INTERVIEW: Brian Broome, Author of Punch Me Up to the Gods, Winner of the 2021 Kirkus Prize

Brian Broome is the author of Punch Me Up to the Gods (Mariner Books, May 2021), a searing memoir on growing up Black, queer, and poor in rural Ohio. It was a New York Times editors’ pick, a Today Summer reading list pick, an Entertainment Weekly Best Debut of Summer pick, a People Best Book of Summer pick, and the winner of the 2021 Kirkus Prize in nonfiction.

In his book, Broome asks:

What if I believed brown boys to be just as worthy as white ones? […] Who would I be if I unlearned all the things I’ve learned without my permission? All the things that the darkness of my skin is supposed to mean.

We as readers must ask ourselves as well: Who would we all be if we unlearned all the racist messages fed to us our whole lives?

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Book Cover: Punch Me Up to the Gods, showing a photo of the author as a young childFrom the publisher’s website: Punch Me Up to the Gods introduces a powerful new talent in Brian Broome, whose early years growing up in Ohio as a dark-skinned Black boy harboring crushes on other boys propel forward this gorgeous, aching, and unforgettable debut. Brian’s recounting of his experiences—in all their cringe-worthy, hilarious, and heartbreaking glory—reveal a perpetual outsider awkwardly squirming to find his way in. Indiscriminate sex and escalating drug use help to soothe his hurt, young psyche, usually to uproarious and devastating effect. A no-nonsense mother and broken father play crucial roles in our misfit’s origin story. But it is Brian’s voice in the retelling that shows the true depth of vulnerability for young Black boys that is often quietly near to bursting at the seams.

Cleverly framed around Gwendolyn Brooks’s poem “We Real Cool,” the iconic and loving ode to Black boyhood, Punch Me Up to the Gods is at once playful, poignant, and wholly original. Broome’s writing brims with swagger and sensitivity, bringing an exquisite and fresh voice to ongoing cultural conversations about Blackness in America.

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Brian Broome, a poet and screenwriter, is K. Leroy Irvis Fellow and instructor in the writing program at the University of Pittsburgh, where he is pursuing an MFA. He has been a finalist in The Moth storytelling competition and won the grand prize in Carnegie Mellon University’s Martin Luther King Jr. Writing Awards. He also won a VANN Award from the Pittsburgh Black Media Federation for journalism in 2019. He lives in Pittsburgh. Follow him on Instagram or his website.


The Interview

Hippocampus Magazine’s Lara Lillibridge sat down with Broome to discuss his award-winning memoir, the writing process, poetry, and so much more.

Headshot of Author Brian Broome against a black background

Lara Lillibridge:  So first of all, you just won the Kirkus prize.

Brian Broome:  Yeah.

LL: How was that? How did you find out? Who did you call first? What’s the story?

BB: I found out the night of the ceremony—they kept it very hush hush. And it was a virtual ceremony. If you watch my acceptance speech, it is terrible. I really did not think that I was going to win. I had looked up the people who were in the same category, and they are just stellar, super accomplished authors, and they all have incredible books out.

So I had given myself the pep talk. I was like, ‘you know, Brian, it’s, it’s great to be nominated. This is a great thing that’s happened. And whoever wins, congratulations to them. But, this is a great start to your career, to get nominated for a Kirkus prize right off.’

So I was pretty much resigned to the idea that I wasn’t going to win. But then when they announced my name—you should really you should look up the acceptance speech, it is a treat. It is a masterclass in somebody trying not to swear. The only words that were going through my head, for some reason in that moment were like, just the worst swear words you can think of, but in a happy way, you know?


EXTRA CONTENT: Watch the 2021 Kirkus Prize Announcement


LL: Yeah, yeah.

BB: So I found out the night of the show. My mother was watching from her home in Ohio, and my aunt was watching from her home in Ohio. And that’s who I called immediately after. My mother could not speak, she was crying so hard. I had to call her back—I had to give her some time, and call her back. But it was amazing. And I’m very proud. And I’m very thankful to all the people who supported the book, and you know, my agent and my editor. It was mind blowing.

LL: That’s wonderful that your mother is able to have pride in the book. When you write about family, that’s never a guarantee.

BB: Never a guarantee. When I told her the book was coming out, she had originally told me that she wasn’t going to read it. She thought you know, who wants to read about their kid’s sex life, and the sort of unsavory things that your kid has done, but she ended up reading it. And she told me that she liked it a great deal. So that was a blessing, to have her read it and like it. I was really worried about her reaction to it. But so far the family has been pretty cool. And I’m really, really happy for that.

