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Prince Shakur discusses his debut memoir, When They Tell You to Be Good, a political and personal exploration of his coming of age as a writer and activist. Shakur shares how race and identity shaped his formative years, how journaling providing him with a creative outlet, his experience with activism and protest, his approach to writing about family, how he incorporated research into the memoir, the challenges he faced in the publishing industry, working with Hanif Abdurraqib as his editor at Tin House Books, and more.
Mentioned in this episode:
- When They Tell You to Be Good by Prince Shakur
- Black Lives Matter
- The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
- Anne Frank’s revised diaries
- The Bat Rally
- Standing Rock
- Black Queer & Intersectional Collective
- bell hooks
- Jesmyn Ward
- Saidiya Hartman
- Boy Erased by Garrard Conley
- The Green Book
- Sangam House
- Michael Brown
- Hanif Abdurraqib
- Tin House Books
- Outside essay: “A Black Traveler Confronts Racism at a Montana Resort”
- Catapult essay: “In an America on Fire, Baldwin’s Legacy Led Me to Paris”
- Kenyon Review Young Writers Workshop
Prince Shakur (00:00): At the time it was important for me to tell myself like, if this book doesn't sell, do I still want to write? Am I still a writer? Am I going to let these things stop me? Laura Maylene Walter (00:10): Welcome to Page Count presented by the Ohio Center for the Book at Cleveland Public Library. This podcast celebrates authors, illustrators, librarians, booksellers, literary advocates, and readers in and from the state of Ohio. I’m Laura Maylene Walter, the Ohio Center for the Book Fellow and author of the novel BODY OF STARS. Today we're joined by Prince Shakur, a queer Jamaican American author, freelance journalist, video maker, and New York Times-recognized organizer. He is the author of the debut memoir When They Tell You to Be Good, which was published in October by Tin House Books. Prince, welcome to the podcast. Prince Shakur (00:47): Hi. Thank you so much for having me. Laura Maylene Walter (00:49): Well, we always start this podcast by asking about our guest's connection to Ohio. So can you share with our listeners where you're from and what role Ohio has played in your life? Prince Shakur (00:59): Yeah, I was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio. I went to Cleveland schools and then for college, I went to Ohio University, which is in Athens, Ohio, Southeast Ohio. I loved my experience there and then I moved away for a little bit of time and for the past four years I was living in Columbus, Ohio, the capital. So yeah, in each of those places I have different connections. I mean I love Cleveland because I grew up there and I love the museums. I love University Circle. Columbus, Ohio is kind of like the first place I've lived in Ohio outside of college as an adult. And I love the DIY and music scene there. That's where I've done kind of the most organizing social justice organizing I've done in Ohio. So yeah. Laura Maylene Walter (01:41): So you're well versed in all things Ohio then <laugh>. Prince Shakur (01:44): I try to be. Laura Maylene Walter (01:45): Well let's talk about your book, your first memoir. Your first book. Congratulations. Prince Shakur (01:49): Thank you. Laura Maylene Walter (01:50): It is a memoir that really covers a lot of ground and I mean that I think both figuratively and literally. It's about race and class and family and sexual identity and activism and writing and traveling and I think just being a young person moving through the world. But I want to hear about it in your own words. So how do you describe this memoir to people? Prince Shakur (02:12): I describe when they tell you to be good as my political coming of age. So what it was like growing up in a Jamaican family and then what it was like to be radicalized through Obama and Trump's presidency. Black Lives Matter and it's also like a bit of a Black travelogue in a lot of ways. And I also view it as political memoir too and some of that as like looking at the conditions in Jamaica and the US and what led my family to immigrate to the US in the early eighties. So a good bit of it is like a sort of cultural historical personal dive and a lot of it is about my father who was killed when I was very young and about me kind of contending with how do I process the losses of these men in my family as a queer product of all of these violences. Laura Maylene Walter (03:01): There's so much there and so much I want to ask you about. I have a long list of things. One thing that really struck me of many things in your memoir was the role that journals and letters play and the role that writing plays in your coming of age I suppose. So would you like to talk a bit about the role that journaling played in your life as a young person? Prince Shakur (03:21): Ah, that's such a good question. I appreciate this question cause I don't think I've been asked it on one level. I think being in my twenties and writing this book, I've experienced like undertones of ageism in a lot of interviews. People are like, you're only 28 or how could you write a memoir at 26? And I guess I kind of mentioned that because I think in general in the world that we live in, young people's emotions aren't very respected or they aren't like protected or given the space that they need to, especially if you're from certain cultures. And I mean I grew up in a Jamaican family and Black culture and a lot of that is about like you're my kid, you do what I say. And there's like this lack of privacy that I think a lot of Black children or just