Exclusive Interview: Hari Ziyad reveals the cover of their memoir
In a sense, this book saved my mother, in all the ways that were possible for her to be saved for me.
RaceBaitr editor-in-chief and writer Hari Ziyad describes their upcoming book Black Boy Out of Time (Little A, March 1, 2021) as part memoir, part social commentary, but its ambitions push it beyond even this genre-bending interpretation. What began as an attempt to detail their life as a Black queer person growing up with 18 siblings in a Hindu and Muslim family in Ohio became an intimate exploration of how policing and prison-based ideologies affect interpersonal relationships and our fight for Black liberation.
In Black Boy Out of Time, Ziyad reflects on the longterm impacts of assimilating into a more normative society, how that relates to the history of policing in the U.S., and how it left them with little understanding of who they were. Ziyad notes that Black people are refused access to childhood due to the punitive social conditioning that protects gender and class categories, and asserts that Black childhood can only be reclaimed through prison abolition.
What were some of your greatest hopes (and fears) in working on and publishing Black Boy Out of Time?
My mother was diagnosed with uterine cancer right before I sold the book. It probably sounds ridiculous, but in some ways—and probably the most important ones—I wrote Black Boy Out of Time to keep her alive. I think this was the first example of my deepening belief in the power of words: I had convinced myself that if I could just write the story of our complicated relationship honestly enough, holding all of its spikes and sharp edges without flinching and running away, then I could save her life. I could literally write her into a survival story.
This hope was weird to me because I have been extremely skeptical about the power of words for a long, long time. I explain in the book that I always “encourage Black writers to write like writing won’t save us. Like only what comes after will,” and that’s because I know that writing has limitations. I know that we have to do more than just write. If we’re writing about liberation, we have to live out what we’re writing. The writing has to change us, it can’t just sit on the page and “represent” things we want to see changed.
And I still believe that, mostly. But what I learned in completing the book, which relatedly forced me to explore more deeply my spirituality, is that any change writing inspires is never disconnected from the writing itself. I might edit that line slightly now, if I could. Yes, writing alone won’t save you, but writing doesn’t have to exist alone. It never does exist alone, really. The words are always changing the writer, in one way or another, even if they’re just contributing to their stagnancy. They must always be, because, without them, the writer would be doing something else.
My mother’s cancer has since become untreatable. She’s still here, alhamdulillah, but obviously nothing I did actually reversed the cancer. In an interesting way, though, I think what I set out to do worked. I’m not afraid to lose my mother anymore. It’s not because she has healed physically, but because we’re healing. We’re much better friends than we’ve ever been since she first rejected my queerness, and that’s because of the work I did here, and the work she did with me. Because of this book (though not only this book), I know better how to honor the ways she can exist after she’s gone, and that is survival, too. Not the only survival, not the survival I would choose if I could pick, but it is survival. And I discovered this through writing as tenderly, as honestly as I could.
So, in a sense, you could say that my hope was fulfilled. This book saved my mother, in all the ways that were possible for her to be saved for me.
That’s connected to my greatest fear: that I would run away when the shards of this complicated story, and all the other complicated stories, parted flesh. And they did cut often. And sometimes I did run away. That’s what still terrifies me: that I can’t be completely honest, that I don’t show the care to the subjects of these stories that they deserve, and in some places that fear might have come true. But I think this is the closest I’ve gotten to honesty in my whole life, which just proves I can overcome these fears if I face them, and I’m most proud of that.
What were you in search of while writing the book?
Aside from keeping my mother alive, I was searching for new language to express the complicated experiences—which are endemic to Black life—that might lead me to her survival, because I know this language is one of colonization and is therefore inherently inadequate to hold our fullness. I mean this literally, in the sense that there are some words and concepts that are simply inexpressible in English, but I also mean there are ways of thinking, feeling, and existing that those of us who grew up under a colonized state have never felt the freedom to name, even if they could be described in this tongue.
I do have some experience with other languages. My mother is a Hindu Hare Krsna and my dad is Muslim, and so a lot of my childhood was spent naming things others around me might not have felt free to. What I wanted to do with the book was learn how to use those skills in other contexts, particularly when it came to my queerness, around which my parents, oddly enough (or perhaps not so oddly), restricted me in the same way they taught me to reject restrictions when it came to religion. That’s why so much of the book revolves around my childhood religious experiences, and why my book is separated into cantos like some foundational Hindu scriptures. I’m not Hindu myself, but Hinduism gave me a lot of tools to speak other languages. To speak of Black freedom.
What were you attempting to reconcile/ not reconcile?
I started off wanting to reconcile the things I had learned—from my parents in particular, but also from everyone I’ve ever loved–that showed me what freedom might look like with the things I learned from those same people that encouraged unfreedom and carcerality. How could all the generosity I’d seen in my poor Black neighborhood, for instance—people sharing food and watching each other’s children without question and refusing to call police on each other—coexist with all the abuse and intra-communal harm there? How could these conflicting ideas thrive in the same community? In the same mother?
