I was supposed to die, the story goes. I was supposed to move from my comatose state, from the null space I’d occupied for three weeks, into a more permanent kind of silence. I was just over a year old, I’ve been told, when I’d contracted the spinal meningitis that was supposed to end my life. Three weeks of my life were spent in a coma, three weeks of the sixty or so weeks I’d been alive. 5% of the life I had lived up to that point was lost to that coma. I am 27 now and I think about that 5%, I think about if I went comatose for that same percent of time, if I went blank for almost a year and a half, what it would be like to lose so much time, to lose more time than I feel I’ve already lost.
I was supposed to die but I didn’t. And when I didn’t, so the story goes, I was to emerge damaged. No one was certain about what form that damage would take—maybe I wouldn’t be able to speak, maybe I wouldn’t be able to read, maybe I wouldn’t be able to hear—but they were certain that some sort of damage would present itself.
I was supposed to be damaged, but I wasn’t. Or maybe I was, maybe they were right that I would be damaged but wrong on how that damage would manifest because, months after I exited my coma, so the story goes, I began reading. I was a year and a half. By the time I was two, I was reading chapter books and at three years old, I started reading the dictionary. I was four when I began reading the driver’s manual for my mom’s Nissan Stanza to bore myself to sleep.
I don’t remember these things. I do not remember a lot of things about my childhood, in fact. I don’t remember reading the driver’s manual, I don’t remember the hours I spent reading through the dictionary one word at a time, sounding them out. I do remember the two spelling bees I won, though, because I have evidence, because I have trophies that prove they happened. I was five when I won the first spelling bee. I wasn’t competing against other children—I had beaten them all with ease, even the 6th graders—but against the judges and whatever words they threw at me. Words like microsporangium, like zygospore, like xenophobia.
To continue this narrative, it’s important that you know why I was reading so early, why I was doing long division when I was four. The coma could have something to do with it but there was another part to my advanced intelligence: a woman named Doreen.
Let’s pause for a moment and jump back to when I exited my coma, back to when my mother started calling me her miracle baby.
My father is a dentist and he was a dentist when I was in my coma. He owns his own practice now, he owned his own practice then. My mom was the office manager then, though she’s not now. Now, they don’t speak. He has nothing but vitriol for her; she is tired of his anger, of the way he treats her children that are his children too but—I would argue—by blood only. She has no energy left for anger. His well of anger, driven in part by self-aggrandizement, seems infinite.
But I digress.
My mom was the office manager then. She and my father worked full-time and some change, between forty and fifty hours a week. After I exited my coma, the doctors said I needed watching, that someone would have to take care of me and make sure I was okay. I was weak, I was damaged, but not in the way they thought. Enter Doreen.
Doreen was my mom’s best friend. She was from Queens, most recently, but Jamaica was her home. She ran a daycare out of her house, a cozy place that I remember in pieces, in odd details. I remember the shaggy blue carpet and the rust brown corduroy recliner in the living room. I remember how all of us black kids would dance to Michael Jackson and Bob Marley, before my father moved us away from our black friends and into the whitest part of the city, the part he thought was ‘the nicest’. I remember the stairs leading down to the basement, stairs I never walked down out of my fear of the dark. But, most of all, I remember the classroom in the back of the house.
I am in that classroom in my dreams sometimes. I am in the classroom and nothing has changed. Bookshelves, pressed against three of the four walls, are filled with encyclopedias (remember encyclopedias?) and dictionaries and Houghton-Mifflin math textbooks and McGraw-Hill science textbooks. And in the air, dust catches in the sunlight and the room sparkles, as if a fairy had been there, as if a wish had taken place.
On top of the shelves are more books, but these aren’t reference materials; these are novels of all genres. Mystery and adventure novels like The Boxcar Children and books of comic strips like Calvin and Hobbes and fantasy novels like The Wizard of Earthsea and The Chronicles of Narnia. In the dream, I recognize them through some innate sense, though the covers look different, foreign. And the abacus is still there. The little wooden abacus with its wooden round beads sliding from one end to another, coming to a stop with a satisfying clack!
Then the wind picks up, slow at first. The leaves of the oak tree in the backyard rustle in the breeze sounding almost like applause or an ocean wave. The sunlight in the room fades out, returns, fades out again, and it is like this for what seems like hours, this filling and emptying of the room’s light, this twinkling of fairy dust, until I remember that Doreen is dead.
