Prince Shakur’s When They Tell You to Be Good

Ishena Robinson

In his award-winning debut memoir When They Tell You to Be Good, author and activist Prince Shakur vividly captures and decodes lived experiences that are undeniably his—coming-of-age as a queer, 20-something Jamaican-American Black man and millennial nomad. At the same time, these stories relate to many of us and the shared world we inhabit, particularly in these continually (and globally) tumultuous times.

In a collection of essays, readers follow Shakur as he runs through the streets of Paris with anti-capitalist agitators, confronts political complexities while embedded in the Standing Rock community’s battle against the destructive Dakota Access Pipeline, and tackles painful silences that haunt his immigrant family, including the stories of men whose absences feel visceral. The confident analyses and sharp, engrossing prose make it clear that in challenging his own ghosts — or duppies, in Jamaican parlance — Shakur is also challenging us all to embark on paradigm-shifting journeys of our own. To look at, and seek understanding of, the cogs that not only keep oppressive systems and structures going, but that can also trap us into shadow boxing personal phantoms all our lives. 

Hailing from Ohio and now based in Brooklyn, the young author and grassroots organizer has written at several residences, including Sangam House, Twelve Literary Arts and La Madison Baldwin, and boasts an assured and assuring voice that has featured in Literary Hub, The Cut, Electric Literature, Cultured, Catapult and other publications. In an interview for Gulf Coast Shakur told me that finishing the memoir, published last October by Tin House, was a gift to himself. Though harrowing themes like grief and disillusion hover over its excavation of masculinity, Blackness, family myths and the shrouded story of his biological father’s death, Shakur says the process of untangling knotted truths in the memoir allowed him to tap into the “core place that I write from, whether it's fiction or nonfiction, [which] is exploring the far off places in the world and inside of yourself that Blackness can take you to.”

Our conversation about Shakur’s journey to creating When They Tell You to Be Good traveled similar contours.

Ishena: There’s this idea that we can be different people in different places, perhaps because we are able to access distinct parts of ourselves or be seen in new ways. In When They Tell You To be Good, we see you in Paris, the Philippines, Wyoming, Standing Rock, Jamaica and more, telling stories of your various lived experiences in these places. What is it that traveling opens up for you and in your writing? 

Prince Shakur: When I travel, I look for and hope for moments of awe. Moments where another culture or place or location can leave me speechless or leave me extremely curious and kind of amazed at the world, whether it's a conversation with a person or it's sharing space with someone or going to a new cultural event or learning something new.

Going to Jamaica growing up taught me a lot about how to humble myself when I travel and how to understand my privilege as an American. I think that's carried through to other places that I've gone to. In terms of what it offers to my writing, I like writing about travel because it teaches me to be very specific about setting and situate my memory and the reader in that place. One of my favorite chapters, setting-wise, is the Philippines chapter because, to me, the Philippines is a very visually stimulating and kind of an overwhelming country.

A lot of the sensory details there felt very distinctive. The question then becomes — how do I translate that to a reader? How do I give them kind of the emotional sense of a place? When you're writing about places that aren't home your sense is already heightened, and that can be beneficial to writing. 

IR: The various geographical settings definitely flesh out this memoir richly. Speaking of home—we’re both Jamaican and American. Our experiences are different, because you were born in America, and spent most of your life growing up here. Yet what struck me when reading this, as someone who was born and raised in Jamaica, was your adeptness at capturing and summarizing the specific cultural context of the island. Early in the memoir you introduce readers to the Rastafarian concept of ‘Babylon,’ for example, and you talk about post-independence Jamaica—background that to me feels integral to understanding the larger story that you're telling here and the story of you. 

How did you go about making sense of the Jamaicanness of you and your story, and translating that to readers?

PS: I knew when writing this book that I wanted to tackle, one, unpacking my family's history, and then two, analyzing masculinity on a structural and personal level. And to me, both of those things require research and giving myself and the reader context. I knew if I was going to write about Jamaica as someone born in the U.S. I wanted to be really clear about some of those histories and not make it an entirely emotional perspective, because I think that can be reductive. It was important to lay the groundwork, analyzing my family's history and creating a timeline and then putting that timeline alongside Jamaica's history. 

So, looking at the political environment in Jamaica and understanding how it created certain economic conditions, helped me see how those conditions affected the way that men and women operate in Jamaica and shaped the family structure I had. Especially understanding a lot of the men in my family. That to me is like looking at, what were their neighborhoods like growing up?  Why were they in gangs? How does getting to the US differ if you’re a man or a woman or if you’re in school or you’re not in the school? Who offers you a way to this country? When you have a family history where there are gaps because people are undocumented or incarcerated, you have to do the research to fill in the space in order to understand why that absence is there in the first place. 

IR: James Baldwin has influenced your own development as a writer, as you share in your memoir. He once said, “the responsibility of a writer is to excavate the experience of the people who produced him.” You could say that was the task that you took on in doing this work—excavating the story of your father's death. A moment that sent chills down the back of my neck was in the chapter where you share your Uncle Cedric's journal. What was it like finding that journal and then incorporating it into this story of finding your own truth? 

PS:  Learning about Cedric in the writing process definitely changed the book. It made it more cosmic, finding out that I had this family member who was creative in some way but also extremely violent and had also harmed other people in my family. There was a mixture of a lot of things thematically, in terms of Cedric and my father, that made it necessary for me to be really careful about how I wrote about them. When you lose someone at a very young age, you're always kind of looking for artifacts of them. So, finding these journals of Cedric was me finding artifacts that could get me closer to my father, in a sense. 

