R. Eric Thomas Wants to Save Your Capitalist Soul
The memoirist on reclaiming the N word, the F word, and the ability to define what it means to be American
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R. Eric Thomas’ debut memoir Here for It: Or How to Save Your Soul in America challenges what it means to be “other.” Thomas delves into his experiences as a black, queer Christian—moving from his childhood in Baltimore to his struggles with private school and an Ivy League. This hilarious memoir-in-essays asks what it means to be queer and religious, black but perhaps not black enough for others, and how to define love.
Thomas writes a daily pop culture and politics humor column Eric Reads the News for Elle.com. His work has also appeared in The New York Times. Thomas’ plays have won the Barrymore Award and the Dramatists Guild Lanford Wilson Award, and he’s been a finalist for the Steinberg/American Theater Critics Association New Play Award. He is also the host of The Moth StorySlams in Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia.
I talked to him about surviving in America, reclaiming hurtful words, and how Moulin Rouge shapes his idea of love.
Arriel Vinson: Here for It, Or How to Save Your Soul in America strikes the balance between humor and seriousness around the themes of identity, race, and class. Why was it important to have a little bit of both? How did you shift gears from online writing to writing memoir?
R. Eric Thomas: I remember, in a low point just after college, stumbling upon David Rakoff’s book of essays Fraud in a library and devouring it in basically one sitting. I was so compelled by his use of humor to skewer the world and himself while also illuminating the darkness in his life. It felt deeply familiar to me, as the mix of laughter and tears and laughter through tears is a language my relatives spoke fluently. Whether around a dinner table, at a repast for a funeral, in church on Sunday, or out in the wider, complicated world, no part of life ever felt like just one thing—serious or comedic. And that was freeing to me. Seeing that perspective in essay form opened up new ways of talking about myself, but also reminded me of the work of Lorraine Hansberry—I’m thinking particularly of The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window—which I’d always found equally funny and heartbreaking. Later, I’d be introduced to Alice Childress, another black woman playwright using humor to interrogate serious issues of identity. And still later, when I started listening to The Moth, I’d discover storytellers like Shalom Auslander for whom comedy and tragedy are not two sides of a coin but two currents in a river. That’s where my voice lives because that’s where my life is. It’s never just one thing. But, as I talk about in the essay “The Past Smelled Terrible” in Here for It, I’m here—alive today, hopefully tomorrow—for joy. Joy and pain, joy through pain, yes, but ultimately joy. Even when talking about serious themes I’m reaching for it.
There was a point in the writing of this book that I got really concerned that people who only knew me from online writing would be displeased that this book is written with a little more nuance than some of my humor columns and that the narratives have more space for quiet, introspection, and sometimes grief. I was especially glad, then, that I had the examples above to look back to. This is not to say that the internet isn’t a great space for mixing the serious and comedic; it’s actually ideal for it, in some contexts. But the trick is finding the right context. I wanted to write something that was true to myself and true to my influences—essay and storytelling and theater and spectacle, all in one. And I wanted to write something that had a slower speed than the internet, which can often lack nuance and be easily forgetful. I wanted to write for the libraries that I first discovered myself in, places that remember, and places that welcome the unresolved complexity that I wanted to explore.
AV: In some of the earlier essays in the collection, you explore the differences between poverty/urban life (noting that there are different kinds of poverty) and wealth/suburban life. Why was this one of the first themes explored in the collection? When did young Eric come to the understanding that there was a difference?
RET: Boon Jong-ho, the brilliant director of Parasite, among other films, recently called it his most universal film. He said, “while on the surface the film features very Korean characters and details, in the end it’s as if we’re all living in this one country of capitalism.” And although I read the quote years after I wrote the essays in the book, I felt very strongly that I was reaching for a similar idea with opening Here for It by talking about money and the lack thereof. The book is about blackness in America, and Christianity in America, and queerness in America—ultimately America is the lens through which I see the world and the world sees me. I think that’s inescapable. And the other components of my identity are inextricable from America. The lens of America is smeared with capitalism, like Vaseline on the camera on the early seasons of Drag Race. So, it was very important to me to begin the book by locating myself economically. To locate myself economically is, I think, to locate my Americanness—be it through the opportunities that I was afforded because of my parents’ sacrifice and the ones I didn’t have because of Redlining or a lack of generational wealth or a number of other factors. My mother’s grandfather was conceived in slavery; he was, until a few months before his birth, consigned to a life of being property. That’s one place where my American story begins. That’s the lens.
Additionally, I wanted to give people a sense of the specifics of my life and the way that, even as an adult, I am still unpacking how my life in America has been shaped by outside forces. But I also wanted to start off on a note of commonality. One of the aims of the book is to deconstruct the notion of “difference,” which is to say the idea that there is a standard and that there are deviations from standard. Having less money than, say, my classmates was one of my earliest notions that we might not be standard. And it took three decades to internalize the lesson my parents offered which is that we are our own standard. We are not the deviation and we are not less than, in any of the components that make up our lives, be they economic or racial or anything else.
This is also why I wanted to end the book talking about the National Anthem. The book, for me, is an act of reclaiming. I do live here, in America, and in the country of capitalism, as Boon Jong-ho put it. All the parts of me live here. And there are so many different ways, every day, that this country tells me that I don’t belong or that I’m a deviation. There was a bit that got cut (probably wisely) in which I said that the National Anthem should be changed to Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Getting Back Together,” which I think is very funny but ultimately derailed my point. My point then, and now, is that I am not a deviation from the American story; I’m not on the outskirts or in a slum; I am in the center of my American story.
AV: You talk about both the n-word and the f-word in Here for It. Being called the n-word so young made you notice the world wasn’t just. You also called yourself the f-word to keep others from being the first to do so, but realized that didn’t create safe spaces for you or the queer community. Tell me more about these realizations.
