By DONOVAN HARRELL
Brian Broome’s new memoir “Punch Me Up to the Gods” is gaining popularity as an Amazon bestseller and is sparking conversations about Black masculinity.
Broome, a K. Leroy Irvis fellow and instructor in the Writing Program in Pitt’s English department, earned his master of fine arts degree in nonfiction from Pitt earlier this year, and his book was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on May 18.
In his memoir, Broome details his childhood and teenage years growing up in rural Ohio as a gay, dark-skinned Black man. He also discusses his struggles with addiction and poverty. The book is divided up into sections based on Gwendolyn Brooks’ 1959 poem “We Real Cool.”
The University Times spoke to Broome about his time in Pittsburgh, his experiences with rehab and how his book fits in conversations surrounding Black masculinity. The conversation has been edited for clarity and conciseness.
How long have you been living in Pittsburgh?
Oh, my gosh. More than half my life. I’m 51. And I moved here when I was I think 19 or 20. I was literally running from an experience that I had in Akron to do with homophobia. And I went home for a while back to Warren, Ohio. And I was in a depression. What brought me here is that when I was in high school, I was in the marching band, and one year we got a chance to march in a real NFL game. And it happened to be a Pittsburgh game (at Three Rivers Stadium). I looked around and I thought, “Oh, this city is amazing.” When I wanted to escape my hometown, I thought “I’ll just go to Pittsburgh.”
What have you been up to outside of writing?
I worked a lot of jobs. I waited tables. I worked these endless customer service jobs, one right after the other. I washed dishes. I’ve worked retail, I mean, just various jobs, like you do to survive.
What made you decide to go back to school, and when did you start writing your book?
This all has to do with going to rehab. I went to rehab because I was in a pretty dark place in my life. It was just time to get sober or I was probably going to die. I didn’t want to go to rehab, but I thought I’ll just go, just to shut everybody up. And when I got there, I realized that I really did need to be there.
I went to the Greenbriar Treatment Center out in Washington, Pa. — way out there. I couldn’t escape. Rehab is a lot like you see in the movies — people sit in a circle and talk. But when I first got there, you hear the door slammed behind you and you’re thinking, “Oh, crap, I’m really here.”
They showed me to my room, and the first thing I started doing was scheming on how to get out. My roommate liked to snore really loud, and I woke up the very first night, and I walked to the front desk, like three in the morning and it was a night nurse there. And I told her, “I need to call somebody, and I need to leave this place.” And I remember she just looked up at me from her desk, and she just said, “Give it one more day.” She didn’t say this, but I think she might have been in recovery herself because she seemed to have this understanding of why I wanted to leave.
After I detoxed and they got all the gunk out of my system, they put me on antidepressants and anxiety medication. I felt like my old self; I felt like I did when I was 10 years old. And that’s what really fueled the writing. Because I used to write when I was 10 years old. I used to love it until somebody told me to stop.
I started exercising again and writing and going to really good group therapy sessions and learning that I was not unique in any way, shape or form. I wasn’t this special flower who had been treated especially badly in the world. There are people in there who had terrible things happen to them, who were struggling with addiction, people who were in there for the third or fourth or fifth or 10th time because of relapsing. It just gave me a broader perspective. It made me less insular. And that was what I needed. And when I got out, I was like, “I can’t go back.”
When I got out of rehab, I went back to my terrible customer service job and immediately got fired because it was so awful that I couldn’t do it sober. … And I thought, “What the heck am I gonna do now?” And I thought “I’m gonna go back to school and maybe figure out what I want to do.”
I ended up going to the Community College of Allegheny County on the North Side and I just started writing. I really started writing in rehab. Those long nights in rehab, there’s not a whole lot to do. My roommates snored badly. I was just up nights writing. So, when I got fired from my job, I went to CCAC. I met a professor there who said to me, “Your writing is actually pretty good.” So, I just kept up with it.
And then I met a great counselor there named Evelyn Kitchens-Stephens. She was a Black woman who just really encouraged me. I would complain about things, and she would be like, “Just shut up and keep writing.” Literally. You know how Black women do sometimes — “Just quit complaining.”
And she encouraged me to go to Chatham. She said, “You should go somewhere where you might stick out a little bit.” And I did stick out a Chatham, … because I was old and Black and male. I think that was a different kind of student at Chatham at that time. When I got accepted, I went back to tell her, and she had unfortunately passed away. She was a great inspiration. At that point, I was like, “Well, I’m just going to keep doing this, for her, I’m going to keep writing.” And so from Chatham, that’s where I applied at Pitt and got accepted into the MFA program.
When I was writing those stories in rehab, I had no intention for these stories to become a book. I was just writing. The way the book happened is when I got out of rehab, I was just kind of afraid to go anywhere because I was afraid I would relapse. I was writing at home by myself, and writing on social media all the time. And then I found a way to interact with people without having to talk to them.
