Writer and Philadelphia native Joseph Earl Thomas joins the show to discuss his new book Sink: A Memoir, about coming of age amid chaos and finding redemption in geek culture. He talks about why he wanted to write a memoir that stays in childhood and never grows into adulthood, the challenge of writing his story in the face of respectability politics and the push to write about “Black joy.”
The Stacks Book Club selection for March is Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay. We will discuss the book on March 29th with Shanita Hubbard..
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Traci Thomas 0:08
Welcome to The Stacks, a podcast about books and the people who read them. I’m your host Traci Thomas and today we welcome Joseph Earl Thomas to the show. Joseph is a writer and doctoral candidate in English at the University of Pennsylvania with an MFA in English from Notre Dame. Today we’re discussing his debut book a memoir called Sink about his childhood in Philadelphia. We talked about why embracing and sharing trauma feels like an act of defiance for black writers right now, what it means to have no adult role models and some of the formal choices Joseph made and the telling of his story. Our March book club pick is the essay collection Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay. Shanita Hubbard will join us on March 29 for our book club discussion. Quick reminder, everything we talked about in each episode can be found in the link in the shownotes. If you love the socks and you want more of it, things like our incredible discord community, our monthly bonus episodes, our virtual meetups to discuss our book club picks, you must join the stacks pack on Patreon. It’s just $5 a month and you got all of the things I just mentioned plus a lot more and you get to know that you’re part of making this black woman run independent podcast a reality every single week had to patreon.com/the stacks and join now I want to give a special shout out to some of our newest members of the stacks pack. Loretta Arvizu Eric Pella sorry, Angela Forrest, all Laurel Hamming Kelly and Ann McDonnell, thank you all so much, and thank you to the entire stacks back. Alright, now it’s time for my conversation with Joseph Earl Thomas.
Alright, everybody, I’m super excited. Today I’m joined by Joseph Earl Thomas, whose brand new debut memoir is called Sink. It’s out now, Joseph, welcome to the Stacks.
Joseph Earl Thomas 1:53
Hey, welcome, Traci, thank you for having me.
Traci Thomas 1:55
I’m really excited to talk to you about your book. But before I start asking my questions, I’m going to ask you to tell folks in about 30 seconds or so what Sink is about?
Joseph Earl Thomas 2:04
Yeah, I see Sink being primarily about extending conversations that have to do with like childhood, specifically and interiority, and staying with that, rather than like moving on to an adult kind of self at the end of the book and thinking of coming of age terms.
Traci Thomas 2:20
Yeah, it’s definitely focused on your childhood. And it is pretty brutal. I mean, times were tough. Like it was, I had a difficult time reading the book, because I was like, Can, can you become an adult so that I move on? Like, I was, like, I need to know that he’s okay. Which is probably why you wanted to stay in the child’s face. Will you talk a little bit more about that?
Joseph Earl Thomas 2:43
Yeah. I mean, you know, I mean, there’s like a trope that that goes around, right? And I was talking to a bunch of friends about the book about like, oh, yeah, you know, what age did you think he would live to, you know, there’s like, the kind of joke that a lot of folks who say, like, you know, not losing plus 25, especially if you’re like a black person in certain setting. And it was really important to me to kind of think about that space as being important in and of itself, with the fact that like, a lot of people that I know, who would have been around, especially like, did not grow to become adults, or like, that is not, you know, a reality for a lot of folks that I still know. And even when I go back to my old neighborhood, I think about this, and this was a conversation that I was recently having a friend, it’s like, oh, yeah, you know, so and so like, you know, didn’t make it like this, like half of the people that we knew, actually, that was their entire life, like beginning to end. And I think I was at a point when I was younger, and a lot of my friends were at a point when we were all younger, where everybody thought that like that will be the terminus, right? Like it would not go past a certain extent. And I kind of wanted to take that seriously.
Traci Thomas 3:45
Yeah, yeah. But let me ask you, then about the adults in your life when you were a kid, because they did make it right. And like, what does it mean, to make it? I don’t know, I don’t even know what the question is. But just hearing you talk about like, kids feeling like, as a child thinking that like, there was a possibility that you wouldn’t make it that you would die, or that something bad would happen to you, and you would cease to exist in some way. And then thinking about the fact that when you are a child, you’re surrounded by adults who have made it at least in the sense that they are alive, but like in your case, you know, your grandfather figure was sort of a monster do like so what does it mean to make it when that sometimes that alternative looks really horrible?
Joseph Earl Thomas 4:31
Yeah, it’s interesting, because like, I mean, I maintain really close relationships with everyone in my family, right? So like, for example, my grandfather, actually, he just died a couple of weeks ago. Around that time, and you know, we made you know, we talked all through my life and everything like that, and he and it’s funny because as a child, I think it’s like, I want to be clear about this, the way that things feel really. Sometimes you Even if, you know, like somebody can wreck and yell at you or something, and to them, they can be like no big deal. But to you as a kid, sometimes you’re like, Oh my God, this person’s gonna fucking kill me or something. Right, right. And you know, I tried to stay with that. And so that was part of trying to extend or be kind of intense about the relationships between adult and child. And then I always was very frustrated, because I never knew any adults who had a kind of life that seems worth living or that they seemed happy about having. And that was really fresh. So it was like my grandmother, she was murdered maybe about a couple of years ago now. But also live the kind of life where we never saw her happy. We never saw my grandfather happy. My father was always in prison. You know, half of family was always in prison. So it wasn’t like, it wasn’t until I became an adult, right? Where I met people who like, oh, yeah, I went to this school and did this thing, right. But those people were nowhere present in my actual life. And so there was like, this really claustrophobic feeling that you’re supposed to be ashamed of, of course, like, I come to realize this later that it’s supposed to be ashamed of and not be honest about that kind of feeling or experience. But yeah, but I guess what I would say is that, um, you know, and my sister’s probably my primary interlocutor with these kinds of conversations, who was just walking out of my house, with her kids and everything, because I was like, I’m gonna talk right now. Oh, you know, we’d be like, Yeah, who was an example of an adult that we knew that you would want to grow into? And there was no one. There wasn’t any one. And so it felt like, okay, either you can make this somehow good or better? Or then you have to grow up and like, deal with this other kind of thing that you don’t want either.