children in general are afforded. Prince Shakur (04:04): And so for me, especially when I was learning that I was gay and struggling with all of that, I think journaling allowed me to respect my inner world. It allowed me to navigate and explore my inner world in a way that I think I wasn't able to at the time because I didn't have the right kind of friends or community or there weren't people in my family that I trusted. And so I think journaling at a young age, I think it helped develop a sense of self-respect in me because I was being bullied in middle school and when I started learning how to write, that was like a new part of my identity that I could have pride in that I could attach myself to. And so in some ways I think it kind of helped me survive some of the isms in the book, the racism or classism or homophobia or dealing with my stepdad going to prison. To me I kind of describe writing as one of my true loves in my life. It was kind of just like a really good friend for me, like having that space. Laura Maylene Walter (04:58): Yeah. And if it's okay, I'd love to read a couple lines that really struck me that I really loved about the process of journaling as a young person. "I'd spent months with my journal. Slowly, but surely I inched toward the truth about myself to myself. I also inched toward not being afraid to write it down and see it permanent in ink." You know, I'm a writer as well. I think a lot of writers would identify with that. I thought that was really beautiful. And then later in the book you talk about the experience of reading Anne Frank's diary. Would you like to talk about that a bit? Prince Shakur (05:29): Yeah, I mean I read that in middle school and I mean I think it was actually her book that made me want to journal when I was younger. I mean I know I journaled when I was younger, but I think it was really her book where I was like, oh she had a journal and she wrote all these things in. I think I just really admired how introspective and intense and ober how observant she was as a kid because in a lot of ways in literature I hungered for characters that were outcasts and kind of like observed or survived the world around them. And reading that book for me as a kid, it just inspired me so much like the amount of repression that she felt, the hope that she had for the world. And I feel like sometimes being a kid in some ways the way she talks about desperation and loneliness, I think that's why that book is so relatable because when you're young, not many choices in your life are left up to you. And so where do you find this space to kind of develop this inner sense of peace or confidence or purpose? And so reading that book, it's one of the books that like turned a corner in me. It was one of the like first pieces of creative non-fiction. It's weird to call it creative non-fiction cause it's like her diary, but it was one of the first ones that I read as a kid where it moved me in some way. Laura Maylene Walter (06:48): Yeah, I mean it is creative non-fiction because she did edit her diaries. I was really lucky enough to be able to visit the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam and just read a bit more about her work and she was revising those journals with the intent of hoping one day people might read her work, which I find so fascinating, the thought of editing your diary, you know. So I guess I'm curious, what does the act of journaling, what does that look like for you today as an adult, as a published author? Is it still a regular part of your life Prince Shakur (07:19): These days? It's mostly jotting down, short poems in my notes app. I mean I have a journal that I carry around and I tend to write down quotes or things that people say that kind of like elicit something in me. I like to kind of tape things in there like tickets from travels or things like that. And honestly one of my favorite journaling practices is when I go to parties and I'm a little bit lit and other people are too. I like having drunk people write in my journal. I'm like write anything you want. Um, and that's been something I've done since college or like I, if I'm going on a trip or something like I'll tell my friend like write me a little note in here. And so I kind of view it now as sort of memory collage in a way, but I don't, definitely don't journal like intensely. Yeah, I think it's more of like a documentation process in a way. Laura Maylene Walter (08:09): Yeah, I love that. That's really fascinating. Having your friends contribute to it. Are they usually pretty open and happy to do that? Prince Shakur (08:17): Oh sometimes I'm like "write something nice" and then they literally write "something nice" and I'm like, okay. a waste of page space <laugh>. But it, it depends on the friends. Laura Maylene Walter (08:26): In their defense, it sounds like they're probably not at their best at the moment but <laugh> it's really funny. I've never thought about doing that because I've definitely, especially in my younger years, you know, after having a few too many would write things for myself that I would find later and be a bit horrified at. But it actually seems really kind of fun and a loving thing to do with your friends. Prince Shakur (08:44): Yeah and maybe it's the cancer energy in me but um, I also just say like write why you love me, write your favorite thing about me, like I want to know. So it's kind of for me too, Laura Maylene Walter (08:53): <laugh> And their inhibitions are down so they, they might be really honest which is actually quite great. Okay, now I have an idea, I'll have a writing party and make people do this. This'll be great. Well