What Could Possibly Stop Us? An Interview with Cary Alan Johnson

Author Sarah Shulman has called Cary Alan Johnson’s debut novel Desire Lines, “a gripping, moving story of a vulnerable young black gay man reaching for some dignity and integrity through the storm of familial homophobia and the dawn of AIDS.”

Cary Alan Johnson is an author, activist and Africanist raised in Brooklyn, currently living in Central Africa. He has a Bachelor’s degree from Sarah Lawrence College and a Master’s degree in International Affairs from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. A public health and HIV specialist and long-time innovator in national and international queer politics and cultural activism, Johnson was a founder of several groundbreaking organizations, including the Blackheart Collective, Gay Men of African Descent, Other Countries, and the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. He was interviewed by poet and writer Reginald Harris on August 28, 2022. The interview has been edited for clarity. 

Reginald Harris (RH): Tell me about the genesis of the book: What lead you to write Desire Lines?

Cary Alan Johnson (CAJ): It took me ten years to write it. I’d worked on several essays and shorter pieces over the last fifteen years, some of them about the AIDS crisis and the response of the Black gay community and Black gay men’s survival strategies. I started out writing a series of essays, but that felt too preachy. I worked on a memoir for a while, then said no, I’m not that interesting, there’s nothing linear about my experience. There was not the rise and fall that I think even a memoir has to have.

Then I said, you know what, you need to do this thing that you want to do, you need to write the full-length, fully-articulated story of that experience. Not that there’s one experience; there are many stories. But in the story I wrote, I tried to pull in enough diversity of characters that there’s a little bit for everyone who lived through that period to find themselves. I amalgamated some characters, like Regina for example. She’s an amalgam of a number of women who played critical roles in my life. And I think for many Gay men, we often have these primary relationships with one woman, often a straight woman, and I thought those relationships were so critical and risky and important that they needed to have some exploration. 

And I think for many Gay men, we often have these primary relationships with one woman, often a straight woman, and I thought those relationships were so critical and risky and important that they needed to have some exploration. 

RH: Why did you decide to set the novel in the early 1980’s?

CAJ: I think there’s been a lot of great books written about that time period – And the Band Played On, The Hours, Dancer from the Dance – but I don’t think any book had been written about the experiences of Black gay men. Short stories, plenty of poetry, but no full-length novels. I think we need novels. There’s something about immersing yourself in the experience of a novel I think that provides a certain amount of catharsis and memory and healing. And that’s what I want from this book. It healed me, it brought me a lot of solace. Some of those characters, be they 100% fictional or if they are semi-created, will live forever in this book. It’s my testimony. It’s my remembrance and my thanks to some of those people and that period.

RH: Could you explain a bit more about the differences for Black gay men at that time?

CAJ: I think the experience of Black Gay men was different. The service agencies that developed early to support white gay men? It took us a while to pull those together for our community. And so, we didn’t have those kinds of support services initially. I don’t know if I can say whether our families were more severe than white families — I don’t know if that’s the truth. There was a notion I think at the beginning of the epidemic, and the narrator and his friends Lil’ Pete and Jeff they talk about it at the bar, they have this perception that, “Oh that AIDS thing, that’s a White Boy thing, as long as you’re not sleeping with white boys, you’re gonna be okay.” That is a lie that we told ourselves. One of those good old denial mechanisms that we told ourselves until we could no longer tell ourselves that. I think our experiences were particular, and they needed to be documented. I think fiction was a good way to do it.

I think our experiences were particular, and they needed to be documented.

RH: Desire Lines also deals very vividly with addiction.

CAJ: I felt there had been some pretty good books about cocaine and crack addiction. Crack to me was an experience – plenty of white people smoked crack – but it was really an experience of the African-American community. It was marketed to us, we accepted it wholeheartedly, and it destroyed lives and families and futures and careers. And almost destroyed mine personally. 

Maybe I needed to unearth it for myself as a person and put it on paper, to expel some of the shame around it and talk about the awfulness of it, the truth and the awfulness of it: for other people that may have gone though it or had friends and family that went through it. 

What I’m realizing is that I wrote Desire Lines to heal. Many of us who were coming of age in the ’80s – we came out of that era damaged as fuck, hurting. And all you could do was stuff it down. You couldn’t go crazy. You couldn’t run out into the streets screaming. You had to just keep showing up for your friends, for your people who were dying – for your Self. I remember before the test for sero-prevalence came out, it was a total question mark. And, for many of us, it was not a question mark, it was pretty much a fait accompli: I’m seeing people dying so what possible hope could I have that I’m gonna survive into my thirties? But still, you have to show up. And some of us didn’t; some of us went off the deep end. But we were the best and the brightest. Many of us were the first generation of Black boys to go off to college, first generation that could kind of be ‘out,’ or at least not hiding their sexuality. That’s why that scene in the novel in the Paradise Garage is so important to me. The narrator and a thousand other men are in this arena and they’re like, “This is our moment. We’re young, gifted and Black – and queer. And what could possibly stop us? What could possibly stop us?

