Fiction writer and graphic novelist Mat Johnson will be the twenty-ninth guest speaker in Marygrove’s Contemporary American Authors Lecture Series. He will deliver the Lillian and Don Bauder Lecture at 8 p.m. on Friday, April 7, 2017.
Johnson is the author of four novels: Loving Day (2015), Pym (2011), Hunting in Harlem (2003), and Drop (2000). He has also written the graphic novels Right State (2012), Dark Rain: A New Orleans Story (2010), and Incognegro (2008), in addition to the limited series Hellblazer Special: Papa Midnite (2005). The Great Negro Plot (2007), Johnson’s work of creative nonfiction, traces the fallout over fears of slave insurrection in eighteenth-century New York. In 2007 Johnson became the first USA James Baldwin Fellow awarded by the United States Artist Foundation; he is currently a faculty member in the University of Houston’s Creative Writing Program.
Whether in print or graphic media, Johnson’s evocative dialogue, dark comedy, and skillful portraiture balance the historical detail and political weight of his topics. Reviewing Hunting in Harlem, Vanessa Bush of Booklist notes, “Johnson combines sharp analysis of contemporary race and social issues with finely drawn characters, a fast-paced plot, and wicked humor.” The vivacious storytelling of novels like PYM and Loving Day propels readers through thoughtful reflections on racial identity and our nation’s complex social landscape. Similarly, when Johnson looks back in The Great Negro Plot on one of America’s earlier episodes of racial strife, he “re-creates colonial America with clear imagination, exacting detail, and a mastery of the legal and social history of the period,” according to Tanu Henry of Black Issues Book Review.
As his working across mediums suggests, Johnson adeptly combines and moves between literary genres. The Washington Post describes PYM as “part social satire, part meditation on race in America, part metafiction and, just as important, a rollicking fantasy adventure.” In Dark Rain he brings all of the excitement of the heist story to the calamity of Hurricane Katrina. Inked in black and white, Incognegro renders a story of passing in the guise of film noir. Johnson stunningly interrogates the social scripts we enact daily while playfully transforming the more recognizable literary formulas from our popular culture.
Johnson grew up in the Germantown and Mount Airy sections of Philadelphia. After receiving the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship for Future Leaders at Quaker Earlham College, he earned his M.F.A. in fiction writing from Columbia University. He is the recipient of the 2011 John Dos Passos Prize for Literature as well as the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award for fiction.
Now in its twenty-ninth year, the Contemporary American Authors Lecture is an annual event bringing a nationally-known African American author to the Marygrove campus for a public reading and seminar with students. It began when the late Frederick P. Currier, a former Marygrove College trustee, attended a reception on campus and remarked that he would like to bring a national writer to Marygrove for a weekend. Mr. Currier’s start-up check soon followed his suggestion, and on April 21, 1989 nearly 600 guests of the College heard Gloria Naylor inaugurate the series.
The series has flourished thanks in large part to the generosity of Lillian and Don Bauder whose endowment supports the evening lecture as well as the Mary Helen Washington Writing Contest in which local high school students respond in writing to the visiting authors' works.
The support of Lillian and Don Bauder—along with that of many other individuals, foundations, and corporations—keeps the series free and open to the public.