I started performing around the city. Like the Moth and there’s a thing downtown called Wordplay that I would do, and I was just doing the open mic things and readings all around the city. And then one night, after I did a performance … a woman walked up to me and said, “Hi, my name is Danielle, and I’d like to be your agent.” And I didn’t know what that meant. But I said yes; I thought, “What could it hurt?”
How has your time at Pitt helped you with writing your book?
I was in class at Pitt while I was writing this book, and I was workshoping to anybody who would read it — my classmates, Peter Trachtenberg, Yona Harvey. I was giving her chapters. And just taking my writing classes and listening to what my professors had to say about the art of writing. That helped a lot.
The way that I wrote a lot of the stories changed completely, just because of learning more compelling ways to write.
How are you feeling about the reception your book has received so far?
It’s been great. I’ve had some great authors laud my book. It’s been surprising to me that it’s gotten such a positive reception. Amazon books voted it one of the top 10 so far this year, as did Apple books. It’s been on the “Today” show. I mean, how can I not be pleased with that? I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from people who have read it, who have told me that it has helped them. I think the greatest thing is that these experiences that I write down in the book, I felt, were singular to me, and I have learned since then that I wasn’t the only person going through the kinds of things that I was going through, and that’s pretty gratifying.
How was the process of opening up about these difficult topics and moments that have happened in your life?
Well, it’s not easy. I had to do a lot of internal work to be able to even write them down. I wasn’t always the greatest person. I had been a quite horrible person. And I thought I should be honest about that and revealing myself to be at times a complete moron.
I look at these stories as kind of cautionary tales for people — like “please do not do what I did to try to contort yourself into a shape that is acceptable for everybody, because you’ll only end up damaging yourself and damaging other people.” The process was pretty intense.
I was going through recovery, I was trying to stay sober at the same time that I was writing a lot of these stories. You can’t stay sober if you’re still holding onto stuff. In my mind, I didn’t know that people were going to be reading this.
And for the most part, people have responded to it positively. They see their flaws, or maybe they understand somebody who is dealing with addiction better, or I think it’s a window into a world that some people didn’t know existed. But the feelings of the book, I think, are universal. My experience was unique, but it wasn’t an exclusive experience. All kinds of people felt the same way that I felt growing up.
Since the book has been published, have you heard from any of the Black men you talked about in the book who gave you different ideas of Black masculinity and what it was supposed to be?
I heard from my brother. I was afraid of his reaction. But as it turns out, it was a great reaction. My brother contacted me and to tell me that I wasn’t the only one going through those things. He was a superstar athlete and popular with the girls and these things, but he also struggled with this idea of masculinity and not being a “sissy”
What was the process like for unlearning some of these ideas and learning new ideas or different ways to approach the topic of Black masculinity?
You say “was” like I’m done. I’m still in the process of learning. I’m still trying to unlearn a lot of stuff. I’m still remorseful about a lot of stuff: a lot of things I said to people, a lot of ways I treated people.
I’ve done the whole 12 step thing where you go back and you apologize to those you’ve wronged, and some people have forgiven me. Some people have not forgiven me. And that is a bitter pill that I have to swallow, from the way that I behaved. That is a lesson in and of itself. People don’t have to forgive you. They’re not obligated to forgive you just because you’ve apologized.
I try to let my humanity come first before this idea of my gender and how my gender is supposed to respond to certain situations. I have tried to relearn intimacy and just being around people without being drunk and high. That’s a whole animal in and of itself. I found out I’m not good at it.
It’s a process of trying to forgive myself for certain things. It’s a process of trying to forgive other people for things that they have done to me, and it’s not easy. But it’s one hundred worth it because my life as a sober person is miles above my life as an active addict.
Where do you think your book fits in conversations about Black masculinity today?
I think that conversation is just starting. We’ve got Lil Nas X out there, just tearing it up. And I hope that my book finds a place in that conversation. It’s been out a month now, and some people are approaching me about implementing it in their classrooms. And I’m like, “Absolutely.” I hope that my book finds a place in that conversation so that we in the Black community can start talking about these pressures that we put on Black men and the pressures that we put on Black women. You can’t talk about one without talking about the other. I hope it can help people who are struggling with these kinds of issues.
Is there anything that you want readers to take away or anything you hope stays in their mind after they finish reading it?
I hope that people realize that this is your one and only life. And there are billions of people out there who are trying to tell you how to live to make themselves more comfortable. Or they think they know what’s best for you and they know how you should be and they know how you should act. I hope that people are discerning about who they listen to in terms of the one and only life that they get. And I hope that regardless of race, gender, sexual identity, that people just realize this is your one shot at living, and you should live it in a way that makes you happy.
Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-383-9905.
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