Q&A with Joseph Earl Thomas, author of Sink: A Memoir

Joseph Earl Thomas is the author of Sink: A Memoir, published by Grand Central Publishing. His essay “The Den of Earl” was previously published in The Offing. Q&A conducted by Eddie Bruce-Jones, Editor, Essay.

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I had the pleasure of sitting virtually with Joseph Earl Thomas on November 15, 2022, to discuss his new memoir. Sink’s debut has been featured in The New York Times and Kirkus Review, among other publications.

Eddie Bruce-Jones: I’ll just open this by saying thank you so much, Joseph, for agreeing to have chat with me about your new memoir, Sink. I had the pleasure of reading a short piece of this memoir, which we published in The Offing back in 2017. And now the whole memoir is out. And it is very beautiful. It is introspective and heavy, and it opens up different worlds through the eyes of a young person. So I’m really excited to be able to ask you about your process and your thoughts about this book.

Joseph Earl Thomas: Yeah, thank you. You ushered in the earliest part of the book. So I owe a debt of gratitude for that, from the jump, all these years ago. Thank you so much.

EBJ: This is one of the first pieces Hawa Allan, my co-editor at the time, and I published for The Offing. I definitely remember thinking, wow — the writing, the handling of heavy issues. It was about the home, the Black home; it was about violence. But then, it was also about love and self-criticism and sexuality and taboo, and all of these things in a very short space and done in a way that does not read like just someone’s journal entry. It is a literary reflection. The quality of the writing and the level of engagement for the reader was so clear to us in that short excerpt.

This attention and care was extended throughout the book. First, just for people to understand what the perspective of the book is, I was just wondering if you would say a little bit about the protagonist, introduced in the first few pages, a seven-year-old you, Joey, navigating a great deal in his life. We see Joey at different ages throughout the book, but if you could just give a sense of where this protagonist is in this first part of the book…

JET: Yeah, yeah. It is, you know, in the third person with, like you said, the seven-year-old me who was in the Frankfurt section of Philadelphia. And this is where the entire book takes place, in the physical and material sense, primarily inside the home. And then for short spurts, outside of the home. There’s the school, or the kind of outdoors, we could call it, you know, those parts of the city in Philadelphia, and its extensions — all the places a kid on a bike who was under the age of 13 could get to, potentially on their own, basically.

EBJ: Yes, that is a good way to describe the environments that we see throughout the book. A lot of it takes place in the home and then some of it is outside, and you get a sense of kind of the spatial world that that Joey is in. It goes without saying that the young Joey is faced with a lot of pressure. So whether that pressure takes the form of expectations put on him by his family or external people, and whether those expectations are in the form of violence or stereotypes that influence his thoughts and actions, he is reckoning with this pressure throughout the book.

What was it like? To have to do the memory work of getting back into the space of someone who was then looking around and being prejudged from every angle and having to then internally regulate and self-police all the time.

JET: This is a good question. I love the way the way you asked that question, too, because I think it has some value. To some extent, you know this, too, right? You’re an academic, and I’m doing a Ph.D. and I teach a lot of academic stuff. And it was a combination of two things. It was, to some extent, a lot of conversations that I think have become commonplace about how particular problems are structural, about how a lot of behaviours are learned, particularly if we’re talking about masculinity and its toxicity or otherwise, but we haven’t had as much of a way to talk about or speak of other masculinities that aren’t a problem necessarily. There have been conversations about queer masculinities and other potentialities. But I think, for me there was a gap between the really broad overview, of washing over a set of experiences, and what I actually thought and felt in those moments.

This was in conjunction with my own family’s experiences, which I was always in constant relationship to or contact with. I talked to my sister pretty much every day, you know, about all of this, about all these problems, whether about myself or other people in our in our family. And this felt super important to me. I felt like there was a set of experiences that were not just mine, but that my family or the people that I grew up with were, in large part, great ways to tell about the experience of people moving through different sets of restrictions or problems that we have always had. What is masculinity, what is femininity, what is sex, what is sexuality? And it felt to me that, as a child, I remember or experience or I felt those things much earlier than we tend to give children credit for understanding or experiencing those things. And I felt like it was really important to get out. And doing a lot of the memory work did not feel maybe as hard as it should have felt. Because I was writing this in my late twenties, early thirties, you know? Like, being in a super-privileged position at a university where your therapy is free, for example, right? [Laughs] So there was that.

