LA’s Toni Ann Johnson: stories in ‘Light Skin Gone to Waste’

On the shelf

Light skin is wasted

By Tony Ann Johnson
University of Georgia: 232 pages, $23

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Maddie and Tobias have been inseparable since childhood. But one day Tobias learns that despite her fair skin, Maddie is black – although that’s not the word the little boy uses when he confronts her about her race.

For Maddie, one of the few black children in Monroe, NY in the 1960s, this is a terrifying moment when she suddenly becomes an irrevocable outsider. This heartbreaking scene occurs in Claiming Tobias, the second in a series of connected stories in Toni Ann Johnson’s suspenseful and emotionally wrenching new collection of short stories, Light Skin Gone to Waste.

The pain of racism is only half of what young Maddie must endure. The balance is caused by her mother, Velma, a self-absorbed woman who is quick to verbally and physically lash out at her daughter, and her equally selfish father, Phil, who is consumed by his relentless pursuit of white women.

The author grew up in Monroe and endured similar torments and tribulations. While their stories humanize Phil and Velma by showing us how they once suffered, she never lets them off the hook because of their callous parenting.

Johnson, 59, is a Los Angeles-based playwright, screenwriter, and author of several books. This collection, and its powerful reflection on identity and the cumulative impact of childhood wounds, found a publisher after winning last year’s Flannery O’Connor Award for short story. She spoke via video from home about what it was like turning her childhood into fiction and if it helped cast out the pain. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Phil, Velma and Maddie are shaped by racial issues in America, but also by their own personal history. Are these two threads intertwined for you?

Often when people write about black characters, there is so much race involved, and it minimizes the complexity of the whole human being. But it all mixes up. Phil is shaped in large part by the loss of his father. One consequence of this is that he feels rejected and marginalized by his mother in the family. She articulates that this has to do with color – Phil is fair and his brother, who is brown, gets better treatment because she fears he will have a harder time.

Velma was abandoned by her biological parents, but even that had to do with race as her biological father was white and probably not single since her mother worked in his household. So she wasn’t a white baby – she wasn’t a wanted baby.

I felt Maddie’s life was complicated by both what she was experiencing in terms of race and the questionable upbringing.

"fair skin is wasted," by Tony Ann Johnson

(University of Georgia Press)

How much of Maddie’s experience is based on yours?

As a girl, I didn’t have a very strong awareness of it. I only knew what was in front of me. Ever since I was little I felt isolated. The first wound was the neighbor across the street. From then on I knew I had to be wary of people who didn’t like me because I was different. That’s what happened with the Girl Scouts. But even though there were kids who didn’t like me or whose parents didn’t want them to play with me, I always had friends.

I became more aware of this in middle school when I wanted attention from boys and I visited my family in Harlem and Queens and Long Island. And there were guys who thought I was really cute. The older I got, the angrier I got. When I was in my late teens and early 20s, I saw that there were middle-class black communities we could have lived in and I was angry. I thought we were an anomaly and we weren’t.

Has living in Los Angeles changed you as a writer?

I’ve been here for 30 years, so I guess I’m from here now. I bought a house in a working class to middle class black neighborhood in South LA in 2003. It’s so different from where I grew up. This community changed me as a person and changed writing.

Her novel Remedy for a Broken Angel and novella Homegoing (about an elderly Maddie and Velma) are also about troubled mothers.

It comes out in everything. If you look at this book, all mothers are narcissists, not just Maddies. I associate that with mothers, I know that.

Did you even think about redeeming Phil and Velma?

They softened up for the book. That’s the sad thing. [Laughs] I had less beautiful or friendly moments. I thought Velma was about as redeemed as a person on the narcissistic spectrum can be. My father never noticed that I was ill or depressed and took me to a doctor. But the character is a psychologist, and a normal psychologist would recognize that his child behaves differently. My father played tennis, he didn’t pay attention to what was happening to me. So that was as much redemption as I could give Phil.

I tried to make them more entertaining than my actual parents and the dialogue funnier because my mom speaks in clichés.

Like Maddie, did you have an encounter with your childhood bully growing up? could you forgive him

I came across one on Facebook. This person is a Trump supporter and blasts Black Lives Matter. I don’t forgive that because it affected my self-esteem and personality and shaped who I’ve become. But I don’t hold on to hate or anger. I am no longer affected by this feeling. I could forgive if I received an actual and sincere apology. Why else do I have to forgive someone who threw rocks at me and called me the N-word?

Do you finally feel like you’ve exorcised some of your pain by telling the story head-on?

It was cathartic to get the whole thing down with Tobias and come to terms with this whole arc. But it was painful at different times. I’m still in pain because my mother hit me. The last time she attacked me I was 17. As a kid I didn’t know it was wrong for parents to hit children – I thought I was being punished because I was a bad girl and deserved it.

All my life I’ve been told that what I experienced wasn’t that bad and that it was me Happy to have the childhood that I had. There was no sympathy from my family. Writing about my memories and looking closely and closely at those events helped me process what happened in a way I hadn’t done before. Sharing the story with readers has allowed the child in me to feel recognized. That is healing – to be heard is a relief. LA’s Toni Ann Johnson: stories in ‘Light Skin Gone to Waste’

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