One of the more difficult concepts for young writers to grasp is the form, function, and purpose of the personal essay. It’s problematic for college students incapable of understanding the difference between the confessional and personal. The verbose among an incoming Freshman class tend to think that a Transformative Narrative essay is their license to write about the darkest moments in their lives. As if they were the only people to have suffered such a fate. The tendency to use composition classes as therapy will needlessly elevate even the most minor narrative to stratospheric heights. Yet some take this approach and succeed.
Into this landscape comes Andre Perry‘s beautiful, brilliant, bold debut collection of essays, another standout title from Two Dollar Radio, called Some of Us Are Very Hungry Now. The geographical landscapes vary from Hong Kong to Washington, DC, to Iowa City to San Francisco and back again. Rather than fall into the minutiae of solipsistic reflection that riddles many debut collections, Perry takes his place with such strong essays collections as Paul Crenshaw’s This One Will Hurt You and Randon Billing Noble’s Be with Me Always.
Like these writers, Perry works carefully and purposefully to examine the potential forms his essays can take. Some of them read as screenplays and television interviews. The three final essays are epistolary, written to somebody named Emma. They cover life from childhood to marriage, the blossoming and dissolution of a relationship, racial identity (especially as an African American male in Hong Kong) and the always lethal nature of words. Why are some words (the “n” word, in particular) lethal when they originate from certain people? Who owns the right to their use? Indeed, there is a rare sharpness that is dramatically effective in young writers, especially for a debut collection.
In “Language and Other Weapons”, Perry brings us (via a screenplay format) to Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. Cholly Breedlove’s sexual intimacy is interrupted by some white farmers, who watch the act for their entertainment. Perry then takes us to St. Alban’s school, where his classmates tell him he’s not black. He writes of divisions within his racial community, “…a sickness in black culture… that rallies against the rights and emotions of gay people.” Perry writes: “It’s 2003 and I am 25, black, and frequently straight…” He’s living in San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood and writing his darkest secrets in his “Gay Diary”. He imagines an interview between himself and Oprah Winfrey, where the blessings of such wide public notoriety are interrupted by racial politics within his community. There, in that imagined scene, he’s “real”.
The next essay, “Coastland”, is a comparably minor one. “We Thought We Were Rock and Roll” takes us to a dive bar and the surrounding neighborhood in San Francisco. “For all of my privileges I felt vacant and broken,” he writes, a tourist in a land that isn’t his own. Or is it? In “American Gray Space”, he writes about the word n-word, especially as it slips out of the mouths of white people. A white San Francisco hipster uses the offensive word to qualify the type of music he plays. Elvis Costello lets the word slip, drunkenly commenting on Ray Charles. It’s a slur that’s stayed with him for 40 years. Mick Jagger’s racist sexism in songs like The Rolling Stones’ “Some Girls” somehow seems less offensive to the public. Perry writes:
“Why should Costello get the sanction while the Stones have access to my stereo? Maybe their oft-professed debt to black musicians excuses their racial errs. Wait, Costello loves black American music. Perhaps it’s the fact that they have been roundly sexist, racist, and offensive to practically everyone on earth.”
This essay ends with a replication of an analogy from the Kaplan study guide, The Real GRE: Surviving the American Social Landscape. It’s a comparison between two rappers: Lil Jon and Q-Tip (of A Tribe Called Quest). “White people love Lil Jon,” Perry writes. “They bought copies of his records. They consumed his reflection of life as a never-ending gangsta-party.” Of Q-Tip and his conflicted perspective when using the “n” word, even while he is a socially conscious performer, Perry writes: “Both the embrace and regret are palpable as Q-Tip attempts to walk the tight rope of this heavy cultural question.” As for comedian Chris Rock, Perry suggests his insistence on the dichotomy (“Niggers and black people”) is about something deeper: “How socially successful can a professional black man or woman be if some other black person isn’t around to tip the tables of ignorance?”
