Memoir, like the French word from which it’s derived—“mémoire” or “memory”—is malleable by nature. What we recall—or don’t, for negative space tells a story, too—is laid out like a variety of different colored paints, a blank document the canvas on which the writer layers their self-reflection in a way that allows for both clarity and complexity, questions answered and unanswered—and compels the reader to take a closer look at how they move through the world. It’s this art form Prince Shakur demonstrates mastery over in his debut memoir, When They Tell You to Be Good, which is out now from Tin House.
Centered on the murder of his biological father in 1995, Shakur’s quest to unravel his family’s secrets runs parallel to his own political coming of age and reckoning with identity. When They Tell You to Be Good chronicles the radicalization of a closeted queer kid in a Jamaican family into an adult writer, traveler, and grassroots organizer engaging in deep political questions in Obama and Trump’s America and abroad. From France to the Philippines, South Korea, and participating in movements like Black Lives Matter and Standing Rock, Shakur sets out to explore the depth of Black life while grappling with intergenerational trauma and the harmful impacts of patriarchal and colonial violence. Searing and poignant, this multifaceted memoir catapults Shakur’s voice from emerging to one that will be read, talked about, and studied for years to come.
I caught up with Shakur while he was on the road promoting his book, and we chatted back and forth over email about the art of memoir, intersecting identities, finding clarity amidst chaos, and more.
The Rumpus: How do you feel now that your book is out in the world?
Prince Shakur: So far it’s been pretty gratifying. I’ve worked so hard on this book for the last few years. It’s been mine. But now that it’s out in the world, it exists outside me as a reflection of me. That’s a beautiful process I didn’t expect to navigate. Plus, talking about older writing always motivates me to want to work on new stuff.
Rumpus: How so?
Shakur: The conversations that I’ve had with older Black writers have helped me understand the significance of the work I’ve done in this book through their eyes, through the eyes of writers whom I really admire. That validation has mattered just as much, if not a little bit more than the publication process. I love the idea that this book can be a part of engaging in more intergenerational conversations about identity and politics.
Talking to writers slightly older than me is exciting, too, because I don’t meet many Black writers that are men outside of the internet who have published numerous times. Their body of work inspires me to continue to believe that I’ll have a body of work to look forward to.
Rumpus: In your Acknowledgements, you write, “I wrote this memoir because, at some point, I feared I would always be the boy grappling for a father who had done wrong.” How has writing this book confronted this fear?
Shakur: On a basic level, I think writing can liberate me because giving language to my fears and triumphs also allows me to derive my own meaning from them. To navigate my chaos with a sense of honesty and dignity. With my relationship to my father, I’ve felt a lot of shame and lack of divinity around the silence related to him. Writing this book absolved so much of that shame and made it something meaningful, clarifying.
Rumpus: I love what you said just now: “To navigate my chaos with a sense of honesty and dignity.” How do you get to a place of navigating chaos with such conviction?
Shakur: I learned the beginnings of that conviction when I came out to my parents in high school, then again in college through Black Lives Matter, and after college with travel and writing. In each of those chapters of my life, I recognized that I had a choice to make: stay the same or engage with the unknown to figure out who I can be and what my capacity is. Writing, on a deep level, has taught me that words and speaking truth will usually matter more than silence. Also, I think it’s important to note that queer people exercise this conviction in the face of chaos all the time.
Rumpus: Right. It’s really the only choice we have, if we want to survive.
Shakur: And it’s how we find joy as well. It’s how we upend the beliefs about ourselves that we’ve learned from capitalism, heteronormativity, and beyond. Writing and being queer have both taught me the conviction to express myself in a world that aims to silence me. I’m so proud of defending that mindset and feeling it with how I live in my life. I’d like to believe that’s the lineage that so many other Black and queer and radical writers before me have set up.
Rumpus: I’m blown away by your ability to masterfully thread all of these elements into your memoir. What was your process for organizing all of the things you wanted to write about?
Shakur: As a person at the intersection of so many identities, that also means that most political and social experiences are layered, and happen within the same moment. To start, I just had to write and through the revision process, refine and sharpen the moments of revelation in my book. This meant I needed to know what chapters of my life spoke the most to the book’s themes of queer displacement, yearning, and mortality. In this way, theme became a part of the book’s DNA, then editing with [Tin House editor] Hanif Abdurraqib led to altering the memoir’s chronology.
Rumpus: Not only is this your first book, this is also Abdurraqib’s first acquisition at Tin House. What was it like working together? How did the book change and evolve with his edits?
Shakur: Working with Hanif was super enlightening! I love the way that he talks and thinks about literature, narrative, and structure. With this book, I could feel that he saw the importance in the layers of my experiences and we talked a lot about how to extrapolate them, which would show how far Blackness and queerness can go in the world.
I’ve worked with Hanif on a few other pieces of writing before this book and in all of these experiences, I also felt that he had a deep respect for my work and wanted to take the time to ensure that I was comfortable with what this memoir represents on a political level in terms of Black liberation.
In terms of how the book changed, we rearranged chapters and did a lot of work to reorient how characters are introduced.
Rumpus: You’ve been writing fiction for a while now—in fact, you tell us that you’ve written multiple novels growing up. Why was it important for you to debut with a memoir?
