I had the pleasure and privilege of speaking to icon Hari Ziyad, the brains behind RaceBaitr and bestselling author of the debut memoir titled Black Boy Out of Time (out with Little A in March 2021). Black Boy Out of Time is forward-looking in how it combines the personal and the political, care and critical work in a way that speaks intimately to the challenges facing Black communities. One of nineteen children raised by a Hindu Hare Kṛṣṇa mother and a Muslim father, Hari’s is a coming-of-story about growing up a Black queer boy in a carceral world that criminalises Black children for existing. In this interview, they talk at length about the limitations of writing, community care, the role of theory, and the global publishing industrial complex.

Jane: I’ve been thinking about the way in which the title references Afro-futurism. Black Boy Out of Time is about looking back and trying to make sense of the past. How does the title represent the story?

HARI: I was definitely thinking about that. I’m very interested in Afro-futurism and that’s a through-line in a lot of my work. I was also thinking more generally about how the concept of linear time really precludes lots of the imaginative work that we, as Black people in particular, need to do. Black Boy Out of Time talks about how we are separated from our childhood and how the process of doing inner child work requires us to reposition our childhood as something that is still accessible to us in the present, a repositioning that challenges the concept of linear time. We are out of time in the sense that we are not limited to this particular timeline which does not allow us to do that healing work. It also gets in the way of us doing ancestor work and veneration.

But another part of the title came out of writing the book while my mother was diagnosed with cancer. I was thinking of the urgency of this work. While I don’t think we are ever out of time completely to start this healing journey, the “out of time” also symbolises how important it was for me to begin through writing and incorporate that as an everyday practice in my life.

Jane: Who inspires you and who do you write for?

HARI: That’s such a big question! I’m inspired by so many people, but ultimately, and especially with this book, I was very much writing for my ancestors. In particular, my grandmother and my mother, who wasn’t an ancestor at the time. The book was very much about my lineage and how to properly honour that legacy. That’s a through-line in all of my work, and I think, in some part, that also means the book is about me. I am a part of that lineage. That is why those chapters written to my younger self are such a prominent part of the book. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that I was writing for other people. It’s very clear that they’re connected to me and I’m connected to them.

I’m inspired by my mother, my grandmother, and the work that they did to shape a world where they can be Black Hindu women in late twentieth-century America who raised millions of children. Being a part of that work and a result of that work is what inspires me to continue building on that work. I look at my work as an extension of their work.

Jane: One thing that’s really distinctive about Black Boy Out of Time is how it negotiates both the person and the political, memoir and theory. Why was it important to contextualise your personal history?

HARI: We live in this individualist society that tells us we can be separate from other people. Our lives are proof that this is not possible. When I think of the idea that the personal is political, what it means to me is that our personal lives are connected to other people and are connected to a history, a truth which to me is just self-evident. When I’m writing, I’m always writing with an understanding of how to situate myself within the context of what came before me and what will come after me. The way to understand myself in the present can only be made sense of in relation to those things.

I think the only way a lot of the theoretical aspects of our politics can make sense in our everyday lives is by situating them in our interactions with our partners and our families. It’s much easier to understand what abolition looks like when we talk about what it looks like in our relationships with other people. The bigger, theoretical concept is important to grasp too, but we have to locate it in something tangible. I wanted the reader to be able to locate it something tangible that might be reflected in their lives, too.

“I think the only way a lot of the theoretical aspects of our politics can make sense in our everyday lives is by situating them in our interactions with our partners and our families. It’s much easier to understand what abolition looks like when we talk about what it looks like in our relationships with other people.”

Jane: So true. You said in an interview with Lambda Literary that “memoir writing is almost like spell work. It isn’t just about the past, it’s about manifesting the future by writing the foundation from which you will move into the future, into existence.” What does the freedom and future you are writing for look like?

HARI: Another really big, great question. I don’t know if I always know what it looks like … I think I have a concept of what it feels like. I was writing the book from a place of understanding that I know, at least on a micro-level, what freedom feels like because of certain experiences. That’s why it was important for me to write back towards these certain experiences. How that freedom manifests in the future might be something that is completely unrecognisable, which can be terrifying. But it’s connected to this feeling of being free, of being able to live a life where you’re not constrained these ways, where we’re not being constantly killed in these ways, and where we’re not constantly policing ourselves. That’s what it looks like. Or that’s what it feels like to me.

I think I’ll know when we get there by looking at how it manifests in the lives of black children. The future I want to build is a future where black children can just exist. A future where they can explore gender and come into gender, or not come into gender, in the ways that feel freeing to them; where they can experience joy without having it policed and silenced; where everything that exists around them is in support of their lives, their livelihoods and their joy. That’s what I’m working towards and what I hope to be always working towards in my writing.

