Reading Uzo Okehi’s new book, I noted, then wrote to him, “You’re extremely good at depicting things most people want to forget. Okehi’s second book, House of Hunger, is a quasi-autofictional, sort-of college campus novella about an 18 year old Blue Okoye, about to make a decision that could ruin his life. Thus far he’s failed to become an artist. He fails to relate to women. Basically just failing, trying to figure out what, if anything he can do about it. This may sound like familiar ground in 2023, but it often seems to me that so many of our purveyors of cringe and humiliation do so disingenuously, using either the Larry David model; In Losing, I, in Fact, Win, or the Lena Dunham-Annie Ernaux model, Merely Admitting to Loss Confers Moral Victory. In other words, trying to have it both ways. Not so here. House of Hunger is, unambiguously, about a real loser, really losing. Blue Okoye’s pratfalls aren’t really hilarious, nor are they presented as “brave.” They are merely soul crushing, which is not to say boring. From the very first page of “Hunger,” you know you’re reading the real thing, an authentic work of literary art, a book that looks at the thing itself and doesn’t flinch, doesn’t pull any punches, and doesn’t apologize, just grabs the back of your neck and says, Look at this. This is how it is. You hate to admit it, but it’s brilliant.
The following is a heavily edited transcript of our Sunday afternoon conversation about autofiction, the Age of Cringe, and a lot more:
Ok, it’s recording us. All right . . . Definitely want to front-load, because this is promoting your book, right? So this is a sequel? House of Hunger, this is your second book?
Yeah, the first one was Rockwell. Hunger is sort of like, to be honest, much as I hate the word, House of Hunger is kind of a prequel. Actually, no, scratch that. Put it this way; Rockwell is like this scattershot mess of moments and little story threads, almost more like a giant book of poems. Moments all across the life of this one dude, from middle school to middle age.The central event is that Blue Okoye drops out of college, goes to Hong Kong, but that sequence of events actually occurs offscreen.
Right. So with House of Hunger, it’s basically a single set-piece. Like an attempt to establish a linear narrative. Take that big-bang moment. 18 year old Blue Okoye. What ends up being his last week in Iowa City, in college, almost day to day, leading up to that moment where he like, decides, you know, fuck all this.
Because I know you. And a lot of this stuff is based on actual events and real people we knew in Iowa City. This is Autofiction, right? We talk about this all the time. Let’s do the autofiction bit.
Yeah, yeah. The Autofiction thing. This is my perception of it. Feel there’s this built-in unease, people handle it, talk about it a way that always feels loaded with bullshit. Painters don’t get weird, or get heavily criticized for doing self-portraits. Comic artists don’t crawl up their own asses trying to be coy about whether that character they draw is supposed to be them. Yeah, it’s me, motherfucker! Lets talk about it! The conversation is so often caught up with the writer trying to, to defend the choice, either that or acting insulted that “people always confuse me with the character in the book”. Come on, don’t play that game. It’s corny. First of all, we read these type of books because we love that blurring of real life into fiction. We love it. Like we love gossip, and tragedy. You read and are thrilled by a fictional book, or let’s say, Don Draper; his numerous indiscretions, his humiliations and secret tragedies. But then if someone writes about similar situations in their real life, oh all of a sudden, it’s so boring, ah, who cares about so-and-so’s lame life. Of course we care! At least for cheap thrills, as entertainment.
You think a lot of Autofiction is disingenuous.
More like a lot of the criticism and discussion around it. Really, both sides. All sides. Yo, here’s one, I’m paraphrasing: You should always try to write about something as far away from your own perspective as possible—and who’s that? That’s Toni Morrison. Like I remember reading some dumb-ass quote where she talks about that, but the irony! The irony, it’s like, bitch, every book you wrote is about black women and racism! I remember in the quote she goes off on some riff about, you should write from the POV of a Mexican Waitress. Or some shit. Like, get the fuck outta here! We should write about Mexican Waitresses while you run the jewels on the NYT bestseller list essentially writing about yourself.
Like do as I say, not as I do.
No, yeah. I apologize for calling Toni Morrison a bitch. RIP. But, no, bitch, you write about Mexican Waitresses.
The Genre thing.
