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Q+A with Andre Perry about Some of Us Are Very Hungry Now

Some of Us Are Very Hungry Now, by Andre Perry (Two Dollar Radio 2019)

In November 2019, we will be publishing the debut essay collection by Andre Perry, Some of Us Are Very Hungry Now. These personal essays travel from Washington DC to Iowa City to Hong Kong in search of both individual and national identity, while cataloging racial degradations committed on the campuses of elite universities and liberal bastions like San Francisco while Perry comes of age in America. The essays themselves range in structure from straightforward personal reflection to multiple choice questions, screenplays, and imagined talk-show conversations, while traversing the daily minefields of childhood schoolyards and midwestern dive-bars.

Perry writes and plays music, and lives in Iowa City, where he runs the Midwest edition of the Mission Creek Festival (which returns in April 2019 with a stellar line-up). Following is an interview with the author about the work.

Q: The essays in Some of Us Are Very Hungry Now follow you throughout your life from childhood to marriage, from DC to San Francisco, from Iowa City to Hong Kong. Did you always realize that you would follow this personal trajectory, or was it the arc you decided to follow when assembling essays for the collection?

Andre Perry: It took years of writing, revising, and discarding to see the arc of this collection. As I got older, this period in my life, as described in the essays, made itself clear as a discernible narrative. I had help too — an editor friend of mine, Steve Woodward, read an early draft of the manuscript and he challenged me to explore the structure that ended up defining the final draft. I recently saw the stage adaptation of Joan Didion’s essay, “The White Album”, which reminded me how we — as writers, humans - frequently attempt to make sense of different periods in our lives. These essays both attempt to make sense of what I’ve witnessed as well as to accept that such work is an impossible task.
Andre Perry, author of Some of Us Are Very Hungry Now (Two Dollar Radio 2019)
Q: One of the elements that stuck out to me when first considering this manuscript were the different formats you employed. There are screenplays, imagined television interviews, multiple choice questions, and letters. How intrinsic is this to the effect of the essay, and did you start with the varying formats or was it something you tweaked after originally writing a piece?

AP: I met the writer Ander Monson in the first year of my MFA. He visited Iowa City for a conference that I was shooting video for. I spent a few days with him, learning more about his methods of using inventive forms to better deliver the questions of his essays. During that period the journal Ninth Letter published an essay of his about the erasure of old technologies and it came out as a microfiche card. You literally had to take it to your university library and ask them to use the machine so you could the read the essay. That was an avant-garde extreme of playing with form in order to write essays but it left an impression. Also, reading Albert Goldbarth’s epic, multi-voiced, time-jumping work, “Both Definitions of Save”, had a serious impact on me as well in terms of questioning if the form of one’s work might be the best conduit for the idea and/or narrative. Ultimately, these decisions are manifestations of the most important question about one’s writing: What is the best voice/s for the work? So yes, the variations on traditional form - the uses of screenplay format or imagined interviews — those are all part of the origination process, not add-ons down the line.

Q: This collection has bite. It opens with the recounting of a scene from Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, when Cholly Breedlove’s teenage sexual encounter is sullied by white farmers who interrupt and then forcibly observe the act. What follows in the collection, and essentially your life, are many moments when race is invoked either directly or passively. Sometimes these degradations are meant to establish superiority, while other times they are intended by white people to appear hip or aware. How do you hope your writing might further thought on this topic, and are there other writers you admire that you feel do a commendable job of addressing this issue?

AP: If American society seeks to improve, part of our labor is for us to fully embrace the whole truth of how we arrived here (and where exactly our culture is) at this moment. That includes a reckoning with our origin story — the violent annex of land, forced labor towards the creation of wealth, and the inequitable distribution of that accumulated wealth — and how the ramifications of those first centuries affect us to down to the minutiae of our daily lives (like you know, being screamed at by an attendant to pull down my hoodie in a gas station outside of Little Rock, AK). My deepest hope is that this text provides yet another insight into our current condition and drives a reader’s hunger to learn more about our history, present, and possible ways forward. All of our challenges: classism, racism, sexism — they are intertwined — so I am aware that my reflections are mere strands in a much larger framework.

