joseph earl thomas | reality marble: a memoir
an excerpt & interview
from this is halloween
Vampirism was always right under my nose, & cheap. I stole plastic fangs from smaller stores & capes were just pieces of any black shirt or sheet just waiting to be cut; the makeup was already around. Fangs also had the benefit of covering my own teeth, which I was always trying to hide anyway. I had this big black cavity up in the front & a gap between some angry beaver-looking things that bucked out nearly parallel to the ground, making it difficult to close my mouth all the way. At home I was Mr. Ed, but at school they were more creative. There was only one kid whose teeth looked worse than mine & he could fight, as he demonstrated on me the first week of school. So I was a vampire, always. I had been obsessed with vampirism for a while. Eternal life meant possibilities, starting over, changing things, having a better family, more friends maybe. The best characters of my obsessive fantasies were vampires: Alucard, Jirou, Rachel, Abel, Lestat & even Timmy Valentine. The last two especially. Vampire Junction was the only book I ever read before adulthood. I found it in the basement when we moved into a house for the first time, right on Glenloch Street, across from the Red Brick Projects. Popop had caught me reading it several times, but I couldn’t stop.
“Always doin’ some little sissy white boy shit,” he’d say. & I’d stow away the book. “Need to get off ya ass & do some work around here,” he’d continue.
Work usually meant the dishes in a grimy sink that always felt clogged, or taking out the trash in the summer when there were maggots dripping from the bags. One time, I’d slung a heavier bag over my shoulder & found little clusters of maggots squished up against my ankles, right under the socks after I came in to shower & I freaked out, flushing the socks down the toilet, clogging that too. In elementary school I wasn’t questioning those connections Popop made between reading & whiteness because it was so common amongst my peers too. Physical prowess mattered & everything else was for white people, who were apparently meek. Life then, was first & foremost a war for survival, a kind of social Darwinism shrouded by a veneer of toughness & the imprisonment of only speaking when spoken to. In this schema, the subtext was that the physically helpless white people couldn’t survive, or perhaps, just didn’t need to be as strong. Fitting then, that my closest friend was one of two white boys on our block. Jonathan & I were the same age, both with summer birthdays & one younger sibling so far, but Jonathan had an older brother too who was in & out of the house. More importantly, even though we never spoke directly about it—his mom & mine smoked crack together. We were like brothers, but there was always a disconnect between Jonathan & I that we refused to name, perhaps out of fear that it would break the only tie we had.
Without naming, sometimes frustration would manifest itself through seemingly unrelated disagreements. It was petty at its finest. We would decide to dislike something that the other person adored without citing any real evidence or reasoning; so I hated Star Wars & he didn’t fuck with vampires. Had I the language, I’d have said he never needed them.
Regardless of how white their worlds were, I was obsessed with characters like Timmy Valentine & Lestat, not just because of the power they held as night stalkers, but because they harbored such intense intellectual passions; they were completely unlike anyone I deserved to know. They inhaled music & art, breathing it back out like CO2 for anyone bold enough to come near them. They were more than just an escape for me. I resented the lack of seriousness given to my attempts at writing & drawing comics. I never knew anyone who considered college, or was just happy with their adult life, & that pissed me off in ways that I couldn’t explain at the time. I was jealous of Timmy & Lestat, who got to convene with people that cared about thinking & art, as sparsely as those people may have been. Both vampires were also renowned musicians. When I was sad I imagined myself playing & singing “Scar Tissue,” but I didn’t have a guitar or sheet music or motivation. There wasn’t even a person I could describe a fantasy like that to.
Even though I finished Vampire Junction in private, I got the be a fucking hero out in the open with my vampire costumes on Halloween. Just the thought of immortality, super strength, & shape shifting boosted my confidence. Anime music videos of Alucard & Seras massacring armies of fake vampires & lapping up their blood played on repeat in my head. There would be no foul play while I was around with my fangs & cape. The other good thing about vampire costumes is their adaptability. As I got older, & much larger, it didn’t seem ridiculous to just throw on some fangs & go trick-or-treating. Sure, the fangs from the year before might smell bad, but you could always soak them like dentures first. There was also a magic shop right around the corner on Frankford Ave that sold fangs cheap. They had these little plastic frogs & lizards too that you’d place in a bowl of water to let grow overnight, which, for a while I used that as proof of my magical abilities. Still, other kids caught on to it eventually & I quit the cape & makeup & ended up with just the fangs. A more refined vampire, hiding in plain sight, passing. I never really let go of that feeling of invincibility though, the fantasy that in some way, I might make it all real.