Yeah, yeah. Lets go one level deeper. And here’s my thing, it’s a genre! Right? Everything’s a motherfucking spectrum these days. To make the connection, like Westerns, like Noir, like Romance. Again, autofiction is a genre. With tropes! I think about it that way. And also, I’m no stylist, this is actually what I do. This is my world, how I write. I get frustrated when writers get caught in that Me/Not Me spin cycle because I want to get deeper into it, to the craft, the technique. The formulas you come up with for taking pieces of your life and, you know, organizing it into the framework of a story.
I remember you really got into this in that Heavy Feather interview with Elizabeth.
My boss over at Hobart, yeah. No, the thing about it is we really didn’t get into it. That’s where the tension was. And that’s my point, like, what I really want to know is how you work on your jumpshot, what dribbling drills you use. Because so much of it is always self-taught! All of us in rooms by ourselves, writing, re-writing until we come up with a formula to make it work. From your own life and experiences, how do you choose what to use, what not to use. What do you censor and why? Do you change names, use parts of real names? What’s the metric? I don’t find these questions boring. I think they’re essential. This is the stuff I think about. I want to hear every writer answer these same questions on a fucking loop.
Valdes, from your book. For instance. Obviously the backstory is that we actually have a friend named Valdes. Is that how you guys actually met?
Yeah, it’s pretty close. I think! And, exactly, here we go. For instance, we definitely met out in front of the Mayflower. But it might have been during the daytime! As you know, he was always walking around drinking Big Gulps, but maybe he wasn’t in that specific first meeting. We definitely didn’t have the conversation about my name until weeks (months?) later. Right? So obviously some creativity, some lying. Some fiction is necessary. Some technique! Here’s sort of the way I’ve been doing it, the method I’ve developed over the last 10 years. Midway through Rockwell, I decided that from there on every story has to be a real story. Cinema Veritas?
Cinema Verite. Think it actually means “truth in lies” Let’s google it here:
As quoted by Wolf Koenig during an interview with Peter Wintonick in the documentary film Cinéma Vérité: Defining the Moment, “Every cut is a lie but you’re telling a lie to tell the truth”. To me, this means that the aim for this style of filmmaking is to try to tell as close to a truth as possible, despite the limitations to do so, as being completely truthful in any film is simply impossible.
Oh shit! Even better! Yeah! Because, because everything has to “feel” real. Give the medium some pliability, you cut and paste, use multiple sources. To do “Valdes” I take all of our emails. Use lines here and there. If I can’t remember what he actually said, I use things he’s said before, I use his actual speech or his typing voice as a character guide.
Like writers talk about creating characters that are an Amalgam of other characters?
Yes and no. Again, hate that word. Words and terms that everybody just throws out without thinking. Full disclosure, you have your laptop and I’m with my phone here. I’m googling a bunch of stuff here as we talk. Amalgam. Getting a bunch of pictures of teeth with fillings . . . Anyway, using the Valdes as an example. The Valdes character in the first book is almost a multipurpose tool for a lot of different situations. Like I said, I use all real shit. But for example let’s say I want to go into a story or experience that happened to me, but I also want to use something I said to somebody else as advice given to me. You follow? I’m not explaining it clearly. I want to externalize some inner conflict or resolution. I need to put it in words, so I’ll have “Valdes” say it. So one level is something real that happened, but wasn’t talked about at the time. If I’m “Blue Okoye”, lets say, in this story, now I need someone else to externalize an interior piece of dialogue so I’ll have “Valdes” say it. Level two. Now I go into the archive of exchanges me and the real Valdes have had over the years, and, like a sound board, I generate the Valdes voice to say the real thing that might have been thought by me at the time, but actually, literally, verbally said by me or someone else years later. I’m sure that’s what writers probably mean when they say “it’s complicated” or “I’m keeping certain things to myself”, but I like digging into the complicated contortions you have to actually perform to tell a basically true story. Bottom line, with a lot of characters, including Blue Okoye, Valdes, Abdul, Inez, all true stories, but I’m stealing and using everybody’s stuff. Your stuff, my stuff, stuff people have told me, stuff I’ve overheard-
So it’s not really real then? What you’re saying is that you’re a goddamn liar. (Laughing)
Absolutely, yeah! Ha ha! That’s one hundred percent true. Ask Valdes! (Laughing)
Elizabeth Ellen, your boss, vs. Annie Ernaux?
Yeah! (Laughing) Yeah, yeah, let’s talk about Person/a. Feel like we’ve had a ton of conversations about (that book) off the record. And I should have read some of those Ernaux joints before we sat down to do this.
