviews was it clear to me.  
Emerson would be pleased, I think.  


"Historically (and in terms of legend), martial arts entered Chinese Buddhism when the patriarch Bodhidharma traveled from China to India. He found the monks at one monastery in such poor health that they couldn't practice meditation long enough to achieve awakening, and so he studied the various forms animals used for fighting, developed combat exercises from them, then taught those exercises to the monks.
Not only did their health improve, but the monks at Shaolin monastery (legend says) became as enthusiastic about martial arts practice as Dharma practice. I understand why. Mind, body, and spirit are one. We need to regularly discipline all three to make progress in life."
Obviously, the importance of this legend to Johnson reverberates strongly though both "Kwoon" and "China." This quote illuminates for me what is going on on a subtler level in "Kwoon" than in "China" - even in a discipline that Johnson obviously believes in (martial arts) there can still exist a kind of blindness related to ego and fear that exists for Evelyn's character; it brings up questions of who is allowed to teach or what it means to be a teacher vs. a student.

Mahreen Sohail

1. Occasionally Johnson overburdens his characters with thematic mission, and the result is a lack of full-bloodedness and some dialogue too fraught with exposition. This, I think, is a raw side of his enthusiasm -- in this novel he seems to be saying to the reader: ''Now look here! And what about this? And look at this!'' Thankfully, his enthusiasms are nearly always contagious. (from: http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/04/05/reviews/980405.05mcfarlt.html)

2. Unfortunately, in the weaker stories in this volume, Mr. Johnson's taste for parables - his desire to locate some sort of Aesop-like moral in each tale - tends to overwhelm his delicate conjurations of social detail and vernacular description. (from: http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/04/05/specials/johnson-apprentice.html)

When I was reading the stories, I sometimes felt as if I was being led by the hand and I'm still not quite sure if that overwhelmed the story or if 'his enthusiasms were contagious'. It was surprising to see what I'd felt articulated in reviews of his other work by reviewers.

(I also thought this link might be interesting, http://ethelbert-miller.blogspot.com/2011/03/kwoon-by-charles-johnson-explanation-of.html  - apparently Charles Johnson's thought's on Kwoon)

Joe Pfister

Charles Johnson, “Kwoon”

“I’ve been a martial-arts practitioner since I was 19 years old, and my sense of who I am—and what I can do—was shaped early on by the demands of martial-arts training. So, inevitably, that side of my life crops up in my stories and novels.

Nevertheless, I’ve always found the writing of martial art-based stories to be challenging, and so have published only two, ‘China’ and ‘Kwoon,’ which are among my most reprinted and anthologized short stories. What makes this kind of story challenging, at least for me, is that a writer needs to find in the world of the Asian martial arts ‘the human heart in conflict with itself,’ as William Faulkner put it in his 1950 Nobel Prize for Literature acceptance speech. 

Among those who stick by David’s side during this trial is Elizabeth, his beautiful and most advanced student, whom he achingly desires, though he will not reveal that to her because ‘unlike some teachers he knew, his policy was to take whatever he felt for a student—the erotic electricity that sometimes arose—and transform it into harder teaching, more time spent on giving them their money’s worth.’ As one might guess, this was my approach during my more than 30 years of teaching, for all around me in the academic and art worlds I saw professors, male and female, sleeping with their students, a practice I could not morally (or professionally) approve.”

Due to the vast amount of detail in both “China” and “Kwoon,” I wasn’t surprised to learn Johnson was involved with martial arts from a young age—or that these stories are among his most anthologized. However, the fact that Johnson considers writing martial art-based stories the most challenging was unexpected, especially considering his expertise and its close connection to his identity. I was also surprised to hear David’s views toward Elizabeth were taken directly from Johnson’s own experiences in academia.

From: http://ethelbert-miller.blogspot.com/2011/03/kwoon-by-charles-johnson-explanation-of.html


“Violence begins in the mind. It begins with anger. It begins with fear. And those things begin when we think dualistically. When we think in terms of “them versus us.” When we believe in our own separate ego, our separate life, not connected to anyone else. We have to meditate on this question, on the delusion of separateness and how it leads to psychological violence within us and then to external violence that causes so much harm in the world.”
-Charles Johnson in and interview with Shambhala Sun 
This quote from Charles Johnson on Buddhism has a lot to do with the themes he explores in the story “China.” From the beginning, Evelyn identifies with a very specific subset of people and anything outside of that small world is perceived as a threat. When she unloads on Rudolph for his new lifestyle, she lists a series of comical Chinese stereotypes and then asks her husband how he can do this when he was raised in “a right and proper colored church” (p. 90). Johnson obviously disapproves of the “us/ them” mentality that his character exemplifies. The story’s conclusion has Evelyn comparing the sound in the Kingdome to the sound of parishioners in her church, (p. 94) showing that the illusion of dualism that Johnson refers to has been broken.

