Does anyone ever really come of age? Adulthood is a racket, especially once you realize the individual disparities in responsibility, maturity, and citizenry among your coworkers, friends, family, and others. Some of us never have to grow up. Some of us have no choice. Abundant privilege or a lack thereof has a dramatic influence on this process. Part of the late-capitalist bildungsroman is recognizing that the majority of our pop culture profits off of racism, sexism, violence, and exploitation.
Andre Perry’s debut collection of personal essays, Some of Us Are Very Hungry Now, unearths the complex dynamics of varying social, racial, class, and political privileges buried in every apartment party and barroom concert and late-night debate of his twenties. Don’t let these predictable settings fool you: these narratives are vibrant and shirk platitudes. Perry seamlessly weaves throughout his personal stories lush culture criticism and commentary. He exposes how this formative decade builds or breaks friendships, how sometimes it takes nothing more than one problematic joke to realize whether a person has remained naïve long past adolescence or bought into the white-picket-fence system, or worse, embraced their most despicable tendencies—racism, sexism, homophobia. In Perry’s essays, how one interacts with music or movies or friends at a bar holds meaning. As we enter adulthood, the stakes aren’t low anymore, but as Perry demonstrates, they were never low in the first place.
While acting as a keen observer, Perry unabashedly shares his own errors too, but these essays are not meant to bring about breezy or comfortable conversations and certainly not to assuage personal guilt over our accidental or intentional misdoings. That appears to be half the point, confronting the infinite biases we encounter or project every day, then asking more of others and ourselves.
Consider, for example, this excerpt from “American Gray Space:”
“Rap music rarely goes multi-platinum without white money. So where are the white listeners—the ones who roll down the street en route to middle class jobs in their trucks shaking the whole block with the bass and rhymes of A$AP Rocky, Rick Ross, and The Game—where are they when it is time to stand in the streets for justice, for the requiems of Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, and the ever-expanding roll call of innocent lives consumed by hate? Where are they when they just need to vote for the right person? To have it both ways, for all of us, is a distinct privilege that we should never invoke.”
I try to teach this to my freshman composition students every semester. What we consume matters. Where we spend our money matters. It makes a difference whether we protest or choose to stay home. “American Gray Space” examines not so much whether the n-word has a place in music, but rather, who if anyone has the artistic license to use it, and why white people are apt to sing along to every instance with gusto.
As the essays take us from San Francisco to Iowa City, Perry also displays a knack for setting. It’s easy to imagine the esoteric details of the West Coast and Midwest, while still seeing that across landscapes many habits and hipster ideologies remain uniform. It’s a constant question of how place and people can construct a specific culture.
“Some Kinds of Love (Are Better Than Others),” “No Country,” and the title essay elevate the collection to new levels. Playing with point of view, Perry provides criticisms of his interracial relationships and the sexual stereotypes inflicted on black men in “Some Kinds of Love.” The essay’s narrative reveals the consequences in real time, while the background critique is big picture. For example, it doesn’t get much more macro than, “Capitalism and culture rent rooms in the same flat and they get along just fine, sharing ideas, an interdisciplinary relationship. The low-income renters downstairs can’t stand the noise. Yet we all tune in.”
Meanwhile, Perry takes the breathing room in the essay to consider his own loneliness at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the challenges of being the sole black male in his discipline. This expands into a larger meditation on loneliness and the various contradictions we inhabit on a daily basis:
“He feels alone in other ways too. The music he listens to and the clothes he wears—the tight jeans and retro t-shirts of the alternative generation—clash with his hypocritical disgust of the modern hipster’s ironic poses. His embrace of liberal politics sits uneasily with his disdain for the Democratic Party. Likes the Grateful Dead, hates hippies. Curses corporate friends and their capitalist ways, yet enjoys drinking top-shelf bourbon on the rocks and rubbing shoulders with Southern gentlemen.”
The title essay is superb. Interweaving an academic opportunity that allows Perry to write about underground music in Hong Kong and the arc of a serious relationship, the author triumphs in expanding his feelings of isolation at home and abroad to a level of high art. It’s another deft reflection on place and how fast a person can throw away or lose their stability.
“No Country” is worth quoting in full, but one of the most powerful moments comes when Perry is invited to sit on a panel about writing the Midwest at a writers’ conference. While the panel is technically diverse, Perry points out that he and the other panelists recognize the specious setup and avoid playing their expected roles. He muses, “There’s nothing worse than a room full of white people asking me to acknowledge my blackness. They are really just asking me to acknowledge their own expectations of my blackness—and in doing so they are very, very quietly calling me out—exposing me when I would rather just fit in.”
The collection’s one potential inconsistency is the three brief letters addressed to Emma that conclude the book. It’s not that the writing suffers; it’s as clear and lively here as all that comes before it. However, the switch to an epistle feels a bit forced, even though Perry implements other distinct structures—a screenplay, interview, and question and answer, to name a few—in the earlier selections. Their brevity is also notable given the dense nature of the central essays. Yet, where the third letter concludes, with the author surrounded by thousands of white college students at a Kendrick Lamar concert who are fearlessly shouting the n-word, brings about a fierce return to isolation. Perry writes, “I looked around me, peering at the enthusiastic youth and felt almost entirely alone, separated from my music, my blues, my town, my identity. Kendrick beamed on stage, energized by the power, the taut grip of his music.”
There’s something heartbreaking about these thoughts appearing in a letter, its receiver immediately implicated in the writer’s divide from so much of himself. Perry is a master in thinking through the significant minutiae of our interactions. He reminds us how fast we can feel distant from our past and current selves. It’s a remarkable, endless journey toward personal accountability. There’s so much more we can be.
NONFICTON – ESSAYS
Some of Us Are Very Hungry Now
By Andre Perry
Two Dollar Radio
Published November 12, 2019
Aram Mrjoian is a writer, editor, instructor, and PhD candidate at Florida State University. He is an editor-at-large at the Chicago Review of Books, the Southern Review of Books, and the Southeast Review, as well as the managing editor at TriQuarterly. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Millions, The Rumpus, Boulevard, Cream City Review, Gulf Coast online, Longreads, Joyland, and many other publications. He earned his MFA in creative writing at Northwestern University. Find his work at arammrjoian.com