What is the experience of growing up Black and queer in America? There is no singular story that can encompass that experience. But to help illuminate it further, Hari Ziyad’s new book Black Boy Out of Time offers a story that is part memoir, part theory, part manifesto, and part prayer. Ziyad’s book begins with them coining a new word to summarize their experience: misoafropedia, or the hatred of Black children. Through the chapters of the book, Ziyad traces the story of growing up in a world that monitored their gender, their behavior, and their sexuality. From Ohio to New York, Black Boy Out of Time chronicles Ziyad’s many struggles to reconcile with the past, with religion, and with family.
TheBody spoke with Ziyad about their memoir, which is out now, what it was like to coin a new term to encapsulate their experience growing up, their theories on gender, and what it meant to dig into painful memories.
Mathew Rodriguez: One of the things I loved about the book was that it seems almost, like, genreless, or the opposite of that—it’s kind of full of genre. As I was reading it, it was like there’s part memoir, there’s part theory. There’s part prayer. There’s part manifesto. Did you go into writing it saying, “I want to write against the traditional idea of a memoir,” or did that kind of happen as the writing happened?
Hari Ziyad: I think the form it took evolved throughout the writing process, but it was definitely in my mind from the start, and I didn’t want to write like a traditional memoir. I wanted to reframe the coming-of-age story. And obviously, like you said, there was a lot of theory in the book, as well. So we pitched the book as like memoir/social commentary. I think there was like elements of—and I feel like there are a lot of negative connotations with self-help—but I feel like there are elements of even that in it. And there’s definitely the social commentary aspect of it that was what we pitched originally. But in it, I didn’t want to be constrained to the traditional format of a memoir.
And then the rest of it just kind of developed as I started exploring what that could look like. The self-epistolary chapters to my younger self were something that was added towards the end of the process. And I think going into it with the understanding that we could do whatever we wanted with it, knowing that we were going to challenge the format, was the reason that that was even a possibility.
We played around with it in a couple of different ways.
Like, initially I had thought that maybe I could do the whole book as self-epistolary, which didn’t work for obvious reasons. But I loved that my editor was on the same page of like, “We can write this however we want, it doesn’t have to feel like a traditional memoir.” There are parts of it that started off as essays. And then I put them in the book, even though the book is not itself a book of essays. And that was all intentional from the beginning.
MR: Oh yeah, your essay, “My Gender Is Black,” is one of my favorite essays. So it was nice to see a lot of it remixed and repurposed in that chapter with the same name.
HZ: One of my favorite aspects of it was to be able to take something like, “My Gender Is Black,” and instead of spending a thousand words or 1,500 words on it, really dig deep and also connect it to the other ideas that are in the book.
MR: One of the earliest memories that you share in the book is when you have your head shaved by your family and it’s such a visceral memory. I’m wondering what it was like for you to curate the memories as you’re writing. Like, what, to you, made something that happened to you in your life rise to a level of like, “Yeah, I think this needs to be in the book”? And were there things that you had to excise and say, “No, actually I’m not going to plumb that right now”?
HZ: There were things that we had to decide whether or not to include, and so much of it was left out. I think the moments that were just very strong and vivid and felt colorful were moments that feel like that to me too. And so I kind of approached it, knowing that there has to be something about those memories, if they’re so colorful, that is important. And using that as a starting point instead of already having an idea of the story that I wanted to tell. I kind of just look back at the moments in my life that were really vivid and then ask myself, like, “Why are these moments sticking with me in that way?” and then going from there.
That [memory] was a moment where gender really started to show up in my life in a way that it hadn’t before. So I was able to just explore that through the scene. There definitely are other scenes that didn’t feel as clear writing about. There were things that took a lot of iterations to get them to a place where they could feel more vivid.
In particular, the chapter about my aunt’s funeral, that one brought me back to a lot of memories about my relationship with my cousin growing up that I don’t necessarily think going into that chapter were going to be central.
MR: So, a lot of the writing process for this was digging into memories. Then I want to get into that other part, which is the analytical and the creation of these ideas. And one of the central ideas for me of your novel is this idea of misoafropedia [the hatred of Black children] that you spell out in the prologue. So I’m wondering, when did you find or create a name for the concept, and how did finding that concept help you frame the story?
