Davon Loeb, THE IN-BETWEENS: A Lyrical Memoir

Davon Loeb, THE IN-BETWEENS: A Lyrical Memoir

Zibby and Davon Loeb discuss his memoir, which tells the story of a biracial boy becoming a man while trying to find himself, trying to come to terms with his white Jewish family, and trying to find his place in American society. The two discuss Davon’s lyrical prose and his various life stages and identities. Their conversation also touches on writing techniques, the significance of authentic character portrayal, and Loeb’s hopes for his work to inspire discussions in classrooms. Through engaging storytelling and reflective insights, the dialogue delves into the transformative journey of self-discovery and the poetic expression of nuanced life experiences.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Davon. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The In-Betweens: A Lyrical Memoir.

Davon Loeb: Thank you so much for having me, Zibby.

Zibby: You are such a beautiful writer. I’m glad you put lyrical right there on the cover because it is so true. The way you describe anything from a beer can to any ordinary scene with kids becomes this beautiful, poetic moment with such sensory inputs that you feel like you’re completely there. Wow to your writing. How did you become such a great writer?

Davon: Thank you so much for saying that. I always think of writing in different genres. I started off in poetry, which is absolutely clear. I found the most difficult thing in writing prose, especially lyrical prose, is trying to keep that poetic muscle throughout a narrative. The more I dedicated myself to trying to become a lyrical prose writer, the more I started to build this intuition where I said, okay, here’s when the poetics can come out, and here is when it’s not. Throughout the memoir, there’s moments when I’m really diving into the poetics. I really want to build the scene, the ambience, what the characters look like, what it is that you see in front of you. Then trying to make the transition to just telling you the story, just giving you exposition, it took a lot of time to find that balance. I hope that it’s apparent in there.

Zibby: It is apparent. It’s great. Tell listeners a little bit about what the story is about and what the main messages were that you were trying to get across.

Davon: Initially, I wrote many of these chapters as standalone essays. Then I realized that they all fit a larger narrative arc about myself as a narrator coming of age and trying to understand where I fit in so many different categories. I think if we walk outside of the book, many people that may look like me, or don’t, are in these in-betweens in their everyday life. I think about my wife, who is a mom, but also a friend, but also a nurse, but also a reader, but also my wife, and all those different categories that we fit and how we can explore that in our writing. As I am, as a biracial, privileged, heterosexual male, I wanted to embrace this book by highlighting all of my in-between-ness. As much as it is about race, about being Black and being Jewish, it’s also about being a kid and not being a teenager yet, being a teenager and not being a man. I wanted to hit all those different categories so my readers never feel a sense of, well, I don’t look like you. Your story’s not like mine. In fact, this story is just like all of ours.

Zibby: It’s so fitting to be doing this from a school when the spotlight really shines quite heavily on these younger years of your life. We get a little snippet at the end closer too. Mostly, it’s what it was like growing up and how life looked when you were only allowed in the house in a pouring rainstorm. Otherwise, you weren’t even allowed. We can feel the house kind of shaking when someone runs through it. What do you do with a life like that? Also, the role of your parents and not being able to see your dad, talk a little bit about your relationship and my father versus Dad and the chapter with the tree falling down. That was so amazing, oh, my gosh. Talk a little bit about that.

Davon: Thank you. I absolutely love that chapter. I wanted to find a way to show how a young kid can love a stepparent fully but also begin to grow to love a biological father, and so what it feels like when you feel like you’re giving one or the other too much love. I wanted to keep the kids’ perspective. As an adult looking back on it, I understand how I feel about it. As a kid, it was like I had this new friend, but I had this old friend. Now they’re here in the same place. What do I do? Then how that’s shaped through the narrative through the tree falling, as much as the tree really fell, it’s also the symbolism of the narrator becoming the tree and the two men fighting for his love in their own way. What I also love about that chapter is that it doesn’t talk much about race. Sometimes the book is going to be heavy on that, but sometimes it doesn’t matter. Sometimes it’s just about this boy and his two dads, and he doesn’t know which one to love. I wanted to really push forward through that.

Zibby: As someone who has a stepfather and married to someone who is my kids’ stepfather, that is a tension I am very familiar with on an intimate level from every way. There’s that feeling of loyalty and abandonment and yet love. It’s so complicated. It’s just so complicated, all of it.

Davon: I remember saying, one, father, and one was a father. There is this distinction.

