Andre Perry is best known in the area as the executive director of The Englert, the downtown Iowa City venue where he and his team add to the artistic vibrancy of the community. Now, in his debut collection of essays, Perry has made a significant contribution to difficult but essential conversations about some of society’s most pressing and intractable issues. “Some of Us are Very Hungry Now” is a collection of material built on the foundation of Perry’s personal experiences, but taken together, those experiences open a space for readers to investigate their own lives with honesty and rigor.
Some people may not wholly recognize the Perry they meet in “Some of Us are Very Hungry Now.” That tension between who he was during the period of time he writes about and who he is now is one of the first things Perry and I chatted about over coffee at the Java House a couple doors done from The Englert. There is what he calls an “intentional lapse” between the Perry on the page and who he is right now. He’s quick to point out, however, that there is no lapse for the issues he explores, including class, race, how we identify ourselves to ourselves and others, and more. “The issues are very current, very relevant.”
The bit of personal distance he has carved out is useful to him as a writer.
“Being who I am now allows me to dig into this material ... in a way that would have been impossible when I was 27,” he said.
Digging into the material includes levying some criticisms of Iowa City. This might seem at odds with his current position at the forefront of the charge to make Iowa City “the greatest small city for the arts.”
He acknowledged that portions of the book are critical of the community, but noted that there is more at play than a single town in Iowa.
“I’m using Iowa City as a metaphor for the United States of America,” he said, adding with a chuckle, “and, shall we say, Earth.”
All of the locales in the book — whether East Coast, West Coast, or Midwest — are “geography specific to me,” he explained, but the broader concerns he investigates are not confined to any one spot.
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As for Iowa City, he is clear that he has “very actively and aggressively chosen to be here,” citing the good work done by good people on difficult problems — like economic disparity, for example — as a reason for that choice.
Perry makes a variety of choices about forms in “Some of Us Are Very Hungry Now.” Some of the essays take us deep inside his head as his life unfolds while others cast him as a character in the story he telling. The latter can be somewhat distancing, but Perry isn’t necessarily thinking about issues of intimacy with the reader.
“I’m dealing with complex subjects and deep emotions,” he said. “I ask myself, ‘What is the lens through which I can best talk about this issue?’ And sometimes that lens is the form... It’s me trying to figure out the best way to talk about these things we’re dealing with.”
One of the many forms on offer are the “Letters to Emma” that close the book. I ask him about the use of letters — he clarifies that these pieces were first written as actual correspondence — as a way to delve into topics of importance to him.
“It’s its own thread of expression,” he said. “The letter format allows the writer to talk about things in ways not otherwise available.” He points out the “confessional” nature of letters: “When you write to someone you love as a friend or a partner, ideally you should be able to say anything.”
The experimentation with forms might be expected of an essayist who graduated in 2008 from John D’Agata’s Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa (Perry counts D’Agata — known for his own experimentation with forms and for championing ever-expanding boundaries of “creative nonfiction” — as a strong supporter of his work though he never had a course with him). For Perry, the program was just the beginning of finding his voice as a writer. “It was the spark, not the endgame.”
The characteristic Perry seems to most value in his writer’s voice is honesty.
“As a writer and as a citizen, I want to get as close to honesty as possible.” He thinks of that project as ongoing as he imagines future essays and books. “This work is part of a larger body of work,” he said. “This is a chapter in a bigger piece.”
He is honest about the difficulty of being honest about difficult issues and ideas. “It’s hard because we’re taught not to.”
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His commitment to honesty leads him to reveal his own struggles with a clear-eyed rawness that is, for this reader at least, powerful and discomfiting and cathartic all at once. For example, in one of the collection’s most experimental essays, Perry tackles issues of language and its power to do harm when wielded thoughtlessly in conversations about race and sexuality.
“How does gender and sexuality affect how we move and how we’re allowed to move through the world?” he asks. He credits Kanye West for first opening his eyes to the ways in which homophobic language mirrors racist language. “That was a pretty major moment for me,” he says, noting that it was suddenly clear that much of the music he was listening to included “blatant attacks on alternative male sexuality.”
These essays — creative in form and rich in content — are likely to resonate with readers of all sorts, but Perry acknowledges a particular audience for the work.
“Young-ish readers of color,” he said. “That’s the real core...That’s the reader I have in mind.” He’s invested in talking about “who we are and how we move through the world.”
That said, he also wants to invite everyone to engage in the conversation. “I want the readership to be as wide as possible, as long as people come to it willing to think... I want to be as inclusive as possible.”
After all, there’s a lot for all of us to talk about — and accomplish — together.
“I don’t think we can tie up the issues in this book... The jury is still out on what will happen next,” Perry said. “We’re all part of that answer.”