LL:  Well, you did take a chapter in your mother’s voice to kind of give her a chance to say her side of the story, or to give us another dimension of her as a character, which I thought was interesting. It was unexpected. How did that come about?

BB:  I think I just got tired of the sound of my own voice, and I think my mother has done so much for me, and has been so patient. You know, if you have a child who is an addict, there is a lot that you have to put up with. There was a point where my mother wouldn’t allow me and her purse to be in the same room. I had gotten to the point where I was like, ‘Oh, I’m kind of tired of my voice.’ And I really, at one point in the book, I was concerned about how my mother was coming off. My mother was a very busy woman. She wasn’t a very affectionate woman, because she was so busy, and she wasn’t raised that way. She wasn’t raised to be like lovey-dovey, and, you know, ‘I love you, Honey,’ and telling me how special I was.

So I was like, ‘I wonder if the reader thinks my mother is coming off as mean, because she’s not mean—she has a story of her own.’ And as I say in the book, your mother knows your story better than you do, in a lot of ways. And so I wanted to get her voice in there and to show the reader what she’s been through, and how my family came to be. And also, it’s a really eye opening thing when you start to think of your parents as people, and not just your parents. My mother had a whole life before I was ever in the picture. She had hopes and dreams and things that she wanted to accomplish. And she was a girl who used to flirt with boys, and do her own thing.

All that stuff in that chapter I never knew until I asked her. When I was writing the book, I just sort of interviewed her. I didn’t know she moved to Dayton, Ohio, to become an umbrella girl at a department store, which I think is hilariously cute. An umbrella girl—that’s something I couldn’t even conceive of happening in a store today. But it was it was good for me, personally, to learn more about my mother. And I think it was good for the book. Because as I say, I was just sort of droning on and on and on. And I wanted a new voice in there.

LL:  I want to ask you about Tuan and that essay, which is sort of like this braid, or this undercurrent to your own story. And it was such an effective way to introduce us to masculinity, and what it is like to be or to raise a small Black boy. And I was just really curious about that, partly because you’re on the bus, but the essay itself feels really long for a bus ride. So I was curious how that came to be.

BB: Oh, it was a long bus ride. If you even been to Pittsburgh, and if you live on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, to get downtown is a long bus ride. You know, that boy is still walking around Pittsburgh today. I imagine he’s probably maybe five or six now. When I saw him and his father at that bus stop and he fell, and his father said, ‘Stop crying,’ my ears immediately perked up.

LL: Right.

BB: Because he sounded like my father, when my father used to say, ‘stop crying,’ and writing on the bus is something that I do a lot anyway. I am a weirdo—I sit on the bus with a pen and pad and I just sort of take notes of things that are happening around me and I eavesdrop on people’s conversations, I write little snippets of it down.

So you know, when I saw Tuan and his dad, I made a conscious choice, like, I’m going to sit near them and just kind of see what happens. I think there’s a story in here. And as I say in the book, I wanted to take note of their every interaction and lack thereof, because they really did remind me of myself and my dad. You know, the era was different, but the message was the same: to stop crying. It is the worst thing that you can do as a Black man or a Black boy.

I think there’s a difference between the general issues we have with masculinity in this country, and maybe worldwide, and Black masculinity. I think Black masculinity is a whole other level of masculinity, because there’s this racist, or race element compiled on top of it. So I just was really interested in them, and I was hurriedly taking notes during that bus ride, and when I got a chance to sit down I just filled in everything that I saw that happened between the two of them.

 

I think there’s a difference between the general issues we have with masculinity in this country, and maybe worldwide, and Black masculinity. — Broome

 

LL: Were you working on the book at that point?

BB: I was in the midst of it, but when I started writing this essay, I wasn’t really thinking that it was going to be a part of the book. I just thought it was interesting, and maybe it was something I could use later or something. I didn’t know that it was going to be a part of the of the book but I  I was in the midst of writing these stories [that became the book] when I encountered the two of them.

LL: For me, as a reader, it was a really great way to make your story even more universal, to just open it up—that it’s not just your story, it’s not just your experience, but this is a common experience.

