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Writers Against Racism: Varian Johnson

Varian Johnson is the author of My Life as a Rhombus (Flux, 2008)

and the forthcoming Saving Maddie (Delacorte, 2010). 

Briefly describe the impact racism had on you as a young person.


Like most people of color, I dealt with all the usual examples of racism—slurs, bullying, etc. But as a child of the South, racism didn’t surprise me that much. I grew up knowing what to expect: I knew what neighborhoods to stay away from after dark, how not to make sudden movements if I was pulled over by the police, how to deal with salespeople whose only job was to watch me like a hawk (to make sure I didn’t steal the latest pair of overpriced sneakers).


What surprised me more was when I moved away for college. I excelled academically in high school (was the co-valedictorian of my class) and had thus received numerous scholarship offers. I was confident that once I moved away from home—once I was surrounded by other “intellectuals”—I’d be more than “the black kid.” My actions and ideas would mean more than the color of my skin.


Suffice it to say, I was wrong. I was still yelled at when I jogged in the wrong neighborhood. I was still followed and questioned when I went into an expensive department store. I was still called a nigger.


I was also surprised by the indirect racism. I don’t know how many times I struck up conversations with people where, after I indicated that I was a scholarship student, they would say, “Oh, you must play basketball.” Or football. Or track.


It made me wonder—is the idea of a black kid being on academic scholarship really that implausible?


Has your personal experience of racism impacted your professional work as a writer?


I think my personal experience with racism does affect my writing, though perhaps not in a tangible way. I’m more aware of my personal experience with racism during author events and book signings where I’m the only author of color in attendance. In situations like these, I know that when I speak and answer questions, I’m speaking for more than myself.



In what way can literature be used to combat the effects of racism and promote tolerance?


Literature has always provided a way to experience another culture, another way of life. However, I’m really excited about novels where, while the ethnicity of the character is stated, the character’s race isn’t pivotal to the plot (for instance, the wonderful Marcelo In The Real World by Francisco X. Stork). We’ve done a good job of using literature to explore the differences between our cultures, but I think there’s a place for novels that remind us that we’re more alike than different.

Varian is a graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA Program for Writing for Children and Young Adults and is a member of The Brown Bookshelf, an online community charged with highlighting established and up-and-coming African-American authors of children’s and young adult literature. You can find out more about Varian at


  1. Thanks for another good interview. I see I must read Marcelo in the Read World, too! People keep mentioning it.

  2. George Edward Stanley says:

    Coretta Scott King thought going north to university would be different, too, but once she was there everyone just assumed she’d date the one young man in school who was black. She didn’t. She was also denied the opportunity to do her student teaching in a nearby school system. Varian, your attitude just amazes me, but I have also seen this in some of the other stories in this series. We can all learn from this, I think. Always look for the positive components in every situation. It’s evidently the best survival technique. It seems to be the fuel that allows the marginalized in our society to reach heights greater than those who are doing the marginalizing.

  3. Laura Atkins says:

    These stories do bring home how being a person of color in the US makes is so difficult to just achieve and live – something I’m sure most white people don’t realize. It’s the sheer volume, story after story, that needs to be read by people who otherwise just don’t understand or see this. Zetta/Amy – what about having an accompanying booklist that goes with this series, which we can all print-out and find the many amazing books mentioned by those being interviewed?

  4. Hey, Laura–you read Amy’s mind; book lists are coming up…

  5. Varian brings up an interesting point about racism and his professional life… of being the only author of color at a book signing. I have experienced the same thing at writing conferences. Once I notice it, I start counting, and usually the number of ethnic minorities is about 3% of the whole population. There’s something definitely wrong with this picture, especially when the stated purpose of so many writing for young adults is to show teens a world where they’re represented, and where they exist. Here’s hoping that this series continues to encourage all writers, and especially writers of color.

  6. Great series you started here, Amy! Tanita, as an aspiring children’s author, I, too, experienced the same thing at my first writer’s conference last year. Out of 80 or so mentees, myself & another woman were the only 2 writers of color. Besides us, there was only 1 editor of color (out of approx. 75-80 editors & agents). So, yes, there is something DEFINITELY wrong with this picture. And until I read your comment here (as well as Varian’s interview), I was wondering if this was the norm at the majority of writer’s conferences. Well, I guess my questions’s been answered. But . . . I won’t stop writing, instead this has made me more determined than ever.

  7. Amy Bowllan says:

    E-mail Zetta or me lists of recommended readings by grade level, please. My plan is to write mini lessons and overviews based on your suggestions. Also, thank you, everyone, for your suggestions and comments.

    I will also have posted on the blog a W.A.R Blogroll. Feel free to send links. We have a fair amount of librarians who read this blog. More to come…

    Thanks for the compliments, too. :)