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Gordon Lee Johnson


SAR Indigenous Writer-in-Residence Fellowship

The School for Advanced Research, together with Lannan Foundation, announce Gordon Lee Johnson, a Cahuilla/Cupeño living on the Pala Indian Reservation, as the Indigenous Writer in Residence Fellow for 2017.

The Pala Indian Reservation, in north San Diego County, comprises about 18,000 acres in semi-arid Southern California, and is home to Mission San Antonio de Pala. Although not one of the original twenty-one founded by Fr. Junipero Serra, it is an assistencia to Mission San Luis Rey. Two hundred years later, it continues to minister to Natives indigenous to the land. Johnson’s grandparents, parents, and he and his wife, were married in the mission chapel.

Johnson studied liberal arts at the University of California, Santa Cruz, eventually earning a creative writing degree at Vermont College and an MFA in creative writing from Antioch University, Los Angeles, in 2008.

For much of his writing career, he worked as columnist and feature writer for the Riverside Press-Enterprise, collecting journalism awards along the way including California Newspaper Publishers Association (CNPA) recognition as best columnist in the state for his category. Johnson transitioned to full-time fiction writing approximately ten years ago.

While at SAR, Johnson will focus on a rez-noir novel called Dog Eyes, hoping to infuse a meat-and-potatoes mystery with real-life Native concerns. Johnson describes his project this way:

“Simple fact is, I like mysteries. I’ve read hundreds. The strength of the mystery format is that there is room to tell a good story. And that is my mission—good storytelling. As a mystery reader, I’m familiar with the structure, the expectations, the ground rules of the mystery genre. What is a little tougher is to plug Indian life into the mystery milieu, but I’m convinced the mystery is a good place to explore challenges Natives face adapting to the contemporary world. Indians are not stuck on a museum shelf. Indians continue to evolve, changing with the times, accommodating mainstream influences while holding on to traditional and ceremonial life. I hope to vivify these challenges within the pages of a good mystery story.

“I am particularly intrigued by the noir world. Noir is characterized by shadows, dark places where good and evil blur, where troubles lurk in plucked eyebrows and glossed lips, where you can’t let anybody push you around, where there is a code: you get socked, you sock back, you get knocked down, you get up, you retaliate. You keep going until you can’t anymore. The noir world has edge.

“I’ve seen noir parallels in the Native world, the way Natives struggle to compartmentalize their history, to keep it separate from daily life, to suppress anger and heartbreak, and paste on a smile knowing that you make mainstream America nervous. So, it’s my intention to write a mystery of Native cultural expression, where Native life unfurls amid a reality heightened by a murder investigation.”

Gordon Johnson will be in residence from June 12 to July 28, 2017.

Generous support provided by Lannan Foundation.