I appear in the September 15, 1993 issue of The Des Moines Register. The article is about my spelling ability and my head, adorned with a devilish grin, rests on my hands. In front of me is a Scrabble tile holder that reads xenophobia, which has always bothered me since you can only have seven tiles at a time. I have a framed copy of this article, not out of vanity but because it is the only physical piece of evidence that I have—that is mine—that refers to the relationship I had with Doreen, the love I had for her.
Doreen’s quoted as saying, “The average child can achieve anything basically from teaching. At the same time, the child needs to be in the right environment.” The right environment was not my own home where I lived in fear of my father’s unpredictable rage. The right environment for a child isn’t one where the child learns the footsteps of every member of his family to know who’s coming, to know how much time he has to find a safe place with a door that can lock. The right environment is one free of bloodied marks from a belt, bruises from a hand, or unbearable pain from a plank of wood.
Doreen gave me the right environment and I thrived. And then she died. I was 10. It was 1998. She had a brain aneurysm. She collapsed, she died at the hospital. And I could tell you the rest, like how she had finally convinced my mom to leave my dad and take us to Miami, like how it fell to my mother to notify her relatives because her husband was in California, like how he took quite a while to return and how, besides, he had a mistress.
But this isn’t about that. This is about reading, writing. This is not about the pain her death left me with but the gift she gave me before she died. I was 10 and she died and I withdrew, secluded myself in the basement, ate little, talked rarely, and read. But I didn’t read Dickens, I didn’t read Ralph Ellison or Hemingway or Joyce or James Baldwin or any of that.
No, I read The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan. I read the Dragonlance novels. I read Ender’s Game and the books that came after. I read any book of science fiction or fantasy I could find. I even read two books on Star Wars that detailed the technology and culture of the Star Wars universe, the former of which also included schematics of weapons and starships.
I wanted nothing to do with reality. Reality was my father’s anger. And, in his grief over Doreen, my brother became just as emotionally volatile, but his abuse was much more sadistic, or at least it felt that way. Like that time he poured boiling water on me. Reality was not a place I wanted to dwell. Books—and later, video games—were a solution.
Once, I asked a few of my colleagues in my MFA program why they read when they were young, what purpose reading served for them. They told me they read to experience other lives, to see how other people handled situations, to look into a reality similar to their own but different enough. But I read to leave this world behind entirely. That’s why Dickens couldn’t cut it, why I couldn’t get into Ulysses, why I never read Moby Dick or anything about Tom Sawyer. Now that I am in an MFA program for writing and am surrounded by other writers, I notice this even more. I notice that my reading history is a radical departure from that of most other people in this writing world, that I know kobolds and Yggdrasil and the differences between Metallic dragons and Chromatic dragons and the names of a dozen different alternate universes.
I used to feel inadequate. I used to feel I wasn’t well read enough. I still do, sometimes. But, at other times, I think about what my fantasy and sci-fi books have given me, the sort of childish glee I have that enables me to work well with kids, the overactive imagination that’s leaking out more and more in my creative nonfiction and fiction. I think of it now as a gift, an advantage.
I’m getting ahead of myself, talking about Now. I should be talking about Then. Now comes later. Ahem.
THEN: I read fantasy and sci-fi almost exclusively. I didn’t think much of it in middle school. But in high school I stopped bringing my books to school. At first, it was only verbal: You fucking nerd. You fucking faggot. You fucking faggot nerd. You fake ass nigger. Oreo. Most of the insults came from the handful of other black kids in the school. Some came from white kids who were friends with my brother.
A physical component was added to the verbal harassment. Wedgies, flat tires, standard stuff. Occasionally people would take my book from me and throw it back and forth over my head. I was small, two years younger than everyone in my grade (because of my reading level, I got skipped up two grades), and I could never reach my book.
Then they began destroying my books. One time, a much older and larger boy held me by my arms while another ripped the pages out by the handful. Another time, two boys played keep-away until, at the end of the game, one darted into the nearby bathroom, threw my book into the toilet, and pissed on it. One of my books was partially burned; they weren’t able to finish without getting caught.
I should mention that “they” usually meant my brother and someone else.