HZ: It was about the same time that I started to do the self-epistolary chapter. So I was already well into the book. We already knew that the Black experiences of childhood were central to the book, but we needed to tie it together in a way that made sense. And so it kind of just came out of necessity of like, this is something we’re talking about throughout the entire book, but it’s never named in a very specific way. And that was a conversation that I had with my editor and we came up with that together.
But what it described—this process of experiencing childhood in this way that we don’t actually get to experience it fully—was something that was present in the book at the beginning.
I think what came with naming it, though, and why it was around the same time that I started to write to my younger self in the book, was because it allowed me to actually do some healing around that and have that language. I think that’s the addition the self-epistolary chapters bring to the book, too, is that it wasn’t just me documenting my experiences of Black childhood or childhood trauma. Those are chapters where I’m actually trying to work through and heal from those things. It was really critical for me to do some of that work. I’m kind of wary about coining new terms. One of the things that happened when misogynoir, which describes the intersection of sexism and anti-Blackness, was coined—which was definitely an inspiration behind this—is that it just really allowed for conversations to take off in a new way.
My hope is that other people will be able to use that term and explore their experiences of childhood, through that lens in a way that makes it clearer and able to connect with the stories of other people, as well.
MR: So going off of what you were just talking about with healing, I wanted to ask about specifically the writing process and how you felt it allows you to heal. I’m thinking a lot about some of the parts in the chapter, “My Gender is Black.” When you talk about the need for healing from the gender violence you experienced after your gender being policed as a young Black child, can you talk a little bit about just, like, what the writing process did heal for you, what it didn’t, and how it felt to go to walk through your own history.
HZ: What the writing process allowed me to do is to lay the foundation for conversations that I needed to have, and didn’t really know how to start, especially when it came to my relationships to family and my mother in particular. And so it wasn’t just the writing itself that was therapeutic or healing in that way. But the writing did open up a door for further conversations. And that was also an element of the therapy that I was doing outside of the writing process. It kind of started to feed each other in the cycle, like I would write about things, and it would bring something up, and I would take that to therapy, and then therapy would bring some new realizations that I could bring back to the page.
The writing became a function of the healing that I was doing in my relationships, because things would be brought up through the writing process that I could take to the healing that I needed to do outside of the page, the conversations I needed to have. And so that’s how I kind of view the writing process. It’s like—it’s not therapy itself. It’s not healing, itself, necessarily, but it’s really—it became really connected to the healing that I was doing off of the page.
MR: That’s really interesting. Yeah. Like, the writing being almost like a doula-ing process to what will eventually be like a conversation or a moment or a reckoning that can come later.
HZ: Yeah. I like that phrasing. I love that. I think that rings true. That’s how I’m going to explain it from now.
MR: We love giving other people language to talk about! Something that I love about writing in general is that I felt like you did not back away from implicating yourself in the structures and systems that you talk about. Like, you even talked about a couple of times, the ways that you engaged in misoafropedia, when it comes to thinking of lateness as a reflection of individual badness and how you were taught those things and had to unlearn them. I wanted to ask, were you nervous at all? Were you nervous talking about implicating yourself in these systems that can be harmful, but also talking about the unlearning of them?
HZ: Yeah. I think the short answer is yes. And it’s nerve-wracking, especially when it involves other people. I wanted to be very sensitive about other people’s stories. So that added one level of anxiety around doing this. And then, you know, no one wants to be out there as, like, this horrible person. And if you’re saying that you’re complicit in horrible systems, that can easily be extrapolated from.
So, I think, yes. But what I included in the book, and how I try to approach my writing in general is—I think vulnerability is great. But there’s a certain level of vulnerability—even though it seems like in some parts, maybe, that I didn’t leave anything on the table, even in those, I was very sensitive about what I included.
