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Fantasy, Fiction, and the Self

An interview with MFA candidate Jordan Thomas
January 3, 2017
Headshot of Jordan Thomas, smiling.

Tell me about your current project.

My current project is a memoir tentatively titled Call and Response. It is about, in large part, my relationship to my blackness personally and in the larger world.

The first act of the book covers my growing up in Iowa with an abusive father who saw blackness as a burden, which left me distanced and detached from my racial identity. Moreover, the death of someone very close to me when I was 10 led to my becoming a kind of recluse, dissolving my sense of self into various forms of escapism including video games, the Internet, and, later, severe alcoholism. I also became an atheist in response to her death and grew increasingly critical of and distant from the church, which is the underpinning, in many ways, of the black community.

The second act transitions to when I get sober and leave Iowa for Texas and, later, Minneapolis. I worked at a predominately black and Hispanic middle school in Texas; that experience, coupled with George Zimmerman’s acquittal for the murder of Trayvon Martin, the murder of Tamir Rice, the murders of so many brown and black boys and girls, led to a kind of racial awakening that was fully realized in Minneapolis when I attended the 4th Precinct protests. But despite my new relationship to my blackness, I still felt as if I were an ‘Other within the Other’ because of my atheism and because to be a black atheist is too often be seen as a race traitor—as something to be avoided and as someone who has lost their way.

So the book is about that sense of non-belonging and of being an outsider: first within my family, then within reality, and then, despite my attempts, within the black community and in my own skin.

What inspires you? What influenced you?

James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son was the first work of nonfiction I read, which I came across in 2009. Prior to that I wrote fiction almost exclusively. In encountering his essays, I started to develop a new voice and a new writing aesthetic that felt much more authentic. Though I’ve recently been writing fiction again, nonfiction is where I feel most comfortable and capable. Besides Baldwin, I am also inspired by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Kiese Laymon, Mychal Denzel Smith, Claudia Rankine, and a bevy of other black writers. I have, in large part, veered away from reading white writers because, first, their experience doesn’t match mine or even come close to approaching mine in a great many ways; and, second, because I am not interested in writing to white people but, rather, to brown and black folks.

As for where my passion originated, I grew up reading fantasy and science fiction as a child. I was a voracious reader. I started reading when I was 18 months old because I was something of a freak child/prodigy. As I got older, reading became a way to escape the pain of grief and to remove myself from the fear and pain that my father inflicted upon me. Writing was a natural outgrowth of reading and became more pronounced when I started playing things like Dungeons and Dragons in which I was crafting my own worlds, my own characters.

Did you always intend to write Call and Response? Did the project change at all?

This was not the book I came into this program to write, actually. My initial project was very different. Joseph Walker, the guy who was running a Dungeons and Dragons group that I was in, told us he had a conference he had to attend in Vegas and that he’d return the following weekend but he never did. We got worried, but an email notified us he was okay but dealing with a family emergency. Months later, the person who ran the meet-up group sent out a video of Joseph being arrested in Nicaragua because, it turns out, his name was actually Eric Toth and he was one of the FBI’s Most Wanted fugitives. The story gets darker than that, since his crimes were particularly heinous, but that was what I was working on first until that project became too difficult to pursue, on an emotional and mental level. At the same time, however, Michael Brown and Sandra Bland were murdered and this book became the much more important and urgent pursuit for me personally.

What are some successes and challenges you have experienced during the process of completing your manuscript?

As for my successes, I published an essay last spring on The Toast called “The Murder of Crows” that made a huge splash. Roxane Gay, author at The Toast, said it was one of the best essays she’d ever published. The success of that piece was instrumental in giving me the fuel to push ahead in my change of project and my focus on blackness. In addition, I’ve been awarded two summer research grants during my time here, one of which was used to travel to Washington, DC, to talk to the aforementioned fugitive, during which time I realized that Call and Response was the book I needed to write, while the latter I used to travel south to look into Southern black religious traditions. Both trips were immensely helpful in helping me form the manuscript.

The challenges, however, have been legion. The largest difficulty in writing this book has been emotional. When you’re immersed in the autopsy reports, police records, family interviews, and final moments of a seemingly endless stream of dead black boys and girls, it wears on you. When you watch a man die in his car while his four-year-old daughter in the back tries to comfort her mother, it wears on you. When you’re afraid to drive because you have dreams of being pulled over for a broken taillight that leads to you being shot and killed, it wears on you. The act of writing this manuscript has been emotionally and psychologically demanding and there have been a number of days in which that psychic toll has left me trapped in my room, in my bed, in my apartment, unable to be a part of the world out of fear and frustration.

Most recently, I had to re-shape the book in a major way and that reformulation of the material required a near-complete rewrite of the entire manuscript, which was a difficult choice to make but the right one.

Describe your experience working on a book in the company of other emerging writers who are doing the same.

I am very grateful for my cohort. First, their feedback on my work has been immensely helpful in the construction of my manuscript. But, more than that, the mere fact that we’re all in this together, that we’re all thinking about writing, that writing is our job and our duty for these three years, has been an endless source of motivation and support. I finish my MFA this year and I am not looking forward to having to create and maintain a community or a circle of writers without the backing of the program and of our time and space.

How has the Creative Writing program helped you in your work?

Having the time to write has been a gift. Waking up knowing that my job is to write, that my purpose here is to write, gives me a massive amount of fuel for my work. I spend most of my day thinking about writing, talking about writing, and reading the writing of others. And while I would do that normally, independent of the program, the fact that I’m not the only one doing it, but that I have folks to talk to about what I’m thinking, what I’m working on, what I’m sending in books I’m reading from a craft/style perspective—it’s that sense of immersion that has made my writing stronger and my identity as a writer more firm.

What are your ambitions for your writing career?

I would like to publish this memoir in the near future. I am also working on a short story collection in secret, and have been sketching out a vague idea for a second book of nonfiction that delves more heavily into my particular forms of escapism, taking a closer look at blackness as it relates to video games, to fantasy/sci-fi, to the Internet, and to roleplaying games like Dungeons and Dragons. I remember, before social media, that the Internet was much more receptive to my ideas and my beliefs because no one knew I was black. But the second they did, my credibility seemed to go out the window. Fantasy/sci-fi as a genre is still very white. The Dungeons and Dragons players’ handbooks have only recently included images of characters of color. And video games, especially those out of Japan, have always been rife with stereotypical and offensive black characters. So how does one escape into these mediums when those mediums do not see you as a person? That’s what I’m interested in.

What kind of social impact do you hope your work is a part of?

A large part of my work has to deal with my mental illness and the ways in which that illness rubs up against the racial exhaustion that all people of color must endure in this world. I hope that my work, as it develops, finds ways to make the discussion of mental illness and suicide less taboo among the black community. Along the same lines, less than three percent of black folks polled by the Pew Research Center identify as atheist or agnostic. I know the numbers are higher than that. But to confess to black faithlessness, you must be ready to face the many consequences. I want my work to help lessen or eliminate those consequences.

My primary purpose in life has always been to help people. It’s why I liked working with kids when I was a mentor and counselor and why I intend, after I finish my MFA, to return to working with kids and, in particular, to work with middle-schoolers because they need all the help they can get. I want to be there for black boys and girls because I wish someone had been there for me.

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.