and I would love to talk about your activism as well because you document some of it in the book. What would you like to share about your activism either in college or it's Standing Rock and what those experiences, what they gave to you or what you gave to them? Prince Shakur (09:17): My sort of political kind of understandings kind of started developing. In high school I had a teacher who was a communist and taught us a lot about communism and different political histories and about imperialism and globalization. And so I think at that point I kind of got like a basis but of course we grow and like learn and develop in college right before my senior year was when Michael Brown was murdered in Ferguson, Missouri. And I literally like went to my first day of senior year and my friend was organizing like a small walk out of classes and I started talking to her and that led to me going to focus in October in 2014. But also around that time I was getting involved in student government at my university I had helped canvas and run with this radical student government kind of ticket, I guess is what you'd call it. Prince Shakur (10:09): So my senior year was just Black Lives Matter organizing, organizing and student government. I was writing for my student newspaper. I kind of became known as the protest boy <laugh> at my university. And yeah, by the end of that year I had helped organize a number of protests but one of them was called the Bat Rally and it had like a few thousand people there and the small college town and I believe it was one of the things that helped oust, eventually, the president of Ohio University at the time. And then after university I worked as an organizer in Seattle, I worked as a bank teller for people without housing. I did some get out to vote organizing during the 2016 election and since then I've just kind of shifted more towards kind of anarchist practices, visiting different kind of political projects in other cities, in Chicago. Prince Shakur (10:58): I went to Standing Rock in 20, what year was that? 2016 <laugh>. I've like organized it in my head. Standing Rock to me was very beautiful but also complicated because I feel like naturally is someone that grew up visiting Jamaica and traveling and being in a place that can be very touristic and people can visit. But my family was from there. I sort of learned when you enter new spaces, like enter them humbly. And so I went to Standing Rock and I was there collectively for about three weeks and I got to experience the different camps there. I got to help do like childcare, I got to help cook all sorts of things. And also like going to the front line sometimes witnessing prayer circles, trying to defend different camp structures. I had a friend that was arrested pretty brutally while we were there. Prince Shakur (11:46): And I mean Standing Rock especially I think taught me that no political space will be entirely safe for me. Like I went there as a queer, Black person and within the first day, um, experienced homophobia. I feel like there were definite undertones of some anti-blackness with certain individuals that I met there. I mean that isn't to color the whole movement, but I think that's just to say that to me political spaces are just as complex as any other social space. So we shouldn't idealize them, we should take them seriously. And for me, especially as an organizer and a writer, I never want my work to be propaganda towards like imperialism or capitalism or white supremacy. Like I want to write about these movements in a way that both give my perspective that I don't want to speak towards whether or not they were successful or what my overall judgments are. Prince Shakur (12:39): I think it's important to engage in political spaces emotionally and to also like go into them knowing how and in what ways you're willing to face and experience trauma. Because definitely for like weeks afterwards, like I didn't like being in places that had super loud noises cause there were stun grenades being used there or I don't know, like my mind would just drift back to certain instances of police violence that I saw. And so I think Standing Rock, I mean it, it's strange to think about it but I've talked about this in a few interviews but it's kind of when I started really unpacking mortality and activism and being Black and an activist and what it means to take your politics and your ideas about freedom so seriously that you're willing to confront like political trauma. And it was actually in Standing Rock where I kind of started getting the idea to write this memoir because I was thinking a lot about my dad and I was thinking like if he died at a young age and it can happen to me, what do I want to understand about these pieces of my life before I'm gone? Prince Shakur (13:39): And yeah, and I mean in Columbus I was living there for four years and I was a part of BQIC, Black Queer & Intersectional Collective. They're a collective that's been around for good like six or seven years and I did a lot of cultural organizing, um, helped work with their mutual aid fund, did political trainings, organizing like protests and things kind of advocating for the Black and trans community. And I'd say my activism is always going to be a part of my writing and how I approach my art. And I think any new place I go to, I'm always trying to like tap in in some way. And now that I'm in New York, that's like a part of my intentions here. Laura Maylene Walter (14:15): That reminds me of another line I wrote down from your memoir early in the book you're talking about speaking with a white person who is trying to tell you how to react