Well, I know a thing or two about conflicting ideas existing in the same person. That’s what queerness is. And so, maybe it depends on your definition of reconciliation, but after a while writing the book stopped feeling like that to me. Stopped feeling like trying and failing to force congruence and started to feel like acceptance. Contradictions are what life is, and should be. The work wasn’t in making the inconsistencies of life consistent, it was in holding the inconsistencies with care. My mother loved me more than anyone else ever has. And my mother harmed me more than anyone else ever has.
Abuse and generosity, even if they come at the hands of the same person, do not have to be held in the same way. They can’t be, really, if we want to end abuse but encourage generosity. But they both have to be held with care. And that’s what I was trying to do, hold the love with the harm, acknowledging both and reckoning with them in the unique way they both needed to be reckoned with, starting with the ways I myself have loved and harmed.
I hope my book illuminates better solutions to social crises—solutions that are not carceral—and I hope it shows how those solutions have been demonstrated across communities historically. I want to create conversations that answer the question of what abolition looks like in everyday practice: Does it require a commitment to learning self-defense so that none of us have to rely on the state’s claim to defend us? Does abolition look like being ready to challenge anyone who might abuse others in our presence? How does it affect our relationships with our neighbors and families?
What did you learn about yourself in the process?
So many things. I had simple, more interesting than actionable realizations such as that I am on the pansexual scale and attracted to women (haha!). This came from exploring my relationship with gender and refusing to accept the simple answers my brain was primed to give. A little of that is in the book, but I’ll write more about it someday.
I learned details of the child sex scandal in the Hare Krsna community that had festered all around me that I explore in the book. Knowing the scope, I realize how ridiculous it had been to ever think it might have spared me, that it was unrelated to the abuses I experienced as a child.
I learned to conceptualize abolition as a rejection of a world in which punishment takes the place of the space to heal—of a world in which blame overrides accountability. It is only by reclaiming space to heal that I could ever truly know myself.
I learned a lot of things about my lineage, and specifically about my grandmother, who died a few years ago and who is central to the book. I didn’t know her well, or at least I didn’t think so, largely due to her mental health struggles. But partially by hearing more details of her activism and brilliance from interviews with family, I feel very close to her now.
The other part, and this is the main thing I learned, is how central spirituality and ancestor veneration has become to my liberation and, I think, how central it has always been to Black liberation in general. I never thought I could connect with my grandmother after she died, but it just required another language I needed to discover. I brought up my stress about connecting to her to a Hoodoo priestess, and her response was so simple: erect an altar. I did, and my grandmother and I talk often. She shows up in my body, encouraging me to accept what I know to be right when I would otherwise question and question and question myself into inaction. I don’t have to worry whether she would be proud of me anymore. I can just ask. And I know I will continue talking to my mother this way when the time comes too.
You write about struggling with social anxiety and your journey with therapy. How does your relationship with anxiety shape you as a writer?
I love that this is your final question, because it kind of sums everything else up. My anxiety is so intrinsically linked with the journey this book took me on. It shows up loud and screeching when I can’t accept life’s inconsistencies, when I lose touch with the answers in my body (and with the answers my ancestors hold), when I question and question and question what I know to be right until I’m moved not to act, when I am running away from the sharp, difficult things—from the certainty of death.
I can accept now that anxiety is not in and of itself a bad thing. Anxiety is my brain letting me know that something is wrong, and sometimes it is wrong because of things I can’t fix straight away. In those moments, it is excruciating, but anxiety isn’t the cause of the pain. It is a gift, a sixth sense. It drove me to therapy, to spirituality, to meditation, to psychedelics. It drove me to this book—drove me to all of the many ways of finding language I did not know before, language that might, if not now, one day be a solution to what is wrong. The language of abolition, of queerness. I don’t know that I would be the writer I am without it. More than that, I don’t know if I’d be who I am without accepting it, which is more to the point.
Black Boy Out of Time will be published on March 1st, 2021. You can pre-order your copy here.
Hari Ziyad is a cultural critic, a screenwriter, the editor-in-chief of RaceBaitr, and the author of Black Boy Out of Time. They are a 2021 Lambda Literary Fellow, and their writing has been featured in BuzzFeed, Out, the Guardian, Paste magazine, and the academic journal Critical Ethnic Studies, among other publications. Previously they were the managing editor of the Black Youth Project and a script consultant on the television series David Makes Man. Hari spends their all-too-rare free time trying to get their friends to give the latest generation of R & B starlets a chance and attempting to entertain their always very unbothered pit bull mix, Khione. For more information about the author, visit www.hariziyad.com.