How about this? Is Person/a a rip-off of Ernaux? Specifically of Getting Lost?
To be fair, I feel almost 100 percent she’s never even heard of Annie Ernaux.
Come on, man. EE has heard of Ernaux, I’m sure of it. You’re not gonna get another book deal if you keep this up.
That’s the story I’m sticking to! (Laughing) Shit! But I’d never heard of her! Contemporary Literature in general, in this country, probably never heard of her until what-
She just won the Nobel Prize.
Right, she just won the Nobel prize. I feel like some US company, some publishing house just bought up the rights to her books, off the prize thing. Not even going to google this. As you know, I work in a bookstore. Well documented at this point. I work in the Strand Bookstore shipping department. It must have been soon after the Nobel prize and all of a sudden we’re shipping out dozens a week.
She has a ton of books. I think half of them were out, translated, but nobody really read them. Some people, but not many. In the US at least, she was a “writer’s writer,” which is what they call you when no one reads you. And then she won the Nobel.
So, yeah, they’re being reissued, or picked up here by a new publisher. Because all of them, it’s like some real cool black and white photo of her, like a jazz album cover, filled in with flat color. Like they got some designer to do a noir-type glow-up on all her books.
I do think it’s more than the Nobel, though. I mean, this French dude, Le Clézio won the Nobel a few years ago. Nobody read his books before. Still nobody reads his books. They’re just completely out of step with, like, the culture. Ernaux’s books are very in step with US literary culture.
The culture? Yeah. She’s writing about her, like, messy sexual exploits? To go Ernaux vs Elizabeth Ellen? (laughing) Yeah, let’s do it. Give me your Ernaux take and I’ll come in with some completely unqualified thing. Ok, go:
I’ll tell you why Ernaux hit so hard, it’s because we’re in the Era of Cringe. Think about the stuff in popular culture that’s really been big the past decade. Lena Dunham, Nathan Fielder, Eric Andre, autofiction. It’s all based on doing or saying the most embarrassing, wrongest, most unflattering, cringiest shit. I have this whole theory that it’s because of social media. We’re at the point now where, when you look at someone’s vacation photos on Instagram or whatever, when they’re like, I’m so happy, life is great, we know, we know instinctively that shit is a lie. They’re lying, they’re miserable, the photo is staged, they used filters on their under-eye areas, it’s all bullshit. We all know this. So the opposite of this kind of idealized fake presentation is what now reads as authentic— cringe. Like the kind of presentation where you’re like, oh I’m a mess, I’m stupid, I say the wrong thing I’m awkward. Lena Dunham and her fat bikini selfies and Nathan doing the running man for that hooker in the hotel room. The more unflattering and cringey it is, the more “real” we think it is. The reason why Ernaux is so zeitgeisty, it’s like, non stop cringe. It’s extreme cringe. You read the books and you just like it’s like watching a YouTube video of someone pissing themselves on a crowded subway car.
But like, how raw is it? Is she just talking about playing with herself or is she talking about other people too. How far is she going with it?
It really is the type of shit that if I started telling you this sort of thing about myself, you would be like, stop, man, please, like you literally couldn’t listen. You would cover your ears or run out of the room. Multiple books about when she fell in love, fell in lust with some dude. And all she could think about is his cock. So she’s teaching and she’s supposed to be grading all these papers. She can’t. Her boss is like, you’re going to lose your job if you don’t, you’re so far behind. You need to start like, doing your shit. And she’s like, I can’t. All I can do, all I want to do is like, sit around my house and think about this guy’s throbbing veined cock just plunging into my holes, geysers of semen blasting, et cetera. It goes on and on. Cock, cock, cock. Relentless visions and dreams of hot throbbing cock. Like there’s this joke on Twitter about all the 20th century books written by men where the guy describes some undergrad’s big jiggly titties under her sweater in like excruciating detail, how round and heavy they are or the nipples poking delicately through the cashmere or whatever. This is basically that. It’s the ladies’ turn.
I’m in. I’m all for it.
But she does get truly deranged, which she acknowledges in the book. Like when she wants him to call— he’s married so she has to wait for him to call, she can’t call him— she’ll think back to the last time he called, what she was wearing that day and what she did, and she’ll put on the same clothes and do the same things to, like, manifest a call from him. Crazy shit. Not the type of thing you should ever admit to. If I told you I did that over a woman, you’d lose so much respect for me. You don’t have to answer, I know you would. It’s fine, you should!