Traci Thomas 6:43
Do you remember the first time you did encounter an adult? Like how old you were that you wanted to grow into? Like, how old you are what that looked like?
Joseph Earl Thomas 6:53
Yeah, I was in college. So we were an adult. Right? Exactly. Yeah, it was a very awkward adult who was like, I can do stuff now. And I’m figuring these things out. And I went to community college. And I met folks there. And I started meeting folks where I was like, Okay, this is an idea. And I wasn’t I joined the military when I was like, 19. So a lot of that kind of stuff started to change. And you know, you get out of you know, Philadelphia, like a particular neighborhood or, or space. And then you meet people who, you know, these things are normal for they were like, you can go to grad school, and people will pay you for that. I was like, That’s a fucking lie. I don’t believe that. That’s, that’s true. And I was like, Oh, that is true. This is like a possibility. And so things start to change around that time.
Traci Thomas 7:35
Interesting. So the framework of the book is, it’s a memoir, but it’s written like a novel, where you’re in third person, you’re talking about Joey, which is I’m assuming what you are called as a child. Why did you want to write it like that? What did what did that unlock for you? How did that help you or or not? I guess, to tell your story. What Why was that? I’ve never read a memoir like this. So I’m wondering, you know, how much of that decision, like how you came to that decision?
Joseph Earl Thomas 8:04
Yeah, I think that’s a good question. I think the the idea behind them more, a lot of them, it’s like, there’s a essayistic part of it, where you get like exposition that explains the scenes that you have, you know, with, like, rough narrative, and I didn’t want to do a lot of exposition. And I wanted to stay as tight as I could to like a childhood version of myself, even if I hated that version of myself sometimes. And I didn’t want to try and explain things that I would not have had no capacity to know, at that time. So it was really important for me to stay in a kind of, not just unknowing or not knowing things, but like not knowing what I didn’t know, kind of moments, which had to do with like, where education was coming from, etc. And one of the ways that I had found to do that was to say, to kind of position myself as purely character, and then build the kind of world around those scenes or situations without going into like an AI that was given myself maybe a certain kind of comfort, but did it but that wouldn’t feel real to the circumstances themselves, I guess.
Traci Thomas 9:12
Right. A few weeks ago, on the show, we had Cohn Felix, who wrote a memoir, and one of the things that I asked her was, you know, what is she hope that folks will keep in mind when she finishes or when they read the book. And she said something. And this I talked to her like the day I started your book. So it was really in my mind as I was reading her book, but what she said was that she hoped that people wouldn’t think of her as a person so that they could grapple with what was actually happening in the story instead of like feeling sympathy for her or feeling annoyed by her or whatever. And so I’m wondering if maybe any of that was in this for you where there’s a separation between Joey and Joseph, for the reader because I kept finding myself being like, this is a memoir stop, like doing character analysis like this is a person. So I’m one going if, if that was present for you at all.
Joseph Earl Thomas 10:02
Yeah, I really love that. I mean, I love that episode too. And I agree with that, I think that that’s a really good way to look at it. And it also brings, you know, it opens up the space of being like, Alright, I want to ask more questions or present more sets of questions that I want to, like provide answers or, or what have you. Right, which I think tends to happen when you get more kind of essayistic.
Traci Thomas 10:23
Yeah, yeah, I mean, so this is just such a small thing. But the start of your book, I knew that I loved you from the start of your book, because on the first page in the first sentence, we talked about Easy Bake ovens. And so for me personally, I just felt like you really brought me in because that is very much specifically my entire personality at a young age. I just want people to know while the book is very brutal in some some parts there is some serious easy make love it Easy Bake Oven lovin happening, and it is a joy. Not a question, Justice statement. I
Joseph Earl Thomas 10:58
used to love those things that were so important.
Traci Thomas 11:00
I know. And then it towards the end of the book, you’re like, it was just a microwave. Did he have to do that to me? Like I like I didn’t actually I didn’t need to be brutalized as well.
Joseph Earl Thomas 11:10
Well, that’s the weird thing, too. It’s an interesting, I feel like, you know, when you when you’re a kid, and you get this thing in your life, that you don’t have any other way of explaining and someone tells you like, Oh, this is like an oven. You’re like, oh, this is amazing, right? But then you do get to a point where you get disenchanted by a whole host of vitamins or whatever. But it was really fun for a long time you no matter.
Traci Thomas 11:32
It was so fun. It was like, I mean, I love to bake still. And while I don’t attribute that necessarily to my love of my Easy Bake oven as a child, I still think fondly on that in the sense of like, perhaps it all sprung from my love of my pink and purple Easy Bake with like, the special claw that would like pull out the circular. And all of that, like, it’s like, Oh, I’m just gonna put this in the oven. Like I’m a grown woman baking a circular cake, cookie
Joseph Earl Thomas 12:01
brownie, the little brownie? Yeah,
Traci Thomas 12:02
the brownie. And then you’re to get like the special ingredient package. I bet now on tick tock. They’re like, here’s how to make the copycat easy.
