How to Be Human: A Conversation with Andre Perry

Andre Perry is an essayist and arts advocate. He received his MFA from the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program and his work has appeared in The BelieverCatapultGranta and other journals. He co-founded Iowa City’s Mission Creek Festival, a celebration of music and literature, as well as the multidisciplinary festival of creative process, Witching Hour. He continues to live and work in Iowa City. Some of Us Are Very Hungry Now is his first book.


Two Dollar Radio has this to say about Some of Us Are Very Hungry Now: With luminous insight and fervent prose, Andre Perry’s debut collection of personal essays, Some of Us Are Very Hungry Now, travels from Washington DC to Iowa City to Hong Kong in search of both individual and national identity. While displaying tenderness and a disarming honesty, Perry catalogs racial degradations committed on the campuses of elite universities and liberal bastions like San Francisco while coming of age in America.

The essays in Some of Us Are Very Hungry Now take the form of personal reflection, multiple choice questions, screenplays, and imagined talk-show conversations, while traversing the daily minefields of childhood schoolyards and Midwestern dive-bars. The impression of Perry’s personal journey is arresting and beguiling, while announcing the author’s arrival as a formidable American voice.


Judy T. Oldfield: You work with a lot of forms. You even work with a lot of forms, sometimes, within the same essay. You start Some of Us Are Very Hungry Now with a really great collage piece, in which you use a fake screen play, a multiple-choice test of your own memories, letters to a high school diary, things like that. How do you know what’s the right shape for each story?

Andre Perry: Well, when I start, I typically don’t know. There are a lot of experiments of form that I work on and they just don’t work. For each essay or each theme, or each part of the book, I’m trying to express things that, for me, are difficult, complex issues around class or race and the way we interact as citizens of the world. And sometimes by shifting the format in which those questions are coming out, it can help better communicate the idea or question. What happens if I try to say this thing via a screen play or via an imagined interview or via a letter? How does that change the nature of the material or the way that I or we collectively understand that material? Near the end of the book are three letters that wrap up the collection that are shorter, and particularly in the last one, “Americana,” about Kendrick Lamar and the concert that he did in Iowa, I really found that what I was trying to say was so gray and something that I felt in my heart or felt in my soul. It wasn’t scientific, and by using that letter format, I was able to say something more lyrically than I would have been able to otherwise. And that’s why that form turned out to be the one I went with for that recollection and rumination on that series of events.

JTO: I was drawn to the collection—the reason why I wanted to read it and why I wanted to talk to you—was because of the experimental nature of the essays. But did you find any resistance to publishing it, either because of the experimental nature of your writing, the non-traditional nature of your writing, or because of the themes that you’re working with?

AP: I don’t know. I think I ended up with Two Dollar Radio because they’re the type of readers and curators who are open to this sort of playfulness with form. Maybe just by reaching out directly to them I was trying to save myself from less generous replies from other publishers or agents. It seemed in my mind that it would more difficult to go with bigger publishers, that they might not be able to see how this experimentation might be in line with how they want to sell things. But I could be wrong. There probably are some really great editors [working with larger publishers] out there who are on the same wavelength of this work.

JTO: Did you do any research on TDR and their editing process? You’re very vulnerable in the collection, and there are a lot of themes about or circling race. You reference a lot of pop culture, but you also use a lot of your personal life to talk about your 20s and 30s as a black man wandering through America. Were you at all apprehensive about taking these subjects to anybody, to trust any editor?

AP: I knew about Two Dollar Radio. I’m lucky to have been familiar with the work they’ve been putting out and knew them not super well but had a sense of how they approached other authors and even had some friends or colleagues who had worked with them. So it felt like I had a good sense of who they were, and that allowed me to trust them with my work. Throughout the process, they had a lot of recommendations, but they were very careful to leave every recommendation open for a conversation in order to get to the next best draft. When you’re working with editors who both keep you going but also push you forward, keep you to reasonable deadlines but are also willing to stop the process anytime because something deserves more conversation, that’s all we can reasonably ask [as writers]. This kind of collaboration.

JTO: This collection is tight. It’s cohesive, but each piece can easily stand on its own. How did you choose what went into the collection?

AP: Several years ago, a lot of the essays were written as experiments. I was just trying to get through an idea or several ideas or balance a number of different threads. So those were the initial kickoff for what would eventually become the collection. About two and a half years ago, I began to understand that there might be a better shape to this. That these might be more than random essays, that they might be a focused collection. And from that point on I kept some of those early essays, revised all of them, and then brought in totally new material and came up with the first draft of the collection. And from there, I lost some of the essays and created new material. And the revision, the additions and the subtractions, were all—once it became a clear, overarching project—they were all in service of getting that full concept executed.

JTO: What got left out? Were there whole concepts, whole parts of your life, that got left out, or was it just this-version-is-better-than-that-version?

AP: Yeah, I think in some cases there’s just better material and worse material, and you try to keep the better material. In other cases, in the second draft of the second full manuscript, which was close to what the final version is, it became more of a chronological collection. And in that case there were some pieces that I think were fairly strong material, they had a lot to say, but I think they just didn’t make sense in the chronology I was trying to put together in the book.

JO: How did you write towards that narrative as you were revising?

AP: As we got into that first manuscript or first draft of the collection, I then began to think about audience. When I would revise something or think about something new or choose whether something should stay or go, I was thinking of an audience of a younger, likely American person of color, and I just kept writing to that specific audience. That was my guide or star as I figured out what to keep or not to keep. So [my audience became] someone probably ten or fifteen years younger than me, and I just kept them in mind. I think that helped shape what needed to be kept or needed to be added in order to make the whole thing work.

