Toni Ann Johnson explores Black identity and belonging in “Light Skin Gone to Waste” – Orange County Register

LA-based author Toni Ann Johnson began her creative career with hopes of becoming an actress. But when she went for roles, she says she always heard the same thing: “People were like, ‘Well, what are you? you don’t look black you don’t look white We don’t know what to do with you.”

For the record, Johnson is Caucasian but not multiracial; Both of her parents identify as Black Americans.

And why is it important to talk about it here?

For this concept of Black identity – its nuances and complications within the Black community and society at large – is the focus of her newly published novel-in-stories, Light Skin Gone to Waste. Class, colorism and the pain families inflict on one another fuel the invigorating and sometimes heartbreaking stories.

Toni Ann Johnsons "fair skin is wasted," published in October 2022 by the University of Georgia Press, contains stories that explore how racist ideas burrow into black and white families and infect them for generations. (Cover photo courtesy of University of Georgia Press)
Toni Ann Johnson’s “Light Skin Gone to Waste,” published by the University of Georgia Press in October 2022, contains stories that explore how racist ideas burrow into black and white families and infect them for generations. (Cover photo courtesy of University of Georgia Press)

The stories in the book follow the Arringtons for a couple of decades. They are an upper-middle-class black family who move to the white, working-class town of Monroe, New York in the early 1960s. His father, Phil, is a psychologist, and his mother, Velma, owns an upscale antique shop. But it’s her daughter, Maddie, who serves as the book’s emotional core. As one of the few black children in Monroe, she absorbs the brunt of the racism that her family’s money, education, and fair skin cannot protect her from, as well as her own family’s dysfunction. Not to mention the subtle – and sometimes not so subtle – class judgments between the blue-collar and white-collar worlds.

Johnson is the first to say the stories are no more than a stone’s throw from the dynamics in her actual family and her life experience growing up in Monroe.

“I’m Maddie,” she says, then pauses to qualify that answer: “She’s me, but she’s also a character. It’s probably more articulate than me, maybe a little more sophisticated than me because I’m writing it from a middle-aged woman’s perspective. I think she makes some observations that I probably didn’t make until I got over this situation.”

Nonetheless, both writer and character struggled to find their place in a world seeking the comfort of labels.

“Sometimes it’s easier to be light [skinned] if you try to be in a white world but i still got called the n-word I was fair, but I still wasn’t white. It’s not that just because you’re light will get you an instant hug, but it’s just that if you’re really light you might not be as easily rejected as someone who’s instantly recognizable as black. And then I have white friends who are like, ‘Why do you say you’re black? You’re not really black.’”

Constructing a novel like this, with so many layers of meaning and so much conflict between the characters, took Johnson years — despite being a seasoned writer. She was nominated for a 2015 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work by a Debut Author for her novel Remedy for a Broken Angel and has also published the novella Homegoing. She is also an experienced screenwriter and has written films for Lifetime, Showtime and Fox Television.

Johnson began this work as her dissertation project for her Master of Fine Arts at Antioch University, which she only decided to do after the publication of her first novel.

“I didn’t really have a prose style,” she explains. “I just didn’t really understand what that was. I didn’t understand the art of fiction. I had never studied it. I had studied dramatic writing—screenwriting and theater writing—but I hadn’t studied fiction. So I was like, okay, well, I have to study.”

In Antioch, Johnson “dived into fiction and read a lot and really tried to read with an understanding of what writing did, which I hadn’t really done before.”

The stories that eventually became “Light Skin” grew out of her studies, but some negative feedback in her classes in Antioch caused her to shelve them for a while. When she picked it up again, she was stopped again by bad advice from an agent, who instructed her to change the focus of the work.

“It went to the editors as a 500-page novel [at publishing houses]’ she recalls.

The answer? Not so good.

“Some said nice things, but all passed. And then I was kind of angry because I felt like I’d done everything I was asked to do and it still wasn’t working. Then I rolled over and, you know, I was so sorry because it had taken years. From 2017 to 2021 I only worked on this book.”

Johnson credits his friend and colleague Cynthia Bond (author of the best-selling novel Ruby) with getting her out of the doldrums and onto the road to publication.

“She said, ‘You should look through Poets & Writers Magazine and see if there’s another place to submit it.’ I did, and that’s when I saw the Flannery O’Connor Award and I saw Roxane Gay was the judge. But I didn’t think I would have a chance of winning.”

First of all, the word limit for submissions was 75,000 words; Her bloated manuscript ran to 150,000 words. There was only one thing to do: rip out all the stuff that agents and workshops had told her was needed and bring the manuscript back to its original core story of the Arrington family. Toni Ann Johnson explores Black identity and belonging in “Light Skin Gone to Waste” – Orange County Register

Adam Bradshaw

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