Zibby: Absolutely. Do you mind if I read a little passage from the book? Is that okay? Just a little bit.

Davon: Absolutely.

Zibby: This is from the beginning. Although, I loved — oh, my gosh, actually, I wanted to talk about, also, your Aunt Sammy. Maybe we could jump to that. Then I’ll go read a passage later. You write about your Aunt Sammy, who was in this horrific attack, essentially, and left for dead and had to get a steel plate in her head and was never quite the same. You parallel that story with your own gash in your forehead. I was like, can I see? Can I not see it?

Davon: My eyebrows have grown up a little bit. You can’t see it as much.

Zibby: Yours was a typical childhood thing, jumping between beds, and still required a lot of repair. Tell me about those two stories in parallel and how that linked you to your Aunt Sammy and what it meant to have her. Just talk about that relationship a little bit more.

Davon: It’s funny that I actually don’t get a chance to talk about that chapter as much. What I love about it is the sense of my mom as a narrator doing the storytelling trying to tell this family story of, this is what you shouldn’t do, but also, as a kid, feeling this sense of wonder looking at my aunt, that she looks different, that she sounds different. It’s almost like being around the cool aunt or cool uncle that doesn’t do what Mom does. There’s also this deeper level to it, that Aunt Sammy was broken and that even though she looks different, the narrator feels this sense of friendship with her because he’s different than his brother is, than his cousin is. There is this sense of connection because they’re both different. Then we had the same birthday, which was really fabulous.

Zibby: Talk also about the chapter and the scene with you and your grandfather where he was prepping you for how to fight. The way you wrote about that was so amazing. Then in the midst of it as he goes inside, you sneak your first taste of his beer. He comes back out and then kind of shakes the can a little. You leave the chapter with him just glaring at you. It was so good. It was like a movie.

Davon: I love sometimes — I don’t think it ends ambiguously. I think sometimes the readers want the, what happens next? I don’t believe you need to know. That’s not what it’s about. What it’s about is the narrator trying to understand his masculinity as a kid, trying to say, I’m little and I have glasses and I don’t look big and tough, and wrestling with that. The chapter before is, there’s a fight between the narrator and a girl. I wanted to show the complexity of little boys being told how to be big men even when they’re not. Tasting the beer was this sense of rebellion and trying to be masculine. How more can the narrator try to become like the grandfather, who’s this big, strong man? By doing the exact same thing that he’s doing, which I think young men do so often.

Zibby: You also have the not-very-accepting reaction when you were playing with dolls at one point and how that was not okay at home.

Davon: I want the storytelling to do the work rather than the didactics of looking at masculinity. I want my reader to walk away and say, I understand what he’s trying to argue without saying, this is what I’m trying to argue.

Zibby: This passage from early on with your mom and how you describe her to be like the car that needed pads — the motor oil was dripping and all of that. You said, “But it ran –” Meaning, the car. “But it ran, like how a smoker with emphysema ran, and you might not have been able to tell who was more broken, the car or her.” Meaning, your mom. “How her hair had split ends and was wrapped in something faded and frilly, and the frames she usually only wore before bed magnified hot and puffy dark eyes, and she had pulled on whatever sweatpants and sweatshirt she could find in the closet, so her clothes didn’t match. Her perfume wasn’t sprayed, and she might not have showered at all. And while this does not define a broken woman, this woman was in pieces, like this car, the two-door 1984 Chevette with no frills, no automated windows, no cassette tape player, no leather seats, no air conditioner, just a box on wheels with an engine, and it sputtered, hissed, and wheezed. When she continued forgetting to press the clutch, the gears ground, and we covered our ears.” You said, “Like us, crammed together in the backseat, my big sister and big brother and me, a trio of nesting dolls, we watched our mother become something else. For on a normal day before all of this happened, before the rage and panic, she was regal, double-breasted blazer, pleated pants, blouses begonia bright and feathery petal soft. Our mother was planned, precise, purposeful, like the inside of a paper planner, but now she said things under her upheaving chest, the rising and falling of breath as if she were still pacing around our house still throwing whatever she could into her military-issued duffel.” Oh, my gosh, so good.

Davon: It’s a little long-winded.

Zibby: No, it’s not long-winded. It’s really beautiful. It’s so beautiful. In those couple paragraphs, we have a sense of story, before, the after. What happened to her? How did she get from point A to point B? What happened? Tell me about writing that and how you even pick your scenes and all of that.

