Issa Rae, the world’s most famous Awkward Black Girl, brings her celebrated sense of humor to a memoir that is one part family history and one part love letter to anyone who’s ever felt a little weird. Interviewed by Kerri Jarema
Were there any memoirs that you read before writing your own and thought “I want to do that, too!” or any that you read while you were writing your own book, for inspiration?
Definitely Mindy Kaling’s and Tina Fey’s. Before I even considered writing my own book, I had such a great time reading their books that I wanted to do my own version. But then I read Sloane Crosley’s first book during my own process, and it was absolutely brilliant and so funny, and I thought, “Holy shit, am I even capable of doing this?” Then I read Stephen King’s On Writing and I got inspired again. He really made everything seem possible and his own personal anecdotes and stories made me secure that I wasn’t going to be a terrible writer.
I found it particularly interesting that you focused more heavily on your family and your formative years in middle school and high school in the book, rather than your time in and post-college and working on your web series. Why did you decide to go that route?
Those years really shaped my perception of the world, honestly. Everything I write creatively and so much of the major social mistakes I made then still inform a lot of the decisions I make today. Plus, you can’t name a book The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl and not talk about the formative years that make everyone so universally awkward. Part of me still feels like middle school and high school are microcosms for the real world and every single industry (work, entertainment) I’ve taken part in.
What was the writing process like for you? Did you have old diaries to draw upon? Were you writing primarily from memory? You write about your “awkwardness” with a confident grace and humor (the story about your disastrous date with Oladife made me literal LOL on a crowded F train) but did you ever feel sad or embarrassed reliving these stories in order to get them on paper?
Man! I should have tapped into old diaries! I have tons of them. Damnit! (That will be the next book). I mostly wrote from memory and drew from the experiences that without a doubt shape me as an awkward person. Talking to my younger brother, who initially helped me with the first iteration of the book really helped, too. He’s been there through a lot and offered an outside perspective that wasn’t completely objective, but still super insightful. So glad you enjoyed the Oladife story. I definitely felt embarrassed reliving some of the stories. There was one essay about my aunt in particular that I just couldn’t finish because it made me so sad. But for the most part, it was a cathartic experience.
Was it difficult to decide what to put into the book and what to leave out? The chapter on your parents’ divorce and your subsequent relationship with your father was particularly poignant … did you have any qualms about going so in depth into your family’s history? Did your parents or your siblings?
Oh my God, yes. I’m generally a pretty closed/private person, so there’s a lot that I’m nervous about being put out there. The stuff with my family especially. I had to have a conversation with my dad (who is extremely private) and get a sense of what he wanted me to include. He was definitely uncomfortable and told me that our dirty laundry is our dirty laundry, but also said that he didn’t want to get in the way of my storytelling. My younger sister was the first person I let read it in its entirety just because I was feeling really insecure about what I was putting out into the world, so she helped me reel it in.
There were a couple of instances in the book where I thought “That will offend a few people….” As a comedian, I’m sure you have to straddle that line all the time. How do you consciously decide where to push the envelope and how not to go too far?
Hahaha, I try not to think about it. There’s definitely one essay that I know is going to offend a specific person, but I wanted to be as honest as possible. I definitely have to straddle a general line, but my thoughts and feelings are just those: mine.
You mentioned body image a lot throughout the book, discussing everything from your face, to your weight, to your hair, to your clothes. These are, of course, issues that pretty much every woman deals with. But I found it interesting that you addressed all of those things more matter of factly, rather than viewing them solely through the prism of struggle or lumping them into one chapter on “overcoming insecurities.” Can you tell me more about the way you chose to approach these topics?
I think you said it best, that they are issues that pretty much every woman deals with, and I haven’t completely overcome anything, so I think just putting them out there for the world to see, like “I’m aware of my flaws, and I’m insecure about them,” is my way of dealing with them. It’s kind of also a defense mechanism, too— like, “I said it first, so there! You can’t hurt me.” But my while my insecurities definitely shape me and my perspective, they don’t really define or paralyze me. Knowing that everyone has them really helps.
You didn’t write a chapter dedicated to “being a woman” (for lack of a better term) and your chapter on race was about how you just don’t want to talk about race all the time. Arguably, though, the whole book is about being a woman and being black and how being those two things (among many other things including a daughter, a student, a friend, a traveler and a creative) have shaped your life. There was a subtlety to the way you wrote the book in general, even when you were explaining events or people in a direct and specific way; was that your intention or was talking explicitly about race and gender just never the end goal?
I absolutely wanted to talk about race and gender, but I didn’t want to be didactic or “woe is me” or in your face about it. I’ve already had enough of that. The chapter about not wanting to talk about race all the time is kind of tongue in cheek in that I have a book with “Black” in the title, so that’s pretty impossible. I think I just want to talk about gender and race on my terms, which is selfish—but I should have that right.
What do you hope people will take away from the book? Who do you hope will read it?
I hope people will be able to relate and to be entertained and I hope that people who are in the process of figuring out who they are and where they’re going will get a little bit more clarity.
What’s coming up next for you? (YAY, HBO!)
Yay! I’m still working on the HBO project, but hopefully I’ll be able to say it’s coming up soon. I’m working on a feature film project I’m excited about and just launched a new independent television venture called, ColorCreative.TV which works with women and minority writers to produce TV pilots. There’s just so much more I want to do!
Check out our review of The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, HERE!
See more from Lydia’s winter issue below!