I had already become by that point the kind of person in my family that other folks were turning to. So I had already been having all of these conversations, with my mom in particular, a lot. She was dealing with her own stuff and still is. And then I talk to my sister about my mom. You know, I have my own kids now. My sister has her own kids. So for me, it was part of why it was so important to even do that work of memory. It had to do with the material conditions of my life already forcing a kind of intense interrogation or remembrance into my kids, who were asking questions about my family already, anyway.  And here, they’re meeting their grandparents and asking, why are things like this? How do we explain all these things to them? And so, in large part it was that. And maybe it felt easier committing things to the page because I had already for so long been in the position of doing a lot of that kind of memory work in conjunction with being thrust into a world where we often as academics get seen as experts on certain things like “the Black experience,” or we’re talking about class or talking about gender or talking about race or what have you, in ways that I think are actually not as furtive as sometimes it seems, in contrast to paying really close attention to a child’s initial experience of those things before you start to get to a place where you have normalised a bunch of different kind of structural analyses and positions, right? Be that the heterosexual family, the school or what have you. So I really wanted to pay close attention to that.

EBJ: I really loved the way that you reflected on how a child would experience these things. First of all, like you said, Joey had to make his own frameworks for understanding things like masculinity, femininity, sexuality, race and all of those things so early on, and he had to do it himself. There was an urgency to him finding himself in all this. The reader sees this world of theory also emerging within how Joey is navigating all of these things in daily life.

It also made me think, part of the jarring nature of reading this piece is that you’re reading things and you’re hearing vocabulary and you’re hearing these phrases that we tend to associate with what adults have to navigate. And then you have, right in the middle of this hurricane of life, this seven-year-old, eight-year-old, nine-year-old, who’s making sense of the world and doing so with the tools that are emerging in the in the process.

One of those tools is animals. Animals enter the picture as a kind of way that Joey both articulates parts of himself and is able to then care for something or be rescued by something. I’m just wondering, when you were writing this, were animals already kind of a clear device for how you wanted to tell the story of your childhood, or did they emerge somehow in the process of writing?

JET: It’s a little bit of both because I was always obsessed with animals or nature of wildlife or whatever. There’s also the distinction between being afraid of the outside because of certain kinds of like violence from strangers, right? But also, if you go outside, that’s where you can find garter snakes or frogs, turtles, whatever, you know, and depending on where you live, loose dogs and other animals. So that was always kind of interesting to me. The animal thing was also something that people had complained a lot about to me and that my family never forgot. For instance, my mom the other day, she’s like, “Remember, we had all those turtles in the house, or, we had these damn lizards — why are you collecting these animals?” And, my sister would say, “Yeah, you had that snake and you used to keep putting it on me,” or whatever.

These were things, early on or even in my life now, that other people in my family constantly remind me about. My homie’s daughter is around the same age as my daughter, and one of the big contradictions, sometimes she comes out of my house or whatever and he’s like, “Yo, stop telling her about these guinea because now she wants a guinea pig.” And she must think, “Oh, I can talk to Uncle Joe about animals,” whereas he’s thinking, “Yo, stop talking to her about this, I don’t want to get this guinea pig!” So I think it would have been impossible to leave out reference to the animals. Actually, some of the biggest parts I had to cut had to do with animals and sex. Like sexual situations that were repetitive because these are both things that were constant and recurring.

I think that set my expectations about the world. I was always watching accented European or Australian white men, foraging and being around wild animals. I would be like, wow, why would they be doing this? Leave that snake alone. But it was also mad exciting. And I thought: there’s a different kind of world out there that isn’t concrete, and all about fist fighting or learning how to avoid this fighting, or learning how to fuck or who, and under what circumstances it might be okay or whatever. It felt freeing to some extent, right? Even if other people thought about the danger of animals. So yeah, it was constant. And when pressed to remember things from that time, people in my life almost always mention an animal, and usually, it’s a different animal each time. Like a quail.  Why would you have a quail in the house? You know? So it was impossible to ignore.

EBJ: If I read this again, which I’m sure I will, because it is really rich and there is allegory and fable and there are all kinds of parallels, not only with animals, but with other things. If I read it again with a view toward animals, I’m sure I could count dozens and dozens of animals in the book.