Joseph Earl Thomas 12:14
I’m afraid I would never know. Yeah,
Traci Thomas 12:16
I don’t I want to live happily and mindestalter. Thank you very much. Okay, I want to go back to the book, even though that is in the book, but more seriously to the book. So how did you approach writing about, like, some of the abuse and things that you experienced? Like, how did you know how much to share? How did you think about your audience taking it in? How did you think about your own mental health? Like, how are you navigating writings and stuff because I mean, there’s a lot of humor in the book, which I really appreciate. And like, because that feels super holistic to an experience, especially as a child. But I also there were moments in the book where I was like, I don’t want to do this. Like, I don’t want to know what happens, because it’s so hard. And obviously, I push through, but I’m just wondering how you were thinking about it as the storyteller, and also the person who lived it.
Joseph Earl Thomas 13:05
Yeah, I mean, this is something that all the way up until the very end, I went back and forth on because I mean, so of course, the standard thing when you write a memoir is to, you know, ask people to read parts, or, you know, what degree people are comfortable being in it. And I didn’t keep anything in that people were like, That’s not true, or I don’t feel comfortable to disagree about it. And so a lot of it was like, having conversations with people, whether that was like my aunt, or my sister, or my grandfather, or my mom, or someone, which actually kind of brought me closer to people, because a lot of folks were like, Oh, I remember that. Like, I mean, I didn’t mean that that way, or people were like, Oh, I remember that. Now that you bring it up, you know, right. They’d be like, this was the name of that person, or that or that scene, or it was on this day or whatever. So, so some of it was that and there were some things where people were like, Okay, I don’t want that in there. And I was like, okay, that’s fine. I won’t put that. And then there was, you know, the other part of it, where I had friends and family being like, you are going to easy on this person or this situation. And you need to be more like, this is, you know, fucked up, this will happen. And I was kind of like, Yeah, but like, that’s not really about that. Right? Like, it’s not, you know, like a hit piece kind of thing. It’s about the feeling of being in a set of experiences. So I guess, I in one way Arizona is I went back and forth on what was appropriate based on what people felt comfortable with. And if, if there were things that people wouldn’t talk about at all, I tended not to put it in there. Which meant to me like if this thing is going to be out in the world, and it is like about myself and people who I love and still speak to on a regular basis, if there’s something that they would never speak about, I was like, Okay, well then I’m not going to include that. And that helps kind of
Traci Thomas 14:51
this right. And how did you think about your audience like the strangers who are going yeah,
Joseph Earl Thomas 14:58
I It’s called Okay to Tracy because I mean, you know, there’s this way that like, you’re not supposed to say bad things at all, if you come from a certain set of people. So if you’re like black working or non working poor, you know, there’s a certain degree of respectability that you’re supposed to have about, like sharing experiences. And in my adult life, I have, like, right up against it all the time, because I’m in a graduate program, which is like, that’s only respectability politics. But I think I ultimately was like, if there is something if there’s a reader who is going to believe that these experiences represent like, every black person, or every whatever, I’m like, That person is already lost to me, that person is already too far gone to me. And I was kind of like, I was kind of like, at that point, it’s, it’s fine. You know, I can accept, like, not having that reader along. And I was also, you know, for my, for my own thinking, my own experience, if I was being if some people thought I was still being too mild, and things, people who you know, in my own family, or people who I grew up with, thought I was being too mild, then that meant to me that I was like, Okay, I’m striking some kind of balance. If there are people who are like, You are being really tame, and you know, underselling certain things that happened, I was like, okay.
Traci Thomas 16:14
Yeah, I mean, so one of the things that came to me in reading your book, which is what I appreciated most about it, but also made me think a lot about books in general, and more specifically, books by black people, and especially, especially books that are coming out now, after the summer of 2020, when the discovery of black Americans, by white Americans in America, in 2020, there was so much of this, like, we don’t want to see black trauma. And like, we don’t want to see black panther, we don’t want to read slavery stories. And like, we want to celebrate black people. And, and obviously, that’s a push back to what has been presented as black people in the media, it’s a push back to, you know, the Oscar winning performances by drug addict mothers and incarcerated men in these things. So I understand where that impulse comes from. But reading your book is one of the first books I’ve read, since that’s come out, like since 2020, not in the immediate aftermath. But you know, had time to be published in 2020, where I felt like we’re talking about the things that happen in the black working and non working poor communities that had sort of been shunned for a little bit, because it was like, Oh, this is too dark or too stereotypical, or too, whatever. So I’m wondering, sort of, there’s not really, there’s not a specific question. But the question in there sort of like, what was that like for you, maybe pitching this book talking about this book in the publishing space, trying to get it published? What were their conversations about that? Were you having conversations about not wanting to write this story in a certain way? Or like any of that kind of stuff?
Joseph Earl Thomas 17:58
Yeah, yeah, that’s a really good question. Tracy. I, you know, i. So, at first, I did think about that a lot. And I wasn’t, this isn’t the first book that I had written. I mean, I had written a collection of short stories, I had written like, a fantasy novel than I had written most of this other novel that didn’t think it out there. And it felt honestly, like, I was circling around these questions, and not being honest with myself, or what kinds of stories I wanted to see and or read. And it ended up feeling like when I would try and pitch these other stories, or, or what have you, they just felt flat. And that was the response of when I, you know, submission wouldn’t work for a certain set of things. Or I will be talking to people who I trusted, who’s writing who I exchanged writing with. And we’d be like, oh, there’s like something missing here. Like you are, you know, hiding from this particular set of problems that you really want to talk about, by like supplanting it in this like, you know, 30 year old protagonist, who has a completely different set of, you know, life considerations, etc. And so, you know, I, I eventually had to just start trying to be more honest with myself about what I thought was important there. And I also am kind of, like, I started to feel the way that, you know, people are like, We shouldn’t talk to each other about our salaries in whatever world or whatever job, I was, like, Who Was that helpful for? Ultimately, right? Like, I don’t think that I just didn’t think that not talking about painful experiences was helpful. And there’s also, you know, a kind of tradition of going back and forth on that problem, I think, in thinking about, like, you know, African American literature in general, right. And so, I am kind of like, it’s not only pain, you know, it’s not all my joy. These are just a kind of set of experiences that can sometimes but not always be generalizable. And it was it was more valuable to me to be kind of straightforward, as straightforward as I could about that. I’m particularly if I’m thinking about the way we discussed children or the way we the 2022 Discovery of like, life was, it’s kind of always as like, either already dead or as like aftermath. And the kind of conversations about those stories too, are not usually about the person’s life, or experiences. And sometimes we say a lot of things in the name of a set of individuals that don’t have that much to do with them, but about their kind of status as symbols or props or whatever. And I’m like, I’m like, I don’t think that that’s the same as having really difficult conversations about our actual lived experiences. And there’s a for me, there’s a disconnect between those two things.
