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"The Limits Our Culture Puts on Love": An Interview with Sally J. Johnson


Sally J. Johnson received her MFA from UNCW where she served as Managing Editor for the award-winning literary journal Ecotone. Her poetry and nonfiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Bodega, The Pinch, Weave, Heavy Feather Review, and elsewhere. Find her on the Internet: http://sallyjayjohnson.tumblr.com/ and @sallyjayjohnson.

Her essay, "Binary," appeared in Issue Fifty-Five of The Collagist.

Here, Sally J. Johnson talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about brevity, binaries, and writing about family.

Tell us about the genesis of this essay (how/why/when you began to write the first draft or to conceive the initial idea), and about how it changed throughout the revision process.

I started writing this piece in a class on the lyric essay with the phenomenal Sarah Messer. Originally, it was an experimental essay about two different relationships. It wasn’t until I did a more final edit on it that I pushed it into that binary form. Ultimately, I wanted the form to be really constricting in contrast to what I was writing about, and to mirror our society’s unreal limitations on love (boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, etc.). I’d been thinking so much about that, the limits our culture puts on love (and everything) and its effect on people’s real lives. For instance: my family is the most wonderful, accepting group of human beings you’ll ever meet, but I was still met with some of those tired stereotypical jokes when coming out to them. Why? Probably because we have a culture that shares those jokes and perpetuates those stereotypes. We have people of power and persuasion insisting those jokes are funny or somehow inherently true.

I wanted to show that complication (of love, and of loving people of your same or different gender, of gender itself) in a similar system as this human world that always tries to make things simple: 0 or 1. There’s so much erasure in that kind of space. So, in a miniscule way, I was able to use a binary to show and narrate, rather than erase, an experience.

How did you decide to write about past events in the present tense for this piece? What kind of advantages and/or risks come with making that choice?

To be honest, I think that decision was unconscious. It did serve as a little mental trick for me to get back into the moments I wrote about; to feel as mad or happy or heartbroken or in love while writing as I was then. It’s advantageous since it adds a visceral texture to this piece (I hope). Also, this way I easily avoided summing things up or generalizing. It’s risky because I can/could/did miss reflection that’s necessary. I had to rely a lot on tone and choice of scene to express how I might feel about these events now.

“Binary” is written in ten short vignettes, each no longer than two paragraphs. As both a poet and an essayist, do you find it natural to write with this kind of brevity, or is it a challenge to work with such a strict economy of language?

I wonder if it’s because I am poet that I gravitate toward these smaller sections, or if that’s why I was drawn to poetry in the first place. It is natural for me to write with brevity; I seem to fit there. But, lately I’ve been trying to pull and stretch my sentences and pieces. To say more, show more, steep a little. I like the challenge, but I also love reading longer essays and would love to be able to write them.

This piece includes stories of your family members and romantic relationships, in an essay that explores your sexuality and tackles gender-based binaries. Are you ever wary of writing and publishing nonfiction covering such personal material? If so, how do you overcome your hesitation? (If not, what do you feel about it instead?)

I recently read this great essay by Robert Siegel in the New York Times (about teaching a workshop with his mother as a student). I kept coming back to this line from him: “It’s always been a matter of faith for me that good writing begins with the ability to say what you want without worrying about how others might react.” I think that’s so important, and something I needed about three years ago to repeat to myself like a writing prayer. For the future, I will.

As for before, I was a little nervous. But, my family really is great and supportive of both my life and art. The hardest part about sharing this particular piece was knowing my parents would read things I’d never told them—had chosen not to tell them. It felt like a betrayal, but it was also a relief. I was actually most afraid they’d want to talk about it or hold a family meeting (the Johnsons love their family meetings), but instead they just asked if I needed to talk and otherwise congratulated me on the publication.

What writing projects are you working on now?

I’ve been sending out my poetry collection, The Pinning Block, which is about sexuality and arthropods. The poems in it take a look at (or through the lens of) invertebrates as well as humans to think about sex, love, tenderness, and hurt. Lots of those poems are looking for homes, too, so I’m working on the business side of that book. I’ve also been editing more lyric essays like “Binary” and trying, trying, trying to write longer, more traditional essays.

What have you read recently that you want to recommend?

Leslie Jamison’s Empathy Exams. Sally Wen Mao’s Mad Honey Symposium. Anything and everything that Roxane Gay has ever written in print or online. I’m really into Murakami right now, so I’ve been recommending him as if I’m a child that just figured out ice cream tastes good, but, still! Also, Meredith Clark won Black Warrior Review’s nonfiction contest with her essay “Lyrebird.” I read it when I got the issue and it’s still ringing in my heart.


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