Six Bridges Book Festival: R. Eric Thomas
Laugh-Out-Loud Humor Has Deep Spiritual Center in Memoir of Growing Up Gay, Black, and Christian
If you know R. Eric Thomas from his work as a daily humor columnist for ELLE Magazine online, you’re familiar with ebullient, hilarious flights of snark and fancy like his postmortem on the Democratic primary’s Iowa Caucus:
“Yes, the rumors that I started are true. I won Iowa, proving all the haters and naysayers and people who claimed that I am “not running for president” and “not even physically in the state” so wrong. How did I do it? Well, I’ll tell you, whether you want to hear it or not. Last night, the raucous caucus descended into fractious fracas…” (ELLE.com 2/4/2020)
What’s not to love? The wordplay, the satire, the keen observation that informs all good comedy. You just want to get up in the morning and have your coffee over Thomas’s column as an antidote to darker realities—soak in the brave, gay flaunting of his insouciant wit in the face of all things that want to crush the spirit.
Yes, that is glitter-and-be-gay flaunting, as Thomas is an outspoken champion for the LGBTQ community and a shining example of a long tradition of razor-sharp satirical wit springing from gay culture in the vein of Oscar Wilde. His just-released memoir-in-essays, Here For It: Or, How To Save Your Soul in America, loses nothing in hilarity, but the longer form also gives him space for deeper resonance beneath the laughter. Here For It is one of those rare works that truly does move through both laughter and tears with equal aplomb as Thomas deftly tells of both the humor and the pain of growing up black, gay, and Christian in today’s America.
When asked what inspired him to write this book, Thomas characteristically started with a quip.
“My agent came across some of this work in my column and asked, ‘Do you have a book in you?’ And I said, ‘I’ll do anything for money!’”
Then he grew more serious. “But the thought coalesced that I did have a book in me, and the theme was that you can have a marginalized identity but not be marginalized in your life,” Thomas said. As he spoke, it was clear that thought and word flow easily and honestly for this quick-witted, brilliant man.
“Every life is an attempt to tell its own story,” he said. “And there are different ways to approach it: through art, through service, through community-making. I saw the book as a beautiful opportunity to acknowledge the people I’ve been throughout my life, as you see in the epilogue. The book is a little tent for people to gather who are either like me or totally not like me. I don’t really care about the idea of legacy, but I do care about community-making.”
Many of the essays touch on the painful divisions of the spirit that resulted from Thomas’s youth in a church that simply pretended homosexuals did not exist, and as Thomas puts it so devastatingly well, if you were discovered to be gay, you also simply ceased to exist for the people of that church. No fighting, no sermons. Just nothingness and being cast out from everything you had known.
Thomas has attempted to look back on that time in his life with perspective, despite the pain of his spiritual journey. “I’ve tried to look back at the leadership of the church I grew up in with compassion,” he said. “They were trying to do something they thought was right. But I will never have a conversation with them about it because I don’t think it’s healthy.”
“To think you can just separate from the parts of society you’re afraid of or don’t agree with because you think they harm your moral fiber, and that’s enough…It’s strange to say that people in power need to be protected from the people they’re oppressing, and it’s never going to work,” Thomas mused. “There are stories in the Bible about people sticking their heads in the sand and refusing to deal with the reality in front of them. Jonah, for example. He tried to turn away from the people around him—well, here’s a whale and into its digestive tract he goes. And the point is that if you don’t want to be in community with the LGBTQ people, you’re going to end up in a whale’s colon. Everyone knows LGBTQ people walk among us. It’s silly to deny that reality. I have no interest in being a missionary. My approach is that I’m gay and you have to deal with me—throwing glitter and leaving. But I can put these things in print for others to read because that’s how I learned that there was a much larger world outside the one I grew up in. I didn’t know any other queer Christian people in the world when I was growing up. So, if some pre-teen or teen finds my book in the bargain bin one day, they can read it and know this larger world exists.”
One of the book’s most touching essays is “Dinner Guests,” which shows the tender and moving effort of family members to cross over society’s prejudices and build bridges of love. Thomas regards with warmth that memory of a moment of family generosity.
“That was a really stunning moment –there are deep dynamics that guide when and with whom you can share your family stories and places of pain –who you can trust,” he said. “I just recently finished recording the audiobook version of Here For It, and it was taxing: now I feel like Patti Lupone on vocal rest! But when we got to recording “Dinner Guests,” I had forgotten until my re-reading that this particular essay isn’t funny—it’s people figuring out how to be a family.”
Thomas is looking forward to the opportunity to bring his witty and touching reflections to Arkansas soon, and to engage with the community here through his time at the festival.
“I was supposed to come to Arkansas to do a Moth Mainstage, but the date changed and I couldn’t do it,” he said. “My heart was broken because I have friends from Arkansas, and I was looking forward to seeing the Clinton Presidential Library and Central High School. So now I have a great opportunity to see Little Rock for the first time at the Six Bridges Book Festival.”
Eric Thomas is a playwright, the long-running host of The Moth StorySlam., and a Senior Staff Writer for Elle.com where he writes “Eric Reads the News,” a daily current events and culture column. His debut memoir-in-essays, Here For It, or How to Save Your Soul in America (Ballatine, Feb. 2020) was hailed as “laugh-out-loud funny” by Lin-Manuel Miranda in Entertainment Weekly.
feature by Rosslyn Elliott