It’s interesting that you said you would watch white men on TV with Australian accents because I totally know what you’re talking about, it was an archetype during our childhood years. And in the book and this is part of what I love about the layers of social commentary, and the innocence of a child unpacking race and sexuality and gender all at the same time, is that race enters the conversation with a warning. It’s like, “cut that white shit out” or whatever. Yeah, different angles, including with things that had nothing to do with what I think adults might understand as kind of big conventional stereotypes about race. But anything that was hyper-masculinized or seen as masculine and therefore as Black masculinity. And one of those things was also when you were talking about getting into vampire movies.  And this was the world of white vampires, right? But despite the fact that they were kind of in this white world, you were looking at vampires in terms of power and in terms of what that offered to open up the possibility of a new world. Or thinking about anime and drawings, and all of these things where race came into the frame, but also other ways of understanding the world came into it. So I am wondering, also, what or how the inspiration around anime and around fantasy and science fiction influenced your way of seeing your childhood and your upbringing?

JET: It’s interesting that you say “fable” and I’m thinking of “parable” because I was trying to figure out a way to have a robust sense of commentary on the world that wasn’t me just being my first person, adult self, saying, did you know I have a master’s degree? Let me explain to you how the social world works out for a Black kid living in a poor area or whatever. It’s a certain type of explanation that is important and that sometimes I’ll do in an essay. But I did not want to do that in this way because I felt like it would take away from giving a sense of seriousness to the young people that I think we don’t give. I think we really treat young people, especially young Black people very, very badly, even when don’t realize it. And I have to catch myself sometimes either for underestimating young Black folks or just cordoning them off. And I think fantasy and science fiction, and all that stuff, in addition to being private, I felt like I was allowed to think, and that couldn’t be taken away.

If you perform — you know, I talk about a lot about gestures and stuff like that, right — so, every gesture — I love, oh my God, this this new book and the author’s name is Marlon Ross, and it’s called Sissy Insurgencies, and a lot of it is about comportment. I love that book so much in part because a mentor of mine, somebody who’s on my dissertation committee sent it to me. Bringing my comportment back into the conversation — and the things you do are marked as gay or straight, and as feminine or masculine in these ways that actually sometimes do have to do with sexuality, sometimes don’t. Someone might even say reading books can be one of those things. And it’s utterly goofy, the way that we have decided to organize the world and the ways we can be. As a kid, I started to learn that if I externalize something that I thought or felt or if I said it — like crying, right? It’s just about the easiest one to think of, that can mark you as a target. But, you know, if you had a rich fantasy life that was interior, and you kept it to yourself, nobody could take that shit away from you. You could think whatever you want. And then people could be doing whatever the fuck they’re doing or believing whatever they want about you. And so that became super important.

I felt like it was the threshold between my childhood and adult self — and I feel like I started to be or become more of an adult at the age of like 12 or 13 — and people say that a lot about Black kids, especially young Black girls, really, that we’re forced to grow up in a certain way and quicker. The thing I lost was or that I was prompted to lose was my interior life, which was a lot of fantasy, because that was not as important as becoming a part of the world that already existed, which as we know, if you go into the world and accept the manner in which it works, whether it’s the work day, the way that private punishment functions, all that is already really fucked up, right? If you go into that and you think this is okay, I’m just going to live this way. I started to do that when I was like 12 or 13. I thought, okay, so, if someone disrespects me, I have to beat him up. I thought, this is the only way that you can make it from point A to point B, you know? And I think it was really sad for me to lose that and then try to have to get it back later and try to make sure that the people that I know, and my own kids, don’t lose that.

You know, for me, the way that we structure the world — and sometimes the fantasy stuff can seem mad, ridiculous, right? There’s this super ridiculous stuff — but I think my attachment to them was that, that they tended not to care about what always already existed or to play with it and in ways that didn’t always have to make sense, right? But that gave you a sense of possibility. And that can be brought into the material sometimes, in different ways later when you have the kind of wherewithal to do it. That was long winded, but that was how I was thinking about it.

EBJ: It’s so useful to hear you reflect on it like this. When I was reading this, I thought, wow, a lot of the writing reflects what’s going on in Joey’s head, where he is playing scenarios out in advance or remembering things and bringing them into the moment. And this is so cerebral, and I guess part of the discord is, like you said, adults often don’t give kids as much credit for the reflection and processing they’re doing all the time.

JET: As though they don’t have interior lives. Right? I think it’s just that they can’t explain it in our language, you know, it’s just that it doesn’t come out as sophisticated when they explain it to us.