to your experience of being Black in America. And you wrote: "I argued with him about how these protests were more than just protests to me and tried to get him to understand that for some people being politically active meant risking death." And that was just one piece of your memoir where you really shared that with the reader and showed it to the reader, um, in a very powerful way. I would love to ask about the research in the book because I felt when I was reading this, because you cover so much so strongly from the politics of Jamaica and beyond, so I felt like I could feel an undercurrent of research but it was just flowing in with your story so well. So how did you approach research with this book and when it came to the writing, how did you incorporate it? Prince Shakur (15:09): I appreciate this question <laugh>, research, I mean first I knew I wanted to write a memoir but I was trying to figure out the shape. So initially I was like, I wanted to be a memoir about my life and my dad's life so I wanted to be like a dual memoir. And then I realized there was a lot just chronologically about his life that I needed to learn and figure out. And so I, on one level there was a lot of family research I had to do kind of just looking at when people were born and just like literally making a family kind of timeline. And so that was an element of the research that I had to do, which was to me really beautiful and fun because I don't know, I mean maybe it's just like being Black or coming from a family that has immigrants and undocumented people. Prince Shakur (15:56): I think the act of like archiving isn't always there as as I'd hope or as I think a lot of younger people are kind of like realizing. And so that was kind of beautiful for me to dive into but also sometimes frustrating cause you're trying to find things that aren't necessarily there because people be going to jail <laugh>. In terms of like looking at Jamaican history and looking at film and culture, uh, I knew that in writing about my dad, my biological father and his brother Cedric, I knew that I had to be really careful about how I wrote about them and about two of my uncles that were murdered because I didn't want to sensationalize them necessarily, but I also didn't want to evangelize them or or put them unjustly on a pedestal. And so a part of the research was just really kind of trying to do some of the work that I view like Black feminists and feminists do and kind of like looking at gender and then looking at where certain gendered behaviors or structures or ideologies come from. Prince Shakur (17:04): Because I love bell hooks, I love Jasmine Ward, I love Saidiya Hartman, and I think Black men and men in general need to do more work around describing and articulating thought processes around masculinity. And so that was really important to me. And then two, I mean just because you come from a culture it doesn't mean you fully understand how to explain and talk about its history. So learning about Jamaica pre-independence and post-independence was important to me. Learning about the utility of gangs was really important and kind of looking at what pieces of evidence in Jamaica's history can I see that show how men shifted in the way that they behaved and and and looking at how that affected my life here in the US. And so a lot of the research was looking up scholarly like papers. It was watching documentaries, it was like learning a lot about the, the gangs and different police raids in Jamaica. Prince Shakur (17:58): I don't know, it was a lot but once I started to do the research I started to kind of look at my particular perspective as a Jamaican-American, as a queer. Black person at these things. And a lot of what I wanted to do with my research and the more cultural parts of the book is to not speak for anyone else but to speak from my perspective on these social conditions and histories in a way that can kind of illuminate new things. And the research chapters are some of the chapters I'm most proud of. Like the chapter where I kind of unpack the murder of two of my uncles in 2006 or 2007. That was like one of the chapters that I wrote after like a bit of the personal stuff in the book where I wrote it and I was like, I've written something that I haven't ever gotten close to writing before and like this is meaningful. So actually when I was like applying to artist residencies over the last few years, that was the only chapter I'd submit to them and that earned me like five or six artist residencies. Laura Maylene Walter (18:57): Wow. Well I could definitely see that. Another thing I really appreciated was the way you wrote about the construct of masculinity and you do write it through your lens as someone growing up and visiting Jamaica and maybe there were certain expectations for you for what it looks like to grow up as a man in this world. So speaking of your father as well, I've always thought that writing about someone who has passed is a different sort of responsibility. I think we have responsibility to everyone that we in our lives that we write about. So I know this is a common question memoirs get all the time, but how did you handle writing about family members, writing about your mother, writing about your late father, what was that process like for you and do you have any, any advice maybe for other people working on books about their families of how they might want to approach this? Prince Shakur (19:44): On one level I knew I wanted to write about being and coming out and how challenging it's been because for me when I read a lot of queer or gay memoir, people get into coming out but it's not