Left Bank Books Hosts Reading and Conversation with G'Ra Asim '18
BY Angeline Dimambro, May 19, 2021
Left Bank Books recently hosted Writing Alumnus G’Ra Asim ’18 for an evening of reading and conversation.
Asim is a writer, musician, and Assistant Professor of Nonfiction Writing at Ithaca College. His nonfiction debut, Boyz n the Void: a mixtape to my brother, was published in April 2021 by Beacon Press. He holds an MFA in Nonfiction from Columbia University and a BA in Writing, Literature, and Publishing from Emerson College. He has served as Writing Director at the African American Policy Forum and as graduate teaching fellow in Columbia’s Undergraduate Writing Program. His work has appeared in Slate, Salon, Guernica, The Baffler, and The New Republic. When not writing prose or teaching, he sings, plays bass and writes lyrics for NYC DIY pop punk band babygotbacktalk, who were named one of Alternative Press’ “17 rising Black alternative bands who are leading the next generation.”
In Boyz n the Void, Asim writes to his brother, reflecting on building his own identity while navigating Blackness, masculinity, and young adulthood—all through wry social commentary and music/pop culture critique. The book blends music and cultural criticism with personal essay in order to explore race, gender, class, and sexuality as they pertain to punk rock and straight edge culture. Using totemic punk rock songs on a mixtape to anchor each chapter, the book documents an intergenerational conversation between a Millennial in his 30s and his zoomer teenage brother. Assistant Professor Leslie Jamison called the book “full of dopamine hits and heartbreak,” with “essays [that] are rigorous and tender and funny all at once.”
The evening was a virtual homecoming of sorts for Asim, who is originally from St. Louis, the same city where the long-beloved Left Banks bookstore has been the oldest and largest independently-owned, full-line bookstore since it first opened its doors in 1969. Joining Asim after his opening reading was his father, author and professor Jabari Asim. He is an accomplished poet, playwright, and writer who has been described as one of the most influential African American literary critics of his generation. He is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in Creative Arts and is the author of seven books for adults—including We Can’t Breathe: On Black Lives, White Lies, and the Art of Survival—and eleven books for children. His debut book of poems, Stop and Frisk, was published in 2020.
Jabari asked his son to speak more about how his early years in St. Louis influenced the work he’s doing now. “Part of the project of the book is to detail how the maybe unusual and particularly bohemian upbringing I had in my first ten years in St. Louis...in many ways primed me to be receptive to punk rock,” Asim said. For Asim, participating in punk has been deeply connected to what he referred to as DIY culture—“this idea of working with whatever is at hand to be as creative, imaginative, and inclusive as possible.”
He credits his first years in St. Louis for instilling in him a desire for this kind of creative space, for it was in St. Louis that he was first exposed to the artistic programming from the Vaughn Cultural Arts Center, which, established in 1977, aims to promote an appreciation and awareness for the culture and history of African Americans through art exhibits, literature, music, storytelling, and special programs.
“Watching that scene, and [my parents’] engagement with that scene, I observed a kind of ethos that guided their participation. To me, it’s very conversant with the DIY ethos of punk,” Asim said. “It’s really appropriate that the first launch event for Boyz n the Void is happening at Left Bank Books because that was a place where I not only had these engagements with literature that really informed my interest with being a writer, it was also a place where I first observed and participated in a subculture—a place where I could recognize that if mainstream culture is the main thoroughfare, there are other avenues and side streets where all of the assumptions of mainstream culture aren’t taken as a given. And Left Bank, being there even as a very young child, was a place where I first experienced that.”
After leaving St. Louis, Asim sought out places that he saw as akin to the formative artistic and community-oriented spaces of his childhood. Speaking more about the crossover between his work as a musician and writer, Asim noted that he has been able to find much overlap between the two. “In my teens, I would always keep two different notebooks—a poetry notebook and a lyrics notebook. And then, over time, as I began to fill up both of those, it became less and less obvious to me what belonged where,” Asim said. His sensibilities as a writer mirrored his sensibilities of himself as a punk rocker, and once he observed this, Asim embraced it, leaning into it and sharpening his specific and unique literary voice. This crossover is evident in the form Boyz n the Void takes, as it is a mixtape rather than simply an essay collection.
Watch the complete reading and conversation on the Left Banks YouTube page. Signed copies of Boyz n the Void are available from Left Bank Books here. You can also pick up a copy through Bookshop or your local independent bookstore.