There Will Be No Miracles Here (Riverhead, October), a formally inventive and lyrical memoir about boyhood, blackness, masculinity, faith, privilege, and the search for self that investigates the idea of the American dream, and how the myth of ascension—including the author’s own—is what can ultimately undo us. Agent: Lynn Nesbit of Janklow & Nesbit. Editor: Rebecca Saletan.
Not long after I finished my manuscript, I saw an old conversation between the poets Lucille Clifton and Sonia Sanchez. Somebody asked Ms. Clifton why she wrote a certain poem, and she replied: “This was a poem that wanted to be written, and I was available.” I had not yet talked about the book I’d just finished, but that is more or less what I wanted to say about it. Even more pointedly: I was kidnapped by this book and held hostage until the ransom was paid.
I began the work simply because I knew something was wrong with me. I had achieved, by my late twenties, about everything a kid is supposed to achieve in America, but I was real cracked up— not quite having a nervous breakdown yet not too far off, and awful sad either way. I had, it seemed, lived my way into a dead end, so I decided to write my way out—to trace those cracks with words.
What came out on the page was just as strange as I felt, which alarmed some people at first. I sent a few early chapters to a writer friend, who wrote back, “When can you hop on the phone?” which is always a bad sign. So my friend called to stage an intervention. His message was: “Listen, you’ve been hired to write an autobiography. It’s a straightforward exercise—it’s got a beginning, middle, and end, and it’s grounded in the facts of your life. There’s a great tradition of autobiography, by the way—led by people on the margins of society who write to assert their existence. Go buy some of those books and learn from them. You’re going in the wrong direction.”
I really appreciated my friend’s advice because it helped me decide early on that I was not going to write the kind of book he described, no matter the risk. I did not need to write a book to know I existed. And even though I’d grown up, and had lived grown, as a poor black queer damn-near-orphan, I had not, in my mind, lived on the margins of anything. I think of what Kendrick Lamar says on Section.80: “I’m not on the outside looking in. I’m not on the inside looking out. I’m in the dead fucking center, looking around.” So that was the perspective of the book I wanted to write. I wanted to write it not to assert my existence but to assert that the way we’re taught to live in this country is killing us. Wanted to imagine what it would look like to truly live—to be whole, to be free, to be a better person, a better friend, a better lover, to know God for real, not some senseless ritual and fear.
There were no models that I could look to in order to learn how to turn all that into a book. So the most important thing my editor did was, in the early days when things were shaky, she said, “It’s got to be weird before it gets good. Keep going.” So I just went with what was coming out on the page. And I got so much comfort and support from other artists, many of them dead, from writers like Kenneth Patchen and Clarice Lispector and Annie Dillard, and musicians. Could I make a book that felt like listening to Channel Orange or Good Kid, M.A.A.D City or Lauryn Hill’s Unplugged—and movies like Paris, Texas and Trainspotting and Moonlight—and projects like Arthur Jafa’s Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death and Ja’Tovia Gary’s An Ecstatic Experience? I wrote by hand and edited pages every day, sometimes twice a day, to make the thing as visceral as possible, to try to end up with a book that felt like watching the moment in Alvin Ailey’s Revelations when the three male dancers leap—hurl themselves, spinning, really—across the stage three times in a row, in perfect formation, and you’re not sure whether they will crash and die or you will die watching because it’s just that beautiful. I don’t know that I succeeded, but I tried.