EBJ: Yeah. And one does not need to be a psychologist to understand that there are certain things that a child will experience that will cause them to then think about and act

and react, to self-police or even interrogate their own actions while they’re doing it.

So I was very moved in the early part of the book when Joey sees the sees Popop, which is what I also called my granddad — Popop — being physically violent to Ganny and then later on interrogates his own violence. Whether that violence was just expressed as thoughts or emotions, it is about how a child of seven or eight can actually feel conflicted and have that complexity of emotion. I think that’s really important and it was insightful to have that perspective shift confronting the emotional struggles of a child as an adult reader.

JET: I also didn’t want to make it seem like the character, Joey, my younger self, was innocent either. I guess I think about this a lot — the idea that children are always innocent or need to be innocent to be deserving of care. And I mean, I never felt innocent as a kid, not just because people were like, oh, that’s a little Black boy or whatever, you know, and we’re never going to call this person innocent. But also because I didn’t always feel as though I was doing the right thing or I was in a situation where that was even possible, and I wanted to be able to have an extended conversation about that.

EBJ: Another question I have is how love is written into the fabric of Joey’s life, because sometimes when I was reading it, I felt like: okay, there’s all of this that he’s fending off to survive. But then he’s still caring. He’s caring for people and he’s caring for things and he’s trying to also understand the caring of others. So I was wondering how you were how you were able to let the reader know how complex that is and whether there are moments or scenes in the writing that you think of when I ask that question.

JET: Yes. I mean, you know, traditionally, I think one of the things that happens in stories about Black households, let’s say. There’s a big argument that we always have about beatings. Whereas now I think a lot of us think you should never beat your kids under any circumstances. Back in the day, we used to laugh about getting our asses beat. And part of that was understanding your parents or the people who care for you and have more power than you are whipping your ass so that the world would not whip your ass or so that the cops wouldn’t get you or whatever. That’s how that tends to go. But I think I kind of take that for granted, right? People who love you, your caretakers or whatever, are who are whipping your ass or cussing you out or whatever — it hurts a lot in the moment, but they tend to think that they’re doing the thing that is best for you.

And the other one was like, you know, my aunt was my best friend when I was coming up. She was only a couple of years older than me, and we did everything together, right? And a lot of lessons I got were from her — whether they were about sex or about the limits of what you could do and get away with. Or learning how to be outside at all, right?  Most of the times that I would move around outside of the home, they were with her. Because she was, to some extent, my protector. But also, she was much less naive than I was. She would do things that she knew were kind of fucked up, but felt good. But she would teach me about the limits of what you could get away with as well. She would teach me about music. She was one of the first people I started playing basketball with. All of this stuff was from her. And there’s a lot of these segments, summertime segments, right, where I was away from the school and most of the time I spent with my aunt, just running around the neighbourhood doing some stuff that you would think was bullshit now, like stealing from K-Mart, going to play ball, listening to music, going to her boyfriend’s house, right? She would, she would often go to these to these dudes’ houses or I would go to older women’s houses when we were much younger.  And she was with the person, and teaching me about all this stuff.  But with no naivete at all. She was like, this is what we can do within certain limits. And, I really appreciated that a lot for what was available, not to valorize things that are fucked up like throwing rocks at people’s cars or whatever or the fact that, a lot of times, we voluntarily sought out these relationships with older people, but for the fact that there was someone who I had with me who understood the world more than I did and was willing and able to share that knowledge with me was super important.

EBJ: Mmhmm. Yeah, I was grateful for that that kind of throughline in the book, because there were certain times in the book where the two of you were unpacking things in life together. And I found that really comforting as a reader who’s rooting for Joey. So at least there is Tia, this through line, a friend who’s not a pet. But there were other friends, too. And those moments shared between Joey and his aunt were moments of respite for me.  I felt close to Joey maybe because of my own personal life, growing up and also being super into things that were called nerdy or white or gay, all that stuff. But it was really useful to see that figure who helped Joey navigate the outside world, and to grow up fast, with all that brings with it.

Joseph, I want to think you for giving sharing Sink with us. Talking with you about your book has been an absolutely pleasure, so thank you. I’m excited to witness it’s debut.

JET: Thank you, and it’s been really great talking to you as well.

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The Den of Earl

It was a favorite line of his. More than him saying it, I was frustrated by the expectation that a nine-year-old should know how to thaw and cook red meat. I was forever failing at things I was never taught to do.