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Ryan Piurek

Last modified: Wednesday, October 30, 2002

IU creative writing professor authors her own success story

Dana Johnson earns nomination for Hurston/Wright Legacy Award

Today, Dana Johnson feels like she won the lottery.

But not long ago, the Los Angeles native didn't think she had a bettor's chance. Friends and acquaintances told her as much when she set out to make a living by doing what she truly loved -- writing.

And that's exactly what she told herself when, as a graduate student in the Indiana University Creative Writing Program, she casually submitted her master's thesis to the committee of the prestigious Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction.

"I just thought of it as a way to get my feet wet," Johnson said.

To her surprise, the former magazine editor won the 2000 O'Connor Award for her debut work, Break Any Woman Down, a collection of short stories exploring race, identity and alienation. She was invited to join the faculty of the IU Creative Writing Program. And on Oct. 5, she was one of just six nominees in the category of debut fiction at the inaugural Hurston/Wright Legacy Awards ceremony in Washington, D.C.

The awards, the first national honors presented by the community of black writers to published writers of African descent, are named for the legendary African American writers Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright. Some of the biggest stars of African American literature attended the Oscar-like awards ceremony in the nation's capital, including celebrated authors Terry McMillian, E. Lynn Harris and Nathan McCall.

Even though she didn't win the grand prize, Johnson described the experience as "simply amazing" and said she felt honored to be included in such illustrious company. "Everyone used to tell me, 'You can't do this (writing for a living). People don't really do this,'" Johnson said. "It's still all so new to me."

Johnson's collection of stories, now prominently featured at Borders Books & Music along with the other Hurston/Wright nominees, will be released in a trade paperback edition in the summer of 2003. The nine stories in Break Any Woman Down feature the voices of women of varying ages, nationalities and backgrounds who are exploring their personal relationships and discovering their identities through sexual and emotional intimacy with the men in their lives.

Johnson introduces the reader to a smorgasbord of unique and memorable characters ranging from Avery, an 11-year-old girl from Los Angeles in love with a white boy from Oklahoma, to La Donna, an exotic dancer whose boyfriend insists she stop stripping. In telling these stories, Johnson captures the social and vernacular peculiarities of the different regions of the country from which her characters hail, including Los Angeles, the South and various immigrant communities.

"This is an exciting and gorgeous literary debut," wrote Jonathan Ames, author of The Extra Man.

Johnson, who said she is most comfortable writing from the first-person point of view because it allows the reader to hear "real" voices, conducted very little research in creating such vivid and authentic characters.

"My family is from the South (Tennessee), so the Southern voice wasn't so foreign to me," she said. "And I've always listened closely to people in general, which allowed me to write about characters of different nationalities, such as Italian. I've never been interested in the idea that you're a black writer, so you need to write a certain way, about certain characters, in a certain voice. I think it's much more interesting to explore the different voices that you've been surrounded by, voices that speak to class and can best illustrate where a person comes from."

"Dana is impressively deft at both story lines and narrative voice," said Tony Ardizzone, director of IU's Creative Writing Program. "Like a skilled ventriloquist, she's able to capture the inner voices of a wide range of characters, regardless of their race or gender. Her short stories are like pieces of finely made music, blues mixed with jazz, meant to be heard and read aloud."

Johnson is currently working on her first novel, based on her short story about 11-year-old Avery, which will continue to focus on the girl's assimilation into society and follow her maturation into adulthood. The author is quick to point out, though, that while her novel does draw on some personal experiences, it is "not exactly autobiographical."

"It's more of a concentration on language and an examination of how language plays an important role in this girl's assimilation," she said. "It will follow all the changes she goes through, in a way that I couldn't have accomplished in short-story form."

Additionally, Johnson will continue her role as a member of one of the nation's oldest and most distinguished creative writing programs. Indiana University at Bloomington was one of the first universities to grant a master's degree in creative writing, awarding its first graduate creative writing degree in 1949 to poet and novelist David Wagoner. Johnson, who teaches writing and literature, joins an impressive list of instructors that, at one time or another, included Robert Frost, Marguerite Young, Robert P.T. Coffin, Robert Penn Warren and John Crowe Ransom.

Johnson said she is proud to be part of such a highly regarded and exceptionally diverse program. Currently 25 percent of the program's first-, second-, and third-year MFA students are African American, Asian, Latino/a or Native American. And she is happy with the recognition her debut work has received, though it means more pressure to complete her follow-up project.

"My agent has been very patient with me," she laughed.

It also means she won't be sneaking up on anyone, but Johnson doesn't seem too concerned.

"I just keep on feeling lucky," she said.