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UA Poetry Center highlights new faculty member's work

By Graig Uhlin
Arizona Daily Wildcat,
February 9, 2000
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The UA Poetry Center will offer a reading by renowned gay writer Fenton Johnson tonight - the middle of Gay Awareness Week.

Poetry Center Director Jim Paul said the scheduling of the reading during Gay Awareness Week was not done intentionally, but acknowledged its significance.

"It is very suiting," he said. "I am pleased that it worked out that way."

Johnson, a newly appointed University of Arizona assistant professor of English, has gained measurable support from his peers in the field for his works.

"(Johnson) is one of the more successful and highly regarded gay male writers today," said David Robinson, assistant UA English professor, who teaches a gay and lesbian literature class.

Johnson's writing, however, defies stereotypical gay literature. Both a novelist and a creative nonfiction writer, Johnson has enjoyed commercial success with his first two novels, "Crossing the River" and "Scissors, Paper, Rock."

His most recent work, "Geography of the Heart: A Memoir," has reached similar acclaim and is considered by some critics to be his best work.

"Geography" chronicles the life he spent with his partner Larry Rose, who died in 1990 of complications from AIDS.

The lovers came from different traditions and different backgrounds - Johnson, the youngest of nine children born to a Kentucky whiskey maker, and Rose, the HIV-positive son of a Jewish family in California.

In their union, however, Johnson found compassion and optimism in the face of death and an epidemic.

"I wanted to write a book that had some hope in it. I wanted to write a book that was coming from love," Johnson said. "The challenge was just to tell the damn story. Get out of its way and let it tell itself."

At the reading, Johnson will share an excerpt of this very personal book, but he mostly wants to read from a portion of his work-in-progress - a non-fiction endeavor with the working title, "Finding Faith: A Skeptic's Journey Beyond Belief."

Johnson said he will divide the book into three segments.

First, it will delve into scholarly research on the history of Buddhism and Christianity. Second, it will explore the personal side drawn from Johnson's own experiences with monks.

"The monks would sneak out of the monastery to my parents' house to drink beer and smoke cigarettes," he said.

Finally, the book will engage in an extended meditation on the role of spirituality in addressing the ills of society.

"The solutions to great challenges must have a spiritual as well as social and political dimension," Johnson said.

Paul met Johnson 15 years ago when they were both writers in San Francisco. He has kept contact since then and said Johnson's work has "chronicled the real humanity of gay relationships."

In doing so, Johnson "illuminates the humanity of all people," he said.

The reading is in the Modern Languages Auditorium at 8 tonight. Attendance is free.

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