BB: Oh, yeah, I think, you know, he ended up being a literary device. Wherever he is, I don’t think he knows that he’s been used as a literary device. Yeah, I think in that story he kind of represents a lot of little boys whose fathers were raised in this tradition of, ‘don’t cry, don’t show emotion of any kind, unless it’s anger.’ Because the showing of emotion is conflated with weakness. And weakness, we cannot have. So yeah, he ended up being kind of a symbol for a lot of little boys and young men who have been told that from really early on in life

You know, men shame each other. A lot. The reason that this continues to work is through shame. It’s like, the worst thing you could be—acting like a girl—and homophobia and misogyny are fraternal twins.

LL: Absolutely.

BB: Yeah. You know, we talk little boys out of their feelings beginning really early on in life, and I think that that leads to bigger problems later.

LL:  Now, at the end of the book, you have a letter to Antuan. Is that the same Tuan?

BB: It is.

LL: I had assumed it was but then I’m like, wait, he’s actually calling him something different here.

BB: Tuan is short for Antuan. So at one point in the book, a woman asked the father, ‘what’s his name?’ And he says, ‘his name is Antuan.’

LL: So the sections of your book all come from Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem “We Real Cool.” Can you talk about why you chose it, and what that poem means to you?

BB: Yeah, I remember when I when I read that poem for the first time, I was in a library, I believe. And I thought I discovered it. Like I thought, oh, my gosh, why is nobody talking about this poem?

LL: I love that feeling—that sense of wonder.

BB: And then I found out very quickly that I did not discover anything. But I remember thinking when I read it, like, you know, she’s talking about Black masculinity.

The story of that poem is that Gwendolyn Brooks was walking down the street in her native Chicago, I believe that’s where she’s from, and it was really early in the day. She was walking down the street, and she looks into this pool hall, called the Golden Shovel. And inside the pool hall, she sees boys, you know, young school age boys who were clearly not in school, inside this pool hall doing very manly things.

And each line of the poem, as she said, she wondered how they felt about themselves. Each line of the poem is this sort of defiant sounding declaration, ‘We real cool, we left school, we lurk late…’ you know, this is how tough and manly we are. And I thought, well, she’s talking about Black masculinity. I don’t know if that was her intention, but to me, that’s what it what it felt like, and that immediately sort of clicked for me.

Then, you know, I realized that bell hooks had figured that out many, many years before, because she has a whole book called We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity. So I read her book. It is very dense—she’s an intellectual, so I read and I understood as much as I could. And I thought, well, you know, I can’t do what bell hooks does, but I have a story or two or three, for each line of this poem, and I have to get it in here, I have to use this poem.

So we contacted the Gwendolyn Brooks Foundation. They were very nice. They let me use it. And I was very happy with that. Because I thought, yeah, this poet, this woman, has captured in eight lines what I’m trying to say about growing up Black and male in our culture.

LL:  I loved it. And I shouldn’t admit to this, but it like made me feel smart. I’m like, oh, I know that poem!

BB: It made me feel smart, too. But yeah, it’s a great poem, it’s timeless. She, of course, wrote many other poems. But she was always asked to recite “We Real Cool.” I’m sure she was kind of getting a little tired of it, but it’s a great poem, and I’m glad that it was I was able to use it.

 

It wasn’t even in my mind that these writings would turn into a book. — Broome

 

LL:  Yeah, that’s great. Now, Rakia Clark tweeted in a congratulatory tweet to you,  “What a ride this book has been.” Which made me wonder what was your publishing journey like?

BB: I think it may have been nontraditional, because this book started in rehab. And in rehab, it wasn’t my idea. It wasn’t even in my mind that these writings would turn into a book. I went to rehab because basically I was in a really bad way. In terms of my addiction, it was a low point. And I had friends tell me, ‘Look, if you don’t go to rehab, we’re just not going to be friends anymore, because you’re going to die.’

So I went to rehab, basically, to shut everybody up. I was like, I’ll just go for a few days. And while I was there, it started to click a little bit that maybe I needed to be there. I couldn’t imagine a life without drugs and alcohol, which is a problem. And I was in a room with a man who snored a lot. He was my roommate. He was very nice, but you know, when he would fall asleep he would just shake the walls with his snoring. And so I was up nights. And I just grabbed the pen and pad and I started writing. I just was writing these stories about things that I remembered in my life—sort of watershed moments.

And I was enjoying writing them. And then when I got out of rehab, I continued to write these stories, and I started to write things on Facebook. And a friend of mine was like, ‘you should try to get something published.’ And he showed me how to do that. And the first thing I ever sent out got published.

LL: Nice.

