FPP spoke with writer Kent Russell about essayists as a motley crew, growing up a wee blanquito in Miami, and being a dullard (his words!). Kent reads with us at the FPP season opener this Tuesday, September 15 at Shrine in Harlem, 7pm! Come out and join us!
The NYT review of your debut book I’m Sorry to Think I Have Raised a Timid Son describes the essay collection as “explicitly autobiographical.” Is that how you’d describe your work? If so, what do you think is meant by “explicit?” If not, what other words would you choose?
Huh! I’d never really thought about that before. Nice catch. What DID you mean, New York Times?! (I think they meant I used a lot of swears.)No, I mean, I’m OK with that. As a quote-unquote essayist (although more in the tradition of the reporter-essayist, since I am not especially smart, certainly nowhere near as smart as your Leslie Jamesons or your Ta-Nehisi Coateses)—as a quote-unquote essayist, my brain is my tool and my gateway, and so it’s got to be explicitly there on the page for the reader. I gotta show my work. In the case of this book, a lot of what I was looking at and thinking about had to deal with issues that ran deep, ran family-tree-roots deeps. Hence the autobiography.I guess. I like to think that I’m not inherently an autobiographical writer, and that the inclusion of so much autobiography served the purposes of the work. But I’m young yet, so we’ll see.
The same review notes a theme of the collection: “going places where you do not quite belong; not quite being where you are most often located.” Do you connect with this idea? How does it relate to your sense of place in the world?
I think a lot of human beings might connect with this idea, here on our rock in a void! But, honestly, yeah, placelessness is something I think about a lot. It was a strange, unique (and great!) experience, growing up a wee blanquito in Miami in the 80s/90s. I think it sort of trained me to: 1) Never take myself very seriously; 2) Remain a little aloof from everything. Being in something but not quite of it—this is both the blessing and the curse of the journalist, the essayist. And it’s something that’s always been more or less the default for me.
Or, transposed videographically: https://www.youtube.com/watch?
Your essay about venturing to meet Juggalos, the fans of Insane Clown Posse, sort of obliquely reminded me of John Jeremiah Sullivan’s musings on visiting a Christian rock festival in his essay collection Pulphead. Are you a reader of JJS? Who or what are your influences/most loved authors/must reads?
Ho ho, am I ever! I first read that essay in 2007 on the floor of my ride-or-die friend Jeanette Romero’s Orlando apartment. I was a junior at the University of Florida and was interning at the Orlando Weekly. It was pretty life-changing, as far as those things go. Up until that point—up until I came across JJS and DFW and all the other tri-lettered white dudes a white dude reads while leveling-up beyond HST—I wanted to be a newspaper reporter. (I was also a Russian major, so I had really cornered the market on Careers of the 1940s.) I wanted to be a newspaper reporter, but then I started reading Didion and Baldwin but also Flannery O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy and a whole bunch of other fiction my sister Karen was passing me.
But, yeah, anyway, I sort of wrote that juggalo piece as an homage/extension/dialogue partner to JJS’.
These essays of yours, and JJS’s, recall a sort of daring American adventurer period in journalism’s past–not as journalistically formal as that of Joan Didion for eg., and not as embedded in thought and meandering as David Foster Wallace, but perhaps somewhere in between. How do you see yourself fitting in, or not fitting in, with the American essay & its history?
Well, I think you make a very good point re: the divisions. I mean, “The Essay” is a pretty huge tent with a pretty motley crew jostling around inside of it. The essay is most elementally, what?—the sound of a brain thinking its way across a page? As I mentioned before, I happen to be something of a dullard, so the sound of my own thought processes—it is cacophonic. It is something no one wants to hear. (You’re probably getting a sense of this, right now!) So, instead, because I am not talented enough to make stuff up, I go out and try to find stuff to write about. I sort of mold my persona + my thoughts around whatever that object happens to be.
In the case of the book, the stuff I went out to find = answers to questions I had about myself. Why didn’t I join the armed forces, as did practically every other male member of my family? Why did I find the idea of self-immunization—of bricking oneself up like a super-Stoic, so that nothing can ever harm you—so attractive, when I knew that, in practice, it was so harmful to self and others? Et cetera and so on.
But you’re right, the ‘reported essay’ already feels like something of a throwback (despite the preponderance of that despicable hashtag, longform). It harkens back to a time when editors would pay you to hang out for like ten months with a subculture, learn some things, do some things, and then try your best not to egregiously misrepresent those people and those things over the course of 20,000 words. It’s waaaaaay too time- and resource-intensive to ever be truly practical again. (At least as an artful, self-sustaining career for a whole class of professionals.) But, man, is it a fun way to try to live, for a time.
Many of your essays investigate male identity and “American masculinity,” in a way reminiscent of Shawn Vestal’s recent story collection Godforsaken Idaho. (Have you read it?) What draws you toward, and leads you to write about, masculinity? Is it the more destructive aspects of the condition–the gendered violence it leads to, the pressure to conform–the more positive elements, or something else?
I have not read that collection! But the jacket copy sounds dope as hell. The masculinity question is interesting, since I never, ever considered that that’s what I was doing—until the marketing team got a copy of my stuff. I just thought I was writing about (and around) me + my dad. But, I mean–I guess I’m both attracted to and repulsed by any condition of unthinking surety. Like, the condition of being at home in your own skin, of simply acting, of circulating blood so hot it stuns the mind. Because that certainly is not how I am in this world. And, obviously, that way of being is not good or to be aspired to, at least not in a hyper-masculine way—which all too often happens to be a racist, sexist, chauvinistic way. (The unthinkingness of a monk, though—probably to be aspired to!)
To simplify, with a Rumi and then a Milton excerpt re: What It Is About These Dudes—
Make us afraid of how we were.
the dark unbottomed infinite abyss
You have the atypical–for most literary readings–honor of being our unique white male at our next FPP reading! The role of the white male in the literary community is a being hotly debated right now. How much do considerations of identity beyond gender & masculinity factor into your work?
Whoa, there is no way I can do justice to this question in the space of an e-mail! I suppose that, when it comes to identities/ways of being/stories that differ from my own, the bare minimum I can try to do (and this is where a journalistic background is helpful) is to just shut up my own fool mouth and listen. Ask questions when appropriate, when the questions might bolster understanding–but, really, just shut up and listen. And then be as faithful (/non-meddlesome) to the narratives of those other identities/ways of being/stories as possible when putting them down on paper.