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Mat Johnson's new book picks up where Edgar Allen Poe's only novel left off. (Spiegel & Grau)

Searching For Black Utopia ... In Antarctica

by NPR Staff
Aug 17, 2011 (Tell Me More)

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Mat Johnson's novel Pym is a modern-day sequel to Edgar Allan Poe's only novel.

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Mat Johnson's book Pym is a modern-day sequel to Edgar Allan Poe's only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.

Poe's 1838 novel is a seafaring adventure in which Pym and his crew land on an island, off the coast of Antarctica, populated only by black people.

In an interview with Tell Me More guest host Tony Cox, Johnson says Poe's novel starts as a regular tale but turns into science fiction.

He describes the end of Poe's work: Pym leaves the island for Antarctica, and then sees a white figure standing on the coast. The ice opens up in a chasm, the boat enters, and the book ends. That's it.

"The more surreal it gets, the more it starts to become sort of like him putting his racial subconscious onto the page. It's a 19th century Southern racial subconscious, and it becomes absolutely bizarre," says Johnson.

Johnson's sequel picks up where Poe left off — in Antarctica. The hero, professor Chris Jaynes, persuades his friends to take on an adventure to the South Pole. When they arrive, they discover that the white figure from Poe's novel is actually from a population of massive albino snow creatures.

The main link between Poe's and Johnson's novels is the idea of a black island — a place where black people thrive and survive, detached from racism.

Johnson says that in Poe's book, the island's indigenous population is so black that even their teeth are black, and the water is purple. And although this place horrified Poe, Johnson found it fascinating. This is the utopia that Johnson's hero is searching for in his mission to Antarctica.

Throughout Pym, Johnson includes overt racial symbolism, such as the albino snow creatures and the all-black crew. But there are also subtle symbols, like Little Debbie snack cakes, that frequently pop up throughout the pages.

Like Johnson, Jaynes is biracial. And the issue of race comes up frequently as Jaynes comes to terms with his identity.

"As I started, I didn't think about it. But as I was spewing all these things out there, it ended up speaking to my own struggles with biracial identity," says Johnson.

For Johnson, the process of writing Pym was tough. He took nine years, writing seven or eight different versions.

"A lot of times when you're working on a project, you're working so close to it; and eventually you walk away from it, and you see the larger patterns," he says.

And interspersed between elements of race and identity is humor.

Johnson says he wanted to deal with some big ideas, but do it in a way that was somehow so entertaining that readers barely notice until later.

"I wanted you to be engaged in the moment. And if something is funny, you tune in and get enjoyment from it."

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