BB: Yeah, it’s never happened since.(laughs) It was published in the Ocean State Review. And when I got out of rehab, I was really sort of afraid to go anywhere, because I was scared that I would just relapse. So the only thing that I would do was I would go to work, I would come home, and I would write. But I started to miss people, I guess, in a sense. And so I decided that I was going to just do performance. So I started going to open mic nights here in Pittsburgh. I started doing the Moth, which is a storytelling competition here in Pittsburgh. And one night I performed the basketball story that’s in the book. Many of the pieces in the book were originally performance pieces. But I performed that story and I got off stage, and a woman named Danielle came up and said, ‘hey, I’d like to be your agent.’

LL: Wow!

BB: Yeah. And I had no idea what that meant, at all. But I said ‘yes, like, maybe, I don’t know, whatever.’ And she called me a few days later. And she said, ‘what have you got? What are we gonna do? What do you got going on?’ And I told her about these stories that I had laying around. And she read them, and we sort of compiled them. She helped me edit them a little bit. And we sent them off to a bunch of publishers. Rakia being the editor for what was Houghton Mifflin at the time, now HarperCollins. And it was just this weird thing, like, it never really dawned on me that we were making a book.

The editing process was rigorous, because I had never really been seriously edited before by a publishing house. There were a lot of peaks and valleys, shall we say? There was some head butting, there was some crying, but there was a lot of good moments, too. So when she says, ‘it’s been a ride,’ I think what she means is that from something that started next to a snoring man in a rehab facility to the Kirkus prize that’s, that’s quite a journey.

LL: Right.

BB: I’m really grateful to both Danielle and Rakia. Because they, a lot of days, they believed more than I did, and it has definitely been a ride. I couldn’t have dreamed, sitting in rehab, that this is where I would be—talking to Hippocampus—a few years later.

LL: It’s an amazing story.

 So I’ve read several Black queer writers, but I have never seen anyone talk about racism within the queer community before. And what you said totally resonated with my experience of the queer community. I could picture exactly how hard it was and how awful people can be. So my first question is, how has the queer community responded? Then my second question is, how come nobody else writes about this? Like, how come other people write about racism and about being queer, but not the intersection?

I don’t know, like my mom was a lesbian. And I wrote about her partner being abusive, and I felt like I was betraying the community in a way, by being honest about it, because I feel like to the straight world we have to put up this front.

BB: Mm hmm. Well, I haven’t really got I haven’t really got a direct response to that. Like, I’ve certainly been interviewed by queer publications, but nobody has specifically asked me, ‘so what about the racism in our community?’ I haven’t really seen any response to that.

And the second part of that is, I’ll just say that when I started to come out, when I was young, I was 18. I tried to go to gay and lesbian meetings, and for the first time, taking those first tentative steps out of the closet, I truly believed that I had found Nirvana, like in the bars. I was like, Oh, my God, in my mind it naturally fit that how can these people be racist because we’re all you know, outsiders.

LL: Right.

BB: We’re outsiders, and then it slowly began to dawn on me—queer people can be just as racist as the population in general. I remember being at a bar one time, and I was talking to a man and some other man who thought I shouldn’t be talking to this man because of our race difference came up to me and just said the nastiest stuff to me—they kind of things we stereotype “rednecks” with saying—that kind of stuff. And I thought, ‘Oh, well, this exists here, too.’ Oftentimes, I think with men, the racism is sexualized. You know, it’s fetishized, oftentimes, I think, with men, but you know, it’s not a conversation that I’ve had with like, ‘the community,’ but I think we all know, like you said about, you know, protecting the community or whatever, I think it’s something that we all know exists, and I don’t know, when we’re going to deal with that.

I don’t know that there’s going to be an internal conversation. But you know, when you say ‘the gay community,’ I don’t even know that that exists anymore. I think it was probably more of a buzz word in the 90s, when I was coming out, and there was a lot of political activism and things like that. But I think that as queer people become more mainstream, I don’t know that we can keep referencing the gay community.

LL: I think you’re absolutely right. And in fact, I used to live in Key West. And gay tourism has taken a huge hit, because gay people feel okay going to mainstream places where it used to be that Key West was like, the be-all and end-all of gay travel.

BB: Yeah, I remember being there, once, a long time ago. I was with a partner at the time, and I remember it being very gay there. But, you know, in my city where I live, there used to be a lot of gay bars.

LL:  Yeah.

BB: Now, there aren’t that many gay bars anymore. You know, there are just bars, because I think younger people are just going wherever the hell they want—it’s a great thing. But I remember there was a circuit when I was when I was young, we would go to this bar or another, but those places, you know, as I say, in the book, like, those places are closed. And I think young queers are just going wherever the hell they want to go.

