A writer from Frankford.
That’s how Philadelphia author Joseph Earl Thomas’ bio describes him online and on the inside book jacket flap of his recently-published, critically-acclaimed memoir, Sink. Notably, it does not say “a writer from Philadelphia,” or even, “a writer from the Frankford section of Philadelphia.” Just Frankford, the Philly neighborhood where Thomas grew up, and where Sink takes place, during the late 1990s, when Thomas was roughly between the ages of 8 and 13.
“I’m really invested in being as specific as possible, and I’m thinking about what those differences in place mean, especially when you can’t leave,” Thomas says, acknowledging that the experience of growing up in a neighborhood-based city like Philly is so tightly tied to geography. “Especially if you don’t have access to a car, or you don’t feel safe on public transit, because, particularly when you’re a kid, you know that if you get on the El or a certain bus, somebody’s going to be fucking with you. So you come to feel really circumscribed to your neighborhood.”
Thomas is sitting at a table in the back of Tattooed Mom on South Street, roughly eight miles from where he grew up, about 45 minutes by public transit, yet a proverbial world away. He’s there to attend You Can’t Kill a Poet, a poetry reading series for queer and trans poets that dates back to 2014. Thomas’s friend, the poet Gabriel Ramirez, is scheduled to read; he’s also planning on connecting with another poet and literary colleague who is coming by.
It’s roughly one week since the book garnered … a particularly glowing New York Times review, under the title: “An Extraordinary Memoir of a Black American Boyhood.”
It’s a Wednesday evening in early March, roughly two weeks since Sink was officially released into the world, and roughly one week since the book garnered positive reviews from The Washington Post, Vulture, and Kirkus Review, as well as a particularly glowing New York Times review, under the title: “An Extraordinary Memoir of a Black American Boyhood.” Sink, National Book Critics Circle Award-winning author Bryan Washington wrote, is a “remarkable debut” and Thomas “has earned a deep bow.”
For Thomas, this particular stretch of time, in this particular place, is a bit of a blur. He’s busy with the release and promotion of the book. Or, at least busier than usual for someone who juggles his writing life with: being an associate faculty member at The Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, a doctoral candidate at Penn, a post-graduate fellow at the Cleveland State University Poetry Center, the director of programs at the Philly literary hub, Blue Stoop, and also, not to mention, the father of four young children.
Thomas admits the recent wave of acclaim is “kind of wild,” and indeed this place he holds now seems light years from the world of Sink. Except Thomas himself might not see it that way.
Making vs. Escaping
One of the most talked about aspects of Sink is the way Thomas writes about his younger self in the third person as, “Joey.” It is a brilliant authorial decision that, at first, seems like a way to create distance between Thomas himself, and the heavy subject matter of his early life. Really, though, experiencing Thomas’s story this way, draws us in closer. We stay right there with Joey, in all his childlike confusion, swimming in questions that Thomas refrains from answering or analyzing with exposition, and in the process we become fully submerged in the interiority of a singular child.
Reviews of Sink describe the environment in which Thomas grew up with words like “brutal,” “wrenching,” “harsh,” and “unceasing cruelty,” to name a few. We meet the adults in Joey’s life: his grandfather, grandmother, and mother — all “harmful and harmed by the world” — and we come to yearn for a break in the perpetual forces of poverty, abuse, and cruelty that shape his world.
I’ve come to know Thomas personally over the last few years (as a member of a small writing group that met monthly via Zoom), so I wasn’t entirely surprised by the harsh experiences of his early life. But, getting to know Thomas as a generous and insightful teacher, and witnessing his ability to be warm-hearted and often scathingly funny in the face of harshness, I admittedly found myself starting to read the book with a familiar line of questioning in mind: How did Thomas escape? How did he make it out of the neighborhood he grew up in?
His is not a story of escaping; it’s a story of making, out of that harshness and isolation, came care and the seeds of community.
But it’s impossible to finish reading Sink and not come to realize how misguided this is, and more profoundly, how much we miss when we apply our own narrative conventions upon stories seldom told, particularly of young Black kids growing up in similar settings. His is not a story of escaping; it’s a story of making, out of that harshness and isolation, came care and the seeds of community.
One example of how this has played out across the marketing and promotion of Sink is an emphasis on Thomas’s early affinity with “geek culture:’” video games, anime, Pokémon, and an acute obsession with Discovery Channel shows like, The Crocodile Hunter — as if those are unusual interests for a boy like him, and therefore were a salvation.
But, as the writer Kiese Laymon put it in a recently recorded conversation with Thomas, “People are reading this book as geek culture got you out. When I read it, it’s like geek culture brought you in, and by being in … it helped you make.”
Getting here from there was more complicated than any easy explanation allows. After graduating high school, Thomas joined the Army National Guard, did a tour in Baghdad as a medic, went on to earn an undergraduate degree in biology, and was considering continuing school to become a physician assistant, when he started taking graduate courses in writing studies at Saint Joseph’s University.
It was his time at St. Joe’s, specifically a summer course on African American literature with Dr. Aisha Lockridge, that unlocked a love for writing and literature and changed the trajectory of Thomas’s life. He continued to work at Einstein Hospital, while taking graduate classes at St. Joe’s, and eventually applied and was accepted into the MFA program at Notre Dame University, which he chose because it was close enough that he could drive back and forth to South Bend for stretches of time, while still continuing to pick up hospital shifts at Einstein in Philly.
We want to see him get out, to escape. We want to know what came after for Joey.
It wasn’t until late 2020, after terrifyingly navigating the first wave of Covid, while also juggling a myriad of personal challenges in caring for his kids, that Thomas was able to stop working at the hospital by chaining together enough income from other jobs and starting to teach online at The Brooklyn Institute for Social Research.
