Lit Chat: Meet Jordan Thomas
Last month I got to have a wonderful, meandering conversation with creative non-fiction writer Jordan Thomas about his reading and writing, and we also covered the topics of Jayden Smith, Obama’s fatherhood, the school to prison pipeline, masculinity, religion and churches, the trajectories of black and brown artists, and much more. Thomas, possessing of a lively mind, a sharp sense of humor, and bounteous gifts as a writer, is someone who we definitely want to watch. He, lucky for us, moved to Minneapolis a few years ago to attend the MFA program at the University of Minnesota and is in the same cohort as previous LitChat interviewees D. Allen and Roy Guzmán. Thomas is hard at work finishing his thesis this semester, which will be a collection of essays on, among other things, his relationship to blackness.
First, because I’m always curious, I asked Thomas what he was reading lately. He said that he was reading a lot of news (and trying to survive) but in terms of books, he was rereading Ta-Nahesi Coates’ Between the World and Me (2015) and Paul Beatty’s novel The Sellout (2016). He told me he read Beatty’s The White Boy Shuffle (2001), also a novel, last year and said it was easily one of his top five books of all time. He is avoiding reading white authors all year if he can help it. (Because I am also a reader of color, I did not have to ask him why.)
As an artist, Thomas discussed Mychal Denzel Smith’s Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching: A Young Black Man's Education (2016), a New York Times bestseller, which he read last year and said, “It is most similar to what I’m trying to do…and it presents an interesting parallel to Coates’ book. Coates talks from an intellectual place and Mychal’s book is different—the first page starts talking about the NBA finals, and Trayvon Martin was killed during halftime of the finals. It’s a very different approach and angle to take.” Even though Thomas is in a master’s degree program, he explained, “because I’m not by any means an academic, and I don’t care for that at all, Mychal’s book has been much more constructive for how I want to approach my own work. Coates’s strength, and what I try to take from it, is to construct an argument and stretch it over the whole book.”
For Thomas, his literary work is an opportunity to create something for the world and for readers that is also potentially an act of radical self-healing. In Coates’ book, Thomas related to “the intimacy achieved by having the book presented as a letter to Coates’ son, and that sense of danger that he’s trying to instill, that’s become important for me in terms of my book. Some time late last year, I realized my audience wasn’t black people as a whole, but a book that was much more personal, one that would make middle-school me not want to kill himself.”
When I asked him about his thoughts on the direction of masculinity in America, he responded thoughtfully that “there are these small little pockets of promise and progress that keep getting undercut by the older generation, one of the things is the way that Jayden Smith chooses to live his life, and yes he has the privilege and the wealth to be able to do that, but the idea of young, black, and carefree this generation of black kids is really good to see.”
Thomas drew on his recent experience with the younger generation for signs of social change and cautious optimism, “When I was working at a middle school, where I worked for two years before I moved up here, one thing I was very surprised by was that there wasn’t really a lot of anti-gay stuff happening in the school, which isn’t to say that it still isn’t a problem, by no means am I saying that, when I was growing up in the 90s everyone was throwing around slurs, that’s just what you did.” Which isn’t to say homophobia is over and done with, but there is a marked, encouraging difference in attitudes surrounding gender and sexual identity, though this is more present among girls of color than boys of color, which, again, speaks to the failings of masculinity and the problems therein.
Thomas spoke proudly and admiringly about Black Lives Matter being “so much a movement built by queer people especially queer women,” and yet also that “we don’t have a lot of black men who are standing up and declaring masculinity as something, even Kendrick Lamar who is doing more than most, he still has misogynist songs, but it’s going to be the biggest hurdle going forward—aside, of course, from white supremacy.” In concordance with Coates’ book and so many other works, Thomas discussed how black men “still believe we have to posture a certain way to survive. Until black men aren’t being arrested or killed—or arrested and then killed—at several times the rate as everyone else, and so on, there’s going to be this necessity to project a sense of power for the sake of survival. Until we can deal with that, it’s going to be very difficult to deal with the issue of masculinity.”
It was a great pleasure to get Thomas’ take on some of the pressing and persistent issues of our day and I am excited to see his writing career flourish on the national stage and beyond. Please check out his work!
Sun Yung Shin is the author or editor of six books including two books in 2016: Unbearable Splendor (poetry/prose) and A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota (anthology of essays). With the filmmaker and writer Xiaolu Wang she recently co-founded the Women of Color Artist Collective. She lives in Minneapolis and can be found on Facebook, twitter, sunyungshin.com, and agoodtimeforthetruth.com.