like, I don't know it to me like I'm interested in the aftermath. I mean a book I'm thinking of that kind of does it in a way that I think is like beautiful and really just like really hits you in the heart is BOY ERASED. But I've read quite a few memoirs by other Black writers when I was preparing for this and I kind of wanted more to be pulled out of that because when I think about the experience of coming out to my parents when I was a teenager, I just have so much reverence and respect for that version of myself. Prince Shakur (20:30): So for me I just knew I wanted to be really honest but I also didn't want to exploit certain traumas that had been experienced in my family. So I mean my mother and my father had a very complicated relationship. Some of it is in the book, some of it is not. But there are definitely things about their relationship that I just didn't want to talk about cause I didn't feel like it was my place. And so for the things that were more traumatic that related to other people, I was very keen on writing about how I learned about those things and experienced those things on a personal level. I didn't want to talk about hearsay and then with writing about like people that have passed or the more violent aspects like people in my family who have been murdered or who have committed murder, I wanted to base that in as much research and kind of like journalistic articles and pieces as I could because I think it's important to look at how people document these histories like on a media level and then how that shows up in family. Prince Shakur (21:28): Meaning like my father was killed and he was undocumented so there's like no like paperwork or evidence of that really. So how do I enter the emotional world of that? And with my uncles who were murdered at the same time in 2006, there was some media language in journalism and articles about that. And so I, I wanted to write about how I bear witness to like certain aspects of my family's grief but also how the way the media wrote about my uncles, what that says about gender. And so for me writing about family, I wanted to be honest but I also think it's important to know where your particular boundaries are and what particular things you're not going to write about or even like talk about in interviews. And I definitely had a list of those things. And in terms of writing about my father, honestly writing this book, it it gave me a new relationship to him in a way that I didn't expect and I think is going to be like endlessly meaningful to me for the rest of my life because I speak to it in the book. But I think when you lose someone that you've never really known, people like to say things like oh he'd be proud of you or he'd love you. And I've always kind of hated that. And so being able to write something that is my own attempt at getting to know him or understand him, it was really therapeutic. Laura Maylene Walter (22:43): Hmm, that's really beautiful. Well I'm also curious about how you organized the memoir. Each chapter has a heading of the place because you do travel around the world in this book, the place in the year. Was that your guiding organizational principle from the start? How did you piece together the different places in time periods and decide how to organize it? Prince Shakur (23:04): Initially I wrote the book chronologically. I didn't have like tags at the beginning of where it was or the time period. And then once I sold the book to Tin House and I started editing with Hanif, one thing that he was really interested in was kind of looking at this book as a series of mini memoirs and how disrupting the chronology can kind of illuminate certain things differently. We talked and he just kind of said, I want you to look at the book again and kind of think about how different chapters can go together and what that would mean thematically and come back to me and like let's talk about it more. And I mean obviously a lot of people love Hanif Abdurraqib for all the right reasons, amazing writer. But editing with him I really got to see that he really respects writers that he works with. Prince Shakur (23:53): He wants you to be heard in the process, he wants you to like advocate for yourself or just like share anything. Um, and so I just really trusted him and I was really excited to see how his brain kind of approached my book. And so yeah, the chronology kind of shifted in the sense that like in terms of the different sections, I think there's like one section that I would say is definitely me reckoning with like bodily autonomy and desire and there's another section that's kind of about me sort of coming of age through like queerness and political processes that I was in. And so I kind of tried to look at the thematic areas of the book and like the last section is about me kind of reckoning and reaching a conclusion around the men in my family. And so it was really beautiful to kind of be able to reorient the themes in it. Prince Shakur (24:39): And then I also love what Hanif suggested, which was like tagging things at the beginning because of course when you remove it out of chronological order you have to introduce people differently and then the scale of the book is kind of forced to the front to the reader, uh, which I also love. And I think adding where and when things happen, it gives you the scale on a, on a time level like this crosses through generations and then it shows that some of the issues that I'm contending with follow me wherever I go. And I also really love the idea of a Black travelogue, and a Black travelogue that I don't know is separated from some of these histories like the Green