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Writer R. Eric Thomas Discusses Vivid New Memoir 'Here For It'

Feb 15, 2020
Originally published on February 16, 2020 6:55 am
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Let's ask R. Eric Thomas to tell us about the church in which he grew up.

R ERIC THOMAS: (Reading) The church I grew up in was a small building around the corner from the racetrack where the Preakness is held - one narrow room with maybe 15 pews and wood paneling on the walls. It always smelled of perfume and old books. The floor was cold in the wintertime. And in the summer, there were fans.

You know the fans I mean - cardstock on a big popsicle stick with an illustration of Dr. King on the front and an ad for a funeral home on the back. You had to leave through the front door and walk around the back to get to the restroom. And every Sunday, Sister Jackson (ph) sat in the front row and stopped the show. When Sister Jackson got to thanking and praising the Lord, well, that was a wrap on service.

Our church was one of those that went from 11-ish to until. So Sister Jackson taking two minutes, 20 minutes, a decade to get her everlasting life was par for the course. It was almost as if she was the minister of praise, though the church was never much for putting women in positions of authority. So that would have been a no-go. But at any moment, Sister Jackson could get worked up, shouting, standing, waving her hands. And the show would not go on.

SIMON: R. Eric Thomas has written a memoir in essays - vivid, surprising and eclectic. He's senior staff writer at elle.com, where he writes the daily "Eric Reads The News" column. Of course, he's also a playwright and one of the longtime hosts of The Moth. His memoir is called "Here For It." R. Eric Thomas joins us from member station WYPR in Baltimore. Thanks so much for being with us.

THOMAS: Thanks for having me. It's a pleasure.

SIMON: You write a lot in this book about always feeling the other.

THOMAS: I do. I think the idea of the other - of otherness in general - is such a fascinating concept because it presupposes that there is not only a mainstream, but there is something that you should be. And so I wanted to take - with humor, take exception to the idea of being an other. They're parts of my identity. I'm a queer person. I'm black. I'm also Christian and a man and American. And so some of those identities are other. And some of those are, quote, unquote, "the main identity." And I wanted to say, what if all of my identities could be in the center of a particular narrative?

SIMON: I have to tell you some of the most affecting sections of this memoir is the recognition you have as an adult about how much your mother did for you and how much she did without for you.

THOMAS: I am really just laid low when I think about the amounts that my parents did without and the amounts of work that my parents did to give my brothers and I an opportunity to see life from a different vantage point than the one that they had. And I write in the book, there was a period of about a decade where neither one of them could afford to buy themselves new clothes. And that's...

SIMON: And this was to send you to the best school they could.

THOMAS: Yeah. I grew up in one of the neighborhoods where they filmed the television show "The Wire." And my parents wanted to write a different narrative. And I met students from different backgrounds, many of whom came from means. And that was both othering, but it was also eye-opening. I got to see myself as able to be on their level in some way.

SIMON: There's the most touching love story...

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: ...In this book about your relationship with the - I don't know. Do we call Electra young love, a crush? What was it?

THOMAS: It was more than a crush. It was a friendship that had all the most wonderful qualities of adolescent friendship, where love and affection and camaraderie all intermingle as you're discovering ways that your heart can work. And so one of the first times I realized - the first time I realized - that I had the capability of falling in love, I fell in love with a young woman in high school. And I wanted to put this story in the book to speak to this experience that transcends gender and sexual orientation and is really just about two people finding each other in a library. We fell in love in a library while working to re-categorize books over the course of a summer.

SIMON: Yeah. You went viral during your college years at Columbia - Black History Month.

THOMAS: Well, this was a little bit earlier than, you know, our current state, where everybody is trying to go viral. This was 2002. And actually I had left Columbia and had started going to...

SIMON: I think in 2002, going viral meant you had a very bad cough.

THOMAS: Exactly.

SIMON: But go ahead. Yeah.

THOMAS: Yeah. You were patient zero.

SIMON: Yeah.

THOMAS: So there was a sign in the school bookstore that had a picture of Harriet Tubman and a picture of Colin Powell. And it said, From Bondage to Books: Black History Month. And I was like, OK. I feel like this might be missing a couple steps in the black...

SIMON: (Laughter).

THOMAS: ...History journey, you know? And so I wrote what I called "An Idiot's Guide to Black History Month" that basically took the position that I felt the sign was taking, which was that black history was irrelevant and that, you know, how much is there really to say? The issue was that, one, there was no photo accompanying the article. And two, at the time - and this is, you know, 18 years ago - I don't know that I was a very good satirist. And so people thought that I was serious. And they responded really, really strongly, negatively to it. And that's the thing that's so interesting to me. I wanted to express the way the sign made me feel. And I accidentally made everybody who read it feel the way the sign made me feel. And that was the mistake that I made.

SIMON: Startling sentence in one of your essays toward the end - the problem is doomsday isn't coming.

THOMAS: (Laughter). I'm tempting fate with that one.

SIMON: Well, we can't on that resolving everything, can we?

THOMAS: I think, you know, there - we are living in a time where we are under actual measurable threat, both environmental and political. But we have to believe, we have to act as if we will be around tomorrow. Some people, like, hope that their company goes out of business so they can really do what they really want to do. And it's like, well, no. You should probably just quit your job if you want your company to go out of business and go hike the Appalachian Trail. But, you know, I don't - I hope doomsday isn't coming. But even if it is, I can't wake up every morning and think, well, we're only three days till doomsday. Like, what's the point of that? Why get out of bed at all?

SIMON: R. Eric Thomas, his memoir in essays, "Here For It," thanks so much for being with us.

THOMAS: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.