LL:  Which is a good thing.

BB: Absolutely.

 

… it turns out that it’s that it isn’t just a book for Black gay boys, you know, a lot of people from many different walks of life have connected with the feelings of the book, and that’s very gratifying. — Broome

 

LL: So, okay, I will ask you just one more question. For me, the writing and then the revision, and then the rewriting, and then the revision again, and the proofreading… going through all of the steps really changed me as a person, and it changed my relationship to my story. And I wondered if writing and publishing this book changed you at all.

BB: I think it has been on many levels, cathartic. There were some things in this book that I just did not want to put out there—still a lot of shame. Still a lot of embarrassment. But it’s out there now. After you after you put your personal details in a book and then you send it out, in a way, it doesn’t really belong to you anymore. Your stories don’t belong to you anymore.

I’m still embarrassed about a lot of that stuff in the book, and I still struggle with this thing of people liking me. I’ve gotten a lot of really great, supportive emails. But I’ve also gotten a lot of ‘die, faggot, die.’

LL: Oh, wow.

BB: Yeah, you know, there are people who go to my web page and just leave the most vile messages. And whereas I think that would have really hurt me in the past, now I’m just like, ‘what a fucking crazy person.” I think I’m a little less free frightened of those kinds of people that I used to be. I think that the putting it out there has changed me in that I do feel like I can do more stuff now, I have a little bit more confidence in my ability to try things. I have a better relationship with my family, because now they know.

So yeah, I think that it’s changed me and like you said, the writing and revision and the writing and revision—it’s weird, because this thing that happened to you in your life, now, it just becomes a story. And when you keep working with it, like clay, you start to just look at it in terms of elements, things that things that need to be shaped and molded, so that it’s palatable for a reader. So it changes your relationship to, what has actually happened to you, and then that way, there’s a little bit of distance created, which can be a good thing, and can be a bad thing as well. So I’m all over the place. Like, it’s a good thing, and it’s a bad thing having all these stories out there, but mostly a good thing because of those emails that I get from people who are like, ‘Thank you, I felt the same way growing up,’ or ‘I had a similar experience, and you articulated it.’ That makes it really worthwhile for me

When I wrote this book, I thought, ‘this is going to be a book for Black gay boys.’ And it turns out that it’s that it isn’t just a book for Black gay boys, you know, a lot of people from many different walks of life have connected with the feelings of the book, and that’s very gratifying.

LL:  To me, that’s why I write. When the right reader finds your work, it makes all of the anxiety and terror worthwhile.

BB: Absolutely. You know, it was James Baldwin who said, I’m paraphrasing, ‘you think your pain is the only pain in the world and then you read and that’s the thing that connects you to all the people who are living and have ever lived before you.’ If I can contribute to something that grand, you know, then that’s great.

LL: My final question, your dedication “to Brother and Sister Outsiders everywhere.’ That’s Audre Lorde you’re referencing, right?

BB:  Yeah, it is Audre Lorde, who I love. In a lot of ways, this book is about so many of the Black women who have helped me throughout my life: Audrey Lorde, bell hooks, Gwendolyn Brooks, my mother, my friend Annette, who features in the book. Audrey Lorde had a lot of really profound things to say that have helped me to just sort of keep my head up and keep moving forward. You know, Sister Outsider, if you’ve ever read, it was incredible. But there’s also a film right now about a famous Black gay civil rights activist, Bayard Rustin, called “Brother Outsider.” So I wanted to include both of those in there, I wanted to give a nod to Audre Lorde and I also want to give a nod to Bayard Rustin, who was incredibly passionate and in many ways, brave in his own right.

LL: Nice. Well, thank you so much for speaking with me.

BB: Thank you. I owe Hippocampus  so much, because they published some of my early stuff that I thought, again, I was never going to get published. So I’m really happy to be here. And thank you for taking your time to talk to me.


Headshot of Author Lara Lillibridge

Lara Lillibridge

Interviews Editor

Lara Lillibridge is the author of Mama, Mama, Only Mama (Skyhorse, 2019), Girlish: Growing Up in a Lesbian Home (Skyhorse, 2018) and co-editor of the anthology, Feminine Rising: Voices of Power and Invisibility (Cynren Press, 2019). In 2019 she judged creative nonfiction for AWP’s Intro Journal Project and currently serves as a mentor for their Writer to Writer program. She also writes for children under the name L.B. Lillibridge.

 

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