In Conversation with Myles E. Johnson
If you’re reading Buzzfeed, Essence, or The New York Times, you’ll most likely find Myles E. Johnson’s name in the bylines, critiquing the world as we know it. Or if you run across his Twitter, you’ll find him creating dialogue surrounding pop culture, challenging those reading to consider his view. And you’ll always get a good laugh.
A contributor to the New York Times, Essence, Buzzfeed and more, Myles E. Johnson interprets the intersection of black and queer identities. He has written essays critiquing current events, developed writing workshops and initiatives for marginalized individuals and created fictional narratives centered on communities that have too often remained underrepresented. Appointed Brooklyn Magazine’s ‘30 Under 30’ in 2018, he is currently a weekly columnist for VICE’s Noisey and the professor of Non-Fiction Creative Writing at The New School. He authored the children’s book ‘LARGE FEARS’ which was the first book to center a queer black boy and was featured on NBC News, Huffington Post, The Advocate, and NPR. Myles E. Johnson currently lives Brooklyn, NY and is signed to Folio Literary Agency.
I had the privilege of talking to Johnson about being a black, queer essayist in this industry and what’s coming next from the writer who got a phone call from Beyonce’s publicist.
Arriel Vinson: How did you get your start writing essays, and when did people (publications AND readers) really start to care about what you were writing?
Myles E. Johnson: I’ve been writing my whole life. Folks started caring around four years ago because of my personal essays, then I self-published a children’s book and my readership has been evolving ever since.
AV: What is it like being a black, queer essayist in this industry?
MEJ: This is a hard question because I don’t know anything else. I’d say it’s the same as any other portion of my life: it is often difficult and unfair, but it is also filled with triumphs and joy. I guess, the major difference is you feel very “representative” in a way I think a lot of people of different gender/sexuality and racial experiences may not know. I don’t come into rooms or put pen to the page as an individual, but as a representation of my community both living and dead. This is great, terrifying, and horrible at once.
AV: Tell me more about representing an entire community when you write. Usually, this is the case for writers of color. Do you feel like this has made you a better writer?
MEJ: I try to ignore it. I try to pretend that I'm not representing anyone and my job is just simply to tell the truth, the full truth.
AV: You’re one of the few black essayists I know with a large following. Does this put pressure on you as a black writer? If so, how do you handle it? Are you asked to have an opinion on everything?
MEJ: It does because my opinion is often different and the sole one which can make me have to fight that much harder to have it. It’s this unintentional gaslighting that happens. Even just amongst other popular black writers, I’m queer (in the political sense of the word), pro-black, and feminist. I’m often going to disagree with folks who don’t hold these political beliefs and most essayists with large followings don’t hold my beliefs for various reasons. This puts a lot of pressure on me to be more thorough than my peers, but it pushes me to read more and cling to who I really am and what I truly believe which is good.
From my readership, I’m often asked to have an opinion about everything which I’ve been learning to navigate and edit myself. From black spaces, I’m asked to usually talk about queer/”gay things. From mainstream/white spaces, I’m asked to only have an opinion on things directly dealing with black folks. It is my goal as a writer to be respected on my worldview, not just where my identity begins and ends.
AV: What draws you to the themes of gender, sexuality, class, and race in each of your essays?
MEJ: Because I’m talking about culture—American pop culture—and these are the pillars of culture. I want us to remember that. The things we are consuming and interacting with are created for a reason: profit. If I’m not discussing those things when discussing pop culture and art, I’m not fully expressing the truth that I know. And there is a responsibility for the writer to express the full truth that they know or they are writing badly. They are writing fairy tales for the public and editing reality.
AV: What is the most emotionally-difficult essay you’ve written about black queerness? Why? How do you continue writing through these tough stories?
MEJ: The essays I’m writing for my upcoming book are the most difficult things I’ve written about my black queer identity. Margaret Atwood wrote, “This above all, to refuse to be a victim. Unless I can do that, I can do nothing.” While writing these essays for this book, I’ve had to deal with things I usually look beyond, maybe even forgotten in a lot of ways, in order to reject the abject position of victimhood. I had to swim in it. I had to put language to it. The experience is teaching me that the flesh does not forget, but the spirit does. Meaning, I can always remember trauma and interact with it and make art from it, but my spirit is victorious. I’m not owned by these things and putting language to it is actually a way for me transform these things.
AV: "The flesh does not forget, but the spirit does" is so beautiful yet painful. If you're able to speak on it, tell me about some of the experiences you had to relive in order to write your upcoming book.
MEJ: I wrote about breakups with old friends, mean things I've said and been told, nothing too unique. But these are the things I've tried to move beyond.
AV: You tend to write a lot about black women as well, especially Beyonce and Serena Williams. What about those women, in particular, urges an essay out of you?