Section Two, “Heartland”, opens with “Some Kinds of Love (Are Better than Others)”. It’s a deep consideration of interracial relationships, told in second- and third-person. “He is 29 and he is a graduate student, a walking postponement of life’s demands.” The essay that draws from pornographic stereotypes about white women’s preoccupation with black men, and vice versa. Perry alternates his experiences in this world with his brother’s, and the essay ends with an interviewer asking the renowned late painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, “Are you a painter or a black painter?” Basquiat hedges in his response, certainly aware of the marginalized nature of the question. It’s followed by another question. Does he feel he’s being used, or is he exploiting the white image for his own purposes? Basquiat responds, brilliantly (and it’s a great way to end this essay) with “Are those the only two possibilities?”
The title essay to this volume is certainly its highlight. In “Some of Us Are Very Hungry Now”, Perry alternates between the growth and eventual dissolution of a relationship with a woman named Miranda, and his experience examining the underground music scene in Hong Kong. Early on, he writes about being in the audience at a Q and A session in Iowa City with Wynton Marsalis. The renowned musician, composer and educator is asked about contemporary music. Marsalis responds: “We are living in an ignorant age.” Perry reflects on Marsalis’s frequent elitist commentary on the current state of music, but he was willing to give him the benefit of a more informed, wider perspective:
“[Marsalis was] …referring to…the entire degradation of music and the way that we, the people, would readily consume and eat it up…there was a real universal truth in what he was attempting to illuminate: we wanted music as crass entertainment and we wanted to get laid.”
“No Country” begins on the US Presidential Inauguration Day, 2009. A white acquaintance uses the “n” word in what he believes is an admirable context to comment on the quality of music from Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Perry, an Iowa resident, feels displaced in San Francisco, a city that “…embraced segregation.”
“Deeper inside, I knew it would be dishonest to ignore my skin, for it affects me wherever I go. If I didn’t bring it up at all, they would say ‘Does this man even know that he’s black? Is he so traumatized by the Midwest that he’s forgotten who he is?’ There’s nothing worse than a room full of white people asking me to acknowledge my blackness.”
Perry writes about the racism in Georges Remi’s comics series, Tintin, about how Iowa City was called “The Black Hole” because the people who went there never came back. “The city itself was the blueprint for a personal essay, its streets different threads of self-exploration…The air was vividly alive with ideas.” Here, the bucolic academia of Iowa City becomes just as stultifying as the Mission in San Francisco. It swallows up potential, yes, but it makes the most vulnerable writers among us (or at least Perry) stronger.
The final section of this book, “Heart”, consists of three brief letters to somebody named Emma. In the first, “Old Models”, there are scenes of listening to the Grateful Dead and Patti Smith, of hanging around Iowa City reading James Baldwin. The second letter, “Interstate”, is more dramatic, smaller and more intense. Perry hears the line “the bridge at midnight trembles” from Bob Dylan’s “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” as the car he’s driving soars off the road and into a ditch. He imagines how his parents might have reacted if the worst happened:
“As I drove I wondered if every piece of wisdom they had shared with me had been matched by some similar experience. It was then that I knew to some degree what it meant to be a parent and to live a long, full life. I thought of the future children we might have.”
In the final essay, “Americana/Dying of Thirst”, Perry goes back to the well of race and identity. He places his readers in a moment from his past, Kendrick Lamar performs at a Student Union concert in Iowa City. “The roar of almost 2,000 white people shouting ‘nigga’ in a room with a black man on stage took on an odd quality, like a twisted reshaping of a rally of nationalists and fascists.” There’s an aching sense of beauty in this jewel of an essay, especially when he reflects on the great songs of the past, from Kendrick, Billie Holliday, Howlin’ Wolf and more. “[They are] …the sorrows of systematic isolation.” Perry writes that “…when we sing this Americana songbook we should be awake and know that when we sing someone else’s song we are also singing our own.”
It’s in this sense that the full effect of Perry’s Some of Us Are Very Hungry Now is tantamount to a slice from the Americana songbook. These essays are ballads, images from the self, isolated and marginalized in other countries and in his own land. These are songs of identity and sexuality and expectations the world has of African American males. The only complaint this reader has is that there were not more essays about music, and about life in Hong Kong. Here’s hoping this book will mark the start of a long and varied journey for Perry. If the goal of a literary traveler is to show how connected we are to one another, his debut collection is an assured indication of deeper glories yet to come.