In fiction, there's nothing like the thrill of arrival. To have a young writer claim a territory, an historical event or sing out in a strong voice of his own is what readers seek and what makes them rejoice. For New Orleans native T. Geronimo Johnson, that moment has arrived. Both up close and from a distance, he has followed the fortunes of his hometown, and he draws on that in his powerful debut novel, Hold It Til It Hurts.
"My mother's side of the family is from New Orleans," Johnson says. "I grew up both there and in Columbia, Md." His parents were divorced so he traveled between the two places until he moved to New Orleans for his last three years of high school. "After graduating from Warren Easton, I relocated to Atlanta, which was close enough that I could easily drive down as often as twice a month, which I did for a number of years."
All those trips and his own family's Katrina experience are part of the background of Hold It 'Til It Hurts. "More than 27 relatives lost their homes," Johnson says. "This is not to mention FEMA later requesting that some return the aid money that was disbursed. ... We lost our grandparents' home, which was the closest thing we had to a family home, and we were for a time unable to locate some relatives. However, the relocation and the uncertainty in the wake of the storm exacted the greater toll. ... I feel incredibly uncomfortable talking about my family in the wake of such a large disaster because in the end, we had the chance that was denied far too many others, the chance to say goodbye."
Johnson graduated from the Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa and spent two years as a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. He now teaches writing at the University of California at Berkeley.
The scope of his ambition is obvious in Hold It 'Til It Hurts, which tackles not only the Katrina experience, but the war in Afghanistan. Achilles Conroy, the protagonist, has come to New Orleans seeking his brother Troy. Both brothers, adopted children of white parents, are African-American. And though parts of the novel were written before Katrina, 2005 was a turning point.
"I already had a draft of the novel when the storm touched down," Johnson says. "My first cousin evacuated and came to stay with us in Atlanta. He and I sat side-by-side on the couch for days, riveted to the (television) screen, appalled. I was shocked and angered, but not surprised by the inadequacy of the initial official responses. At that point, it was simply not possible to continue writing without including the storm.
"There is a bit of an unspoken bias against being too contemporary in literary fiction, and feeling that judgment hanging around my neck, I set the work aside. ... I suppose I was waiting to see if the compulsion to include Katrina would diminish. It didn't. It only grew stronger. To write about New Orleans without including the storm was unimaginable. It also felt immoral."
Johnson weaves the war in Afghanistan into his character's quest through the city and the South. "Shortly after arriving in New Orleans, Achilles begins to think differently about the war," Johnson says. "Katrina, specifically, prompts him to reconsider the conflict from new perspectives, to imagine how it feels to host destruction. This is not to argue that a natural disaster and a theater of military operations are equivalent. Nor do I want to suggest Achilles arrives at a moment of divine clarity and insight, but, laying eyes on the destruction of a city that he knew when it was whole, intact, and without even a hint of the troubles to come, prompts a necessary reflection.
"For Achilles, Katrina and Afghanistan are diametrically opposed states of mind; emotionally, however, they are complementary. It is only in the aftermath of Katrina that Achilles can really understand how the experiences, when taken together, give him a new perspective on poverty, government intervention and self-determination, among other things."
Johnson has said he doesn't think New Orleans will ever come back, citing the infrastructure problem, the dearth of essential services, the push to privatize schools and hospitals, as well as the real estate grab that he calls "a vulture's feast."
"New Orleans is the stickiest city in the United States," he says. "In the U.S., 60 percent of the population lives in the city in which they were born. That figure is 77 percent in New Orleans overall, and rises to 92 percent in the Lower 9th Ward. Or, at least that was the case Pre-K.
"In other words, nothing short of a disaster such as Katrina could have had such a profound effect on the demographics. Obviously, a correlation can be drawn between stickiness and economic opportunity, but in reference to this question, the stickiness signifies the sense of community that lends the city its uniqueness, reflects the love that New Orleans natives feel for their town. It also tells us something about how traditions and the culture have been preserved.
"When I talk about the city, I mean not only the buildings and roads, but the people, the customs, the familial ties, the traditions. In 25 years, the city could be shiny as a new spoon, but will it be the same city?"
Johnson has a classic writer's resume — old school, almost, with lots of jobs. "I learned early on that there is little correlation between hard work and financial reward. Too often, the people who work the hardest tend to be rewarded the least, at least financially."
He also is a certified Niroga yoga instructor; he undertook the nine-month program "not to become a professional teacher, but to be a better student, to deepen my own practice and broaden my understanding of the tradition," he says.
Then there's the rally driving. "That was a post-9/11 foray into something new and exciting."
"Be the ones to beat," Achilles' father tells his sons in Hold It 'Til It Hurts, good advice for any driver or writer. Now Johnson has arrived at his first big finish line and shows no sign of stopping.