Jane: Amazing. In an interview with Shondaland, you said that “queerness is such a central part of abolition, because it defies language in that way.” How can a queer perspective help us to better conceptualise abolition? 

HARI: To me, queerness has always been about how we reject the norms and beliefs that we might have been pressured to accept about how the world can only exist in this one way. One of these norms is this idea of policing. We have accepted, not all of us, but as a society, we’ve accepted that there is no other way to live in the world except where conflict is handled by police and where carceral punishment is the proper response to people deviating from those norms. Those norms exist along a binary of good and bad. I think that when we start conceptualising queerness, particularly how it moves through black communities, we have a way to imagine outside of those binaries of good and bad because we are also imagining outside of gender binaries.

I think the ways that queer Black people have built community outside of what society deems acceptable can be a model for building our communities outside of policing systems. It also models the ways that we are able to have an understanding of people who might not be in our blood family and still see them as family members, choosing to care and love for them as part of our communities. In a world without police, we would be called to work through conflicts with our neighbours and other people in our community. Queerness, and again, specifically Black queerness, gives us a lot of space to imagine things outside of the way that they are now, outside of the ways we are told they always have to be. Policing is a big part of why we believe those things can never change.

Jane: It opens up a whole new way of thinking beyond the binary. On that note, the memoir is a testament to importance of fostering both care and nuance in our relationships to one another. Those who love us most really are those who hurt us the most. Good people do bad things. How do we balance self-care with community care?

HARI: I think you balance it by understanding that there’s no separation. This goes back to our earlier conversation about the personal being political: we can’t exist outside of our communities. You cannot take care of yourself if there is no care within your community. This world, particularly with the way that self-care has been commodified, made us think that we can just buy our way into this individual feel-good space without having any understanding of what’s going on around us.

I call for us to reject that because even if we do feel good in the moment, ultimately that care work will not be successful unless our communities are good. It is less an act of balancing those things, but of reminding myself that I’m always a part of my community and my community is always a part of me. Taking care of myself necessarily is taking care of my community, and vice versa. It helps me to ensure that I’m not sacrificing myself because, ultimately, what’s good for my community should also be good for me. That’s one of the measures through which I know that I am doing good work for my community because it is ultimately beneficial for me. To me those things are very much the same.

“You cannot take care of yourself if there is no care within your community. This world, particularly with the way that self-care has been commodified, made us think that we can just buy our way into this individual feel-good space without having any understanding of what’s going on around us.”

Jane: That’s an excellent answer. I was thinking about how you write that we should “encourage Black writers to write like writing won’t save us. Like only what comes after will.” What are the limitations of writing?

HARI: Look. My book is published by Amazon’s imprint, Little A. We know that there is, inherently, only so much radical that’s possible to come from that situation. That’s nothing against my editors and team, who have been great, but the media landscape in general exists to create money. It is part of a system of capitalism that will ultimately always be an impediment to the work that we need to do. It is never the writing itself that is radical. I think that we have to be able, as writers who say that they are doing radical work, to point to the things that are happening outside of the writing in our personal lives. To show what this writing is actually doing.

The process of writing has been very therapeutic for me: it has led to a lot of healing and conversations within my family. It has also forced me to commit to abolition in ways that I hadn’t before. That to me is the radical part of it. I hope that people who engage with this work will look beyond just the words, even though the words are also beautiful, to explore what that looks like in my life and how I have made the personal political. I hope that they’re able to take that to their lives, too.

But I do think that there’s always going to be there’s only so much that we can do within this media landscape. I love referencing Christina Sharpe’s concept of Black annotation and Black redaction. She talks about how most of the archives that we have access to can only ever tell stories that have been violent to us. And so we need to be able to look at these archives, see what’s been redacted, and make our own annotations in order to understand the fuller picture. I think that my work does this and that it can hopefully call people to look outside of what is in the text to see what the full picture is. To see not just what I wrote about, but all of the things that had to happen for me to be able to write about it in this way. I think that this is the only way writing can really be radical under the current media landscape that we live in.

Jane: I have a question that I’m a bit reluctant to ask. Reading Black Boy Out of Time brought it up for me, but the idea originally came up in black group therapy a few weeks back. Do you fear that we, as Black people, over-intellectualise our trauma to make it legible and external to us?

