AN INTERVIEW WITH KWAN BOOTH
BY AMY GEORGE
Kwan Booth’s story, “High Wire Blues,” is featured in the Winter 2017 Issue of Mary: A Journal
of New Writing. In an email interview, Kwan discusses identity, narrative style, and his motivation
for writing fiction.
AG: In your short story titled “Jackie,” there is a passage that describes the power in
naming ourselves – “…how the names we choose for ourselves define how we see our
future.” Could you speak to this within your personal experience of naming your
creative voice Boothism?
KB: I’ve been using Boothism for years, alternately as an alias, as an idea, and as a home for
my creative projects. The name is part tongue-in-cheek, part sincere claiming of space. One of
my favorite movie lines is from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off when he says, “Isms, in my opinion, are
not good. A person should not believe in an ism; he should believe in himself.”
It’s a simple line, but I think it really vocalized how I was feeling at the time. There was an
intense desire to say, “I am here, these are my thoughts and ideas. I’m here to forge my own path.”
But in the larger sense, I was thinking a lot about personal identity, agency, and independence
when I wrote that piece and it’s still a topic that I’m really interested in. Right now, there’s an
urgency around self-identification and proclaiming your personal truth to a degree that I don’t
think we’ve seen in recent memory, possibly ever.
There’s immense power in understanding who you are and standing confidently in that identity,
especially in today’s political climate. If we’re ever going to achieve any kind of equality or social
equity, then that starts with people claiming their identities, not following the “Isms” of the
chattering masses, [but instead] demanding to be respected for who they are.
AG: We hear all the time the advice to write what we know. Does your fiction draw
from real life, and if so, what has this experience been like for you?
KB: I think that, in general, everything we write is heavily flavored by what we know, even if
they’re not conscious decisions – our worldview, our passions, our biases, and our
perspectives. Whether we’re writing about topics we’re intimately familiar with or not, our
experiences are always peppered throughout our work. So in that sense, yes. Everything is very
much influenced by what I know.
And at the moment, most of the things I’m writing are very much influenced by situations I’ve
personally experienced. The second person POV stories, while I’d technically characterize them
as fiction, are almost all autobiographical. A few details have been changed here and there. I
wanted to give an honest portrayal of life as a young(ish) black man. Some of the stories feature
situations people may be familiar with – a black guy having a hard time getting a cab or being
harassed by the police – but told from the perspective you don’t usually get to hear. Others try
to capture the quiet and unseen moments that make up the meat of our lives. These are the
stories that most need telling.
When I’m writing speculative fiction, I’m drawing from those same life experiences, just adding
certain amount of futurism or magic realism. I’m still trying to portray the lives of the same types
of people and dynamics, but usually with some kind of otherworldly elements.
AG: Can you tell us about the use of the second person POV in your stories?
You do it so well.
KB: Thank you. And I really have to thank (blame?) Junot Diaz for that. I was in college when
Drown came out and it was like a wall had been broken down. I intimately recognized all of the
characters in that book, way more than I ever identified with Whitman or Philip Roth or much of
the stuff that was considered de rigueur in most writing programs. And the fact that it was so
heralded in literary circles made it clear to me that I could write what I know and still be
considered a “real” writer.
The story I loved the most, and still reread at least once a year, was “How to Date a Brown Girl
(Black Girl, White Girl, or Halfie).” I so identified with the nerdy protagonist and I was amazed
that he had the audacity to tell that story in that style and with those details. The first story that I
wrote after that shamelessly aped the format and I’ve been interested in second person ever since.
But I think I’m always drawn back to it for a couple of reasons. I didn’t know when I started
writing them that you weren’t really supposed to write from the second person. So once I
learned that it was somewhat frowned upon, the rebellious kid in me wanted to write them more.
Just to say, “Fuck you!” and to prove I had the chops to pull it off.
But [second person is] also the best vehicle I’ve found to experiment with a belief I’ve held for a
long time: that if people could really put themselves in someone else’s shoes and see life from
their perspectives then we’d be much better positioned to have honest, open conversations by
recognizing that there are perfectly valid ways of living that may be completely different than our
own. And I suppose on some level this is what all writing is trying to do, but with the second
person you’re literally in the shoes of another person for the duration of the experience. I like to
think that gives you an opportunity to really draw the person into [spaces that] may have been
previously considered “other.”
AG: Why do you write? And can you tell us why you write about what you write about?
What makes fiction a vehicle for your voice and vision?
KB: First and foremost is to just get all the crazy ideas and observations in my head out into the
world. There’s way too much weirdness in my head and writing is a really effective release valve.
And I’ve always been a people watcher and someone who was interested in the situations that
don’t get told: the messy complexities of living. I’ve always loved the idea of the flâneur that
kinda strolls through life with a critical but accepting eye, observing and learning from day-to-day
interactions. But instead of casual strolls down the Champs-Élysées, I’m strolling down East 14th,
observing and learning from the artists and activists and techies, the sex workers and day laborers,
the corner boys, corner store shopkeepers, and community organizers that I encounter in my daily
Plus – to keep it 100 – I kinda suck at most other things.
AG: Can you share with our readers what your creative journey has been like so far?
KB: I think I’ve gotten to a place where I’m really secure with my subject matter and just really
want to dig into it more, although I’m still very much figuring things out in terms of formats. I’ve
been writing mostly fiction lately, but I’m starting to feel the pull of essays again. And I’m getting
more interested in video games and virtual reality as storytelling tools. I think they both have the
potential to really expand some of the experiences I’m trying to capture in the second person
narratives. I bought a VR setup a while back and I’m just blown away by the possibilities once
the tech matures a little more.
And I’m really trying to immerse myself in as much creativity as possible. So I’m reading a lot
and listening to a lot of new music. And I’ve been watching a lot of television. There are a lot of
really excellent shows that have come out in the last few years. If you pay attention you can really
learn a lot about character development, emotional hooks, and worldbuilding. I’m taking notes
for some kind of serialized fiction. Something along the lines of The Wire meets Dr. Who. We’ll
see how it turns out.
Kwan Booth’s work focuses on the intersection of media, culture, and technology. He’s had journalism and creative writing published in The Guardian, Fusion, “CHORUS: a literary mixtape”, and “Beyond the Frontier: African American Poets for the 21st Century” and developed media projects for organizations including Facebook, the Knight Center for Digital Media, and The International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy. His awards include a Sigma Delta Chi Award from The Society of Professional Journalists and a Pushcart Prize nomination for fiction. He smokes too much, drinks an unhealthy amount of caffeine, and posts occasional updates at Boothism.org.