MEJ: I’m a feminine black man. My representation in media has always been limited, so my role models in media are more of a collage of many folks than just one person that resonates with me. Often this includes black women because black women are the most often used representations of femininity and blackness in media. I grew up with Beyonce and Serena Williams, and them showing me how you can wield your blackness, femininity, and still be a champion, the best, powerful. I take their positions in culture very seriously and I see how important it is, and I want to make sure if nobody else is going to contextualize their influence, I do.
AV: What is it like knowing that your writing is read so widely, that Beyonce’s publicist called you? Tell me more about the call.
MEJ: I can’t say much beyond that I got a call and I was extremely happy. And that I feel incredibly blessed that my favorite performer, and the greatest living performer, is somehow connected to my literary journey. It feels unreal and humbling.
I don’t think I ever think about how many people read or don’t read my writing. My mind hasn’t even resolved that and I don’t think it ever will. And I think that is for the best. I can only imagine 3 or 4 people reading my stuff when I’m writing and these are the same 3 or 4 folks that started reading me when I first started writing publicly. This ignorance keeps me brave and honest. If I started thinking beyond that, I think I’d intimidate myself out of producing anything.
AV: In your essay on Donald Glover’s This is America video, as well as many others, you have a way of weaving in the personal without taking away from the big idea. How do you think this affects your essays? How can a writer do this effortlessly?
MEJ: I think the personal is what makes writing, your writing. Anybody can talk about a popular thing, but nobody has your story. Use that to your advantage. And I’d say to any writer looking to do this that the best way to do it is by [taking] art seriously and taking survey of how it makes you feel and what it makes you think of. Connect these things. Write an essay about an experience and wait until a piece of art comes along that resonates with that experience, and critique it, and then figure out ways to combine the both. Do this again and again, and the end result will be better and feel more like you.
AV: Tell me more about Large Fears and your inspiration to write that book.
MEJ: I had this prayer on my heart that I wanted to work out some childhood trauma through my art, and I was one day in my room at my mama’s house dancing to George Michael and the name Jeremiah Nebula popped into my head. I stopped dancing and got a notebook and asked myself who this person was. And it became clear he was a child and that the language needed to be a bit more simple and friendly. From there, I asked some artists friends if they could help me bring him to life. I had a pretty clear idea of how I saw it aesthetically and after that, I began the self-publishing journey.
AV: What was it like writing a children’s book? How does your children’s book voice differ from your essay voice?
MEJ: Writing a children’s book was freeing and helped me fall back in love with creation. My children’s book voice is not explicit, more poetic, and more focused on a delivering an idea/moral than examining a reality.
AV: You said that you fell back in love with creation. Tell me about the time when you weren't in love with creation and what took you there.
MEJ: I'm an artist, a real artist. That's what I am first and the industry can make you feel so robotic and transactional. It can turn you into a businessperson or guru, and I was beginning to feel that way. I felt expectations to go a certain way and create a certain thing, and rebelling against that by writing something nobody anticipated liberated me from this.
AV: As you were shopping Large Fears around, were you ever made to feel like this story wasn’t important? How did you deal with that?
MEJ: No, I never shopped Large Fears around. I immediately self-published. I was so convinced it would get rejected that I didn’t bother with that process. I crowdfunded, put my own money up, and got the product to the public directly. After that, big press outlets like NBC and Buzzfeed began to reach out and I got my first literary agent.
AV: I know you also write speculative fiction. Tell me about how you began writing speculative fiction, and your favorite spec fic authors.
MEJ: That’s my core. That’s how I fell in love with writing. It was through fiction. I was, and still am in many ways, the little boy obsessed with sci-fi, monsters, and The Twilight Zone. Even now, I always have just this constant ongoing projector in my head of worlds, monsters, and situations that are otherworldly but serve as a critique of the world. I love, love, love the work of Samuel R. Delaney, Octavia E. Butler, Toni Morrison, Ray Bradbury, and Chuck Palahniuk.
AV: What inspires you to write in multiple genres and how do you choose whether your idea needs to be an essay, story, or novel?
MEJ: Luckily, I have an imagination and I’m a servant to my imagination. So, my imagination tells me what a thing needs to be. I have nothing to do with the process. You just feel it and now, and thank God for a type of creative discernment you have nothing to do with.
AV: Anything else you’re working on that you’d like to share with our readers?
MEJ: I’m working on my first “memoir”. I’m collaborating on a lot of things with Afropunk, Genius and Vice. I’m beginning my first year of teaching Creative Nonfiction Writing at The New School, and I’m currently an affiliate of the publishing house, Random House, so I get to support authors that are writing books I love with one of the biggest publishing houses in the world. Other than that, I’m chilling.
You can connect with Myles E. Johnson by following him on Twitter.