Traci Thomas 20:39
Right. And for me, as the reader of your story, I was like, I’m glad this book exists, because your life happened. Your life is happening. Like, like, it’s like, I sort of understand that impulse a little bit. If it’s like fiction, maybe. But I’m like, I don’t know, I don’t want great writers to feel like they can’t tell their stories, because because it is deemed stereotypical. You know? Like, it’s like, well, you happen, like little Joey, this is Joey story, like, Fuck you for trying to tell me that my story now, now isn’t writable. When if you’d written this book in 2018, you know, like, so I don’t know, that kept like popping into my head as I was reading this book, because it is sort of the first one that I’ve read, where I’ve been like, Oh, this is the thing that we haven’t seen as much of because people decided that they wanted to tell black people how they could have grown up, or
Joseph Earl Thomas 21:34
there’s a program that we have to follow.
Traci Thomas 21:36
Now it has to be black boy, joy, joy, joy, we’re not doing it, even though you still are a black person who grew up in America, when before we were discovered as having experienced racism. So you experienced all the things. Previously, it’s just anyone else?
Joseph Earl Thomas 21:54
I’m sorry, go ahead. No, I’m gonna say ultimately starts to feel kind of goofy. You know, I will say that, like, push back and shame stuff has primarily come from like middle and upper middle class folks who are like, don’t say that, you can’t say that black folks are white folks of like black and white folks. And then the people who have been like, you’re being more gentle than you should be. You’re not being as honest about how brutal things have been, or could be. We’re all people that I like grew up with, or who are from the same neighborhood as me, etc. So I think there’s something to be said there. That things are interesting in that sense.
Traci Thomas 22:28
Yeah, the way the the respectability politics sort of are playing out by class along class lines, kind of.
Joseph Earl Thomas 22:35
Yeah, yeah. And like what is allowed to be said, by whom? And under what circumstances?
Traci Thomas 22:40
Right. Okay, we’re gonna take a quick break, and then we’ll be right back. Okay, we’re back. I wanted to just touch on something that you mentioned right before the break. And an earlier in the conversation was about this shame, this stuff that you were sort of taught was shameful, or that or that you were taught to feel shame around about your experiences growing up? How did you come to terms with some of that stuff in a way that you could write a book that’s so open and honest, I mean, you’re talking about sexual encounters, you’re talking about, you know, having accidents at school, like you’re talking about the things that are like some of the most shameful things that were taught as kids like, how did you get to a place as an adult where you felt like, okay, I can actually write this and put my name on it and tell people, it’s nonfiction. And this is my story.
Joseph Earl Thomas 23:30
Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I guess I should say, like, I’m not always completely over every, everything that shameful, right. There are ways I think that I still feel shame, right? I don’t, I’m not completely like, I haven’t superseded that that thing altogether. But I think part of it is that I am one of the things that happens when you become older, you start to realize that these are much more common experiences than we are, that we are allowed to recognize. And part of that is because everybody has been told that you can’t say that. And so nobody’s really saying it, even though it happened to like dozens and dozens of people over and over again. And this is especially true. So like now that I have my own kids. And like, I’ll be going to like, you know, some school trip or something like that, or whatever. And there will be kids in there. I’m like, Oh, this is that kid, like this kid is having the experience or has had the experience that I’m like attempting to describe or something, but will probably never say that thing, right? Or will probably never feel comfortable enough to say that thing in particular. And I also think, you know, shame has a lot to do with people teaching you right, like you said, teaching us that the thing is shameful. So it’s also interesting to see other sets of kids who are like, have all kinds of accidents or like sexual experience and feel completely open about being like I made this mistake or I you know, I feel this way that that otherwise, one might feel completely ashamed of whether that is sexual desire for a whole host of people or appearances or whatever, and I’m like, Damn, you know, like, how does it help if I never make statements about, you know, the inverse of that or show the change from one form of thinking to another, it’s like a show your work kind of thing. I don’t like to pretend. Sometimes I hear, you know, I get in conversations with people and everybody be like, look at how far we’ve come kind of thing, like, things are great now. And I’m like, Well, for one, things aren’t great for most of the people I know, like, their lives have gotten worse in a lot of ways. And I don’t like to skip over the fact that the, it was very costly to learn a lot of things to get from one point to another. And so I thought it was worth it, you know, to say these things, and I talk pretty openly to my own kids. The oldest two are 12 and 10. And sometimes they ask me stuff, and I will just be completely honest with them. And that has helped opening up those conversations. I think, in
Traci Thomas 25:50
some of the situations, at least, for me, as a reader, it felt like you are very clearly, you know, the victim of bullying or adults, you know, taking things out on you. And, and to me, I’m like, there’s, there’s no shame in that, you know, right and in my thinking, but then there’s also parts of the book where you sort of let us in to maybe how you were thinking about it in the moment, and also maybe how you think about it. Now, as an adult. There’s one part that comes to mind when you talk about how human human survival is predicated on other people getting hurt for other people to feel good and feel alive. How have you been grappling? I mean, it feels so on the nose. First of all, especially in a country like America, that is that space. I mean, you know, the American Dream is allegedly, you know, this heart and center of America. But to me, what I think about as a heart and center of America, is are you high enough on the American food chain, that you don’t have to worry about being the one who gets hurt for other people to feel good and alive? And that feels just like so American? So how do you grapple with that trade off, because there are parts of the book where you don’t get hit? And Danny does. And there’s parts of the book where you aren’t getting picked on and another kid is, and obviously, you’ve been, you know, you’re tormented by some of the other kids in your school. And so of course, you’re like, feeling the sense of relief. But now as you look back as an adult, like, how, how does that play into some of the shame because there’s shame and feeling like you weren’t the brave person to stick up for someone else. But there’s also like, this thing of like, Hey, I just shaved my pants at school, because kids are fucking with me. Like, I’m not going to feel bad about someone else getting fucked with because I don’t have to ship my bags today and go home and get yelled at, like, so I totally get it. But there is this dichotomy of like, how can you be a good person and a safe alive versus not getting fucked with?
