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Sunday, July 26, 2015

Mat Johnson: "Loving Day"

Author:  Mat Johnson  
Title:  Loving Day 
Ratings:  Violence3; Sensuality4; Humor—3   
Publisher:  Spiegel & Grau (Random House) (5/2015)

                    PUBLISHER'S BLURB                    

     Warren Duffy has returned to America for all the worst reasons: His marriage to a beautiful Welsh woman has come apart; his comics shop in Cardiff has failed; and his Irish American father has died, bequeathing to Warren his last possession, a roofless, half-renovated mansion in the heart of black Philadelphia. 

     On his first night in his new home, Warren spies two figures outside in the grass. When he screws up the nerve to confront them, they disappear. The next day he encounters ghosts of a different kind: In the face of a teenage girl he meets at a comics convention he sees the mingled features of his white father and his black mother, both now dead. The girl, Tal, is his daughter, and she's been raised to think she's white. 

Spinning from these revelations, Warren sets off to remake his life with a reluctant daughter he’s never known, in a haunted house with a history he knows too well. In their search for a new life, he and Tal struggle with ghosts, fall in with a Utopian mixed-race cult, and ignite a riot on Loving Day, the unsung holiday for interracial lovers.

                    MY REVIEW                    

     Mat Johnson, son of an African American mother and an Irish American father, writes this novel as a semi-autobiographical metaphor about race and identity in America. The book's title comes from an unofficial holiday commemorating the Supreme Court's 1967 ruling in Loving v. Virginia that struck down all laws banning interracial marriage in America. In the book, the protagonist compares the celebration to a "Mulatto Christmas." In an interview on NPR's "Fresh Air," Johnson explains that one reason he wrote the book was because he was tired of constantly having to explain himself—his identity, his race, his ethnicity—to people. "I am tired of talking about this. It really feels like I'm walking around all day with an ink stain in my breast pocket. You know? That ink stain might be four years old, but every time I walk down the hall, somebody's like, hey, you know, you got an ink stain in your pocket. It's...unbelievably exhausting. So...this book is being born today...But for me, it's the funeral for this book, and it's the funeral for having to talk about these issues...I needed to say them. I needed to get them all out on paper, but I don't need to keep them with me forever...I want to put them in the pages of the book, close the book, and keep your local library where I don't have to carry this stuff anymore." In Loving Day, Johnson's protagonist, Warren Duffy, calls himself "a racial optical illusion…black, with an asterisk. The asterisk is my whole body." Later he refers to himself as an "Afro-Celt. Not even half of the right kind of honky."

     As the story opens, Warren has just returned to Philadelphia feeling like his life has been a succession of failures: his broken marriage, his sputtering career as an "inept" comic book artist, his lack of money, and now the inheritance left to him by his recently deceased father—a dilapidated, roofless monstrosity of a house: "In the ghetto there is a mansion, and it is my father's house. It sits on seven acres, surrounded by growling row homes, frozen in an architectural class war. Its expansive lawn is utterly useless, wild like it smokes its own grass and dreams of being a jungle…This house is a job for a legion, not one person. It would kill one person. It did—my father. I am one person now. My father's house is on me I see it from the back of the cab, up on its hill, rotting." Warren views it as "Sisyphus's boulder, just with doors and beams" and immediately decides that he will probably burn it down for the insurance money.

     As if the horrific house were not enough on its own, Warren soon realizes that it is haunted by the ghosts of a man and a woman: The man is "bald, black, ageless, clothes without distinction in the gloom." The woman is "clothed in a dirty gown, the lingerie of a drug-addled seductress. She's a white woman, gaunt cheeks like bones around the dark hollows of her eye sockets." The ghosts begin "staring at the house, walking backward. Away from me. Until they reach the fence to the street and float up, and over." Warren soon convinces himself that these were actually real people, probably crackheads from the neighborhood who broke into the house, but the ghosts return from time to time, and their presence brings about some major changes in his life. 

     The issue of racial identity is introduced early on at a comics convention when Warren finds himself and several black illustrators relegated to the "Urban" section—in the corner of the convention room back by the exit. In order to blend in with and be accepted by his black colleagues, he lets "my black voice come out, to compensate for my ambiguous appearance. Let the bass take over my tongue. Let the South of Mom's ancestry inform the rhythm of my words in a way few white men could pull off." It is at this convention that Warren is confronted by Tal, a teen-age girl, and her grandfather. When he looks into Tal's face, "I see my dad…And then I see my mom…I see my mother, and her mother, Gramma Jones, and Aunt Katie. Faces I thought were gone from existence, they are right in front of me. Jumbled all together in this tan Jewish girl…" Yes, Tal is Warren's daughter, the product of a clumsy sexual escapade when he was just sixteen. 

