This interview has been edited for clarity, length, and flow.
MARISSA HIGGINS: For people who aren't familiar with your memoir, The In-Betweens, how would you summarize it in a few sentences?
DAVON LOEB: The In-Betweens tells the story of a biracial boy becoming a man, all the while trying to find himself, trying to come to terms with his white family, and trying to find his place in American society.
MH: Why is memoir important? What can readers gain from memoirs (or essay collections, etc) that might be missing from fiction or watching TV?
DL: Writing a memoir, for me, is about vulnerability—about exploring that vulnerability and not retreating from it. As a memoirist, I’m sharing very intimate moments in my life with my readers in a way that is not as limited as it is when writing fiction.
In comparison, fiction can absolutely be based on real life, and often, my fiction is, but something about writing a memoir holds me more accountable for what stories I tell and how I tell them. The authenticity of the storytelling exceeds the elements of the storytelling.
And yet, memoir must still be driven by good story building, by image-driven narratives, by the same craft implemented in writing all types of prose.
MH: What was your path to publication like? What barriers (if any) did you face when it came to getting an agent or a book deal? Did you experience any pushback related to the subject matter or style?
DL: The In-Betweens had a very non-typical publishing journey. Originally, it was published in 2018 by an indie press. Because of unrecallable differences, the press and I discontinued our contract. In 2020, there was a resurgence in my work. Former chapters of my memoir were being republished and celebrated in literary magazines, like Barren Magazine and elsewhere.
In 2020 and while racism and injustice in America were literally burning down cities, the work of Black writers felt like this new commodity in the literary community. Saying that statement makes me feel kind of icky—that editors were publishing Black writers just because our voices seemed, now, amplified, or maybe those editors, which many of them were, were allies to racial injustice.
Nonetheless, I retained my rights and queried for a new press. Two presses were interested in republishing a new version of my memoir, and I signed with West Virginia University Press, which was celebrating Deesha Philyaw’s collection, The Secret Life of Church Ladies.
When I signed with WVUP, I did not have a literary agent. However, my sister-in-law, an intellectual property lawyer, guided me through retaining my original rights and navigating my new contract with WVUP.
MH: What has it been like being a teacher during the COVID-19 pandemic?
DL: Teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic was, for many of us, one of the most difficult experiences in our careers. In 2020, I was approaching my ninth year as a teacher, so my biggest challenge was maneuvering through new technology, student expectations, and teaching from home. I think, teachers, students, administrators, counselors, and parents, realized we were all in it together, and we just gave each other some grace, a lot of grace.
MH: What was your biggest challenge?
DL: The everyday worry of my pregnant wife, who was working as a labor and delivery nurse during the height of the pandemic.
5. Republicans are deadset on using critical race theory hysteria to confuse voters. In your experience, is CRT even being taught in high schools? And if it is, is that really a problem, or is that actually a good thing?
DL: In the schools I’ve taught in, we do not teach CRT specifically. However, New Jersey recently signed into law the Diversity and Inclusion Law, which makes it mandatory to teach diversity and inclusivity.
As an English teacher in New Jersey, my colleagues and I dedicate ourselves to teaching diverse literature and history that corresponds with our curriculum. But nothing is perfect, and I do believe New Jersey public schools could of course be better, but they are trying—and are emphasizing teaching diversity because how can we teach about America without a racial lens when it was founded on genocide and slavery?
MH: Republicans are also fixated on book bans, especially when it comes to books by and about people of color and queer people. Why do you think conservatives are obsessed with book bans?
DL: I think book bans, in general, can be an ineffective attempt to fix more serious problems. Banning books by and about people of color and queer people is devaluing. It says that your stories do not belong here. What does that tell our kids of color? What does that teach queer students? Maybe, inadvertently, the message is that not only do your stories not belong here but neither do you.
MH: What can people do to help protect books and keep them accessible in classrooms and libraries?
DL: What I do as a high school English teacher is having students read a lot of creative nonfiction. Reading contemporary creative nonfiction is accessible and focuses less on a novel-driven curriculum, though we teach novels, but it gives me some autonomy to include diverse voices.
If a school has access to major magazines, like The Atlantic, teachers can utilize those resources. For example, after the attack on the Capitol, I taught Clint Smith’s essay, “The Whole Story in a Single Photo” from The Atlantic.
That being said, I’m not sure if I’d have the opportunity to teach Clint Smith’s book, How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with the Story of Slavery Across America, but I can still include his work in excerpts or as standalone pieces.
MH: Some folks feel certain today's young people will "save" the country through their activism and progressive politics. What do you think young people are most concerned with today politically? Do you see your students as politically engaged or do you think it's not necessarily so clearcut generationally?
DL: I think young people are struggling with the constant overload of information as well as conflicting opinions and the pervasiveness of the media. I don’t remember, politics especially, being so pervasive when I was a kid. If a story was on the news, that was that—and it also was deemed trustworthy, this unquestionable authority of the media.
But today, young people are skeptical and probably should be. The omnipresent, like the telescreens from George Orwell’s novel, 1984, is exhausting. As a result, I think young people may feel indifferent, as if, “How do I even know what’s true anymore?”
But I also think young people today have access to the power of social media, whether it’s an entirely positive tool is debatable—but social media has shared so many stories that would rarely be publicized, and this, the publicization of often marginalized voices, brings people together in a way that was unfeasible before social media.
MH: What did I miss? What are you dying to talk about?
DL: The United States is clearly divided, but Republican or Democratic, or whichever political party, we all want the same thing, we want the pursuit of happiness, and something, for some of us, gets in the way of that, that pursuit—whether it’s racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, homophobia, transphobia, or any type of discrimination, we, as Gil Scott Heron said, “….want is a good home and a wife and a children and some food to feed them every night,” and replace “home” or “wife” or “children” with whatever these things are that we need, that we deserve, and we will have a better America.
But for this to happen, it has to start with education, in schools, in the classroom, through the books we read, and through the stories we teach.
You can pick up a copy of Loab’s excellent and important memoir here or here, and don't forget to make a request at your local library, too!
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