Joseph Earl Thomas 27:45
Yeah, exactly. I mean, I feel like that is really on the nose, Tracy is useful to think about, because I guess I tried to, to be as thoughtful as possible about the space that you’re in, and how difficult it is to maybe I think that there when people tell me that they’re a good person via like, I don’t know, direct or indirect kinds of virtue signaling as like the main form of communication, I get really suspicious of those people sometimes. And I’m like, Well, given the kind of circumstances that we are in, particularly in a country like America, right? It’s like very unlikely that one is innocent, though, we are really obsessed with the idea that we are innocent. And we use that a lot in conversations, especially like to cultural people, you know, for like being bad or whatever. And I just think that I was trying to think about the earliest times in my life when I started to understand that. And for me, that had to do with like, school, and mostly had to do with school. And I started to think like, Okay, well, is it that and also, we use innocence as like the ledger to be like, we can treat someone nicely if they’re innocent, like, right, this, you know, this black person was murdered, or how innocent are they to, you know, to describe what the fuck we’re supposed to be able to, you know, it’s like all kinds of ridiculous
Traci Thomas 29:05
Oh, my gosh, I
Joseph Earl Thomas 29:06
was so mad.
Traci Thomas 29:09
Joseph Earl Thomas 29:10
And, you know, and, and I think I want to be like, Okay, well, the innocence thing has nothing to do with it. Right? Like, we need to establish norms for treating people well, that don’t have anything to do with that. And sometimes that starts for me, or that started for me in childhood. And the way I did feel really, but sometimes I felt more bad by watching somebody else get fucked up than I did when I was getting fucked up. But I was also like, you know, in no uncertain terms like a complete coward in that setting. And I think that my cowardice was one of the things that stopped me from doing other things, right. That would we would consider like stereotypical black Right? Like I never, I never sold drugs. I never like murdered anyone as a youth even though I knew kids who did right. But I was too. I was too afraid to do that. And so that doesn’t make me like a good person, or like better than some of my friends who did, right. And but I hate that it’s framed that way, you know? And I wanted to go back and forth on that and be like, Yeah, you’re not superior because like you were a nerd. And you, you got beat up in school and started beating people up, right? It’s just like, you’re in a situation where there is someone who felt bad by your treatment, you know, whether that was like my little sister, or like another another friend or something, you know, is that separate you from the situation or the environment?
Traci Thomas 30:27
Right? We’re all just, like, one friend group, away from certain behaviors a little a little bit away from? Yeah, I mean, I guess in the school context, it’s like one. Yeah. And like, you know, I was a real asshole in school, I was sort of a mean, girl. I think it’s just I, I’ll defend myself and saying this. I never use violence because I’m terrified of all forms of violence. But I am funny. And so I would make a joke about someone else’s expense me like, this is hilarious. But it was mean, and I just didn’t understand that. Not everyone, you know, but it’s like, now I think about it a little more. I’m still sort of mean spirited. I just, that’s my sense of humor.
Joseph Earl Thomas 31:06
Do you mean in high school or like middle school, middle school, middle school? Okay.
Traci Thomas 31:10
Well, I was still funny mean, in high school, I think but I think people caught up to my I had an older brother who’s really smart. And so you know, it’s like you, you’re just around people, like a certain sense of humor, the sarcasm and like, I don’t know if sarcasm plays super well with like, 910 11 year olds. But when I got to high school, I was like, Okay, I feel like I’m better. But the point being is like, I still think that I’m like, probably a good person. But there’s definitely people who don’t think that about Oh, yeah. To not think that about me, like, my big fear is that I would become very famous, and then all these people would come out and remember horrible things that I said about them that like, I can never defend. Yeah, you know, I’m like, I don’t remember them now. But like, I’m sure I was mean.
Joseph Earl Thomas 31:53
Certainly. And I don’t mean to, like, you know, relativize it to the extent where I’m like, oh, there’s no difference in like, what kinds of meanness or what kinds of violence or whatever, you know, of course, I would never want to do that. Because people get, of course, I’m innocent, because I didn’t do this thing. And I’m like, Well, you know,
Traci Thomas 32:11
it’s just levels to it. And it’s like, the impact you know, all of that stuff. Obviously, it’s, it’s, I wasn’t physically violent to anyone not that that’s any better, necessarily, but that’s more just a personal thing. Because like you I also am a coward and I’m very scared of getting hit myself. And so I would never, never it’s more of a selfish like, it’s like, I don’t want to get in a fistfight with anyone because I really don’t want to be touched in any way by anyone else. So I’m gonna just, I’m just gonna be cutting and be a psychotic bitch behind your back, you know, just more than five? Well,
Joseph Earl Thomas 32:44
it’s useful you learn to be you learn, I think, like as you get older, and you don’t want to fight a lot, you learn to talk shit so that you’d never have to get to that point.