Thomas talks about that stretch of time in 2020, working at the hospital, navigating a custody dispute (that has since been resolved and worked out), and caring for his kids while worrying about bringing home Covid, as “some of the hardest moments of my life.” But, it was also a time defined by growing insight and perspective — not unlike the journey of the young Joey. Thomas reflects on this with a laugh:
“There’s so much that I don’t really know. Part of that is why I’m obsessively reading — even though I’ve spent serious and intensely emotional time with people from all over the world, and all different social positions, because of working as a medic for so long. I think that really helps. That perspective.
“But, there’s also, like, awareness of so much that I don’t know. Hospital work does that. You talk to someone about their lives outside of this moment, in the hospital, and you realize how much [shit] they’ve got going on. Sometimes it conforms to like, dumb stereotypes, and other times it defies them.”
“Waiting for something to go wrong”
By all measures, with Sink, Thomas has managed to “make” something “extraordinary.” Yes, there are depictions of “wrenching” experiences, but Thomas’s remarkable craft leads him to capture the matter-of-fact confusion, vulnerability, and weirdness of the way a child processes an often absurd, harsh, nonsensical world, with effortless prose that, as Washington describes, “rips and shines.”
One of the most compelling chapters in Sink, excerpted at length on LitHub, comes early on in the book when Joey builds an epic snow fortress with his younger sister, Mika.
It’s 1996, back “when it used to snow still.” Eight-year-old Joey, proud of what he built, tells his sister, “‘This fort is gonna protect us from bears and yetis.’ By which he really meant Ray and Darren and other neighborhood boys, but also Popop and the adults in the house who he wished were actually just bears and yetis.” But his little sister, “wearing checker-patterned oven mitts to keep warm,” is cold, and she leaves him by himself after a tenderly humorous exchange, where Joey tells her: “‘You should go inside by the oven. Or else you gonna die.’” A few paragraphs later, Joey wakes up, disoriented, in a bed at St. Christopher’s Hospital with pneumonia, reflecting:
Three hot meals a day — none of which included Oodles and Noodles — was a certain kind of paradise. Joey spotted nary a roach during his stay, which also felt like a privilege he didn’t deserve. He could sleep soundly, on his back even, with his eyes closed like he saw white kids fall asleep in movies after their mommies and daddies read them bedtime stories. Everything felt so unreal. And it made him guilty, so he lay there all night with a broken half smile on his face, waiting for something to go wrong.
As an adult, Thomas looks back at that episode in his life as his first real encounter with a world outside the one he’d known, as one that held the possibility of, well, possibility — of something else, of a fundamentally different experience than the hostile environment he navigated daily. “There’s so many teenagers, or young adults, specifically young Black kids in Philly who do feel really pigeonholed and really desperate, and fed up with public schools, and who perhaps are dealing with the kind of shit I dealt with that was going on at home,” he says. “And, it’s very difficult. I mean, I didn’t have a set of examples that would have helped me think that any other [shit] was possible.”
This continued impulse to track “how far” Joey has gone, may in fact, still be missing the point.
This plays out in the very last chapter of Sink, when Thomas switches from the third person, “Joey,” to the second. It’s a subtle shift, as Thomas manages to maintain Joey’s same tone and voice, but it’s a shift that signals Joey’s recognition that change is possible. It makes clear, as Washington notes, “that geographic distance isn’t the sole barometer of ground covered in an individual’s journey.”
It’s true, by some measures [spoiler alert!], not a lot has changed in Joey’s life at the end of the book: the circumstances of his living situation, his family dynamics, remaining a consistent target of bullying, the socio-economic constraints of his neighborhood, etc. And, for so many readers, this may be a disappointment. We want to see him get out, to escape. We want to know what came after for Joey.
On this night, “after” looks like this: At Tattooed Mom, the poetry reading is packed.
The walls, chairs, floors are lined with bodies. Physical movement is impossible without brushing up against somebody else. The mood is excited, exuberant, attentive. Thomas stands at the back of the room, leaning against the wall, declining invitations to come towards the front, acknowledging that his 6-foot-6 frame is not well suited for front-row seats. It is comforting to imagine confused young Joey, looking into his future, and seeing himself grown up, surrounded by a welcoming literary community, one carved out of connection and expressions of pain, joy, fear, courage.
But, it’s worth remembering, this continued impulse to track “how far” Joey has gone, may in fact, still be missing the point.
A point highlighted halfway through Sink, when Joey is at Harding Middle School, wrestling with the idea of lethal retaliation towards a particularly antagonistic boy, when: “He suddenly realized how much energy this took up, paying so much attention to everyone else just to hide from them, but it was also useful now for what he wanted to do.”
With Sink, Thomas shows us, by bringing us inside the childlike interiority of one particular kid from Frankford, how we can pay closer attention.
In this simple statement, arising from inside Joey’s mind, Thomas teaches us something.
We all struggle to pay attention, a problem that often leads us astray. But perhaps the bigger problem is that when we do manage to pay attention, to focus, to channel our individual or collective attention towards something we believe is useful, we too often mis-prescribe the utility, or value of that attention, for instance, the value of escaping over making.
With Sink, Thomas shows us, by bringing us inside the childlike interiority of one particular kid from Frankford, how we can pay closer attention. How we can listen better, and maybe, in redefining how we think about distance geographically, experientially, and physically, why we should consider putting more effort towards helping the most vulnerable kids “make,” rather than “make it out.”
Back at Harding Middle School, it was outside circumstances, specifically the fact the day in question was September 11, 2001, that interrupted Joey’s plans of deadly revenge, but if Joey had managed to use his attention for what he thought it was useful for in that moment, “for what he wanted to do” ( admittedly, a big if), Sink would probably not exist.
But thank goodness it does.
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Sink author Joseph Earl Thomas. Photo by Drake Masters