The first five sentences of Buck, MK Asante’s memoir of the adolescent years he spent not knowing whether his brother would ever get out of jail, his mother would ever escape her crippling depression or his father would ever be reconciled with them, set the stage for all that follows: “The fall in Killadelphia. Outside is the color of corn bread and blood. Change hangs in the air like the sneaks on the live wires behind my crib. Me and my big brother, Uzi, in the kitchen. He’s rolling a blunt on top of the Source, the one with Tyson on the cover rocking a kufi, ice-grilling through the gloss.” In that mere handful of words, Asante gives us a young narrator, a tense city, a family home, a casual smoker, a playful sense of language—and the not entirely understated threat of violence.
That’s Buck in a nutshell, and the journey that proceeds from there is an irresistible one, as we follow 12-year-old Malo—whose brilliant parents, a world-class dancer and a pioneering African-American scholar, can’t keep him from falling into a dangerous thug life—toward his eventual maturation into the creative young adult who’ll someday collaborate with Maya Angelou, win the Langston Hughes Award and become a tenured professor at Baltimore’s Morgan State University. PW chatted with Asante this week ahead of his author appearance Thursday at the Free Library.
In order to tell the story of your painful young teen years, you had to talk about your family’s problems: your mother’s psychiatric hospitalization, your father’s moving out, your brother’s prison sentence. How did they feel about seeing themselves in the book?
My family’s very supportive when it comes to art. My mom, my dad, my brother—they all basically said the same thing in their own way: “You gotta tell your story. It’s your story.” My mom thought it was a beautiful thing—she obviously allowed me to use her journal entries; she hopes it can help other people, can shed light on certain things. She hopes it can help take the stigma off mental health issues in the black community. My dad . . . he just believes in the power of writing, sharing your truth. And my brother thought it was really dope; he helped me remember certain things right.
Their support was so helpful . . . but at the same time, I needed to be independent as a writer, writing it for myself. You have to get to a point as a writer where you’re not trying to please anyone. You have to tell the truth.
In the book, when your 15-year-old self discovers the world of great literature, you have an epiphany: “Now I see why reading was illegal for black people duriing slavery . . . The more words I know, the more things I can think about . . . if you limit someone’s vocab, you limit their thoughts. They can’t even think of freedom because they don’t have the language to. I think about all the nghz I know with limited vocabs, the ones who keep asking, Nahmean? Yahmean? because they don’t have the words to express what they really mean.”
I had been frustrated with not being able to express myself the way I wanted: getting into arguments with people and conceding, but feeling that I shouldn’t be conceding; I just didn’t have the language, the tools, to make my point. Because at that point all you can do is yell at them—you gotta raise your voice and threaten them! And that’s not cool. (Laughs.)
I was always someone who loved words; I always used to wonder where new words came from. When people would say “decent,” like “that’s mad decent,” or “jawn”—where did “jawn” come from? I’ve always been fascinated with language, and I’ve always been around people who had a very interesting way of speaking. And then once I started reading, it opened up doors in my mind.
Even in your younger days, though, before you went through that transformation, you were already thinking lyrically.
I think one of the things, early on, is that I had the language of hip-hop—there’s a lot there. I also had my brother, who loved words and the street language, and I had the more proper language from my parents.
One of the biggest challenges in writing this book—and it’s hard to explain this if you haven’t done it; even when I think about it, it sounds kind of crazy—but in order to write this, I didn’t sit back as I am now and recollect. I had to go back. I had to go back to Philly, to the ’90s. I had to go back to being Malo, and write from that—not write about that or to that, but from that. It’s kind of a time-traveling experience. There was a process to get there, and once I got there, it was like the floodgates opened to the languge, the details. But it took a while to get there, to access that.
Is that purely a mental process, or did you physically retrace the steps of your own childhood in Olney and Germantown to get the scenes set in your mind?
At one point I did that, to get back in the zone. But then . . . the Philadelphia of the ‘90s doesn’t exist anymore. You can go back, but where that school used to be, there’s a McDonald’s, and where McDonald’s used to be, there’s a school. (Laughs.) And those people who used to be right over there are in jail.
What was helpful was living in Baltimore, so similar to Philly—I felt like I was in Philly. I couldn’t have written Buck living in Malibu.
There are some classic Philadelphia books that depict singular eras in the city’s history: The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Buzz Bissinger’s A Prayer for the City. Maybe it’s presumptuous to suggest this, but Buck feels to me like the kind of instant classic that will be on people’s must-read lists for a long time. What’s it like to think your words might be considered a definitive literary portrait of Philly life?
I love Philadelphia; I’ve been to over 40 countries now, and I’ve never been to a place like Philly. One of the things the L.A. Times wrote in their review of Buck was that Philly is one of the true stars of the book, and I think that’s accurate to some extent. So it feels good to represent the city in that way. It also feels good [to have included] so many people’s stories who would never get the chance to tell their own—who might be dead or in jail or just don’t have the means and platform to do so. It makes me feel good that I can write something that connects with a 50-year-old white woman in Iowa, but also with the 19- or 20-year-old street dude in Philly.
What are you up to now?
Multiple things. I'm working on a soundtrack to the book—music that I've made [incorporating] excerpts from the book . . . then I'm rapping on it and have guests rapping on it; it's going to be dope, like a mix tape. I just released my first song not long ago, with Talib Kweli, who's one of those artists who had a huge influence on me; making my first hip-hop song with him was really major for me. And I'm working on the script for a movie of Buck—I got a call about movie rights the other week. I'd love to come back to Philly and direct it.
PW's Summer Guide 2014