We’re Not Going Back to Normal: Michael Arceneaux Interviewed by Greg Mania

The writer on his new book about the toll debt took on his life and the universal reality of his experience.

Cover of I Don't Want to Die Poor by Michael Arceneaux

Ever since his New York Times-bestselling debut, I Can’t Date Jesus: Love, Sex, Family, Race, and Other Reasons I’ve Put My Faith in Beyoncé, and even before, churning out essays and cultural criticism in myriad media like Essence, The Guardian, and New York Magazine, Michael Arceneaux has been wielding his quick wit and vulnerability as weapons against the oppressive power structures hell-bent on thwarting any modicum of success for a young Black queer man living in America. His ability to reach readers with heart and humor have outsmarted the rigged game, and catapulted him into the pantheon of voices that will continue to shape how we think, read, and, now, watch. His second book, I Don’t Want to Die Poor (Atria Books), serves as a reminder of the cultural change maker in the making.  

I Don’t Want to Die Poor is a relatable exploration of the toll debt takes on one’s life beyond just a credit score. Arceneaux details how his debt—and its way of constantly making itself known, like an alarm clock with no snooze function—has permeated every facet of his life from how he dates to how he seeks medical care. It leaves him questioning every step of a path whose destination doesn’t guarantee economic stability. Arceneaux reminds us to laugh to keep from crying—especially when economic hardship and anxiety is almost as prevalent as the virus that exasperates these conditions.

—Greg Mania


Greg Mania How has life changed since the release of your first book, which was a New York Times bestseller? 

Michael Arceneaux Depends on what changes you speak of. Have a couple more people heard of me since the book? Yes. Thankfully, some speaking gigs, a bigger advance for my second book, my usual writing on the internet and sometimes in print, plus other work I’ve done has allowed me to enjoy a bit more security lately.

However, I Don’t Want To Die Poor intentionally pokes away at some presumptions people make about someone’s successes both real and imagined. My situation is as fragile as everyone else’s. Media had problems before the pandemic and look at what happened. Colleges aren’t open. People are losing their jobs. There is not much ad revenue right now. So many things are faltering as far as how I make my money. I’m still optimistic. I’m still working hard. I obviously have some things I am looking forward to. I won’t deny that. But nothing is for certain and so often our fates are out of our hands. As someone starting from behind, I know how easy it is to trip back into the red—now more people might know it too. 

GM In our last interview, you told me that you want to create culture rather than constantly critique it. I think you’re well on your way with a TV show based on your first book! How does that feel? 

MA I know the word is out about it now, but this has been ongoing for me a good while, so I am really excited that others know about it. So far, people have been really happy for me and I hope that further shows there is a desire to see something different than what’s out there. I’m really, really excited by and grateful for the opportunity to expand upon I Can’t Date Jesus in this way. As someone who functions as a critic, I have looked back on the things I wrote about The Carmichael Show and Empire and their impact, so it’s nice to see this come full circle in this way. In 2012, I wrote about Everybody Hates Chris for Salon and how it featured Black working-class people, which I felt was and often continues to be missing from TV. Between this and my second book, I’m also trying to lead by example.

GM Would you be interested in getting staffed on a TV show, and if so, which one(s)? 

MA I’m not one to decline the opportunity to get paid better than I’m used to along with much better health insurance, so sure, I’m open. I don’t really have a particular show in mind. And that’s not intentionally a political answer.  Like, in this pandemic, I’ve been watching my usual British crime dramas along with revisiting shows like Survivor’s Remorse or Bojack Horseman. Then I discovered shows like Bigger, which I didn’t know because I didn’t use BET+ but is so great. I’m also loving Insecure so much this season. And The Good Fight is my shit. I say all of this to just make clear I love television of all types and open to wherever opportunities take me.

GM We have to address the elephant in the room, which is the pandemic you just mentioned. By the time this story runs we’ll still be in the midst of it. What are you doing to combat your financial anxieties during this time of unprecedented challenge? 

MA I don’t have the same anxieties I write about in the book, or at the very least, don’t process which ones I have left in any of those ways. But to answer the question, I honestly already anticipated the idiot president sinking the economy, I just didn’t anticipate the global medical crisis attached to it. I do my work. I obsessively pay down all my debts. I pray Sweet Potato Saddam doesn’t completely sink the nation. What much else can you do?

Photo of Michael Arceneaux outside wearing a Howard sweatshirt

Photo of Michael Arceneaux by Steven Duarte.

GM Are there any things that have pleasantly surprised you about releasing a book in the middle of a pandemic? Any silver lining to offer any other authors who have had, or will have, a book out?

