In When They Tell You to Be Good (Tin House, June), Shakur combines reflections on coming of age as a Black queer artist with journalistic dives into family stories and Jamaican history to create a memoir of political resistance.
What drew you to writing a memoir?
I started writing this memoir partially to connect with my father, who was murdered when I was baby. When you lose someone at an early age, there’s always this immense curiosity. If this could happen to them, why couldn’t it happen to me? And if not, why not? When you interrogate death in that way, especially on an intergenerational level, it forces you to look at politics. It forces you to look at history. It forces you to look at identity and why their life is different than mine. There’s also the question of how to free myself from this relationship to death, whether on a personal level or on the racial and sociopolitical levels as a Black queer person.
Can you speak to how your writing and your politics intersect?
This book is also written in response and in resistance to oppression as enacted by the U.S., whether it’s white supremacy or patriarchy or state violence or police violence or the white gaze. I want people to read it through that lens and understand it on that level. In any writing I do, I want to unravel more about the Black experience. On a radical political level, it’s really important to develop a language around being Black and deeply politicized in the United States: what that looks like and feels like, and the different and wild places that can lead you. With each generation, we need to keep building on the language.
Each chapter is dated and titled with locations of cities around the world. What makes travel an important organizing theme in your life story?
I love the idea of a Black travelogue. On that level, it makes me happy to ponder the places that I’ve gone and the experiences that I’ve had. Initially, my experience of being American is based on growing up and visiting Jamaica. But travel as an adult has allowed me to understand how another place in the world resists and operates on a political level. I also view the different sections of the book as mini-memoirs that explore different topics. One section represents me navigating childhood; another is me navigating bodily autonomy on a personal level and then on a political level. The section at the end is more about leaving my physical narrative and going into a more mental space, unpacking how I’ve navigated my family and cultural history. Putting a chapter from my childhood alongside a chapter of me in Yellowstone allows for different questions around violence and freedom.