The list of artists addressing these ideas is endless, ever expanding: so many texts from Toni Morrison and James Baldwin are essential; Nella Larsen too. I have found much to learn from Joan Didion’s “The White Album." Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah and Danez Smith are so advanced at expressing the American condition. Black Thought has said so much as well — sometimes we forget about him in the outsize presence of his bandmates. Robert Hunter did some great work in the ’70s through his lyrics: “Cumberland Blues”, I think, is one of the better folk songs of our times, a funny and sorrowful study on what it means to toil on the underside of industry. Whit Stillman did a good job of chronicling the upper side of industry (read: capitalism’s spoils) in Metropolitan. More contemporary great American storytelling is happening in music courtesy of Kendrick Lamar, Black Belt Eagle Scout, Amanda Shires, and Hurray for the Riff Raff. And then, of course, what Barry Jenkins did with his film Moonlight. The most arresting examination of our American condition in recent years might have been the theatrical production, Underground Railroad Game.

Q: In these essays, you are always aware of race. It can be observational rather than overt, in terms of your conversation with another musician (and, you realize, the only other black person in the room) at a private club in Hong Kong. It had me thinking of the opening story in Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s Friday Black, ‘The Finkelstein 5,’ when the narrator is constantly rating his own perceived blackness on a scale of 1 - 10 based on his attitude, expression, and dress. How do you hope your writing might further thought on this topic, and are there other writers you admire that you feel do a commendable job of addressing this issue?

AP: I would like for all of us, myself included, to continually expand our perceptions and expectations of blackness in America and beyond. The are so many different kinds of black expression in this world. In American literature and the arts we are certainly in a period where thinkers and makers are advancing that particular conversation whether it’s Blood Orange or Roxane Gay.

Q: You also tackle issues of class. What do you think are some of the connections between race and American capitalism?

AP: On one level, I’d likely need a PhD to expound most accurately about the connections between race and capitalism in America, but on another level, simply through my lived experience, it’s clear how deeply interwoven these threads are in our society. Capitalism is a remarkable system that has driven so many types of growth, innovation, and inequity all at once. And it has played a lead role in the racial divisions that exist in our country. I think these opening words from the Smithsonian’s African American Museum state it quite well: “Five hundred years ago, a new form of slavery transformed Africa, Europe, and the Americas. For the first time, people saw other human beings as commodities — things to be bought, sold, and exploited to make enormous profits. This system changed the world. The United States was created in this context, forged by slavery as well as a radical new concept, freedom.”

Q: You run the midwestern branch of Mission Creek, a very artist-driven, community-minded music and literature festival in Iowa City which has consistently bowled me over every time I’ve attended. How has the event shaped you as an artist involved in both music and literature yourself?

AP: Mission Creek has reaffirmed and clarified for me the importance of building positive platforms for artists to share their work and to open avenues for communities to feel welcome at artistic happenings. I don’t think we do anything perfectly with the festival, but we are trying to get better — to be a place where writers and musicians can feel more at home, can feel justified in their journey of creation. On a craft level, the event continues to inspire and guide my own work. I learn so much from the writers and the musicians about how we might compose reflections of this complicated world.

If you are a bookseller, librarian, or critic interested in reviewing Some of Us Are Very Hungry Now, then you can request an advance reader copy.
You can also pre-order a copy of the book.

Posted by Eric Obenauf on 28 December, 2018 1 comment
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  • June Perry - December 31, 2018

    The inner dimensions of the author are authentic and his expression of our society is true to the core. I hope all educational institutions make this required reading as part of American History. Disclaimer: Although a family member, I offer this comment as a former college professor and published writer.

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