And if I didn’t feel strongly rooted in my stance in that context, then it’s not included. So even if there are lots of stories about my grandmother that are not in there, even the chapter about sexual violence, there’s things that are not in there. And not because I don’t want to like seem like a worse person, but just because I had to understand why I was putting that on the page. I was doing that, not to just show that I can acknowledge the horrible things that I was doing. It had to have a reason behind that. If I wasn’t clear on the reason behind it, that was kind of how I made the distinction between what I left on the page and what I didn’t.
And so that clarity also added a lot of confidence around what was included, because I was clear around why it was there. There were lots of questions that we had to ask ourselves internally beforehand. But ultimately before anything was put in there, we made sure that we were set. I felt strongly about the things that I left in the book. That’s kind of how I approach my writing in general. I like to be vulnerable, and I think it’s really important to acknowledge the roles that we play in systems, because of the reasons that I say in the book; that’s a part of abolition. But we also have to be clear on what we’re doing when we write about those things and why. And if I don’t feel that clarity, I don’t include it.
MR: That reminds me of something a friend of mine said in a workshop once, that like, you know, there’s the story you live and there’s the story you tell, and just because you live it and you’re telling that story doesn’t mean you have to give every detail. Like, there are things that we as writers have to keep for ourselves also, and it has nothing to do with what image we’re trying to portray. It has to do sometimes with the story. There are so many reasons why a writer makes a decision to include or not include something.
I wanted to ask about when you talk about being a part of NYU film school and almost kind of being indoctrinated and making art that is stripped of its Blackness. And I was reading it and, you know, you talk about the film that you were creating, and I was wondering if any part of like the novel writing process felt like a reaction to this, like inculcation you had on what art is and is not.
HZ: That’s a great question. I don’t think that I consciously view my writing through that lens, a response to how I was taught about art, but I think that there probably is an element of it that is just by necessity. Like, I know for a fact that I don’t want to create art like that. So I have to do certain things in my actual art that pushed back against that. But I don’t think that I was consciously thinking about the ways that I was taught storytelling at NYU and that I had to do something different.
I think the ways that I was taught to think about perspective throughout my schooling was more of like a conscious thing—and audience, and who do we tell stories for, and why? In general, even in high school, learning about that and learning how we learned history, that’s something that I’m consciously always pushing back on. And obviously that’s connected to how I learned storytelling at NYU. But yeah, I don’t think I made that conscious link.
MR: You talk a lot about God in this book, and I love the very many ways that you talk about manifestations of God and religion and experiences of God. Towards the end of the book, you write about God as almost the opposite of human-made responses to Blackness like carcerality and misoafropedia. You kind of say that God could heal those things. Can you talk a little bit about, through the writing process, what it was like to wrestle with your definition of God and religion?
HZ: Yeah, it was a lot, because religion was such a huge part of my life growing up. And so the book was me in a way opening myself back up to the possibility that there might be something in there for me. Because for so long, I pushed that away. I would say that I was spiritual, but wasn’t really doing lots of spiritual practices because I associated all of that with the harm I experienced in my household growing up. And so just by virtue of re-exploring my relationship with my mother, I was forced to look at religion, because religion is such a big part of my mother’s life and her story. And what I was realizing is that there are so many just beautiful things that religion gave to my mother.
And it was such a big part of all of the things that she did very well, even though it was also a big part of the things that were harmful for me. And so much of this book was trying to like parse out what those things were and to ask whether or not they can be parsed out. I was asking myself these questions in the book. I don’t think I was very clear on that, but what I was clear on was that there were good things in there. And so much of that I was able to connect with through ancestor work. My friend who is a voodoo priestess advised me to set up an altar. And before I even started this book, I had started to do work with my grandmother at the altar.
That really was a huge part of how I was able to think about spirituality differently. With altar work, you can take the parts about religion that make sense. And you can take the parts in particular about your ancestors’ religion and your mother’s religion. I’m like, that’s the whole purpose of it. And that’s why you’re doing ancestor work, and put it in a way that is going to be fulfilling for you. And so through doing that work around the book, I was able to come to a concept of spirituality that felt like the good parts of what I experienced growing up, while also holding to account my mother, and also me, to not fall back into the same systems that use religion to oppress queer people.