Members of Inscape’s editorial team Sidney Tsai & Emily Golding had the honor of sitting down with award-winning screenwriter, playwright, and novelist Toni Ann Johnson and conducting an interview with her.
Screenwriter, playwright, and novelist Toni Ann Johnson, recognized for her ABC television movie, Ruby Bridges, and short story collection Light Skin Gone to Waste, was born and raised in Monroe, New York. Graduating with a degree in acting from NYU, she began her career as a screenwriter soon after. Realizing how limiting the career was in terms of personal expression, she achieved an MFA in fiction and finalized her master’s degree in screenwriting, and began to rewrite Light Skin Gone To Waste.
Her collection Light Skin Gone To Waste draws from her personal experiences and creates a compelling and complex narrative about a Black family moving into a white, blue-collar neighborhood in the 1960s. As the novel progresses, themes of colorism, family dynamics, and generational trauma are explored.
Sidney: Can you share a bit about your journey as a creative writer and how your experiences influenced your storytelling?
Toni Ann Johnson: I am from Monroe, New York, which was a primarily white community. My family was African American, upper middle class, and I lived in a mostly working-class community.
I went to public school from kindergarten through high school with mainly working-class people. After graduating, I started off as an actress. I was very eager to get out of where I was from.
I did not like living in Monroe because I was so isolated. So, I graduated early, I went to NYU, I received a degree in acting and because of my look, I would have been considered ethnically ambiguous. This was in the late seventies and early eighties. I didn't look as identifiably black as most of the people who were.
I didn’t come from the city or a black environment, so I didn't present black enough for a lot of roles. This made me want to start a writing career. So I wrote a play for myself to act in that, which was one of my earliest plays. It was called Gramercy Park.
I made the main character biracial, which I do not identify as biracial, but, both my parents have mixed race in their background. I wrote Gramercy Park based on those experiences. The play’s success referred me to an agent and launched my writing career.
From there, I worked as a screenwriter for over 10 years and I was a writer for hire for a long time. As a writer for hire, I didn't feel like I was able to tell my own stories. But, I wanted to reconnect with my more authentic literary voice, which I had been able to use when I was writing plays.
I wrote a novel but it wasn't good enough to sell, and I wanted to learn more about how to write prose. So instead of getting a master's degree in screenwriting, which I was already pursuing, I went and got an MFA in fiction.
I then started learning how to write short stories, and I read a lot more and simultaneously learned more about writers. I rewrote that novel when I finished graduate school, and I started the story collection that was published last year.
Sidney: Our current issue of Inscape is focusing on the human issue, encompassing important topics like the environment, our identity, love, connection, climate change, capitalism, AI. So how can we as writers use our art to influence and how are we influenced by these sorts of things?
Toni Ann Johnson: Well, I think we're influenced by the things that affect us directly. So, you know, if you're a writer, you're going to be aware of the potential pitfalls of AI because AI is not like writing books.
If you come from a marginalized group, you're going to be aware of classism and racism or homophobia. We're not aware of things that don't affect us, but we're more aware of the things that we have interacted with on some level.
Sidney: How can we as writers use our art to influence?
Toni Ann Johnson: I think that if you, if you're already working on becoming a better writer, or developing a body of work, and one or more of these issues is passionate to you, more than likely, it’s going to come through in your work.
It always sort of feels inevitable. I'm not sure about AI because that's relatively new, but certainly, if you have felt marginalized as a woman, sexism is probably going to pop up in your work. If you have felt marginalized as a person of color, racism is going to come up in your work as it does in mine.
I think you can use your skill as a writer to actually directly write about these ideas, or integrate your personal experiences into your writing’s protagonist. That way the character acts as a proxy for you, in some way.
Also, I think as writers, whether we're aware of it or not, we end up writing what we think is the right way to be in the world. So our moral argument about something ends up coming through in the work.
Sidney: How do you personally approach treating nuanced and authentic characters that contribute to a meaningful exploration of these social issues? How do you approach writing people who just aren't you, but still need to be talking about the things that are important to you?
