By Jared D. Childress | OBSERVER Staff Writer
Joseph Earl Thomas named his newly released memoir, “SINK,” after the kitchen sink in his roach-infested childhood home.
“It always seemed to have a lot of s**t in it – it was always clogged. You could never tell what was in there so you just had to put your hands in and figure it out,” Thomas said. “For me, it conveyed a sense of not knowing about the world, of uncertainty and danger. But also, there’s a satisfaction that you get from being able to unclog it and see everything spin down.”
Thomas opens up in his candid memoir, in which the 34-year-old writes of growing up in Philadelphia in the mid 1990s. He tells of being called a sissy in a home overrun with crack use, sex work, neglect and abuse. But this book isn’t an indictment of his dysfunctional family; rather, he speaks of his drug-addicted mother, incarcerated father and hot-tempered grandfather attentively and honestly.
But most impressive is his ability to write from the mindset of “Joey,” as he was called as a child. Thomas narrates the story with both childlike innocence and astuteness, along the way referencing songs from R&B group TLC and lifting language from popular anime cartoon “Dragon Ball Z.”
Thomas shares things that many would take to their grave – but a lot also is left out; the memoir is a snapshot of his life, chronicling ages 8 to 13. This was a deliberate choice – he didn’t want this to be the typical hero’s journey.
“I didn’t want this to be a ‘Started from the bottom and now I’m here’ type of story where I end up at an Ivy League college. That wouldn’t interest me,” Thomas said. “I really wanted to look at what happens when you have a protagonist without heroism.”
If the book were to continue, readers would learn that today the army veteran holds a master of fine arts from the University of Notre Dame, is a doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania, and is the father of four children.
Thomas sat down with The OBSERVER last fall, months ahead of his book’s February release date; Sacramento was one of the first stops on his book tour. Speaking with Thomas at the There and Back Cafe in downtown, he admitted he was “just getting over the trepidation” of the release of a book 10 years in the making.
This Q&A has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: Is writing a memoir a vulnerable process?
A: I would say no, mainly because I didn’t feel like I was telling any secrets. Everything I was saying was already known to everyone involved. I didn’t grow up with the relationship to “the right to privacy” that a lot of people have. I’ve never felt like I had that space to separate the personal from the political. And I still speak to my family members on a regular basis, so it didn’t feel like I was exposing anyone.
Q: In the book you talk about your mom’s crack addiction. Was that hard to relive?
A: Growing up, a lot of the people I was close to knew someone either addicted to crack, getting sober, or never getting sober at all. My mother is a person who had a hard time – and still has a hard time – with addiction. It was important for me to be as clear and honest about that as possible. A lot of times Black folks are expected to have triumphant or success narratives: “Things were really bad, but with a lot of hard work it got better.” But sometimes someone can work really hard and everything might not get better. So what do you do with that?
Q: You also write a lot about toxic masculinity. What is that?
A: For me, toxic masculinity is a really narrow space of being a man – it has to do with consistent domination over all other people, an obsession with winning over all else, a skewing of tenderness, and not being able to act on your own desires in a real way.
Q: Can you give an example of when you experienced toxic masculinity in your own life?
My grandfather – and just to be clear, I think that he was doing what he thought was right and necessary – but he would react to me crying with aggression by saying “Oh, you better not do that!” And what he really means is if I do that, I’m not going to be safe out there because no one’s going to let me be afraid in the real world. What would have been useful for myself growing up would have been to feel protected in some way. The recognition that [young boys] might not feel safe is just not really talked about.
Q: How did you free yourself from that?
A: I don’t know that I’m completely free from that. I haven’t removed myself from everyone I knew; I’m still in conversation with them. But I just have more privilege because of the socioeconomic shift in my life. I’m not going to get beat up for being “too feminine” because I just don’t live that kind of life anymore.
Q: What did the process of writing this book do for you?
A: I think it would be easier for me to say that there’s healing from that process. But what I will say is, it’s more about me learning how to live with, or alongside, things that are painful.
Q: Reading this book, it’s clear that you went through a lot of challenging situations. What resources did you use to process those things?
A: By the time I started writing this book, I had done the regular kind of things, like therapy; when you have the privilege of being in college, you get free therapy. And as a writer, I thought that I had to read every history book, every nonfiction book about cultural studies and theory to make me understand the world a little more. But I think because this book was about the failure of social structure, family structure, and resources, I came to realize that the thing that helped me through was fantasy, video games, and anime. Because I wasn’t being held by my teacher, my parents, or a social worker – I was playing video games, like “Final Fantasy.” I was watching TV for hours and hours at a time. So those are the things that really taught me about the world, taught me how to read, and even taught me how to think.
Q: Who did you write this book for?
A: I think it’s a book for everyone. It’s primarily centered on and about children, but there’s a conflict. Because of the level of detail in the book, some people would say it’s grotesque or obscene. But a lot of Black children, who are seen a certain way by our families, are treated in obscene or grotesque ways. So I wonder why there is a need to pretend otherwise.
Q: So is this a young adult novel?
I have a weird conceptual understanding of what is and isn’t for young adults as a category. I think they could be the same depending on the book. As a child, I didn’t read much. But when I did get a teacher that thought I was smart they’d give me a Toni Morrison book – and “The Bluest Eye” isn’t necessarily a children’s book. I personally would like a lot more books to be widely read by children and adults together. A lot of books that I’m reading I’ll read to my children.
Q: What advice would you give to parents who would like to encourage their children to read?
A: The one thing I found works is to let kids read whatever they want. So sometimes that might be books about curiosity about sex, sometimes it might be comics – one of my kids really likes Godzilla and picked up Kazumi Chin’s book “Having a Coke with Godzilla.”
Q: Why should people read your book?
A: One of the things that frustrates me more than anything is when people treat children like they’re naive, that they don’t know anything, or can’t understand anything. So a big reason I want people to read this book is because I want us all to collectively think about how to take Black kids more seriously without thinking of us as having to be future leaders, guardians, or protectors before we have even come into a sense of our own being.
For more information on Joseph Earl Thomas or to buy his book, “SINK,” visit .josephearlthomas.net/sink.