Sara Arnell

After reading Kwoon and China, I read two interviews with Charles Johnson – The Root, January 2010 and Humanities Washington, 2010
Once I learned that Charles Johnson regularly practiced martial arts and was a Buddhist, I saw these two stories as more personally connected to his life, beliefs and practices.  I immediately accepted that his descriptions of the Kwoon, the environments and the fighters are based on personal experience, not just research or 2nd hand information. 

In both interviews, Johnson speaks of his integrationist vision and how important it is for people of any race to live in close proximity to a “cultural other”.  In China and Kwoon, Johnson has cultures and races bumping into each other as a way to expand the characters experience and drive change in the story.  The reader can learn something from each story as well as be entertained.

In Kwoon, the reader learns that students and teachers can both learn from each other.  Amid the fighting and the violence in which David gets badly beaten, there is a pervading sense of Zen and calmness that keeps the characters able to see beyond themselves.  The teacher reaches out to the superior fighter as if he was still a student and the superior fighter comes back to the Kwoon and treats David as his teacher, once again.

In China, we see the husband and the wife almost switch roles as the story progresses.  The wife starts out as strong and sure of herself while the husband is weak, sickly and unhappy.  Once he begins to study martial arts, the story takes a twist with the husband becoming strong and sure and the wife imagining her death before his.

In the Humanities Washington interview Johnson says that short stories should be, “thought-provoking and transform our perceptions.”  He sees mind, body and spirit as a single phenomenon which is apparent in both stories as his lead characters each use their mind, body and spirit to achieve their desired results.

Mary Arnell

Hey Tao,

I read an interview with Charles Johnson that I found on JSTOR. There was a question posed to Mr. Johnson that I particularly liked:

Q: What happens to individual identity during the process of development your main characters go through?

Charles Johnson: I think it dissolves. “What is individual identity?” is a central question for me. I personally don’t believe in the existence of the ego. I think it’s a theoretical construct. There’s no empirical verification for it at all. And if there is such a think as identity, I don’t think that it’s fixed or static; it’s a process. I think it’s dominated by change and transformation, more so than by any static qualities. It is many identities over the course of a lifetime. That identity, if it is anything at all, is several things, a tissue of very often contradictory things, which is why I probably have a great deal of opposition to anything that looks like a fixed meaning for black America. I just don’t believe it. It’s a ridiculous thought.

            I found the whole interview quite illuminating, but this passage stuck out to me in particular. I’m not sure if it really taught me something about his characters, or rather just made me aware of something that I was already thinking. His characters do seem to be moving, and I like the idea of this being only a mere glimpse into one or two of their “identities”. It gives the pieces this feel of continuation. Often I find that I do not wonder about what will happen to characters outside the confines of the story, but this interview made me think about what the characters might discover about themselves after the story has ended. Particularly Evelyn in the story “China” and Ed Morgan from “Kwoon.”
            Also, I can see why his main characters seem to lose their “self” throughout the stories, mainly Rudolph from “China.” He even says at one point that he is trying to lose his “self” and this causes Evelyn to be greatly alarmed. But, it echoes Johnson’s own beliefs or rather lack of beliefs in the ego. 

Sheila Traub

What informed my view of each story.  One sentence or passage that changed or informed my view or struck me.

NB:  For each story, I have integrated my responses to what informed my view and my choice of a sentence or passage.

Charles R. Johnson

When I finished “Kwoon,” I said, “Wow.”  The O. Henry finish grabbed me.  As I have reflected on it, however, I have started to wonder if I hadn’t been manipulated.  That was never the case for me with O. Henry. 

Let’s take a look at the paragraph where David watches himself “as from a great distance” prepare for Thursday’s class  . . . . as if a costly operation once powered by coal had reverted overnight to the water wheel.”   Just below that text, David “felt the stillness of his studio, a similar stillness in himself, and sat quiet so long he could have been posing for a portrait.  Then:
 ‘You paid for a week in advance. I owe you another lesson.”

Now, first off, I just don't picture the impatient Morgan sitting at the other end of the phone, unable to see that David is thinking so hard, and being enormously patient while David sits in the stillness of his studio.  But we are to buy that and that here is the payoff, here is David’s Eureka moment, the divine moment when the training from his great sifu jells and he is inspired to try two additional learning techniques on the intractable and dirty-fighting Morgan. 
 Oh, it all sounds lovely and it’s a given that good will out, but I’m still from Missouri -- I just can’t quite buy it.  It is overly tidy, not real. 
Johnson gets an A for effort.
And, btw, I am very glad of the introduction to Johnson and I will add Dr. King's Refrigerator to my reading list.