Shakur: I had the idea for this book in 2016, which was a time of racial and political reckoning for me. In a lot of ways, it made more sense for me to explore the topics in this book through memoir, as opposed to fiction, which I hadn’t written in a year or so. And I also decided to write this book at a time when I started to deeply admire Black radical writers, like Kuwasi Balagoon and Bomani Shakur.
Rumpus: How did these writers influence the direction you went in when you started writing this book?
Shakur: On a thematic level, I knew I wanted this book to be a critique or exploration of diasporic masculinity. In a lot of radical writing by Black men, like Soul On Ice by Eldridge Cleaver or Black Power texts, I find that masculinity isn’t examined as much as I’d like. Why is it so much easier for men to write about revolutionary processes without more doggedly unpacking gender, masculinity, and patriarchy? This means there is so much work to be done by Black men writers.
On a political level, I knew I wanted this book to express how emotions and community affect how we show up and feel in movement spaces. As a queer Black person, double or triple consciousness is always at play and I’m interested in how to develop more language around this in ways that James Baldwin or Kuwasi Balagoon hadn’t been able to.
Rumpus: There were so many sections I underlined, but this was one I loved so much that I took a picture and shared it to my Instagram Stories: “That’s when I realized it, that sometimes love means being a vessel for somebody else’s pain. Not because love should mean taking on someone else’s pain, but rather that love makes certain kinds of pain more bearable and teaches us more than the love, the violence, and the story that birthed us. Love can make us people with wings.” Someone responded with, “Baldwin?” I went on to tell them about you and your book, but I just had to share this magical moment with you.
Shakur: That makes me so happy! Especially since there are definitely moments or turns of phrases in the book that are inspired by James Baldwin. I love Baldwin’s work because it’s so viscerally dedicated to exploring how we love or fail to love each other. I see my writing as an expansion of that worldview.
Rumpus: And just a few sections before, you write, “Baldwin had crafted a blueprint and now I was crafting my own.”
Shakur: I will always admire Baldwin, but I think there are certain elements of liberation and gender politics that I’m indebted to because of my cultural context—being Black, being Jamaican American, living in a time when queer politics have been deepened, and a time when respectability politics are being debated. As a queer person, I am not interested in explaining my experience or arguing for a better world through a liberal or white-washed lens, like Baldwin sometimes resorted to. And yes, I believe there is give and take, but on a structural level, I disagree with some of Baldwin’s entanglement with the US. I don’t have some of the romanticism about Americanism that he does and that’s a difference that I’m proud of and want to spend the rest of my body of work deepening.
Rumpus: You’ve done a lot of traveling. Why did you organize this book by place?
Shakur: Before I traveled as an adult, I read a lot of travelogues and was really into Beatnik literature. Although it inspired me, like how I explored in my Yellowstone chapter, I recognize in retrospect how Black people were seldom represented in many mainstream travelogues, outside of being objects for observation or background characters. Firstly, writing about the amount of places I’ve been to shows that it’s possible to travel on a budget and to attempt to confront your privilege. Additionally, the scale of places I go to shows that issues like anti-Blackness or homophobia follow me wherever I go. I love the idea that theme can follow us wherever we go and, in any moment, we can attempt to reckon with it.
Rumpus: I would recommend this book to anyone, but especially to those who are looking to become more active participants in social justice. You do an exceptional job at describing the nuances of what it’s like to hit the ground during multiple movements, offering solidarity with other grassroots organizers, and presenting honest accounts of your own experiences for those looking to get more involved. How have you seen your own work in this regard change since becoming an organizer?
Shakur: Organizing has taught me how entangled our lives are with the political. Forces larger than us, like white supremacy or xenophobia or transphobia or capitalism, can intervene with our lives. This is meaningful on a life and storytelling level. It’s something I’ll never forget. Even history is a story that we collectively tell ourselves.
Rumpus: How does organizing continue to influence your storytelling?
Shakur: I think organizing has compelled me to look at being a writer and the act of storytelling as a political battleground. Stories craft history and history is crafted by institutions, which are guided by social conditions. As an organizer, you are always experimenting to find ways to highlight social issues or build resources for underserved communities. As a storyteller from a political background, you have the task of understanding that the stories you write will exist in the world and can change someone’s world. When we act and what language we use to defend ourselves matters; on a craft level, this is useful to know because this very logic reveals character. What do you care about? And how does that show up in your life? Whether I’m writing fiction or nonfiction or organizing, this is something on my mind.
Rumpus: So much of the beauty of this book comes from your ability to mine your self-realization. Is there anything new you’ve come to realize after writing it?
Shakur: I’ve learned that personal community and writing community are important; to help me contend with the emotions necessary to get to the page and to upend the gatekeeping in the literary industry through connection and community.
Rumpus: Where are your words tugging you to go next?
Shakur: So many places! My head is always spinning with ideas. For a while, I’ve been playing around with the idea of a short story collection. I’ve finished a novel recently, which has made me fall in love with the fiction-writing process, so a part of me wants to dive into another novel project. On a nonfiction level, I also would be into writing a collection of political and cultural essays.
But for now, since I’m new to New York City, I’m also just in the process of seeking inspiration for what’s next.
Author photo by Ben Willis