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Kim Johnson Talks Racism, Mass Incarceration In Debut Novel

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Two hundred and seventy-five days. That's how long 17-year-old Tracy Beaumont has to get her father, an innocent Black man, off death row. Every week, she writes letters asking for help from an organization called Innocence X. But they haven't responded, and time is running out. "This Is My America" is the debut novel by Kim Johnson, and she joins me now. Hello.

KIM JOHNSON: Hi. So good to be here.

FADEL: It's great to have you. So tell me about Tracy, where she's from, her family. She's a real relentless character.

JOHNSON: Yeah. So Tracy, she's someone who - her life quickly changed the moment that her father was accused of murdering two white people in their community. And her childhood basically was gone. But I wanted a story that actually was more involved in terms of what you can do in your situation. And I modeled her a lot from when I was a young person being an activist, being involved, and I saw something that I felt was wrong. And I work with college students now for, you know, almost the past 20 years. And over my time period mentoring and working really closely with students, they have a fire of activism in them. And so she is fearless and relentless and determined. And she comes up with her own way of doing it.

But she's also very intricately connected with her family. And that's the piece that was really important for me to showcase in this story - is that while her father was incarcerated, he is still very much a present person in their life. Her mother is very present. Her siblings are very present. And I wanted her to be seen as a whole person in the story.

FADEL: So her world is turned upside down by what's happened to her dad but then further turned upside down when a white girl in her town named Angela, who works with Tracy on the school newspaper and was dating Tracy's brother, is found murdered. So what happens next?

JOHNSON: This is really where the story takes a turn. She, you know, had been writing letters weekly for seven years to Innocence X, which is another sort of homage to the Equal Justice Initiative and Innocence Project. And she knew what would happen if her brother was just continued to be a suspect. He runs. And he runs because he knows what happened to his father, who was wrongfully incarcerated. And he didn't want that to be his story. And so it really is about her discovery of the town that she lives in, the community.

FADEL: So she decides she's going to investigate Angela's death herself. And she's up against forces that are way bigger than her. What does she discover about her town?

JOHNSON: She discovers that it's not just the incident that happened with her father or the incident that happened with her brother. She finds out that, you know, there's a history of racism in her community, of white supremacy that's really entrenched. And she learns that people didn't use their voice. And I think a lot of the conversation now when we're hearing about - it's not about, are you racist or not? It's about whether you're anti-racist. And I think that really is also another undercurrent in my story about the way in which people should have questioned much earlier or spoke up on behalf of her father but didn't because they felt that it was settled that the media, you know, had already sort of painted a picture. The investigation was already set. So...

FADEL: Ultimately, this is a book about the way the criminal justice system fails Black people, assumes guilt of Black people. Why that framework?

JOHNSON: Yeah. You know, I started writing right around the time of the first wave of the Black Lives Matter movement when it became not only a hashtag but a movement and an organization. And a lot of the conversations that I was seeing in media was so focused on police brutality. The video footage - it's in your face. But it really - in understanding these issues, I knew that it was just a sliver of what was happening in our country and how entrenched our entire criminal justice system is, the cycle of the prison industrial complex.

And I wanted to write a story that would showcase that and the generational impact because this does impact so many Black families, Black and brown families, poor families - and how difficult it is to sort of, like, unpack yourself and be thought of as someone who is innocent when so much of our world tells the world that Black people have this sort of, like, negative piece, that they're not equal. They're not the same. So it's not just about police brutality, but it's about what happens when you're targeted or you're harassed or, you know, you are arrested. And what does that trial look like? What does the investigation look like? And what does sentencing look like? Because that's the core that I was trying to get at - is the disproportionate sentencing and impacts that have really, really hit the Black community so hard. And they often don't have a voice.

FADEL: So yeah, this book has a lot of important themes on race, criminal justice, complicity, silence. But it's also a page turner. There's crime. There's danger from mysterious forces. The clock is literally ticking. And Tracy is a very satisfying kind of Nancy Drew journalist detective trying to get to the bottom of it.

JOHNSON: Yeah; I mean, "Nancy Drew" was one of my first early reads as a kid. Yeah, I mean, I loved mystery. It always really came for me a sense of right and wrong and fixing something. I also wanted a page turner because I wanted to force the reader to jump in and care and really puncture their hearts and their minds in a way that they wouldn't want to let go with the hope that when they reached the very end that they would be hit so hard and care so deeply about what happened that it would leave them helpful, but it also would be a call to action for people to want to do something, whatever that looks like, whether that's them writing a letter to someone. Or even now when we look at protesting - or she runs know-your-rights workshops. That there's something that we can do as individuals to make change. And with my writing, I want to be a part of that journey.

FADEL: Kim Johnson - her debut novel is "This Is My America." Thank you so much for being on the program.

JOHNSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.