10 Questions for Oz Johnson
- By Edward Clifford
I never gave Judaism much thought until college. I happened upon a seminar on the Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel, who argues that holiness can be located not within space but across time, with each cycle of weeks binding us to the moment of creation. Enchanted by this idea, I started to believe that maybe the point of life isn’t to offer something new to the world but to do the same banal things over and over, with a bit more care each go-around.
—from "An Introduction to Exile," Volume 64, Issue 3 (Summer 2023)
Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
Unlike a lot of writers, I didn’t write stories for fun as a kid. I’ve never kept a diary. I spent most of my adult life thinking that I wasn’t imaginative enough to write creatively. But in a stroke of luck, I won a spot in a fiction writing workshop taught by Neel Mukherjee five years ago, when I was 30—it was my last semester of grad school, and I figured I’d try something new—and I loved it. I wrote the first chapter of a novel, and knew I needed to keep going.
Which is all to say: “An Introduction to Exile,” the essay you are publishing, is my first completed piece. I wrote it right before the pandemic started, while taking a monthlong sabbatical from work. It might have been my first publication, too, but I wrote a Modern Love essay last fall that miraculously escaped the New York Times’ prodigious slush pile. That essay actually references “An Introduction to Exile” and borrows the same Sufi parable about a missing key, which in retrospect feels like poor form, but I couldn’t resist—it perfectly captures my ambivalence about both romanticism and religion.
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
Above all else, J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello. It’s a strange novel, moving between academic lectures and a fictional account of the lecturer, Elizabeth Costello. I first read it in college, and was convinced that all the big philosophical questions—how should we live, how should society be organized, and so on—need to be tackled this way, with writing that fuses intellectual inquiry and creative expression. Academic writers too often ignore the messiness of being human, and I think fiction writers are wary of being didactic, so there aren’t many novels like Elizabeth Costello out there. This is the space I try to explore with my writing, the borderland between academic discourse and literature.
Aesthetically, I admire the spare prose of writers like Ayşegül Savaş and Rachel Cusk. I tend to gloss over visual descriptions of characters and settings when I read, and hate writing them even more. I’m not a visual thinker. So I’m drawn to writers who are restrained in their use of imagery—they help me learn how to do minimalism well.
What other professions have you worked in?
For a while in my twenties, I helped small farms sell their produce to restaurants. I set up an e-commerce site for them, and drove vegetables around in the back of my Honda. Then I went to grad school and became a management consultant, which turned my résumé into a random sample of global business activity. I helped a private hospital that caters to the rich identify locations for expansion; I helped a humanitarian agency that distributes contraceptives restructure its board; I helped estimate the value of a company that makes flea collars for dogs. I thought all this experience would help me figure out how to advance egalitarian practices like worker ownership from within the business world, but it instead led me into cynicism and despair, so I quit.
What did you want to be when you were young?
I went to a Montessori preschool with various activity stations we could visit during the day, and my favorite was one where we made little french fry packets and stuffed them with paper french fries that we got to cut ourselves, using crinkle-cut craft scissors. My parents tell me that I was so taken by this activity that I announced I wanted to work at McDonalds when I grew up, unaware that the fries arrive pre-cut and frozen and craft scissors are not involved. But I don’t remember any of this. The first job I remember wanting to have is marine biologist. Like many girls growing up in the 80s and 90s, I loved Madeleine L’Engle’s A Ring of Endless Light, in which a fifteen-year old girl telepathically communicates with dolphins. It seemed like a great career.
What inspired you to write this piece?
I wrote “An Introduction to Exile” at a time when I didn’t know many converts to Judaism, I didn’t know many Asian Jews, and I didn’t know many anti-Zionist Jews. I felt like an anomaly, and I was scared to exist openly in Jewish spaces. I wanted to write this essay to carve out a place for myself in the Jewish world and to make visible the intersections between Jewish, Palestinian, and Filipino histories and identities. I try to write things that I wish I could read, and I’m desperate to read more personal stories about religion and race, and about the sneaky ways in which economic forces shape religious and ethnic identities and ideologies.
Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
Most of my writing this year has been accompanied by the Jewish spiritual music put out by Rising Song Records. The songs mostly start out in Hebrew and end in niggunim—meditative wordless melodies sung with repetitive sounds like “lai lai lai.” It’s ideal because I like hearing human voices while I work but English is too distracting. When I want a change, I switch to Greek Orthodox chanting, which I enjoy for the same reasons.
Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
I write in coffee shops, almost exclusively. There are lots of reasons for this—the walk there helps focus my mind, lattes improve my mood, being surrounded by strangers who appear to be working motivates me to also appear to be working—but the main one is that I have a border collie. If I try to write at home, she lies down next to me and stares at me intensely, using her innate herding dog talents to will me to play with her. I can’t handle the guilt.
If you could work in another art form what would it be?
I would love to try acting. Being myself all the time gets tiresome, with all of my speech patterns and fashion preferences and ways of carrying my body. It would be nice to experiment with other ways of being.
What are you working on currently?
I’m writing a novel—the same one I started in the fiction writing workshop years ago, but I quit my 70-hour-a-week job to work on it full time for a while. The novel is an excuse to think about these questions: if education weren’t about readying children to become future workers, but were instead about helping them be psychologically healthy and craft their own aesthetic, moral, and political identities, what might it look like? And would such a vision for education be desirable—or, put differently, is it even possible to prepare children to survive in a screwed-up world without screwing them up?
What are you reading right now?
I’ve just finished Carlo Rovelli’s Helgoland—I love Rovelli because he makes you believe that you understand quantum theory—and am picking up Natural Goodness by Philippa Foot (inventor of the famed Trolley Problem in moral philosophy). I haven’t been reading enough fiction lately, but Jessica Au’s Cold Enough for Snow is next up on my nightstand, and I’m also excited to read Eleanor Catton’s Birnam Wood.
OZ JOHNSON (she/they) is a Chicago-based writer and urban planner at work on her first novel. Her writing has previously appeared in the New York Times.