You cite the importance of Afro-Pessimism, Critical Race Theory, and Black Feminism in your artist statement and how they help shape your work. How did you come across them and what intrigued you about these theories, particularly Black Feminism?
I think I grew real accustomed to not being able to talk or think or move in the ways I most wanted, or that felt most comfortable to me. I didn’t have a way to explain it either. I was always really curious about the conditions under which people interact with each other based on race, sex, gender, class etc. in my own home and outside it, but it was more dangerous to ask questions about this stuff than to just simply go along with it. The whole thing drove me insane. It wasn’t until my mid-twenties when I was doing my M.A. in English that I met someone, my then advisor, Aisha Lockridge, who really challenged me both socially and intellectually and invited me to think and talk and just be in any way beyond surface representation or performance. She was pretty well-versed in all manner of critical theory, but particularly black feminism. I think we tend to take on the worldviews, in some capacity of our best teachers or the people who really root for us, and for me, she was my first person. I don’t really feel well-versed in any theoretical framework on like a social or intellectual level, particularly black feminism, the bar being as low as it is, but I will say that these theoretical frameworks help me feel less lonely all the time and to think about social relations and art while trying to be more honest and more thoughtful whenever I sit down to write.
Pop culture—from Crash Bandicoot to Mortal Kombat—is a recurring theme in this collection. How has pop culture from your childhood and today influenced your writing?
All the time! It feels like I’m thinking in animated phrases, song lyrics and video game boss fights. Part of it is like, the now, 2018 adult freedom of being a blerd or whatever, but part of it is that it’s just super comforting. Sometimes, in groups of strangers I respond to their questions all day in song lyrics from like TLC and Eve to Fall Out Boy and The Yeah Yeah Yeahs as a fun mental exercise. I feel like all these things are constellations to what I want to say because they’ve helped me survive and they grow along with me too. As I write this I’m just thinking of the kind of racism and rampant native cultural appropriation that goes on in pretty much all video games, but especially something like Crash Bandicoot; I think gonna look up what the hell a Wumpa Fruit is supposed to be and where they do that at.
This collection documents the struggles and limitations of traditional conceptions of Black masculinity. How have you found this documentation subverting and undoing some of these unhealthy lessons imparted throughout these stories?
The immediate selfish impulse to write memoir came from searching for these kinds of answers. It’s kind of scary to think about what might have happened if I were more readily accepted into the cult of masculinity and at the same time think about the harm that I still do to other people and myself on a regular basis. As I continue writing this memoir I’m most interested in permitting and continuing to open up the conversation because a lot of the violence, for me, has to do with being unable to speak, hear, think or listen at all. I don’t necessarily know that I’d be able to subvert anything, though I’d like to try and I think black men like Kiese Laymon and Darnell Moore are pushing hard in that direction already.
The title indicates that this is a memoir. What was your process for developing this collection from personal experience, and how, if at all, does writing non-fiction differ from writing in other forms for you?
Most of what I’ve been trying to write in the past couple of years has come back to nonfiction. I feel like I owe more to memoir, right now at least, than I do to fiction or poetry even though the themes end up similar. Maybe this is because it was nonfiction that got me into reading and writing late in life. But also, even though there are no readers in my own family, some of them, mostly my sister Nika will actually read my nonfiction, mostly online blog stuff. On one end this helps keep me honest, but on the other I want to provide the kind of opportunity to see each other more fully and communicate in some way, that chance I never really had.
Joseph Earl Thomas is a writer from Northeast Philly whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in Apiary, Philadelphia Printworks, The Offing and The Kenyon Review. A memoirist and poet, he often wonders how things might have gone had he fallen in love with hominids first, so he writes speculative fiction at night. He is currently working on two book-length projects: Sink, a memoir about coming of age as an undereducated blerd in the city, and a fantasy novel The Gift From Alondria. He is currently studying prose at the University of Notre Dame.