Yeah, from a guy’s POV, not even the sexual fantasizing it’s that type of thing, I’d probably never admit to.
And that’s a big part of it. All the post-Nobel pieces about her were like “she limns the female consciousness with a razor sharp blah blah blah” but a big part of the appeal is you get to watch this person lose their mind and listen to them admit to shit that no one should ever admit to. I don’t care if you’re being waterboarded, you should take this type of shit to your grave. But like I said, it’s the era of cringe.
Well, yeah, culturally, I think if you’re a woman or gay or trans or something, it is cool now to be super-messy. I guess as opposed to sort of an earlier era when it was just dudes. Henry Miller or John Updike or whoever. Bukowski. But then also, maybe there are always pockets or little explosions of this from all sides. Certain writers find a way to somehow make it work, make it cool. Or like Erica Jong! Feel like women loved those books. Joan Didion. I’ve only read a few essays from one of her books, but I feel like she didn’t go full porn with it. Wait, we were gonna do an Elizabeth Ellen thing! Anyway I’m all for it. That’s my style. Get messy. I’d even read a messy gay thing. Like you said, you just gotta frame it a certain way.
Isn’t there already a book called House of Hunger?
The House of Hunger. Dambudzo Marechera. It’s a direct reference. I picked up that book randomly. This is 1997-98. I was hanging out with Abdul who worked at the library when we were all there in Iowa. Pretty crazy. College kind of sucked, Iowa City sucked, then I happened to pick up this sort of autofictional book by this Zimbabwean/Rhodisian writer where he talks about his shitty experiences at Oxford University in England. Chronic alcoholism. Trying to fuck white girls. Getting beat up by cops, etc. Not a direct correlation in all parts, but I latched on to it. Great book! And I figured, I want people to make the connection. Come to find out there’s some other book called House of Hunger that dropped in march as well. Some corny teen gothic vampire thing. I’m sure the fans of that writer are irritated by all these other corny books with the same name that keep popping up.
What do you want to end with? The Black writer thing or The Rupi Kaur bit?
Let’s do quick hits, do both. Do I consider myself a “Black writer”? No. I’ve got zero interest in that stuff. Being on anyone’s team. Going on and on about race, racism, all that. Not my bag. I’m obsessed with other shit.
Ok. You really want to talk about Rupi Kaur?
Want to say that I love, love Rupi Kaur! Love her stuff. I know everybody hates her. We’ve had this conversation. I draw quite a bit. The overarching Blue Okoye story is, he drops out of college, the Hong Kong part, but as a middle-aged man, he eventually becomes a comic book artist. Not a super successful one, mind you, but he’s living the dream, in the sense that he finally achieves a level of discipline in his life, starts to address some of his other demons and as the saga matures, the story is sort of asking, is it worth it? Minus success, minus the trappings. Is it worth it to sacrifice everything to spend your life that way?
So where does Rupi Kaur come in?
When I landed on the idea of writing about a wannabe comic book artist, I started drawing every day, to get the idea of what that life would feel like. But just drawing for drawing’s sake all the time became a chore. So I started trying to figure out a way to make all the drawing I was doing mix with the writing. And I know there’s a ton of stuff out there similar to Rupi Kaur. A whole genre of instagram poetry. But it was coming across her stuff that made me completely blow up the idea of ever writing a novel, or drawing a traditional comic. I still haven’t completely solved it yet, but I’m adding more and more art. Reading her stuff just made me feel that it was possible to come up with a simple solution to combine both. Obviously I’m not the intended demographic for her poetry, but the sketchy drawings interspersed with the little quick verses; it’s addictive, breezy, more form than sentiment. You just want to keep reading. Like Shel Silverstein for horny, woke, teen girls. (laughing) But if I can create that functionality in my own work, with my own topics, who knows, I might even write a bestseller one day. It could happen!
So in real life, you work in a bookstore. You’re not famous. Living paycheck to paycheck. But it’s probably safe to say you’ve achieved a certain amount of discipline. You conquered some of your demons. On your second book, writing a third. Is it still worth it?
Do you ever really conquer your demons? Man, I don’t know. But there’s still nothing I’d rather do. Write these books. Get out here, hustle. Rinse and repeat. Like I’m on a divine mission.