MA When I tell people that releasing a book in a pandemic is a nightmare, while I usually say it with a chuckle, I mean it all the same. So, I can’t speak to any pleasant surprises per se, but I think ultimately, it’s just a blessing to even say I have a book being released much less my second. And, considering the content of I Don’t Want To Die Poor, I’m so fucking grateful to the people who have been supporting me in the midst of a crisis. I won’t say being loved is surprising, but it is affirming and comforting—especially when I’m already isolated enough as is.

GM So, if anything, the current situation has highlighted the love and support for you and your book.

MA It’s just not easy trying to ask people to buy your book at a time of great suffering—everyone’s rightfully focused on that. I don’t know if it’s so much a bright side, but even though my book talks about struggle in blunt and dark terms, it’s still full of humor and hope. It’s nice to already hear from readers who receive the book the exact way I hoped they would. And really, I’m just grateful for folks spending money on me at a time like this. 

GM Are you already thinking about the next book?

MA I do already have an idea for the third book. I’ve been wanting to explore getting older and death. This was me before the pandemic, so while none of us can avoid this nightmare, these are themes that have been on my mind already because I really had to face a lot of this in 2019.

GM When you are living with actual economic anxiety—the stress, restlessness, and unease that permeates day-to-day life—and are unable to retain mental health sources for cost prohibitive reasons, what are some things you do on your own to combat stress?

MA I do a combination of things to deal with my own stresses. I keep up as close to the usual schedule I had before this as much as possible. Admittedly, I’m more used to this type of living, but I don’t like it. The consistency helps. Then when I don’t feel like it, I just want to watch some British crime series on Netflix, or whatever else. The pandemic is pressure enough; no need to help the shit drive you crazier.

GM Would you be open to something like therapy?

MA I have never had a therapist, so I wouldn’t be the best person to ask about this. At most, I’ve taken antidepressants and that was a generic form. I got off for multiple reasons, some of which tied to loathing my insurance plan more each year. 

I understand the value in therapy and am not opposed to eventually seeing a therapist regularly should I see fit. However, when people have advised me to go to therapy in light of the problems outlined in the book, that often just comes across as an added cost to me. [Laughs.] More importantly, a therapist isn’t going to help me pay the bills giving me grief. More money will. That said, I hope people find the resources they need, but that’s not what I’m speaking to in the book, so I have no clue and don’t want to send anyone down a path I haven’t taken myself.

GM The chapter “To Freedom” uses Robert F. Smith’s pledge to pay off the student loan debt of 396 Morehouse grads (and, more specifically, the backlash) as an example to illustrate that the playing field, which includes opportunity, accessibility, and avenues to succeed in any given field, is not even among racial and class lines—far from it. It made me think about something Lindy West wrote in her last book, The Witches Are Coming that we “just might have to tiptoe around the minefield for a while. We’re tearing down old systems, but we haven’t built new systems yet.” Have you seen evidence of new systems gaining momentum, or at least being proposed? 

MA Joe Biden, of all people, is now embracing student debt cancellation while conservative jackasses like Josh Hawley have suddenly started sounding like Bernie Sanders. Who knows anymore, but we’re not going back to “normal.” It created the mess we’re in now.

GM Intergenerational mud-slinging is, undoubtedly, a by-product of any conversation that tries to place blame on who fucked up the economy more. Do you think we’ll ever move past the whole “millennials ruined [insert literally anything that people have to pay money for here]”?

MA I couldn’t give any less fuck so long as it’s fixed. I don’t think those conversations matter anymore anyway because the entire nation essentially now finds itself in the position of the very generation it’s spent far too much time condemning rather than empathizing with. I guess people are still stubbornly cling to their folklore. There are other people perhaps now willing to listen. Hopefully stories like mine reach them.

GM I’m twenty-eight and just now becoming financially literate. Don’t get me wrong: I still don’t know what a Roth IRA is and I live in constant fear of the IRS knocking down my door because I messed up doing my taxes by myself. How are we supposed to learn this shit if no one teaches us? 

MA I’m just trying to pay off my loans. That is the focus. Even the invocation of “financial literacy” speaks to much of what I write about: most people cannot contemplate that type of shit because they’re just trying to get out of a hole first. If other people want to listen to Suze Orman in the meanwhile, enjoy. I’m not.

GM A lot of people are under the (false) impression that skipping out on small joys—a fancy cup of coffee, a nice meal—adds up. But does it? Why should we still indulge in small pleasures?

MA Because the articles telling you otherwise are a crock of shit published by people who work in an industry that’s collapsing because it still doesn’t know how to make money it’s damn self. 

GM You leave your reader with sound advice: to forgive yourself, celebrate small victories, pay what you can and allow yourself joy. How are you practicing your own advice?

MA You’ll never read another book like I Don’t Want To Die Poor from me again.

I Don’t Want to Die Poor is available for purchase here.

Greg Mania is the author of Born to Be Public, forthcoming from CLASH Books on August 25, 2020. Follow him on Twitter: @gregmania.

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