After a couple years of this, I stopped reading. Reading wasn’t something black boys were supposed to do; that was one of the major takeaways from the years of harassment, of soggy piss-covered novels. Black boys were supposed to play sports, listen to hip-hop. I did neither. I read, I played Dungeons and Dragons, I listened to Nine Inch Nails. I didn’t want to be an oreo so I quit reading. I didn’t want to be a fake ass faggot nigger so I quit doing what, apparently, fake ass faggot niggers did.
I didn’t read for pleasure for four years. I didn’t write during that time either.
It makes sense that my return to the world of reading and writing came at the hands of a writer walking that difficult line of being both a nerd and colored. It was 2007 and I was at the University of Iowa for undergrad. As part of a requirement for a class that I’d taken to get an easy A, I had to attend a reading in Iowa City. I picked one that fit into my class schedule and my drinking schedule (I wasn’t a full-blown alcoholic yet; the train hadn’t pulled into the station but it was definitely picking up steam) and the only one that worked for my schedule was for a writer I’d never heard of—Junot Díaz—and a book with a real weird title—The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao—but I went. I gave it a shot.
At the end of Díaz’s reading, I stood in line to get the copy of Oscar Wao that I’d just bought signed. I thanked him over and over, I told him how I’d quit writing, how, over the course of his reading, I realized that it wasn’t something I could quit but something I needed to do. He hugged me, he said, Keep at it, brother, and he signed my book: To Jordan who has awakened.
A floodgate opened. I wrote story after story after story and, after a drinking buddy pulled me into his nonfiction class, I found my home. Nonfiction made sense to me in a way fiction didn’t, in a way poetry couldn’t. First, I read James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son. Then came Eula Biss’s Notes from No Man’s Land. These two, in conjunction, sealed my fate as a nonfiction writer and, for the first time, I began exploring my relationship to blackness, to race, and to the ways in which my view of blackness and my view of my own blackness were shaped by the terror my father and brother instilled in me.
But that was then.
NOW: I went home not too long ago and, while I was there, I looked at the covers of all of my old books. All I saw were white faces, white bodies, straight hair, pale skin. It was striking to see all these relics of my past featuring nothing but whiteness. I don’t read sci-fi or fantasy anymore, though it’s not for that reason—I just got bored with the two genres. But I wonder, now, as someone who writes primarily about race, about blackness, about the idea of the oreo and the idea of ‘acting white,’ I think about other purposes those books served. I think about how, in those novels, race didn’t come up, not really. Conflicts between species, sure. Between ideologies, yes. Between magic users and non-mages, all the time.
But when I read those books I didn’t have to think about my blackness. And if I didn’t have to think about my blackness that meant I didn’t have to think about the black friends I lost when Doreen died and we moved from the city to the suburbs. It meant I didn’t have to think about being called an oreo or a fake ass nigger. It meant I didn’t have to think about the time that ‘friends’ would say, I don’t even see you as black or You’re the whitest black dude I know, using a tone that implied that these were compliments.
When Doreen died, I wanted to escape. I’ve been running a long time, trying to escape for most of my life. I wanted to not feel, not be. But through my nonfiction, through Biss and Baldwin and Coates and Young and Laymon and all those writing about blackness, I have realized there is no escape. As Stringer Bell told D’Angelo Barksdale, “This shit right here, it’s forever.” This skin is forever. And reading to help me understand what this skin means, writing to help me communicate to others what this skin means—that shit is forever, too.
Jordan K. Thomas is from the “lesser” Midwestern state of Iowa and is glad to have left. He is an MFA candidate in Creative Nonfiction at the University of Minnesota working on a hybrid memoir/essay collection focused on blackness, faith and the lack of faith, non-belonging, and being Othered by the Other. He also likes candy a lot. Some would say too much.
If writing defies “common sense,” if it seems to go against traditional modes of thought, norms, and histories, the idea of that common sense no longer makes sense, or might make sense if we’re allowed to reinvent ourselves. That’s what I’m looking at with the literacy narrative, the coming-into-language story. I want to hear yours: when you first “clicked” with a language, whatever it is; why you questioned the modes of your Englishes; how you wrote “poetry,” but looked at it again and called it “lyric essay.” I want to see your literacy narrative in its scholarly, creative, and hybrid forms. Send your literacy narratives to Sylvia Chan at firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay tuned for more literacy narratives from yours truly and others.