RET: We are born into labels, more labels than we even realize, and I think a lot of the work of becoming is identifying those labels and finding the label-maker and breaking it in half. Or, maybe not breaking it in half but at least being able to understand that the label is not the truth, it’s a construction. This, too, I think is an act of reclaiming but I wanted to spend some time in the period before reclaiming to look at the tough work of disentangling yourself from the labels, and the slurs, that others put on you. I feel like, sometimes, when we talk about taking back harmful words, like the n-word or the f-word (the gay slur), it’s like a movie montage has occured. At the beginning we’re having it hurled at us across a classroom or on the street, as has been my experience, and at the end of the montage they have no power over us. For me that montage took decades. I don’t know if it’s complete, to be honest.
It’s such a strange experience to go through life with a magic word that a person can affix to you as a way of reminding you of systemic oppression. Can you believe this? Just walking around America with these curses that anybody can utter like this is Harry Potter or something. It’s really remarkable. I think—and I get this from Baldwin—that the majority of the reclaiming work isn’t mine to do. I can use them or not use them—indeed one of my favorite (definitely not for everyone’s taste) jokes in the book involves the n-word—but ultimately I’m just trying to break the label-maker.
AV: You make space for love in Here for It—navigating the possibility of crushes, sexuality’s spectrum, and even what love means. Why is love/desire so prominent in this collection?
RET: Every time I try to answer this question, I realize I’m about to quote some lyric from Moulin Rouge, which perhaps does not reflect well on the depth of my understanding of love. Or perhaps it speaks to Moulin Rouge’s infinite wisdom. That’s something to chew on! Either way, I’m just going to do it: so in “Nature Boy” (featured in Moulin Rouge!) David Bowie sings “the greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.” And I don’t want to sound like an inspirational Instagram post but that’s essentially what I believe. So much of the experience of feeling different, or trying to make space for myself in the world, is about feeling a lack of love or searching for those that would love me. And I don’t mean that just romantically. In fact—no shade to my husband—I feel like the larger constellation of love is even more vital for a person coming into their own. I think about the love of family of origin and the risk of losing that love that you navigate when you come out, the love of chosen family—friends who see you at your most raw or most unrealized, the love of and for community and for the work you put into the world and love for yourself. I adore romcoms but I learned a long time ago that you also have to look at the periphery of the screen to see the fullness of love—at the sidekicks and the jobs and the family dinners and all the rest that make life worth it. A vast constellation of love has kept me alive. In that sense, I think of this book as a romcom.
AV: There’s an essay where you talk about passively engaging with blackness by not joining exclusively black clubs and so on. Why was that your method? What did it take, if anything, for you to engage with it differently?
RET: That is a really good question and I appreciate it. The short answer is I love making terrible life choices. The real answer is that I was afraid of not being enough. And I don’t think that fear was coming from anything external; I don’t think that blackness has a litmus test embedded in it. But I think that some early experiences of difference within some black communities surprised me and set me on this path of othering myself inside of blackness. I think a lot of people have the experience of being told that they talk white or they don’t have rhythm (I do have rhythm; put that in print. I have rhythm). And I know now that that’s not blackness talking, that’s white supremacy seeping into blackness and poisoning it. But I didn’t know that then. And so I steered clear of places that I thought might be a home to me because I didn’t want them to reject me. A lot of that was happening in college, which was a fraught and weird time anyway, and so the freedom of adulthood and, frankly, the benefit of a strong education in African American Studies and Postcolonial Studies really helped me to readjust my understanding of the many black communities and how I could be in relationship with them. Or, I should say, how I was already in relationship with them. Blackness, whether you go to the meeting or not, isn’t something you just take off and thank God for that.
AV: One of my favorite essays in Here for It, the title essay, explores religion/church and queer love. You married a preacher, and wrote about creating your own declaration, defining love and church for yourself. How long have you interrogated religion and queerness? Have your ideals changed in any way since writing that essay?
RET: Thank you so much for asking about that essay. It’s one of my favorites too and I particularly enjoyed reading it on the audiobook because I structured it like I would a sermon, were I a preacher, and I got to have a little bit of church—the performance, the emotion, the spirit-lifting—in the recording booth. In retrospect, I was always interrogating religion and queerness, even before I understood myself to be queer. I love the theatricality of church, the drama of praise and worship. I understood it to be sacred but also a kind of open-source spectacle and I always wondered why its boundaries were so guarded. I write in the essay “Eggquity” about the moment that my nascent understanding of queerness and the counterintuitive stringency of the church first collided for me with the excommunication of a gay church member. I experienced so many different emotions in that moment—confusion, rage, grief, shock, and kinship—and it pushed me into a more conscious critical relationship with religion and my own faith.
The title essay was the last one for me to write—I basically wrote in order—but it was the one that I set out to write from the beginning. The first words I wrote were the last paragraph of that essay and they sat, in a notebook, like the promise of heaven, until I could reach them. I think I’m still trying to reach them in some ways. I wouldn’t say my ideals have changed; if anything I’ve become more committed to them even as I’ve come to understand that it’s constant work, internally and out in the world.
AV: What are you working on now?
RET: I’m also a playwright—I have a play called Safe Space opening in Baltimore in January and I’m working on two plays for next season. I’m in the beginning stages of working on two novels—one that’s like All About Eve but set at a high school involving two queer black people and the other about a black family exploring the ideas of inheritance and ownership by road-tripping to national parks. I continue to write my daily ELLE.com pop culture column, Eric Reads the News. Plus, I have a book about Rep. Maxine Waters coming out in September from Dey Street, co-authored with Helena Andrews-Dyer.