Book or I don't know, like the ways that Black people have had to document travel in order to survive. But I'm kind of interested in like, how do we document travel on an existential level and what does that look like? And so that was also really beautiful to me too. Laura Maylene Walter (25:29): Well since you mentioned Hanif Abdurraqib, that was definitely going to be one of my questions, what it was like working with him as your editor? Which you answered wonderfully. Thank you. I'm wondering if you could tell us a bit about your journey to publishing this book, though. Hanif is now an editor at Tin House. Am I right that your memoir was his first acquisition? Prince Shakur (25:47): Yeah. Laura Maylene Walter (25:47): Okay, that's amazing. That's fantastic. So can you talk a bit about how long you were working on the book, your journey to securing your book deal with Tin House, a fantastic publisher? Prince Shakur (25:57): Yeah, it's a journey <laugh>. It was chaotic but I mean, I started thinking about the book in 2016. I started writing it in 2017. I started seriously writing it in 2018 and I would say in 2018 I wrote like 10 or 20,000 words and then I started applying to residencies and kind of basically trying to write enough to oh my god, now I'm really remembering things. So I started thinking about the book in 2016 and then in 2017 I started freelance writing. I started freelance pitching journal articles, essays to editors and I had an essay that went viral with Outside magazine where I wrote about my experiences in Montana working seasonally and dealing with racism. And that got an agent interested in me. And so through 2017 and 2018 I was basically trying to write enough of a sample of the book that I could give to this agent to get them to sign me cause they were interested in me but I didn't have anything yet to show them. Prince Shakur (26:55): And then in 2018 that agent changed careers. So I had some of my book but I didn't have an agent <laugh>. I kept writing, I moved to Columbus and around 2018 I went to France for the, I think it was the second time, and I went for three months. I stayed with my partner at the time and that was really where I learned about certain elements of my family that really lit a fire under me and made me realize like this is a book about me and me navigating my life and losing my father but it's also about this uncle that I never knew Cedric. And so that shifted the book and kind of gave me more motivation and so I kept writing and in 2019 I went back to France again and that was really when I was doing a lot of the research, I was watching a lot of Jamaican cinema, I was looking up different articles and that's when I wrote the more cultural and kind of like sociological elements of the book. Prince Shakur (27:50): And that summer I wrote a chapter that I started using to apply to artist residencies. And then um, at the end of 2019 I got my first residency, it was Sangam House in Bangalore, India. So I went all the way to India and I was type-type-typing and I was writing away and I'd say there I wrote a good one-third of the book. And so I also was working on other stuff there. I wrote an essay about James Baldwin that I think is with Catapult and that got me noticed by another literary agent who reached out to me and I had enough of the book then to send it to them. That agent was with Ladderbird Literary Agency and basically we started working on editing the book but I hadn't really totally finished the final chapters because the chapter at the end in particular where I'm talking about my biological father and his brother Cedric, I was really afraid to write, I don't know, I just knew I'd be really challenged by it. Prince Shakur (28:47): I tried to write it like three different ways and eventually I just realized like I can't try to fit this chapter into any kind of structure. I just have to write it from the heart, like write it from the place that I know, write it from the perspective that I have. And so that really was kind of like the last pieces of the book and the last chapter, which is auto fiction. I can't really remember when I wrote that in the writing process, but it's probably like one of the two chapters in the book that since I wrote it, it hasn't changed at all. Like even when I was editing with Hanif, like the last chapter, he was like, this is probably some of my favorite writing in the book and we don't need to change anything. And I was like cool. And then so I finished the book probably early 2020 and then through the pandemic me and my agent met once a week on Zoom. Prince Shakur (29:35): We edited a chapter, we'd read it aloud, take notes together on it. And so we went through maybe two or or three rounds of revisions and that was like a good, how many months was that? It was a good six months or maybe a little bit more. And we went on submissions at the beginning of 2021 and submissions was really hard. I mean I think 2020 was a big reckoning in the publishing and literary world. A lot of contention around diversity and pay discrepancy and like discriminatory in the writing world and people getting paid exorbitant amounts of money for books that degrade and misrepresent other cultures. I went into 2021 thinking okay, like I'm an organizer, like I check all the boxes that they probably want, and getting rejection after seeing all these people hail themselves about diversity and like saying that they wanted to buy more Black books and like so many of the rejections I got were just like, this is great but it's not right for me or this is great but we don't know if we can help sell it. Prince Shakur (30:33): And so it