Keah Brown’s debut collection of personal essays, The Pretty One, is subtitled “On Life, Pop Culture, Disability, and Other Reasons to Fall in Love with Me,”and though many of her essays are inflected with her winking sense of humor, readers should take those words literally. Brown is ready for you to fall in love with her: she’s ready for a romantic relationship; she’s ready for society to love Black, disabled bodies like hers; and she’s ready for readers to fall in love with her writing beyond her popular Twitter and Instagram pages.
Many readers will likely be familiar with Brown as the creator of the viral #DisabledandCute hashtag, but her book reveals in sometimes heartbreaking detail how much work it took for Brown to arrive at a place where she could tweet such a message of self-love. Brown writes with a disarming intimacy about her relationship to her body, from embracing it through mastering a red lip to hoping to escape it and contemplating suicide. In addition to being an essayist, Brown is a journalist with a deep affinity for pop culture, and a believer in the power of representation.
The Pretty One feels like a letter from an old friend inviting you to read her manuscript, so when I reached Keah by phone at her home in Lockport, New York it felt like calling a college pal.
The Rumpus: I think a good number of your readers will have discovered you by following you on Instagram and Twitter, especially after #DisabledandCute. Do you think of yourself as a social media influencer?
Keah Brown: I don’t. I write things mostly on Twitter as if no one’s reading them, which I think is silly because obviously some people are. But I don’t take myself seriously enough to think that anybody is actually paying attention. I guess I have influence, but I don’t see it being a lot of influence so I don’t really stress out about my social media. I’m not an influencer. I’m just going to tweet about cheesecake, or the TV show I like, or a hashtag, or something that’s bothering me, but I don’t think about it. That hashtag was sort of like this starting-off point for me and my career, because I did it to celebrate myself. And then it ended up being a place where people could celebrate themselves and each other and feel safe enough to say, “I like myself the way I am, and if I don’t I’m going to get there, and this place is going to help me!” I think it’s an introduction into the kind of stories I want to tell, the kind of person that I am, and the kind of person I want to be. I’m really glad it took off for other people enough for them to follow my other work.
Rumpus: It’s interesting that you don’t think of yourself as having a huge social media influence or audience. How then do you think about the audience for the book? Who are you imagining as your readers?
Brown: I knew my friends from college would read the book. I knew my friends who are in the book would read the book. I knew that my family would read the book, and then I would read the book. My goal overall was just to write a book that I was proud of, so I tried really hard not to think about the reader. I tried really hard to think about, “Okay, what are the stories you want to tell? What are the things you used to hear when you were going through your own suicidal ideation and your own distress and depression and your darkest times? What do you wish you would have had when you were younger? What was it that you wanted?” That’s how I crafted the essays. I wrote them as though nobody who didn’t already know and love me would read it. But I’m really grateful that people who don’t know me will read it.
Rumpus: I was at SUNY Geneseo at the same time you were at SUNY Fredonia, so I was thinking about Western New York when I was reading the book. Since you write so much about identity, I wonder what impact going to a fairly rural, pretty white liberal arts college had on you.
Brown: I think for me, because I went to a PWI [Predominantly White Institution] for high school, it was not a culture shock because I’d already had that experience. The friends of color that I made at Fredonia, we all knew that there were not that many of us so we always acknowledged each other. Even if we didn’t have a conversation, it was like the head nod. Like, “I see you. You’re here. You’re not the only person.” Seeing other people of color, especially Black people, allowed me to feel not completely isolated, even though it was sometimes a very isolating experience. Especially in classrooms, when the subject of race would be brought up and it would be all eyes on me as the only Black person in the class. Or I’d have history teachers who would ask me to explain the thought process of the Black Panther Party. I think that’s something that happens a lot to marginalized people. We’re asked to explain an entire group of people even though we’re just one person.
There were experiences like that for me at Fredonia, but even just having Black people around helps me center myself and be confident in myself, even when it felt exhausting to be the only one in the room. I think that even though it was a PWI, with the friends that I made who were white, what I liked most about those friendships and what I love about them now, is that race is a non-issue. It’s not a thing that they ignore but it’s not a thing that they need to worry about. It’s just a thing that they acknowledge and accept and champion in me. Like I say in the book, a lot of times you see friendships where there’s a white person and a person of color and the person of color is dulling their shine or stopping their light so the white person can prosper, and I don’t have that. They never asked me to stop being a certain way.
Rumpus: In your essay “Is This Thing On,” you talk about the idea of “passing the mic” to the most marginalized people in activist spaces. I’m interested in how you apply those ideas to the literary field and journalism since you have a foot in both of those. What else do you think people who are already established in those fields should be doing to pass the mic?
Brown: I think that people need to give other people opportunities. I think it’s great when you pass the mic, but if it’s only a one-off thing, that’s not long-term. Sometimes what will happen is editors will give a marginalized person a freelance piece about something trauma-based, having to do with their identity. But the real magic is allowing them to write outside of that if they choose, allowing them to spread their wings and show their chops. Letting a marginalized person write about more than their trauma or their pain—and that’s fine, too; if they want to [write about that], they can—but I think what so often happens is we pigeonhole marginalized writers.
In order for real growth and change to occur we need to start thinking outside of those boxes and about, “What can this person do? This person of color, this person with a disability, this person in the LGBTQ+ community, what can they write outside of those identities? What other stories can they tell? What are they interested in?” Those are the types of pieces that allow people to write pieces that are not re-traumatizing. I find a lot, even with where I am in my career right now, I still tend to get asked to write pieces just about disability. With the book, I want people to see that disability is the lens through which I see the world, not the subject. I think it’s important we don’t force marginalized writers to constantly regurgitate stories that deal with their trauma.