Davon: For me, at the time, I didn’t think about this idea of tenor and vehicle and trying to really use the car metaphorically. I just kept remembering the car. As a creative writing teacher and college teacher, I try to say, start with the image first. Then describe the image as much as you can. Then bridge it into the narrative. Clearly, I’m trying to show that the mother becomes like the car. The easy way to do that is to focus on the details of the car. Then the bridge starts to expand where you’re seeing how I’m making the connections. At the same time, on a sentence level, I’m trying to give you that big juxtaposition. This is what she looks like right now, but however, this is what she’s normally like. I think without the juxtaposition, without showing the opposite, that scene doesn’t land as hard. Then you end up going back to it. Then that goes back to the poetics of it. Why did I say begonia rather than a different color? It’s for the sound. It’s for the cadence. It’s that I know that the shirt was bright, so I want to focus on the language to do that work for me, to show you that juxtaposition because the tone changes in the description of the mother.

Zibby: Take me from, basically, when the book ends to now. What has gone on in your life?

Davon: My wife always laughs at me about it because she’s not in my book. She’s in my dedication. She’s in my acknowledgments. I needed to end, for me, when I’m becoming a man, when I’m becoming an adult, when I’ve come of age. While the man that I was at the end of the book is not the man, the father, the parent that I am today, I felt like I needed to end it there. The narrator is afraid to become, in that chapter, this tokenized Black teacher who’s falling apart, whose life is beginning to feel meaningless. That’s when I started teaching, and I’m thirteen years in. Where I’m at now is — I actually just published an essay at Today Show which I’m really excited about. It’s about my mom being in the service and thinking about that as a parent, when she was deployed for the war in Afghanistan. I’m working on a collection of essays about being a parent. The focus is on as my children are children now and looking at these stories of things that they’re doing and what that’s teaching me about being a parent, being a father of color, being a father with a working wife, and all those different things, but being told through the narrative. I’m really excited about this project that I’m working on.

Zibby: That’s exciting. Very exciting. We got some great writing tips from the way you were saying with the car. Now I’m motivated to go try that with some other object. What are some of the tips for aspiring authors that you teach your students?

Davon: When I’m writing about parents — a lot of it is about my parents. There’s so much emotionality. If I tell a student to write about how you feel about one of your parents, you’re just flooded with emotion, good, bad, both. I feel like that writing becomes too abstract. The narrative is drowned out by the emotion of it. I’m always saying, start with the image, the object, the place, the things that you can describe. Let them do the work. Then let the emotionality come out of it. I want to write a piece where I never have to say how I feel about my mom, but it’s shown through the writing. There’s a really good essay called “Whiting” by Deesha, who wrote The Secret Life of Church Ladies. It’s one of her smaller pieces. It’s a piece about the narrator spending time with her father. Her mother’s dying of cancer. She uses the whiting, a fish, to do the work, to be the metaphor of this father who’s not giving all of his love. I always start there when writing about parents because she uses the metaphor to discuss something that’s so complex. I would tell students, I would tell anyone who wants to write, when you’re writing about something that’s full of such emotion, especially nonfiction, let the image, let the object do the work for you. Then once you’ve gotten that, then all the emotionality, it’s just naturally going to pour out. If you start with emotion first, it always feels too abstract. It always feels like it’s too grand.

Zibby: Who is the first reader of what you write?

Davon: Right now, I have a really good friend. His name is Dave Master. He’s the Italian teacher at the high school that I work at. Also, he’s certified in English. We love talking work together. He’s getting into writing about food and wine. I always send it to Dave first. Then I sent it to my wife. It’s not that she’s not a good writer, but she thinks a lot more concrete than I do. She’ll give me the hard, no, that’s not working. She’ll always tell me straight. I need those two different perspectives.

Zibby: Do you read your work out loud?

Davon: Absolutely. My other big advice is — I remember walking around my classroom during my off-period reading my whole book out loud. You have to do that. If you go back and read the sentence that you read from that essay, you have to read that out loud to get the cadence, to really realize, hey, this word works better here than this one. If you’re writing a huge novel, it’s harder, but you have to do it, especially in the most poetic moments in your writing.

Zibby: I totally agree. I have a novel coming out. My poor husband, I read him the entire book. We kept stopping. We kept being like, oh, no. It was so obvious as soon as you read it that something had to change.

