I was introduced to Charles Johnson’s novels by my writing teacher, Steven Corbin, who insisted I drop everything and read Middle Passage, which had recently won the National Book Award for fiction. I fell hard for the novel, swept away by the seductive voice of the narrator, freed slave Rutherford Calhoun, who recounts the ill-fated journey of the Republic as it returns from Africa with a hold full of slaves. It was a book I returned to often, a masterpiece of first-person narration, and a book that yielded something new every time I picked it up.
When I began teaching Novel IV at UCLA (an advanced workshop), I chose Middle Passage (now handsomely reissued in a twenty-fifth-anniversary edition, replete with a new introduction by Stanley Crouch) to build the course around. On a whim, I sent Dr. Johnson an email to see if he might consider talking to my students via Skype about the novel. To my surprise, he accepted eagerly and warmly, and has returned four times over the last three years to discuss his work. His discussions are the invariable highlight of the semester. My students talk for weeks afterward about his generosity, experience, and wisdom. His conversations are always far-ranging, moving beyond Middle Passage to include anything and everything from the writing life to Buddhism to the writer as philosopher. It’s impossible to leave one of these sessions uninspired.