by Amanda Ong
Charles Johnson, former professor emeritus of English at the University of Washington, recently published his latest book The Eightfold Patha graphic novel with co-author Steven Barnes and illustrator Bryan Christopher Moss.
The Eightfold Path is an anthology of interconnected Afrofuturistic parables inspired by the teachings of the Buddha. It crosses media, stories, cultures and ideas. Both Johnson and co-writer Steven Barnes are practicing Buddhists and have incorporated their beliefs into this series of Buddhist stories that intersect with science fiction and Afrofuturism.
Johnson taught at the University of Washington for 33 years and is the author of 26 fiction and non-fiction books, as well as writing for television and has worked as a cartoonist and illustrator himself. He is also a MacArthur Scholar and recipient of a National Fiction Book Award in 1990 for his novel Middle Passage. Given Johnson’s prolific body of work, The Eightfold Path looks like something a little different.
“For me, the important aspect of this graphic novel is that in addition to telling lively stories in several popular fiction genres, it also gives the reader an introduction to Buddhist wisdom, which I try to live,” said Johnson said in an interview with the South Seattle Emerald.
“There’s never been a book quite like this: ‘Black Buddhism,’ as one reader on Amazon described it,” Johnson said. “It uses a storytelling tool of our time – the graphic novel – to dramatize through mostly negative examples 2,600-year-old Buddhist wisdom, and it ends with my essay on Buddhism, which I thoroughly enjoyed writing. .”
Afrofuturism can be defined as science fiction, fantasy, horror, etc. created by or about children in the African Diaspora, Barnes said in an interview with the emerald. It includes philosophies, perspectives and experiences of life and existence. Buddhism engages with reality in a way that comes in response to some of the questions Barnes says are tied to black identity.
“We urgently need to ask ourselves ‘Who are we?’ and “What is true?” Barnes said. “Because there have been centuries of brainwashing and propaganda directed against us, much of which only began to unravel towards the end of the 20th century.” The Eightfold Path allowed Barnes and Johnson to explore these questions, as well as their own faith, values, and art.
Barnes said the project began with a desire to write a book deeply rooted in Buddhism. Subsequently, their decision to use the Buddhist practice of the Eightfold Path became the basis for the series of stories.
“Buddhism seemed like a very powerful set of questions and restrictions to guide human thought and action, not just in seeking ‘enlightenment,’ but simply in navigating the human world,” Barnes said. “I’ve used many different organizational structures for my stories, and at some point it occurred to me that Buddha’s Eightfold Path would make a good one.”
Barnes says he knew he wanted to write the book with an expert on Buddhism, especially one who has actually walked the path. Respect for the teachings was very important to the co-authors. “[I had] a very serious intention: to ensure that the totality of the stories represents the messy, scary, confusing, inspiring and WONDERFUL experience of life, and encourages readers to ask questions rather than just giving them ‘answers'”, has Barnes said.
Barnes and Johnson have partnered to write before, but this is their first book together. Having collaborated in the past, Johnson was a dear, longtime friend who Barnes says is one of the best and smartest people he knows. Johnson was enthusiastic when Barnes brought the idea to him.
“Steve is a really prolific and important storyteller in the sci-fi genre and for television, a real pro who can take on any assignment,” Johnson said. “It’s something I’ve always admired about him since I first wrote about his work in my 1988 critical study Being and race: black writing since 1970. So working with him on anything is a great pleasure for me.
Three of the stories of The Eightfold Path were stories they had collaborated on earlier for a horror comic project that never came to fruition. These stories are “The Best Barbecue in Hatten County”, “The Last Word”, and “4189”, which they co-wrote and published in an anthology of horror stories titled The hot girl, edited by novelist Greg Kishbaugh. “4189” also appears as a short story in Johnson’s fourth collection of stories, night hawks (Simon & Schuster, 2018). Johnson and Barnes are also lifelong martial artists, which informs their story “The Gauntlet” in the collection.
The combination of Buddhism with Afrofuturism poses a less common intersection of thought and identity, although Barnes comments that Buddhism has become more popular in black communities. The most common spiritual discipline among black Americans is Christianity, which Barnes says places the black community in the odd position of being one of the only groups of people on the planet whose God is closer to their oppressors than ‘themselves.
At the same time, the two authors found that the values of Buddhism can go hand in hand with some of the experiences of Black American identity. In Buddhism, there is no lasting and substantial “self”.
“Identity is imagined. We’re not nouns, we’re verbs,” Johnson said. “Not products, but rather processes. Not to be, but rather to become. And the illusion of “self” is not something we should be attached to, because it is a source of suffering.
The Eightfold Path is available for purchase at Librairie.org.
Amanda Ong (she) is a Chinese-American writer from California. She is currently a master’s candidate in the University of Washington’s Museology program and graduated from Columbia University in 2020 with degrees in Creative Writing and Ethnic and Racial Studies.
📸 Featured Image: Co-writers Charles Johnson (left) and Steven Barnes (right) are out The Eightfold Path, a graphic novel that explores the intersections of Buddhism and Afrofuturism, with illustrations by Bryan Christopher Moss. Photo of Johnson by Crystal Wiley Brown. Photo of Barnes by Tananarive Due.
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