     Soon enough, Tal moves into the mansion with Warren, and he tries to find her a school that will enhance her perceptions of her new-to-her black heritage. She isn't thrilled about her father's ethnicity: "I thought you would be Israeli or something. I hate rap music…I guess I'm going to have to start using hot sauce on all my food now." Warren awkwardly tries to reassure her: "There's Team White, and there's Team Black, okay? You probably didn't even know you were on Team White before, most of Team White's members never do. They just think they're 'normal.' But if you're black, and you go with Team White, that makes you a sellout. A traitor. And plus you'll never be accepted as a full member if they know the truth about you. It's all good though. Because there's Team Black where, okay, you may have to work sometimes to be accepted if you look like us, but your membership is clearly stated. In the bylaws."

     Johnson is brilliant in his satirization of the search for schools, first trying an Afrocentric charter school that emphasizes all things African, from languages to dances to clothing. Then, they try the Mélange Center, a mixed-race community organization that is squatting in a municipal park, and which embraces and advocates balance between both races that make up a biracial person's genetic heritage. In order to be accepted as a teacher at the school (in exchange for Tal's tuition fees), Warren has to take a test with questions like "Was O.J. Simpson guilty?" and "What are your feelings about mayonnaise?"

     In his own mind, Warren labels the Mélange group "Mulattopians," and he is stunned to find that one of their teachers is Sunita (Sun) Habersham, the mixed-race woman who challenged him during his panel presentation at the comics convention. From the audience, Sun loudly questioned why Warren had adopted only his black identity, and she denounced him as a sunflower ("yellow on the outside, brown on the inside. A slang term for a biracial person who denies their mixed nature, only recognizing their black identity"; the opposite of an oreo). When Sun sees Warren and Tal at the gates of Mélange, her response is, "Look at that. The world's biggest sunflower has come to bloom." Warren falls for Sun almost immediately, but she keeps him at a distance, and their relationship grows more and more complex as the story plays out.

     Johnson is an adept comic observer, and I found myself chuckling at his frequent sardonic observations. Here, he describes the appearance of the family lawyer: "Sirleaf Day is carpeted in cloth. He's got a Kenyan dashiki, Sudanese mud cloth pants, and a little Ghanian kente hat. Its like Africa finally united, but just in his wardrobe….Sirleaf speaks three languages: Street, Caucasian, and Brotherman." 

     Another great line comes late in the book after Warren is shunned by the Mélange community: "The only thing worse than a cult is a cult that won't have you as a member." 

     And then there is Mélange's Loving Day celebration, with zonkey rides (a pony painted with black and white stripes) and a Miss Cegenation Pageant. Both black and white protesters picket the Loving Day celebration. The black contingent—all garbed in black tee shirts and waving black, red, and green balloonsis led by the pretentious principal of the Afrocentric school, who keeps shouting "Umoja!" (the Swahili word for united). The white protesters arrive in buses. Warren muses, "None of the white folks…speak Swahili, I would wager. They probably think it's Zulu for 'Sharia Law.'" Both sides shout their slogans: "'Biracialism buys into racism!' I can hear the black side chanting now. 'Segregation is wrong!' is yelled from the white side, without any hint of irony."

     Johnson's book is a keen-edged, incisive, satirical, frequently hilarious take on race in America. His protagonist, Warren Duffy, is a quick-witted neurotic, cynic whose deadpan commentsboth humorous and moroseare always spot on. Tal is a delight—an appealing but annoying teenager who now has just one more reason to feel alienated from her tribe—if she can ever figure out exactly who/what her tribe is. The secondary characters are over-the-top in their words and actions, particularly the members of the Mélange community. And the house itself is also a spectacular character—a monster representing the ghosts of the past (real ghosts in this case) from which Warren must disengage himself ("to be free of the past in a blaze of glory") if he is to move on with Taland, perhaps, Sunitainto their uncertain future. Click HERE to read an excerpt from Loving Day.

HISTORICAL NOTE: Warren Duffy explains that his falling-down home is actually the Loudoun House, which is an actual mansion in the Germantown section in Philadelphia. Click HERE for more information about the house and its history. 

BIOGRAPHY: Mat Johnson is the author of the novels Pym, Drop, and Hunting in Harlem, the nonfiction novella The Great Negro Plot, and the comic books Incognegro and Dark Rain. He is a recipient of the United States Artist James Baldwin Fellowship, The Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, and the John Dos Passos Prize for Literature. He is a Professor at the University of Houston Creative Writing Program.

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