was really, I don't know honestly like just really difficult because it made me realize like, oh like these people don't have faith in like radical Black narratives. Like they don't see the utility in this, they don't see the importance in this or they just don't like connect to it so it's not necessary for them, which can be really, I don't know, it can make you feel like honestly. And so submissions was really hard. It didn't help that. That summer I went to two artist residencies and the last one that I went to, it was a pretty horrible experience. An indigenous artist was mistreated and um, I tried to help with other people to advocate for them and I ended up leaving that residency three weeks early and staying in a hotel for a few nights. And so it was just a lot. Prince Shakur (31:18): And also around that time my agent was changing careers so I didn't have an agent anymore. I actually got an offer the summer of 2021 for my book from a white editor who I don't even think really read the book and I said no. And so <laugh> the summer of 2021, I was just like, please. But I think at the time it was important for me to tell myself like, if this book doesn't sell, do I still want to write? Am I still a writer? Am I going to let these things stop me? And some part of me did decide like maybe this just isn't the book that sells and you just kind of have to accept that. And strangely enough, around that time Hanif reached out to me and was like, I'm going to be working at Tin House, I know about your book cause I kind of talked to him and asked for advice before I went on submissions and he was like, can I read it? Prince Shakur (31:59): And I was like, actually Tin House has already rejected it. I haven't told many people that but, Tin House rejected the book and I was on submissions with my agent and then when he read it he was like, I believe in this. I think there are ways that we can make it shine even more and I want to work with you on it. And so my publishing journey, I don't know, I feel like I was just in the underbelly of the publishing industry <laugh> like it wasn't easy. I feel like it still makes me cynical. I'm on submissions with another book right now and I don't know, getting the vague rejections can be really frustrating. And so my perspective on the publishing industry is it doesn't make any sense and we don't get paid enough <laugh>. Laura Maylene Walter (32:38): Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. And I appreciate your candor because I think this is the kind of thing writers need to hear and you are not the first author who has told me the publisher they ended up with, that publisher actually rejected the same book in the past. New Editors, different circumstances, et cetera, the publisher ended up taking it. I'm sure that's fairly rare. Writers, if you're being rejected by publishers, don't just keep sending it back to them. But you know that is a good point. This is so subjective. It depends on the people who are at the publishing house, right? And since 2020, publishing has definitely had the reckoning of what does our staff look like? What do the majority of our authors look like? What are the demographics here? Why are they not lining up? So I think it's important to know that yeah, to stick with the writing and to keep going even though the submission process is just hell. Laura Maylene Walter (33:29): I mean it's just horrible <laugh> cause you have no control, you just have to see how it shakes out. I mean hearing you talk about, this reminds me of your author YouTube channel, which if it's okay I'll link to it in the show notes. Because you have some really great pieces of advice for writers. You talk about racism within the publishing industry, you give writers practical advice. Because I think writers are always so hungry for like how do you get an agent, how do you do you get published? And I think it's really helpful. You had a drunk author Q&A that really cracked me up and <laugh> because the industry is so tough and so much of it doesn't seem to make any sense. And hearing from someone who has published about the trials, I saw one video where your advice to just writers, I suppose in general about the writing process, you said: "You have to be willing to suck" and I love that so much. It's so true. When you're writing a new thing, you have to be able to be bad and write something that's not up to your standards. Prince Shakur (34:25): That's why I wrote a crap ton of fan fiction in high school. Laura Maylene Walter (34:28): Did you really? Yeah. That's great. Practice ground and fun. Yeah. Well really quickly, because I know we're running short on time, but since you mentioned high school in your book you do talk about going to the Kenyon Young Writers workshop, another Ohio institution, getting a scholarship to go there when you were a teenager. Can you talk a bit about that and just more generally around that time in your life, your development as a writer? Prince Shakur (34:51): Kenyon Young Writers? It was amazing. I felt like I was going to Hogwarts <laugh>. I don't know, it really gave me that kind of feeling, but I mean at the time I was 15, just stuff at home was difficult. My stepdad was incarcerated literally like a month before I went to Kenyon Young Writer's Workshop. I came out to my mom, she found my journal. I was just going through it. Yeah, so being able to leave for two weeks, like I was just like, thank you Lord. But I mean, at the time as a writer, I was just really deep into writing fan fiction online. I wrote my first novel when I was 14 or no, 13 or maybe 13 or 14. And so I think by 15 I was like working on like