Davon: Record yourself reading it. If it is a big novel and it’s hard to do that, think about the most poignant moments when you really need to emphasize the language, and read that out loud. Record it. Record yourself reading it out loud. All those things to really have an understanding of what it sounds like.

Zibby: Who do you like to read in your spare time? What books do you like to read?

Davon: I just started Sing, Unburied, Sing. I kept hearing about the book. I want to teach it. I know I’m a couple years behind on it. I’m hoping to teach it this year. Sometimes I’m like, oh, my gosh, that’s exactly what I want to do in my writing. I realized that I’m more like this writer than I thought I was. Justin Torres has a new book coming out. I read We the Animals back a couple years ago. Then my book was compared to We the Animals. Now I’m rereading it because it’s another book I’m teaching this year. I’m just amazed at writers who can do what I’m trying to do lyrically and be able to do it in a whole narrative, which is really hard.

Zibby: Do you go back to Alabama, or are you in Alabama?

Davon: I live in New Jersey.

Zibby: I thought so. I was like, there is no way you’re in Alabama. I don’t know why I can tell that, but I could just tell that.

Davon: My grandmother relocated to New Jersey maybe about fifteen years ago. The majority of my family live in New Jersey. Some live in Alabama. I haven’t been to Alabama probably since 2005.

Zibby: I feel like Alabama itself is a character in the book, if you will.

Davon: That’s a good piece of writing advice. How does place do so much of the work in the narrative? How can place push the plot forward? Sometimes you have to tone a character down and let place do the work.

Zibby: Did your mom tell you about those times sneaking away with your dad? That felt so private that we were privy to their illicit love affair.

Davon: What it was initially was thinking about the nature conservatory that they went to. Years later, my dad used to take me to the same place. I think that was a difficult place to start to write the book, before I’m born, because I had to take bits and pieces of what my dad said, what my mom said, and also trying to fill in some of those gaps with the time period, with the context. It’s also very private. I said, how do I write my parents’ love story? At times, again, it was very difficult to push through content, but I believe that it’s one of the most beautiful pieces in the book. In order for my readers to understand the narrator, it has to start there.

Zibby: It definitely showed you as a product of so much love, from so much joy and that sense of, I want to say freedom. I don’t know why. They were just doing what they wanted to and letting love dictate the answer. Very cool. Has anyone in your family read the book yet?

Davon: Yes. My mother is almost the biggest character in the book, other than the narrator. There’s so many moments when she has to push the story along because I don’t know it. I always think about, when you’re writing people, when you’re writing parents, you have to write them fully. Even though I don’t have the greatest relationship with my biological father, you also understand why. He’s not just a villain. I think it’s so important when we’re writing memoir to be able to, if you can — some people are just despicable — be able to write people fully and wholly. I believe that I did that. Every character in the book is not just used as a narrative marker to move the story along.

Zibby: Wow. What are you most looking forward to with the book coming out? Is it a tour stop? Is it somebody in particular reading it? What are you like, yes, this is coming up?

Davon: I’ve had some good press, getting in USA Today, The Philadelphia Inquirer. It was great being here. I love the authors you have. Clearly, Matthew McConaughey’s amazing. To be able to be in this virtual space with people that I admire — I think as readers and writers today, we don’t know who’s reading our book. We don’t always know. For me, what’s the most magical thing, it’s not necessarily the book sales, how many reviews I get. It’s when it’s going into classrooms. That’s my goal for this book, is that teachers will read it. I wrote it in a way, as an educator, that students would feel really drawn to not only the narratives, but the way that the narratives are written. They are standalone pieces that you can also read in an entire arc. It is my hope that it finds its way into classrooms. In some classes, it has. That’s the dream for me.

Zibby: Amazing. Davon, congratulations. It’s beautiful. You’re a beautiful writer. I really wish you all the best. I’m so glad I got to spend time with your book and with you.

Davon: Thank you so much. Again, thank you for making time for me and my work. I really admire you as a reader and being able to celebrate so many of us in a time where I feel like books aren’t always being celebrated fairly and equally. Thank you.

Zibby: It’s a joy. It’s a true joy. Thanks so much. Have a great day.

Davon: You too. Have a nice day, Zibby.

Zibby: Back to class.

Davon: Back to class. Thank you so much.

Zibby: Take care.

Davon: Buh-bye.

Zibby: Bye.

THE IN-BETWEENS: A Lyrical Memoir by Davon Loeb

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