But I played. I played so well that eventually that coach reached out through my head coach on campus, and said he wanted to get back in touch. Basically, by the end of that season, me and that coach were back in touch. He said, “I can’t guarantee that you’re going to be playing the First Premier League overseas, but with these numbers you can get a roster spot somewhere. I can say you’ll be able to live, make some money, and figure out your life.”
When [Iowa Writers’ Workshop director] Sam Chang called, it was towards the end of the season. I was at team lunch, and I almost didn’t answer the call because I didn’t know the number. I answered it and Sam came through the phone—“This is the Workshop!”—I made such a fool of myself. I asked her name probably four times. I felt so vindicated. I kept yelling, “I’m going to come! I know already!” She kept saying, “slow down, slow down—I need to tell you: you have a fellowship!”
The world had taught me I could be a pretty decent basketball player. I’m grateful for that; it taught me a lot. But I taught myself, with the help of some great teachers, that I needed to write. So I went.
It’s very easy to be defined by your circumstances. We’re all dealt such drastically different hands of cards. Think about it: Some kids’ parents are 100 percent ready for their arrival. They have a dope room, great clothes, and a whole bunch of people ready to love them. Doesn’t that teach you certain things about yourself? But other kids, they pop up at a very inconvenient time for everybody. And that teaches you certain lessons, too.
Nonetheless, there comes a time when you start to just feel responsible for yourself. Yes, you’re at the mercy of whatever life grants you—but that second education is taking the power back. Developing the ability to say, well, certain things happened, but now I would like to do this or that, and I don’t see why I can’t. We’re always being told who we can be or we can’t be, we’re always having labels slapped on. This is what black guys do, exclusively. Or if you do that, you’re maybe not such a black guy. Of if you’re an athlete, you can’t write—and so on. The second education means broadening your horizons—taking risks to definite yourself against all odds. History is written every day, and nothing is certain. Maybe you’re writing towards a thought of school or tradition that you’re not really aware of yet—and maybe it doesn’t yet exist. But you can come to define it.
This is part of what’s at stake for me in literature. I refuse to be put in a box. I think I wrote a novel that’s not just “street lit.” And yes, while I’m an African-American writer—if you even want to say that, because it’s just a P.C. term for “black”—I’m not African-American in the way most people consider it, because my family comes from Jamaica, and not so long ago. (Jim McPherson would always joke—“The reason you get so charged up is because your family hasn’t been here that long. Your people are still trying to learn to be a minority. Your people in their recent past where in the land of majority, where they are. Don’t be a moral dandy, kid.”)
There aren’t many white characters in this novel, but I never thought about it. I wasn’t really trying to write “black” characters either. I’m blessed to say that everybody that I’ve worked with doesn’t really subscribe to that nonsense. One of the things that charmed me about my editor when we spoke—something that really moved me was, he said, “This isn’t just a ‘black’ story or a ‘white’ story. This is an international story. I wouldn’t want to ghettoize this story.”
Just because I’m a black guy doesn’t mean that every action that I make defines who I am in relation to my blackness. Of course, I know that people are tribal. Mankind doesn’t like what it doesn’t understand—if people can’t drop a couple boxes around something, we have a hard time saying what it is. We rely on those kinds of categories. It’s human nature. I don’t even look at it as a bad thing, necessarily. Every time you look at somebody, a whole bunch of boxes get checked. A certain amount of this is unavoidable.
And still, I think, we can transcend these labels, too. That is another one of my stakes in literature. When I came out to visit Iowa City, I went out to a bar to watch the Red Sox play. And there was a guy sitting there in a Pawtucket Red Sox hat. I thought, what is this guy doing out here, in the middle of Iowa, wearing a hat for the Red Sox minor league team? We started talking, and it turned out it was the writer Paul Harding—he was teaching at the Workshop that semester, and a few weeks later won the Pulitzer Prize. We had so much more in common than I could have known, sitting there: Boston guys, sports fans, writers. And that night, he told me something I’ll always remember.
“One of the only requirements for literature,” he said, “is that the reader can feel a heart pulsing back from them on the other side of the page.”
That feeling is indiscriminate. It’s not black or white; it’s classless, sexless. It doesn’t matter where you fall on any kind of spectrum: emotional truth is emotional truth. And this is the standard I’m trying to reach for. People are different and aesthetics are different—there’s so much variety in literature. But the universal needs the singular, and the singular must contain the universal. If you can put yourself in it, the labels fall away and it becomes art.