Of course, now that the project is done, the audience is everyone, but I think it was really helpful to have that audience in mind, in terms of what final product or final stack of papers look like.

JTO: Now that you’re finding all sorts of people are reading it, what is it that you want readers to take away from the collection?

AP: I think all I can ask for, reasonably, is that the questions brought up and reflections that are displayed within the collection encourage every reader to think deeply about how they themselves are circling around these issues in their own lives, in this current moment in our culture. That would be a deep reward if that’s what readers were doing.

I just got off the first leg of the book tour and the conversations each night were really intense in each community. Everyone gave their energy, which is a gift of saying, how can we ourselves circle around these issues and find a way forward? And I knew that I ask a lot of questions in the book that I don’t have the answers for, that maybe I have, through my own experiences and through the process of writing, put together a blueprint of how we can collectively wrestle with how we might be an American, or a human, in 2019.

JTO: When you’re touring and going to these bookstores, or even when you’re talking to me, as a white woman, in your ideal world, how does somebody talk to you about this book? I’ll admit that I was nervous after reading the book to talk to you because your essays use the N word, and you use the N word, and I was sort of like, how are we going to talk about this? In your mind, if somebody is coming up to you and talking about a specific essay, especially towards the beginning of the book, how should people who are not people of color talk to you about it?

AP: I would hope every conversation would be both honest and respectful. I would hope we would know that we’re becoming more aware of the respectful boundaries that we have to employ when talking about race, gender, and sexuality. I myself, as I am presented in the book and in my personal life, have probably evolved from where I was fifteen years ago, ten years ago, five years ago. You know? In understanding what those respectful boundaries are so we can understand people who are living slightly or drastically different experiences from ourselves in the same space, on the same land.

JTO: You do show how you grow as a person throughout the essay collection. That’s part of the narrative course of it. I want to go back to what you were talking about, the last couple of essays being a letter to your partner. You leave us on kind of a happy note. You don’t give us everything—just enough to feel sort of hopeful for you. How is life for you now?

AP: Well, I’m living within the same culture that I expressed in the book. I don’t want to say I’m better at navigating it, but maybe I can better see what’s happening around me. We all have our challenges, whatever our disadvantages might be in the world, but it’s better to be able to see the world more clearly. Not that I’m seeing everything. That’s part of the process. But we [can] keep interrogating ourselves both artistically and on a practical, personal level on a daily, monthly, yearly basis.

JTO: I’m getting a lot of inspiration from Some of Us Are Very Hungry Now, and that’s why I’ve asked you a lot of questions about your narrative and writing processes, about putting these essays together, for the sake of my own work, my own practice. How might somebody else take a lot of their experimental work and put those pieces together. Any writerly advice?

AP: I’m a slow writer, which is frustrating but also good, particularly when working with challenging essays or nonfiction or even fiction. I think that you have to have patience to see how the threads and different elements play out, and take a cinematic approach, to think of yourself as a film editor in the ways you have different strands of narrative, different strands of thought. What happens if I put this here? What happens if this is twice as long? Or half as long? Just be willing to play around. If you have that patience, it allows readers to see narratives or revelations that, if you had tried to write the thing in a traditional form or are just really willing to see how a screenplay format will play out, then you just miss things.

I was really influenced by a piece from ten or fifteen years ago by Ander Monson in Ninth Letter, [“Failure: Another Iteration”]. The issue came, and it was all about how old technologies die off, and the work was asking questions about how things become outdated in real life and figuratively. Monson’s essay was printed on a microfiche card, so in order to read it, you had to go to a library. I was in school, so I was able to go to my university library and read the essay. That required so much of me as a reader, which on one level is ridiculous. Like, I just want to read your work, don’t make it so hard. But on another level, it was making a statement about many things, one of them being the patience that you can apply as a reader or as a writer that can reap such awesome rewards if you put in the time and effort.

JTO: Were any of these essays previously published?

AP: About half of them had life in earlier version. Particularly the ones that are more adventurous formally. And those really changed, which I think is cool. Because I’m just like, “Wow, time really did help out the material.” The only one that wasn’t really changed was the last essay, the Kendrick Lamar “Americana” piece. That originally came out in Catapult and I definitely made some line edits, but that thing came out pretty fully formed, and I didn’t make a lot of changes. It wasn’t the last, but it was one of the later pieces written, and I think at that point, all of the ideas within the collection really started to crystalize for me.

JTO: Did you ever feel like you were betraying your past self with those revisions, or did you see it as the evolution of the piece?

AP: I think I was just trying to be true at all times to the editor or the narrator who ended up as the voice in the final version. I wanted to make sure that the voice felt consistent, that the person who put this together felt consistent, even though readers were getting different versions of them across the years.

JTO: What are you working on now?

AP: I’m working on other stuff. For me it’s a continuum. Some of the essays in this book are already speaking to other things that I’m working on, which are in I-don’t-even-know-what stage of development. But I think a lot of the work on my plate that is completed or in-process or to-edit is in conversation with things that are happening the book. So yeah, I’m working on stuff and thinking deeply about the forms that I’ll need to deploy or at least experiment with to try to say the next thing that I’m trying to say, which I think will certainly be related to what’s happening in the book, maybe not from a timeline perspective but from a material, conceptual perspective.


Judy T. Oldfield

Judy T. Oldfield’s work has appeared in Gigantic Sequins, Portland Review, JMWW, Cleaver, Gravel, and many others. Her flash fiction “Their Lists Long, Their Spreadsheets Lost” was a 2017 Best of the Net finalist. She grew up in the Metro Detroit area and earned her B.A. at Western Michigan University, where she majored in English and Comparative Religion. Since that time, she has mostly lived in Seattle and abroad, but currently lives in her hometown with her husband and daughter.

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