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Think Out Loud

Northwest Passages: Charles Johnson

Pete Springer/OPB

I interrupted a dinner party last week to read aloud from Dr. King’s Refrigerator, a short story (in a collection of the same name) by Seattle-based author Charles Johnson. The time in the story: late night, December 1, 1954. The place: Martin Luther King’s cluttered study in his home in Montgomery, Alabama. The problem: King was working on his dissertation, but really thinking about the sermon he was behind on for the week. And he was hungry. He went to the refrigerator.

Stratching his stomach, he gazed — and gazed — at four well-stocked shelves of food. He saw a Florida grapefruit and a California orange. On one of the middle shelves he saw corn and squash, both native to North America, and introduced by Indians to Europe in the fifteenth century through Columbus. To the right of that, his eyes tracked bright yellow slices of pinapple from Hawaii, truffles from England, and a half-eaten Mexican tortilla. Martin took a step back, cocking his head to one side, less hungry now than curious…

King began to empty the fridge. Then the cabinets. He opened an olive jar to look at each individual olive. He examined rice from Tibet and Italian ravioli. French cheese and Indian tea. Soon the kitchen was a complete mess, yet unified.

He looked around the disheveled room, and saw in each succulent fruit, each slice of bread, and each grain of rice a fragile, inescapable network of mutuality in which all earthly creatures were codependent, integrated, and tied in a single garment of destiny. He recalled Exodus 25:30, and realized that all this before him was showbread. From the floor Martin picked up a Golden Delicious apple, took a bite from it, and instantly prehended the heat from summers past, the roots of the tree from which the fruit had been taken, the cycles of sun and rain and seasons, the earth, and even those who tended the orchard. Then he slowly put the apple down, feeling not so much hunger now as a profound indebtedness and thanksgiving — to everyone and everything in Creation.

His wife came into the kitchen at that moment, looked around and said, “Oh!”

This was the first of Johnson’s stories that made me laugh, then sit back and try to comprehend the connections of the universe. His novel Middle Passage had the same effect. That story follows a freed slave working on a slave ship on a run between New Orleans and West Africa. Johnson won the National Book Award for Middle Passage; he has published three other novels, many short stories, essays, and hundreds of cartoons. He wrote a companion book for the PBS series Africans in America. He was named a MacArthur fellow — better known as a “genius grant” — in 1998. He recently retired from teaching at the University of Washington. We’ll talk with him about how deep he gets into research for his fiction, the Bedtime Stories series he helped start in Seattle, his conversion to Buddism, and more.

If you’ve seen or read any of his work - even just the passages above - share your reactions or post your questions.

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