Rumpus: One aspect of the book I found to be quietly revolutionary was how unapologetic and open you are about the fact that you want to be in a romantic relationship. As women we get a lot of messages about how our life is incomplete without a romantic partner, and then a lot of messages about how in order to be empowered you should be ambivalent toward love. Was being open about that desire in the book a tough choice?
Brown: Yup. It was actually one of the tougher spots of the book, because as a disabled person there are messages in society about people like me, that it’s not possible for us to be romantically loved. And I fed into that. I believed that as well. For me to talk openly about how I want to be is also for me to say that I think I can be. I’m not sure that it’s going to happen, but I hope for it.
I think for me to say that I hope for it means that other people can say the same. I think we spend so much time telling other people who have never been loved romantically that “it’s not that big a deal” or “it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.” But those people who have been saying that say it because they’ve experienced it. When you’ve never experienced something and you watch all your friends and family and people that you love experience it, and you’re dancing at their weddings, or watching Instagram videos of them, you’re so happy for them. And you want that, too.
People chastise women in particular for saying they want to be loved as if there’s something inherently wrong with it. It’s like a double-edged sword, like you were saying—there’s something inherently wrong with wanting to be loved, but we should strive for it. Which one is it? Why can’t someone be strong, independent, proud of who they are, and want that? Why is it an either/or thing? I needed to be honest about it: I don’t have it, and I want it.
Rumpus: I also found it very moving in your final essay when you talked about being suicidal when you were younger and the narrative of coming to love yourself. Was it a cathartic experience to write that essay?
Brown: It was cathartic more than painful. I wrote it because I felt like it was a love letter to that person that I was. I wanted her to be able to see that there was another side. She ends on the page in that sadness, so I wanted to pull her through the rest of it with me. That was cathartic because I’m telling my story.
I think it’s going to be tough for the people I love to read and to hear, but it could help somebody else out there someday. It wasn’t as hard to write as say, “Ode to the Boys” or “To See and Be Seen”—the parts about my grandma and my uncle, those are the harder ones because I’m still grieving those losses every day. But this could help somebody else in the future, so I’m telling my story because I want to. I choose to. I’m not being forced.
I think it would be different if I were being forced. You should always have the choice of the things you tell other people and the things you keep to yourself. I think Roxane Gay said that somewhere, something about how she tells what she wants to tell, and keeps things to herself when she wants, and it’s all about finding that balance. In particular I’m really proud of “I Love Me Now Too,” because I told what I wanted to tell. I hope it will help somebody who might be in a tough spot feel seen as well.
Rumpus: Roxane Gay is a great pivot to my next question because she’s a multi-genre writer and I know that’s something you’re interested in being, too. You write really beautifully in “I Like Me Now Too” about the impact of fiction on your life. The scenes of you talking about Beloved in your literature class and then walking over to the school counseling center and talking about Beloved with your therapist really stuck with me. What does fiction offer you both as a reader and as a writer?
Brown: Oh, I love that question. I think it offers me a place to dream, and a place to escape to, and a place for hope, and a place for magic, and a place for joy, and a place for understanding. It offers me the chance to take a load off, the chance to think of myself differently, and to think of the world differently. To travel around and get to know these characters and to fall in love with them. And to think of myself as a person, and as a writer particularly, that can do the same for other people. I say so in the book, but Toni Morrison and Sarah Dessen literally helped me save myself. Reading their work, I had the sense of understanding who I was and the sense that I can be somebody worthy of love and worthy of life, too. I felt that way just reading works by them, so for me fiction in many ways is not just about imagination, even though that’s important. I think fiction is also a place for me to feel like the world is my oyster. even though the stories aren’t about me, even though they’re about someone who’s completely outside my lived experience, whenever I read fiction I just feel so full. I just finished one of my favorite books of the entire year, Red, White, & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston and it’s just so beautiful. I get so excited when things are beautifully written and I want to be able to do that one day. I want to be able to create characters that people fall in love with. I want to give a reader that same feeling of self-worth and the same excitement that I got from Sarah Dessen and Toni Morrison and that I get from Roxane Gay and Jasmine Guillory and Ashley C. Ford. As a reader, I get so excited to have the chance to read these works at the same time that these people who are so masterful are creating them. I think that’s a blessing and I want to be able to do that for other people someday.
Rumpus: In another of your essays you also talked about having read Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi and I could feel your love for that book in your final essay. I could feel, if not its influence, something in your essay speaking to that book. I’d love to teach them side-by-side.
Brown: That is such a wonderful compliment. I love that book so much. I cried for a week and a half afterward because it was draining but so beautiful and I wanted more! I didn’t want it to end. It was so masterfully done; it felt like a full journey. I always love books that make you feel complete when you finish. There’s something so magical about that. It’s not like they do things for shock value; there’s no disappointment in a book like that even if it doesn’t end the way you wanted it to. There’s never disappointment in a book that’s a full journey. That book really floored me.
Rumpus: In the collection’s title essay, “The Pretty One” you discuss the special thrill of seeing your name in a print magazine versus digital. Can you talk a little bit about what the magic of print is for you?
Brown: I grew up reading magazines in particular and was obsessed with pulling out posters and putting them on my wall and seeing the pictures and the names and thinking that it must be so cool to see something you wrote in a magazine. It’s almost like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; print is the wardrobe, this place where I think magic happens.
The last print piece I did was the Marie Claire UK cover with Brie Larson. I just stared at it for ages because I was so excited. I’ve always longed to be in magazines, always wanted to see myself in a magazine and once I knew that wasn’t going to happen, I thought if I can’t be in a magazine, I can write and then my name will be in one. It was always this magical, mystical thing for me and every time it’s happened, I lose myself in it like a little kid all over again.
Photograph of Keah Brown by Katelyn Shufelt.