Traci Thomas 32:52
That’s exactly right. It was my my defense mechanism. Speaking of defense mechanisms, you have this great section in the book, where you talk about Florida and other people’s desires by not reacting how people want you to react. So like, not crying when the bullies are mean to you or like, or even with your grandfather, you talked about, like him wanting you to do certain things, and you like remaining really stoic or whatever? Does it still motivate you? Is that something that you use? Where you’re like, This is what people want from me.
Joseph Earl Thomas 33:18
Yeah, yeah. If somebody says something really fucking ridiculous to me, I’ll just be like, I’m not gonna say anything to that. That’s not worth my engagement. And so there are ways that I still do that sometimes, you know, to a lesser degree, right? You don’t have to deal with that as much as as a grown person.
Traci Thomas 33:34
Right. Right. But was any of that present in the book? Like, did you have any of that where you felt like you were kind of like subverting what you thought people might want from you in the book?
Joseph Earl Thomas 33:44
That’s a good question. Um, I don’t know I guess what you asked a question about audience earlier to Tracy and I think my primary audience were like friends who I had known for like, you know, 1520 ish years at least. And so they already kind of knew everything and I was not trying to like subvert their expectations. But there were there were ways in which ran of course like I have over my shoulder a bunch of you know, people who maybe like I went to work had like a workshop beef with or something like that. Or like you know generalized like oh, I don’t care if this you know of engaging with this person who maybe I must have right even if I don’t think of it deliberate like I must have been thinking like, I am not going to do that because you want me to say that thing and maybe it’s the sad thing maybe it’s the essayistic part of it the explaining kind of overdose going on for pages and pages to be like well in this year did you know you know being a sociologist basic right
Traci Thomas 34:40
right. That’s so interesting. I get that vibe from you though that you’re a little bit of like a little bit of like a fuck you not going to do what you think I’m going to do kind of person which I like it’s a it’s a good thing. I like it. I don’t you know, predictability is boring to me. And I felt like Part of that was in your book of like, I’m not going to do this memoir, the way that everyone else is going to do this memoir, because I don’t want you to think that you know what this story is, which I think kept me going because I was like, I actually don’t know where this is going. You know, it’s like, I actually do want to know what comes next. So towards I think it’s like, it’s on page 95 notes. And you talk about how like, what, what’s the future gonna be? Will he develop gumption and introspection? And will he articulate a nuanced critique of structural and justices centering on the violence of says white hetero, hetero, patriarchy and publish said, study through a professional press, therefore saving not only himself, but the world from such dangers? And, I mean, you’re talking about your future you, but also, like, this book exists now. And you did publish this story. And you did, you know, in a sense, get out, if you will, or, you know, not necessarily physically get out. But like, you did change the perceived arc of your life, and you did make it and all of these things, and then and then you wrote it, and then it’s published. And it’s not just published by anybody. It’s published by a big five publisher. And so what is that all mean to you? What is that reckoning? Like for you?
Joseph Earl Thomas 36:19
Yeah, it’s very, very strange. Tracy, I will say I am. So there’s like, a couple of things. I mean, I will say that I’m still dealing with a lot of the costs of, of that, and I think, you know, attempting to change one’s own and like, entire family’s like, class position is just like an ongoing and forever thing, right. So even if I, you know, can, you know, have like, a reasonable set of needs, like, the big thing, I can choose almost like, what school my kids go to, right? Like, I can move so that I can be like, and this is something I was dealing with recently, I can move to a place where I can be like, Okay, there’s a slightly better school. And that was never an option for people in my family for the past, like, three, four generations. And so I’m like, okay, that’s different. But it is, it does still feel like a lot of changes that I’m still making that are still necessary. And I also, you know, I think there’s something in there about a frustration that I often have, where like, black children are used as examples to, like, lead, like to kind of guide our way into a certain kind of future, not by way of like, us paying attention to what they think and feel. But by way of, like, here, you take it, you know, the balls in your court kind of thing. And then like, you know, you could do the work in a lot of ways. And I felt, in my own family, that was one of the kind of overarching things that I felt a lot, which was like, Oh, you’ll be able to do it, you know, it’s like five adults, or like, people older than me, and a lot of folks will be like, yeah, it’s on you. Now. It’s like your responsibility. And that, you know, of course, that happens a lot and like the larger role as well. And that was such a frustration for me, maybe. And something that sometimes I’m still bitter at, especially when I see people talk about my own kids in that way, or like, look to them to be like, oh, yeah, you can do this, this thing, or whatever that may be, doesn’t have to do with what they want or need, because nobody’s usually asking, they’re this, the kind of person who does, it isn’t usually asking, but they’re like, oh, you’re a future leader of like, this kind of thing that we think is good or useful, rather than having a care about, you know, like, do you want to talk about your own desires, your own wishes, your own kind of way that you perceive the world? Right, I guess. And I think that in very subtle ways, that just happens. enough that it frustrates me to no end.
Traci Thomas 38:42
Yeah. Sort of like a mix of uplift, suasion and respectability politics, and then also like purchase.
Joseph Earl Thomas 38:50
Yeah, yeah, it is when you know, I think if we spent more time if we dwelled, you know, with what a lot of like young black kids, you know, selves or desire, we wouldn’t get a lot of strange and interesting ideas or things what, you know, would be made possible, but sometimes I feel like we’re rushing a certain kind of like, you need to grow up and like lead the race or whatever, you know, and what ways that we think are useful, but I’m like, I don’t know how useful that is to a lot of these kids in particular. So, so that becomes true. Now, this person probably heard me talking.
Traci Thomas 39:24
Did you know you wanted to be a writer from a young age? Was that something that you knew?
