Author and teacher Jarrett Neal debuted his first book, What Color Is Your Hoodie: Essays in Black Gay Identity, at a launch party last October at Women & Children First.
Prior to his writing the book, Neal's fiction, poetry and essays were featured in a variety of online and print publications, including Chelsea Station, The Gay and Lesbian Review, The Good Men Project and two Lambda Literary Award-nominated anthologies.
In an email interview, he talked about the book, academia and his childhood, among other topics.
Windy City Times: How was your book-launch party?
Jarrett Neal: It felt like being submerged in the warmest bubble bath I've ever taken. I couldn't have asked for a more perfect launch. They outdid themselves and made me and everyone there feel special. I can't say enough good things about the folks who work there.
WCT: Your book title has the word "hoodie" in it? Why was that important to you?
JN: The hoodie has become synonymous with a thuggish idea of urban Black masculinity. What I was going for is a metaphor: It doesn't matter who you are or what your hoodie represents, you get subjected to prejudices, bias and injustices all the time, especially if you're Black and male.
WCT: Where did you get the idea for your book? Why 13 essays? What's the significance of that number to you?
JN: A few years ago, I took a break from writing fiction and poetry to give nonfiction a try. I was writing all sorts of essays but many of them had to do with race and sexuality. I decided to compile them into a book and this is the result. I wasn't aiming for thirteen essays; things just happened that way.
WCT: If someone only saw the cover of your book and knew nothing else about it, how would you describe it to them?
JN: It's about various aspects of Black gay identity, but it speaks to everyone.
WCT: Which essays would you choose to have reprinted online as a teaser to get people interested in your book?
JN: Baldwin Boys and Harris Homies, Our Fierce Community and the title essay.
WCT: Pop culture features prominently in your book, especially LGBT pop culture. Why was it important to include this in your book?
JN: Everyone looks for themselves in pop culture. When you're gay you're constantly on the lookout for queers in movies and TV. When I was growing up, we were hardly present and when we were, our stories were always tragic. Now, with so many options for entertainment, queer lives are more visible, yet pop culture still has a way to go in terms of full inclusion for LGBTQ folks.
WCT: You spend a lot of pages talking about the adult industry, specifically gay porn. Why did you decide to delve into this topic in a book devoted to essays about your life?
JN: Adult entertainment serves a special function within the gay community. It's one of the few places gay and bisexual men can have their fantasies displayed without shame or indignation. It's important for gay and bisexual men to examine their erotic desires and the way those desires are manifest in mainstream porn since, I believe, a substantial segment of gay life is influenced by the models and images in gay porn, especially in regard to the gay community's views of race and age.
WCT: What else do you want people to know about your book?
JN: That it speaks about Black gay men, but it isn't our only voice. The experiences I relate aren't everyone's narrative. This book is my contribution to a larger dialogue. I hope it gets people talking.
WCT: When did you realize that writing is what you wanted to do with your life? Did something happen during your childhood that spurred this on, since you did earn your BA in English from Northwestern University and an MFA in writing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago?
JN: I was raised an only child in my grandparents' home, so I often had only myself for company and my toys to play with. I had a highly inventive imagination and I loved words. An aunt once gifted me a brand new hardcover Webster's dictionary when I was nine that I still have and I would spend lots of time randomly looking up words and committing them to memory. Although I wasn't the big reader I am now, when I was kid I loved those Choose Your Own Adventure books and my mother always took me to the library with her. She went there often.
WCT: Where did you grow up? Tell me about your childhood.
JN: I was born and raised in Kansas City, Missouri, to two teenage parents. My childhood wasn't exactly a Norman Rockwell painting, neither was it a tale of woe and strife so many people might think it was for a poor Black kid. I was loved tremendously and my parents and grandparents provided me a safe, secure environment where I flourished.
WCT: Tell me about your husband, Gerald. How did you meet him? What was your wedding ceremony like?
JN: Gerald and I met 18 years ago in Kansas City. He's a film scholar and the smartest man I know. Both of our wedding ceremonies were intimate yet giddy affairs full of champagne and plenty of cake, my favorite food. We cried a lot and got plastered. I highly recommend it.
WCT: You're also the assistant director of the Academic Support Center at Aurora University. What does that job entail? You also teach a class each semester, correct?
JN: My job has gone through some changes recently but the essence of what I do is the same. I tutor students in writing and help them craft their writer's voice. In the fall my university is starting a minor in Black Studies and I've been asked to teach Introduction to Black Studies and Survey of African-American Literature. I can't tell you how excited I am about that.
WCT: In the book, you reveal that you aren't out to your students due to a variety of factors, but has that changed since this book has been released? Have students discovered your book and asked you and Gerald about it since he also teaches at Aurora?
JN: Although several friends and colleagues at work have purchased my book, to my knowledge no students on campus know about it. Honestly, I think our students are too busy with their own studies and jobs to notice or care what their instructors do in their off time.
WCT: When you aren't writing or working at Aurora University, what do you like to do for fun?
JN: Fun? What is that? Right now I am in the middle of a doctoral program in adult and higher education, so I have little time for fun. When I do get a few free moments, I enjoy working out at the gym, going to movies and plays with my husband and dining out with our friends. Honestly, I'm a real home body. These days my average night consists of two glasses of red wine and watching Mama's Family.
Neal will hold a book-signing Saturday, Feb. 27, at 2 p.m. at Revolution Books, 1103 N. Ashland Ave.