I knew I wanted to include his journal, but I also knew I wanted to expand on the journal and provide social and political context. At one point I thought maybe I'll put one of his journal entries in between each of my chapters and then that can kind of be its own arc. And then I realized putting it near the end and having it speak for itself felt more important. I felt at some points I was trying to write from his perspective, and then I was trying to write a critique of him and then I realized I just need to write about these people in the only way that I know I can, so I'm not trying to embody anything else. It felt important for me to do that, and it also felt important to just allow Cedric to speak for himself.  

I think it shows the intergenerational nature of how men run away from or towards these ideals about gender and what these illusions are. A lot of my book is about trying to confront these illusions, but when you read Cedric's diary entries, the feeling that I at least got was, is this man telling the truth? Does he really believe this? Is this how he justifies his emotional world? I wanted to give the reader the chance to have those questions for themself too, without me necessarily intervening. 

IR: Something else that stood out to me is your frequent inclusion of dream scenes, as well as the motif of the ‘duppy’, which is a Jamaican word for ghost. These images feel very rooted in Jamaican, black, African, storytelling tradition. Was leaning into that a deliberate choice?

PS: It was definitely intentional in some parts and not intentional in others. In a way I wanted to write this book with the notion that death for people from certain backgrounds can feel like a personified force. It can feel like an entity that is actively in your world. Because I think anyone that's marginalized or Black or from the diaspora, we have a closer relationship to death than a lot of other people. I think that's important to consider and understand, as a Black person, as a queer person, as an organizer. And so, looking at all those different parts of my identity and my family's history, I knew it was important to look at death as maybe an antagonistic force, a force of existentialism, something that forces you to reckon with the world around you. And for me to escape the attachments to death that I have in the world that I know of, I have to write my way out of it. I have to imagine a reality where maybe my attachment to it is different.  Because when you lose someone that brought you into the world, and that is a shadow over your whole life, it can feel like you caused their death or you have this unhealthy attachment to it. 

IR: There are some emotional scenes of you coming into your queerness and using writing as a way to reframe the reactions you received and reassert the power in owning your queerness. Tell me more about discovering the power of writing as a way to assert your truths and assert your identity, and how this book is perhaps a culmination of that act. 

PS: My mother found out that I was gay by going into my room and reading my journal without my permission, and I was 15. It made me really angry. I felt betrayed. I was also really traumatized. So in a way, one of the scariest moments of my life was catalyzed by writing and someone invading this world that I've created. For young people, writing can be your chance to create an inner world as you're coming of age and going through puberty. After I came out, like about a month and a half later, I went to the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop and that was my first time being in a space with other young people, other writers, and having my writing taken seriously. So, if I look at that year and those two experiences, writing brought me to this sort of trauma and reckoning and it also brought me to understand that writing is a serious part of me. There are other young people that care about it too. And this is something that I can invest in and it can be something that not only moves me, but moves other people. 

If I think of my younger self and how I understand love, writing was one of my first true loves. As I change my relationship to it changes. I wanted to write this book to release some of my fear around my father and his death and some of my own ideas about mortality. It helped me confront a lot of that, and it gave me a sense of peace that I don't think anyone else could have given me.

IR: In this memoir we see you sharing your personal experiences within many of the social movements over the last decade that have been politically pivotal. There's a line in one of the essays: “the first step to having a chance at changing the world was to take my body back and thrust myself toward the things that made me feel alive.” How did writing this book help you code your very bodily experiences of political activism? 

PS: As an anarchist and a leftist, a lot of what I argue for is engaging politically in the world around us, outside of the act of voting. I think so much of the political world that we live in is overly intellectualized, or it's based in a lot of these ‘isms’ that we're trying to escape. Writing about the non-intellectual political experiences that I've had, has shown me what's necessary to get to the kind of world that I want to live in. Writing about Standing Rock was, yes, about the movement and what happened there, but also how I as a visitor to that space and that movement affected me as a black person; what it was like to see police violence like that up close, the inner politics of the camp, and how immersive the emotions in a political space can be. Another example was writing about my visit to Ferguson after the police murder of Michael Brown. I was marching and suddenly realizing how important it was that I be there, fully as myself. I learned to be okay with whatever risk of arrest I might have for defending the rights of black people. Was this scary? Yes. But it was also necessary. Writing allows me to center and honor those visceral physical experiences. It proves that’s where the fight is, that's where the passion is. Those are the experiences that teach me there's no turning back to a safe place where I can just pretend like the world is okay and that these things don't happen.

And yes, it's traumatizing, but I think once you learn to process and heal from that trauma, which writing helps to do, it allows those traumas to be something that can propel me forward in a way that is meaningful and is based in less fear. 

IR: And that propels others forward too.

Ishena Robinson is a Jamaican-born writer who probes the intersections of identity, belonging, politics, and pop-culture from her specific perspective in the global Black diaspora. She holds an MFA in non-fiction creative writing from Columbia College Chicago and a B.A. in media, journalism, and political science from the University of West Indies, Mona. Her writing has been featured in the Jamaica Gleaner, Harper's Bazaar, The Root, Chicago Reader, and more. Ishena is based in Brooklyn, NY.