Joseph Earl Thomas 39:29
No, not at all. I, I was I thought I was gonna be like a junior biologists or something like that, you know, like one of these, like black Steve Irwin kind of people. Okay, so I had this this, I mean, in the book, you know, there’s like, yeah, there’s an animal obsession. And then I thought, you know, in relation to that, I would maybe be a cartoonist. I drew a lot, in a way, but I never really wrote it was, you know, either drawing or thinking that I was like a baby animal. havior SSH or something like that, I never
Traci Thomas 40:02
fired and come in.
Joseph Earl Thomas 40:04
I was in school for biology, because that’s what I used to do. And this is like a, you know, college teacher story that I think is the kind of thing that happens. And I had a couple teachers in college, none probably more important than I used to Lockridge. She was at St. Joe’s, and I would be studying biology, but I would take like, African American Lit or writing classes, or what have you. And she was like, Oh, I think this is like really interesting. Like, maybe, you know, you care a lot about this in a way that you don’t necessarily care about the biology thing, you just are afraid of being poor for the rest of your life. But you know, enter this conversation about, like, if you get a PhD, they will give you money for this, and you can maybe, you know, simultaneously start providing for yourself and your family while also maybe doing something that you’re interested in, right or that’ll, that’ll give you a reason to live beyond the immediate or foreseeable future. And so around that time, when I was finishing up studying biology, I decided I was like, okay, I can, I can go on right now.
Traci Thomas 41:08
So you can have animals there on the cover of your book, how involved were you in the cover? And also, will you talk to us a little bit about the title sync?
Joseph Earl Thomas 41:16
Yeah, so I got really lucky cover wise, there was like a spate of covers, there’s like five or six of them that my editor sent me. And I immediately was like, Okay, this is the one that I like, and I stuck with that one. And then we like fiddled with it a little bit, you know, changing some textures or what have you, but it wasn’t a big shift. So that was, you know, right away, like good reading and labor on Grand Central’s, ya know, kind of and, and then for the title, I was thinking of like, so in the second house that we lived in, when I was in middle school, there was a lot of like, a sink that was quite literally always clogged. And, like that was one of my jobs was like, clean the kitchen. And it would make me so mad, because it felt like people were just like, throwing shit in there all the time. And they were like, oh, yeah, Joe, you’ll get it. You know, he’ll go get it. And then but you couldn’t really see what was in there either. And so you would put your hand in there. And sometimes you get cut by stuff. But yeah, right. Exactly. It gives you that kind of
Traci Thomas 42:16
that kind of I hated reading this part I hated. I hated the sake, I hated
Joseph Earl Thomas 42:21
it so much. And but it started to stand up for like, I don’t know what’s in here. But it’s like my job, or it’s like a certain kind of work that I am tasked with doing and figuring it out. But there’s not a from a traditional source, at least a set of like information or programs that is just going to do it for me, or there’s no way to figure out except for like doing it and you might get cut, you know, you might pull out, you know, a whole fucking chicken that somebody put in there for whatever reason, other kind of goofy things, but it still felt like this is something that had to do. And that became the kind of overarching thinking for the book.
Traci Thomas 42:57
What’s not in the book that you wish was more maybe more stuff about?
Joseph Earl Thomas 43:01
Like, I would have extended it, I think, maybe, and spent more time talking about it thinking through friendship, which I think is something that I’m reading about a lot now. And so maybe when I go back and I look at sync, I’m like, oh, yeah, this is what I’m interested in getting up to, but I kind of like separated it into a whole nother set of problems. So I I think I would have spent more time focusing on like, things that I ended up doing with with friends in the in the kind of later years.
Traci Thomas 43:34
Got it. When you were writing this book, What else were you doing? Work workwise school wise?
Joseph Earl Thomas 43:42
Yeah, it was like a lot of so I was I was in first I was studying biology and then I was doing the MFA at Notre Dame, but I was working for a long time, I was a medic, and I was an EMT. So I was working at that was like my main job for like most of my adult life. So I worked at this hospital in North Philly for like 12 or 13 years total and that I was mostly doing that. But I worked a bunch of jobs working at like Home Depot was like, working at a bunch of bunch of other spots. But it was primarily the hospital all the way up until COVID started. That was around the time that I stopped working at the hospital.
Traci Thomas 44:22
And when you wrote this book, how are I guess even now still as you write how often do you write how many hours a day do you write every day? Do you listen to music? Or you snacks? beverages? Rituals? I
Joseph Earl Thomas 44:35
I mean, I wish I could still write every day I used to back in the day. So I used to write every day, but I try to write a little bit I get up super early, like 435 because we’re still asleep. You know, my oldest gets up a little bit after that. And then yeah, it’s like 615 I’m like, you don’t have to be awake right now. Like why did you go What are they doing? Looking at me? Like if you get up at this Time, like you can, like, I know
I, I tend to just drink like coffee and water when I write. Because if I start eating, it’ll be all about the food and I won’t do any I will do shit else if I started, because I take the food too seriously. Yeah. And it’ll be, you know, like when I do, I like segment off time to eat. I’m like, this is an important hour and a half where I’m going to eat this thing a lot. I don’t like to rush. Maybe that’s a holdover from like, remembering times when I didn’t have enough food or something. I’m like, okay, yeah. Now I’m going to make sure that I take this eating thing really seriously, we are going to talk about what we’re going to eat, and we’re going to make it at cetera, et cetera. So that tends to be how it goes. And I get as much reading or writing done as I can before. It’s time for you know, school and other stuff to come into play.
Traci Thomas 45:54
And what’s the word you can never spell correctly? On the first try?
Joseph Earl Thomas 45:58
Oh, my god. Um, most words, I think, staccato. Maybe it’s a word that is that I can’t spell the on the first time. Anything with like, double vowels or double consonants. I cannot spell on the first try. No
Traci Thomas 46:15
consonants are my personal nightmare. I don’t. It’s not happening for me. Do you? I know this is sort of a mean question to ask you. Because what when we’re talking, your book comes out tomorrow. But do you know what comes next for you?