my third novel. And so I was just really invested in fiction writing and poetry and journaling especially at the time. Prince Shakur (35:41): And so I loved going to Kenyon. I mean it was my first time really meeting kids from other economic classes. It was my first time being around a lot of other white kids. It was my first time like really staying on a college campus. And so I loved it and I made a lot of really good friends and the workshops to me were like really, really useful. I think when you're young and you care about something a lot and you devote a lot of time to it and people just kind of assumed that it's easy for you. Like I think the adults around you can forget to invest in it or to give you space to really dive into it. And I loved at Kenyon how they respected us as writers and made us feel like we could take our craft seriously. And like walking around campus and seeing people sitting together and talking about their writing or workshopping things with each other. Prince Shakur (36:27): I don't know, I think it just made me fall in love with it even more. And I remember there was like a moment there where I wrote like a short essay about something that happened in middle school and I read it aloud and I remember everyone in the room laughed and I hadn't really written anything that could make someone laugh before. And something about that was just really liberating to me. And, and so I guess I haven't really thought about it in this way until now, but to have my mother like go through my things and read my journal and find out that I was gay, it was such a violation of privacy and it hurt a lot and I definitely felt like invaded. And I think going to Kenyon and experiencing that environment with other teenagers, it really kind of gave me that safety back again in the process that I think had kind of been taken away. Prince Shakur (37:15): And it definitely, like, I think that was when I was like, I want to study English in college. And so it definitely pushed me forward and just made me more committed. And I think around that time, like I was definitely like, I want to be published by the time I'm 19. Like I just had all these goals. Like I think in high school I was actually, I wrote a novel and I queried it to to agents and I remember, I mean it was like still not early internet days, but like the internet was still developing and how people query was developing. But I remember I mailed out some of my queries to agents, and I remember I got like one or two really nice rejections that were just like, I read your sample and it's not for me, but keep writing. And I'm like, okay. Laura Maylene Walter (37:55): And you did. Prince Shakur (37:56): So yeah, I mean it was a beautiful, I loved going to Kenyon Young Writers Workshop. Laura Maylene Walter (38:02): I'll link to that workshop as well for anyone who is or knows young people in their lives. So we're running short on time, so I'll have one more question and it's along those lines of being a young person and developing as a writer. In the acknowledgements of your book you wrote: "So many people believe that young, Black people don't have stories to tell, but this book proves that we do." So with that in mind, is there anything you would like to leave us with maybe advice for other writers, especially young Black writers about pursuing this particular art form? Prince Shakur (38:36): I would say fall in love with the process. The business side, the career side of it will have its ups and downs. I think structurally if you're Black or from a marginalized background, there are so many obstacles against you. So when things get hard, just remember why you love it and trust and fall in love with the process. I think writing is very spiritual and meditative and healing and I think especially for Black people, that's needed in the world that we live in. And so I'd say honor it, like view it as almost like a way to like heal and work through trauma. I would just say like it's an important to one, like develop and learn things for yourself, but also make it a practice. Like share and share resources for other people and make it easier for people that come after you. Prince Shakur (39:19): That's kind of why, mainly why I do the YouTube page, aside from just wanting to document. cause I think there's a lot of information hoarding. I think it can be a really inaccessible industry. And yeah, I mean fall in love with the process. Leave things for people after you and when you don't know what to write, write to the core of it. Start with the thought in mind: I'm going to write this in a way that I've never written it before, or I'm going to say this in a way that I've never said it before. Because sometimes you just need to remove the ego from the process in order to get to the real place that you need to get to. Laura Maylene Walter (39:51): Oh, I think that is a perfect note to end on. Prince, thank you so much for joining us today. Prince Shakur (39:55): Thank you. Laura Maylene Walter (39:58): Page Count is presented by the Ohio Center for the Book at Cleveland Public Library. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe, rate, and leave a review for Page Count wherever you get your podcast. Learn more online or find a transcript of this episode at ohiocenterforthebook.org, follow us on Twitter @cplocfb, or find us on Facebook. If you'd like to get in touch, email email@example.com and put "podcast" in the subject line. Finally, follow me on Twitter and Instagram @LauraMaylene. Thanks for listening, and we'll be back in two weeks for another chapter of Page Count.
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