Toni Ann Johnson: Well, in the case of that biracial character, she wasn't me, but she was so much like me. And the first iteration of that story, I was in my 20s when I wrote that. And so, even though I'm not biracial, because I look biracial and because I was raised in a white environment,I identified with that experience.
And so I used myself, my own flaws and foibles to convey my issues of identity. I was not comfortable with my identity in my 20s; I was still trying to figure it out. I was not comfortable entirely in all-black spaces because I wasn't used to it. I had a lot to learn and work out, and so does that character. That character also has people in her life that are questioning: “Why are you only dating white guys?” I wasn’t actually doing that—I was dating people of color, but there was something that felt interesting to me about that experience of only pursuing people of the race that you aren't, and I felt like what was underneath that might have been issues that the person had with their identity. If you feel self-conscious about your blackness, maybe you try to compensate by being with somebody else. Even though that actually wasn't my issue, that's what I used in the play, but it definitely started with my own thoughts and concerns about where I was in my identity.
I wasn’t yet comfortable in my own skin. I used that in my story to become more comfortable in my skin and to understand racial politics in this country, because this stuff was written in the very early 90s. I began the story in the late 80s and now recalling that time, a lot of what we understand about racial politics and even about the history of African Americans in this country was not as well known to us, so I grew up in an environment where the people around me felt that black people were inferior. That was what was taught to us. My parents weren't sophisticated enough about race to explain to me that inferiority is a lie. It’s a lie that was created in order to justify enslaving people.
But I didn't understand that, and my character doesn’t understand it either. As I was writing, I was trying to understand that black people are as good as any other people. But I had to figure that out through what I was working on and thinking about the ideas while writing.
Sidney: You cited educator and visual artist Charles White as saying, “Where do you come from, why are you creating the work you're creating, and how do you know who you are?” How would you answer these questions, and how do you think they show through your work?
Toni Ann Johnson: Well, where do I come from? Light Skin Gone to Waste is entirely about where I come from. Light Skin Gone to Waste is about the Arrington family. That's based on my family. It's set in Monroe, New York, and I grew up in Monroe, New York.
The class dynamic that I existed in was different from what I was used to seeing elsewhere. What I was used to seeing was reflected in movies, TV, and books. I was reading books about black characters, and a lot of times it was very urban and set in entirely black communities. A lot of the content I read wasn't about upper-middle-class or upper-class African Americans. I didn't see my experience portrayed anywhere outside my own head. So that's where I come from.
Why am I writing about what I'm writing about? I've spent probably the last ten years writing several stories, including two novellas, that are about that family and that experience because I'm just mining multiple layers of things that are going on there; things like issues of the father and the women that he dates who are white. That's one element. I'm looking at all these different things through the lens of my own experience and pulling them apart: issues of Jewish-black dynamic and working-class white kids in environments with middle-class, upper-middle-class black kids.
I'm writing about them because I guess I'm sort of obsessed with them. Because I lived them without my parents talking to me about it, like “you are upper-middle-class and these people are working class. And even though they call you the N-word, you are still socioeconomically more advantaged than that.” Like nobody explained any of that to me. I just knew. I was a second-class citizen in my social world in both junior high and high school. Like, I was always just the black girl. Those experiences live in me, so I’m creating that.
How do you know who you are? Like I said, whether you're conscious of it or not, when you write something, your moral perspective comes through, and so what you write, if you look back at what you've written, or a body of what you've written, you can see who you are by what you've written.
So if there's an injustice here and the injustice is pointed out through this piece of work, who I am is what I think the injustice is and how it should be different. It’s a way of saying who I am is what I think is the best way to be or the right way to be.
Of course, There's no one right way to be, but we're only one person as a writer. If that's where you are when you've written it, that's what you feel is right.
Sidney: Absolutely. What are a few lessons you've learned throughout your career?
Toni Ann Johnson: Persistence. You know, it's not always the smartest or the most talented people that end up having long careers. It’s often just the person who just refuses to give up.
I mean, you also need everything. You need to be smart and talented, but you can be smart and talented and not reach a goal soon enough and just jump ship. But the person who just refuses to give up eventually begins to publish and accomplish goals.
Sidney & Emily: Thank you, and we appreciate your time!