Joseph Earl Thomas 46:30
What’s supposed to come next is?
Traci Thomas 46:33
Well, what are you? What do you next? I know, I’m not like prescribing something has to come back. So I’m just curious. Like, what you’re and you can also say, Fuck you. My book comes out tomorrow. I’m not there yet. Which is like totally fine.
Joseph Earl Thomas 46:47
I am. So there’s a novel that I have revisions to next month, I think, oh, or something like that. And then a collection of short stories that will start popping up around sometime with the same editor. Same, it’s all. Yeah, got it. Yeah. Cool. Doesn’t mean things.
Traci Thomas 47:04
For people who love this book. What else would you recommend to them? That’s maybe in conversation with your work?
Joseph Earl Thomas 47:09
I think. I mean, everybody who listens to you will have read like yesterday, for example, right? Of course. I really like Stephen Dunn’s book, potted meat, which I felt like it was really important for thinking about this book. And I like this other book by Tanya tagaq called split tooth, which happened to be one of my one of my favorite books. I think maybe maybe those are two biggies. I guess those are two days.
Traci Thomas 47:37
When you when you were writing this? Could you read memoir, or were you like shutting that genre out? As you were working on this? I know, that’s a really common conversation for especially for memoir s, it’s like, I won’t read any memoirs, while I’m working in some people, like all I wanted to do was read other memoirs, I
Joseph Earl Thomas 47:57
felt like I made reading memoir, my job, even though I didn’t want to read a bunch of I was like, Okay, I can’t, you know, write some shit, and not read a bunch of the other. And that’s my own, like, I don’t know, like self consciousness or whatever. So I was reading them, but I was like, frustrated at the fact that I was reading them. And I mostly read stuff that I liked, you know, that I enjoyed during the day you’d read before, sometimes that I’ve read before, and sometimes new stuff. So I mean, my favorite genre is still fantasy. And so I was reading a lot of that stuff. And then I’d be like, Alright, it’s time for work. I gotta read these memoirs now. And it’s like a stack, you know, that I gotta get through.
Traci Thomas 48:33
That’s funny. What do you hope folks will keep in mind as they read Sink?
Joseph Earl Thomas 48:38
I think I love the that thing that you have brought back from come on Phoenix saying thinking about stuff as a character. But I really, really would like folks to kind of take seriously experiences of black childhood that may or may not default, or shifts from what one expects. And that that’s to think about those years as an experience in and of themselves and not something that needs to be kind of like recuperated into like adult ways of thinking for that to make the child useful for us.
Traci Thomas 49:12
yeah. If you could have one person dead or alive, read this book, who do you want it to be?
Joseph Earl Thomas 49:17
I think now it will be my grandfather, who only just recently passed. He read some stuff, but he hasn’t read the whole thing he read like the, you know, this essay that’s in the offing that was like about him, but not all of it.
Traci Thomas 49:31
Okay, that’s it for me. I think I didn’t really talk about any of the nerd stuff, but I don’t know. I’m not really into that kind of stuff. So it didn’t really stick in my heart. Like, I don’t know what a Dragonball Z is I’ve never dragon ballsy.
Joseph Earl Thomas 49:46
And I try not to be overbearing about that stuff. I hate that kind of like nerdy evangelists kind of.
Traci Thomas 49:53
well, I feel like I will say this. I feel like when the book was, you know, I get sent the book for people who don’t know, before a book comes out You know, they’re assigned to publicist and the publicist has a one sheet that they send to media. And it says like what the books about. And this, your one sheet had a lot about like this, like, you know your childhood and like coming out of it like because of nerd culture. And as I read it, I just didn’t feel like that’s what I was reading. Like, I felt like you were a nerd. But I don’t feel like that transcended your experience at all. I just feel like that was part of your experience. Just like everything else was like, just like, you know, your relationship with your aunt was and your relationship with your sister and your relationship with your Easy Bake Oven. Like it was all part of it. But I would never be like, Oh, this is a book about someone who’s who was saved by food because they loved An Easy Bake oven. So I think like for me, I was expecting this like nerd part to be like this huge part of the book. But I don’t know it was equally present as were all these other parts. So I think maybe that’s why I didn’t really like latch onto it. Because I didn’t know what you’re talking about. Because Dragonball Z. I don’t know. I’m not a nerd. I’m just a different nerd. I am totally an art just not a not a
Joseph Earl Thomas 51:00
there’s different degrees and yeah, but the way that you describe it, that’s how I felt about it as well. Like, all these things are just as important as you know, like the other thing.
Traci Thomas 51:10
Yeah, I think part of it’s just marketing. But you know, anyways, anyways, but Joseph, thank you so much for being here.
Joseph Earl Thomas 51:16
Thank you for having me.
Traci Thomas 51:17
You can get the book. Now. It’s in the world. It’s called Sink. Get it wherever you get your books. Do you do you read the audiobook? Yes. Joseph reads the audiobook. So for those of you who love A Memoir by audio by author, there you go, and everyone else we will see you in the Stacks
All right, y’all. That does it for us today. Thank you so much for listening. And thank you again to Joseph Earl Thomas for being our guest. I’d also like to say a thank you to Roxanne Jones for helping to make this conversation possible. Remember our book club pick for March is Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay and we will be discussing that book on March 29 With Shanita Hubbard. If you love the show and want insight access to it, head to patreon.com/the stacks and join the stacks fat. Please make sure you’re subscribed to the stacks wherever you listen to your podcasts. And if you’re listening through Apple podcasts, be sure to leave us a rating and a review. For more from the Stacks follow us on social media at thestackspod on Instagram and at the stackspodunderscore on Twitter and check out our website the stackspodcast.com This episode of the stocks was edited by Christian Duenas with production assistance from Lauren Tyree. Our graphic designer is Robin McCreight. The Stacks is created and produced by me, Traci Thomas.
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