The narrator and a thousand other men are in this arena and they’re like, “This is our moment. We’re young, gifted and Black – and queer. And what could possibly stop us? What could possibly stop us?

RH: What themes do you hope people who weren’t there in the 1980’s get from the book?

CAJ: I wrote Desire Lines for my peers. But I do think there’s lot for younger people, white folks, straight people, to learn from it. One, I want people to know what the experience was. And I want people to know that we didn’t all die. Statistically most of us did not die. But it feels like most of us did die, I think, because somehow it was almost like AIDS chose some of the most beautiful people, the most gifted people. I mean, of course, Essex [Hemphill], of course Joe Beam, Assotto Saint, those people are quite celebrated and that’s a wonderful thing. But then one person I think about a lot is Donald Woods. A poet who was part of Other Countries who wrote the most magnificent poetry, whose voice has been silenced. He should have written this novel – and better. 

RH: You begin Desire Lines with the narrator talking about anal sex. How did you make the decision that the novel would be so erotic or so explicit sexually?

I rewrote that chapter, or I considered rewriting that chapter as I got towards the end of the process, because I said I don’t want to turn people off. But, come on, what else am I gonna do? That was my life and that was the life of many, many, many gay men – not all but many in the ’70s and the ’80s. 

I was very influenced as a writer by John Rechy who wrote City of Night and Numbers and the frankness and the unapologetic manner in which he wrote about sex. Jewelle Gomez described the book as ‘steamy,’ which I like as a description because steamy to me is different than sexy. Steamy to me is contextual. Every sexual act that happens in the book happens to tell you more about the characters or to move the story along. When I go back and read it, I never feel like, “Oh this needs to be toned down.” 

For example, when the narrator meets Devyn, and they go back to Devyn’s apartment for the first time, we need to see it. They’re getting ready to do the thing, and Devyn reaches for the condoms. It’s1985; the fact that he reaches for the condoms tells you everything. 

And then there’s the whole issue of Tops and Bottoms, which young people may not understand in quite the same way. But it was a critical part of our identity. Even if we rejected that notion, that was a critical part of our identity. So, the narrator is wrestling with “Am I a top? Am I a bottom? Who will I let top me – what does that mean? Am I less of a man? What does penetration feel like?” The scene on the beach with Abdul, that’s his first sexual experience, and it has to be detailed. 

RH: Some may consider you a kind of ‘expatriate writer’ like James Baldwin, in that you’ve lived in other countries and Africa for a long time. Is there some benefit in distance from the U. S. that helped you with the book, or helped you to clarify things?

CAJ: That’s an interesting question. I didn’t leave the U. S. like Baldwin or [Langston] Hughes or people like that, saying, “I’m out!” which I think is a very interesting thing. You leave one racist place and go to another, but somehow this new one is better. I think that was a fantasy that many of those expatriate writers needed/had. I work here. But certainly, there are two or three chapters in the book that are set in Mobutu- era Zaire, and I think, I hope, that there’s an authenticity in those chapters. I also think my life is much less hectic here. I live in Burundi. It’s a very small country, there’s no nightlife. Plus, I’m an older gentleman at this point, so I’m not running the way I used to run. And the benefit of that is that I can get up at 4:30 or 5 o’clock in the morning and go to my office and sit at my computer and work for two hours before I go to work. If I were in New York, would I be able to do that? Probably not. There are so many things going on. 

RH: Some people hate this question after they finish a project but I’ll ask it anyway: What’s next? What are you working on?

CAJ: I don’t hate this question at all. I’ve been with this book for a while now, ten years, and then, of course, the last few have been really intense, particularly the last six months trying to get it into the world. I’m ready for something different. I’m ready to move on to the next thing. So yeah, I’ve got an idea. There was this meeting between Alain Locke and Langston Hughes in Paris in what year was it? Oh, I want to say the 1930’s. Locke had this very strong attraction to Hughes, and Hughes was a young rising poet with his whole life in front of him. Locke was the doyenne of the [Harlem] Renaissance but was in those days ‘old.’ He was in his 50’s, probably equivalent to 65 or older now. Here you have these two great minds, one on the rise, one in decline shall I say, one who has sort of hit his mark and now needs to make room for others. But desire…I think that’s part of everyone’s writing, but I think it’s essential in mine. The desire of this older man for this younger man and what did this younger man desire from this older man? Certainly not the same things. It’s something that I’m experiencing in my own life at this point as a single man at this stage. When is my desire for younger men – and I don’t have a particular thing for younger men, but most of the men in the world are younger –when is my desire appropriate? Where’s my beauty? And I imagine Locke asking, where is my beauty? It may not be physical any more but…So, my next project is my sort of imagining of that weekend in Paris. I don’t know how specific to this historical meeting I will be, but I want to use that as the kernel for a novel about desire, power, aging, art, how all those things wrap themselves up together.