May 10, 2021
Brian Broome's Memoir 'Punch Me Up to the Gods' is a personal, literary tour de force
Brian Broome's literary voice is the kind he and I were both denied growing up. Our school curriculums didn't include any Black authors or LGBT authors. Our high school educations didn't even expose us to books about poverty and class struggle and working hard for scant pay, though we both lived in areas where that was very much a fact of life for most people.
Broome's memoir, 'Punch Me Up to the Gods' (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) will be released on May 18th -- it is the book that I wish young Brian had been able to read. I wish I had this book available to both of us, actually, back when we were growing up in small places, hometowns that were not cosmopolitan and not suburban, but not really rural either. They were working and industrial places set inside rural shadow box dioramas.
Maybe that's why, despite his obvious gift for language, his gift for noticing, his insatiable curiosity, Brian Broome grew up not realizing how many possibilities there were for a creative, talented mind like his. He distinctly remembers a teacher telling him that he was wasting his time, who thought he was cheating when he used his precocious vocabulary. That memory still cuts a bit.
"I used to draw pictures in this book and write in this book and I was told by this teacher that that was never going to get me a job," Broome said when he spoke with The Current by phone. "I remember she told me I was going to have to get a job some day and I couldn't get a job drawing pictures and writing. That's what she told me."
Three cheers for the teacher who could not have been more wrong.
Now, Broome writes and also teaches writing at Pitt -- he's the K. Leroy Irvis Fellow and instructor in the Writing Program. In 2019, he received the prestigious VANN Award from the Pittsburgh Black Media Federation for journalism.
This book, his first, is a memoir in essay form, charting the time from his childhood in Warren, Ohio, and then leaving, first for Akron, and eventually Pittsburgh. "I knew that if I stayed in Warren, I would wither and die," he writes.
It is heartbreaking and hopeful all at once. Despite the fact that this book goes into the dark corners of the hazards of being gay and Black in a world that values neither; despite the fact that he writes about struggling with addiction and of growing up right on the financial razor's edge, Broome also has a gift for making his reader laugh. Early on, he recalls the age when kids were really supposed to lean hard into gender stereotypes, toxic though they may be.
He writes: "I didn't understand any of this. Corey explained that the rules were simple. There were girl things and there were boy things and white boys liked girl things and acting like a white boy or a girl of any color was prohibited. The list of 'girl things' included: studying, listening, being 'pussy-whipped,' and curiosity."
Broome's positioning as an outsider is clear. As a Black gay man, every message in American culture is, as he says, "that you shouldn't be." Be straight, be rich, be white. Even if you aren't those things, you are supposed to be aspiring to be those things -- that's the really insidious message.
"It's not enough that you act like a boy, you definitely cannot act like a girl. That's the message that I got very early on. You were supposed to be a little rebel all the time. And the boys who caused the most problems in school, in a classroom, were, in a lot of ways, admired. The ones who were rowdy and loud and who fought -- those were boys who were looked up to in a way. I definitely was not one of those boys," Broome said.
When he was young, he grew up writing and reading. For Gen Xers, especially Gen Xers who grew up in places most people can't find on a map, when our teachers were droning on about 'The Red Badge of Courage,' 'The House of Seven Gables,' and 'The Bridge of San Luis Rey,' we were surreptitiously reading books outside the curriculum -- books written by Judi Blume and V.C. Andrews. The rush of insubordination was intoxicating. They felt forbidden and illicit, but also relatable.
Broome laughed that even now, all these years later, he loves Judi Blume. He also remembered being really moved by the 'Pigman' series of books published in the late 1960's by Paul Zindel. Something about that group of books spoke to his own sense of isolation, being on the outside and feeling even the unspoken scorn coming from his peers and the world at large.
"Being Black and gay, you're definitely not right. Not only are you not right, you can't be right. There's nothing you can do. You're trapped. There is nothing that is going to make you just right," Broome said.
"That's the thing I've spent most of my life feeling -- that I am not enough. And that everybody else is. I'm the only one who is just failing -- I failed at birth. That's how I've spent a lot of my life feeling."
He spent even more time writing than he did reading. Broome worked his way through childhood and early adolescence by writing about it. Putting words down on the page made sense and had power. He was in control and there was a sense of release.
"I wrote a lot. I just wrote a lot. My sister had this diary that she didn't want and she just gave it to me. So I just wrote in it all the time," he remembered. "Then, when life started to get more hectic and uglier for me, which is probably the time I should have been writing the most. But I remember at one point just being shamed out of it."
Those were some dark years, the time when Broome drank his way through early adulthood. There were some high points, too. He moved to Pittsburgh, where it was not easy, but certainly easier to be gay than it had been in Warren. He found some community and made friends. But the proverbial light under the bushel basket remained hidden.
"It's sad to me. I used to write a lot when I was young. And then I stopped. Then I was drunk and high for many, many, many years -- the minute I got sober, I went to rehab, I spent the first couple nights there dry, without drugs or alcohol. The first thing I did was pick up a piece of paper and a pencil."
Broome got sober. And he stayed sober. He said that when he came home from rehab, he became a bit of a shut in, afraid to go anywhere. He went to work and meetings and stayed home and watched David Attenborough nature specials. He watched them because he didn't want to risk watching regular shows where somebody might have a drink. And then he would want a drink.
"I was afraid of life in general," he said. "It's hard to be sober. Every day I get up and tell myself I'm not going to drink today. I've been doing that for eight years. You have to remind yourself every day that that's not you anymore. One of my biggest fears is to become the person I once was. And that wasn't a great person."
It hasn't always been easy, but 'Punch Me Up to the Gods' would not exist without Broome's sobriety. It also wouldn't have happened without his long bus rides. He loves the bus and says he feels secure and relaxed there; he never wants to drive. When he sits down, he takes out a notebook and pen and just starts writing -- the things he sees and hears, things people say to each other, and the thoughts and memories running through his head. He wrote much of the first draft of this book on the bus.
"I'm totally eavesdropping on people. Quoting people on the bus. The bus is my muse," he explained. Like August Wilson sitting in bars and taking it all in, Brian Broome rides the bus.
He wrote drafts of the chapters about his childhood and early adulthood, his fraught relationship to his father, his mother's strength and resilience, and the pull of drugs and drink. But he also weaves through the book the story of one bus ride, of him observing a young boy, Tuan, and how Tuan interacts with other bus riders and with his father.
"Those stories about Tuan are all real, absolutely, because I was just sitting down and writing what I saw and heard."
Broome's observation of Tuan allows him to speak directly to the reader, directly to Tuan, and maybe directly to his younger self, too, about Blackness and masculinity.
"Masculinity is a different thing in the Black community than I think it is at large. There is a pressure to be more masculine as Black man. There are reasons why I believe that," he explained.
"I think that in America one of the things that has been done has been to strip Black men of certain kinds of masculinity and certain ideas of masculinity, like being able to take care of your family and things like that. Black men have felt emasculated in our racist white culture. To make up for that, part of the culture of being Black and male in America is just to be more masculine than the next guy. And I definitely felt that growing up."
Brian Broome's book will be released on May 18th. That evening there will be a virtual event through Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures. Broome will read and be in conversation with Yona Harvey.
This story originally appeared in the Pittsburgh Current on May 10, 2021
Photo of Brian Broome by Andy Johanson