HARI: That’s a great question. For sure we do. I don’t know if that’s something I felt was a danger in my work. I’m not trying to make my experiences legible. This actually goes back to our earlier conversation about the future I want. That’s why I was very hesitant around the naming of these terms. I want to be very clear that I’m not saying we need to keep creating new language to describe our experiences. This language will always have its limitations. English is the coloniser’s tongue. It’s a balance of trying to work within this. We have to understand certain things to move on from them, but we also have to understand that some things will not be able to be named in the ways that we’re used to naming things. I hope that my work opens up space for us to not feel the need to have things be extremely legible.

I think that, sometimes, we do have to engage with theory because it is hard to talk about these kinds of things. It can get very philosophical: is something real if you don’t have a name for it? Sometimes that can feel like over-intellectualising, but my intentions have only ever been to give more space for the unnamable, for the things we don’t have language for.

I think it is related to your previous question about the limitations of writing. In the same way that writing itself can only be radical to a point, this kind of theorising can only do so much. What comes after that? What do your interactions look like after you’ve done the theorising and naming? Does it change how you engage with your family and with Black children? If you can’t say yes, then I think the danger that you bring up is very real. My hope is to always be able to answer yes. Talking about these things in this way has helped me create more space for Black people and love Black people in a stronger way that I did before.

Jane: I love RaceBaitr and how it is unapologetically publishing for a black audience. The tagline “race-baiting with a full-deck of race cards” is one of my favourite things ever. What are you working on now? A sophomore book or are you looking to other things?

HARI: I hope that I get to just rest for a little bit. We’ve had to take a step back at RaceBaitr what with everything that’s going on with covid and the book release. I hope that very soon we can start putting out work at the same rate that we were before the pandemic. I do have another idea for a book, a novel this time, but right now it’s just an idea. We are also in talks with production companies to see if adapting the book is something that is possible. It’s still early on in all of these things and I’m not sure exactly what’s to come next, but those are things that are on the horizon as possibilities.

Jane: That’s so cool! Bless us with three book recommendations.

HARI: I meant to actually think about this beforehand [laughs]. I don’t like being caught on the stop when this happens. It depends, there are so many different types of books that I would suggest for different people. A book that helped me to conceptualise my Blackness and a lot of the work in the book has been Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake: On Blackness and On Being. I mentioned earlier her notes about Black annotation and Black redaction. It’s more of an academic text, but it’s also very beautifully written. One of those things that changed my life.

There’s a poet named Phillip Williams who’s friends with me. I always try to support poetry when people ask this question because we should be reading more poetry. Phillip’s first book Thief in the Interior is like a really beautiful meditation on Blackness, queerness, loss, and grief. Phillip has a really interesting way of taking the things that we might find disturbing to talk about, putting them in poetry, and making them beautiful again.

The last book that I read that was really beautiful was Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi. It’s just an amazing, semi-autobiographical story about a migrant person who’s exploring their gender identity through all of these different experiences. It’s told through the perspectives of the gods that live in her head and who represent different aspects of her. It’s also the story of how she deals with sexual violence. I think that throughout the whole book she does use she/her pronouns, but later appears a god that represents the male aspect of her and begins to represent their working through an understanding themself outside of the gender binary. It was really amazing and was told in a different form, which I love. I think those are three.

HARI ZIYAD is a screenwriter, the editor-in-chief of RaceBaitr, and the bestselling author of Black Boy Out of Time (Little A, March 1). They are a 2021 Lambda Literary Fellow, and their writing has been featured in Vanity Fair, Gawker, Out, The Guardian, Huffington Post, Ebony, Mic, Slate and Salon among other publications. You can follow themon TwitterInstagramFacebook, and on their website.

JANE LINK is a master’s student and an editor for Split Lip MagazineThe Publishing Post, and her own beloved bigblackbooks. When not trying to land her first job in publishing, Jane loves to read historical fiction, self-help, and everything by Black voices. She dreams of one day setting up an independent dedicated to publishing those voices. You can find her @verybookishjane on Twitter.

“Black queerness gives us space to imagine”: A conversation with Hari ZiyadBlack Boy Out of Time by Hari Ziyad
Published by Little A on 1 March 2021
Genres: Coming-of-age, Debut, Queer, African American, Memoir, Theory
Pages: 314
Format: Paperback
Buy on Bookshop.org
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four-stars

One of nineteen children in a blended family, Hari Ziyad was raised by a Hindu Hare Kṛṣṇa mother and a Muslim father. Through reframing their own coming-of-age story, Ziyad takes readers on a powerful journey of growing up queer and Black in Cleveland, Ohio, and of navigating the equally complex path toward finding their true self in New York City. Exploring childhood, gender, race, and the trust that is built, broken, and repaired through generations, Ziyad investigates what it means to live beyond the limited narratives Black children are given and challenges the irreconcilable binaries that restrict them.