Charles R. Johnson
Building a morality tale on Buddhist philosophy, as Johnson does here and with Kwoon, is an appealing way to reach the uninitiated.  The story is well crafted and its length appropriate.  Neither Evelyn nor Rudolph feels organically grown to me, however.  
To  me, this is another candy-box pretty story, offering up empty calories gussied up in an urban-hip wrapper to make you buy it. The story rings partly true, yet, but does not quite feel the real deal.  A pity.Despite being set up by a too-wordy sentence, I did love the last sentence in the quote below:
People made compromises, nodded at spiritual commonplaces -- the high seriousness of biblical verses that demanded nearly superhuman duty and self-denial -- and laughed off their lapses into sloth, envy, and other deadly sins.  It was what made living so enjoyable human:  this built-in inability of man to square his performance with perfection.  (Boldface supplied.)


On Google Books I found this bit from p. 113 of Gary Storhoff's Understanding Charles Johnson:
"Karate represents for Johnson a form of art through which, in creating an alternative world, the artist does not work, but "plays" at the creation of his or her body. Rudolph says, "I've never been able to give everything to anything. The world never let me. It won't let me put all of myself into play." The martial arts are transformative, as is literature." 
I found this interesting because I glossed over the word "play" the first time I read the story. I was focused on how Rudolph is never soft on himself, how he works so hard and tries to put all of himself into things. This bit about Rudolph putting himself into play, rather than work (and the assertion that literature is a form of play too), shifted my perception of what exactly he was doing with his karate, and what Johnson is doing with his writing.


Jackie Brusco

The following is a statement from Charles Johnson in an interview conducted by the E-Channel on March 12, 2011.

“As on might guess, this was my approach during my more than 30 years of teaching, for all around me in the academic and art worlds, I saw professors, male and female sleeping with their students, a practice I could not morally (or professionally) approve.”

When I read Kwoon, it was obvious to me that David Lewis had feelings for Elizabeth, his beautiful and most advanced student, whom he achingly desires, though he will not reveal that to her because “unlike some teachers he knew, his policy was to take whatever he felt for a student – the erotic electricity – and transform it into harder teaching, more time spent on giving them their money’s worth.”   After reading his interview with E-Channel, the above sentence struck out to me because - in a sense - Charles Johnson is David Lewis.  They both have high standards, professionally and morally.  Simply put, I like how Charles Johnson’s personal morals shine through David Lewis.  In today’s age with such poor role models, it’s nice to have someone like Johnson, and his character, Lewis, to remind readers that sometimes it’s the quiet restraint of an individual that makes him a hero. 


"During the age of slavery, then the era of Jim Crow segregation, when
whites separated themselves from blacks, they needed a black
individual to tell them what black people thought, desired, needed,
etc. (How else were they going to find out?) Often that person was the
black community’s minister; later writers served that purpose, from
Richard Wright to Ralph Ellison to James Baldwin. I personally think
in the post-Civil Rights period a black person is wasting his (or her)
time, the preciously few years of their lives, by devoting their
energy---as a “spokesman”--- to explaining so-called “black” things to
white people. Whites can---and should---do their own homework. Read
from the vast library of books on black American history and culture.
Take a course, for God’s sake, on some aspect of black history. Then
black individuals can be free to pursue the whole, vast universe that
awaits their discovery (as it does for any white person), leaving
behind emotionally draining racial discussions to investigate
astrophysics, DNA sequencing, cosmology, Sanskrit, the Buddhadharma,
mathematics, nano-technology, everything in this universe that remains
such a mystery to us."

This quote by Johnson from an interview at monsters and critics really
informed me to his attitude towards race as an author.  I remember
thinking it was peculiar that the characters race was mentioned so
haphazardly in China and I had this little internal debate with myself
(that definitely only manifested because of stupid conversations I’ve
had in workshops) about whither it should hold a stronger relevance in
the story.  I eventually landed on thinking it didn’t really matter in
much the same way that he sums up in this interview.  Why should he as
an African American have to go out of his way to write a story about
the African American experience as separate from the human experience?
 The characters race plays little to no role in the story, despite
maybe slight personality traits, and I’m sure these are whole accurate
ways in which many people are.  Does it matter that I don’t recognize
the characters as black before he mentions it in the story?  I don’t
think so.


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