MK Asante: How I Write

"When I think of my memoir, I ask, what are the different layers that will help create an experience? I want you to be immersed in my world."
Published: May 28, 2014


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Photo by Lee Steffen

Once upon a time, MK Asante might have been called a renaissance man. In present-day vernacular, the filmmaker, professor, hip-hop artist, essayist and memoirist might be called a multi-talent, multitasker or entrepreneur. Any way you look at it, he’s oozing narrative talent. He caught our eye (and ear) with his memoir Buck, a personal saga of self-reliance in the face of stark odds. Asante was born in Zimbabwe to Americans – a dancer mother, a professor father – and grew up in Philadelphia. In the book, his brother is doing time, and Asante, who goes by Malo, is grappling with the pull of the streets and the depths of his own smarts. The story combines a central narrative with entries from his mother’s journal, song lyrics, letters from his brother in prison and other “layers” of his story. We caught up with Asante at the Miami Book Fair International to talk about the layers of his life and work.

Origins: I’ve always known that I had a story to tell about my education. I don’t mean school. I mean my coming of age. I knew that my childhood, my adolescence and youth were filled with characters and moments that I wanted to explore in a book, in a movie, in narrative in general. Even though I’ve always known that, I didn’t have the courage to do it until more recently. For a long time, I was ashamed of some of the things I wrote about in the book. I didn’t want to deal with those things. As I had more distance, reflection and time, I realized that vulnerability is my strength, and everything I’ve been through is not something to be ashamed of.

Role model: I’m around so many young people in colleges, universities or high schools or just on the block. I realized they needed to hear my story. They needed to know it because they were seeing a man who is a tenured college professor, a writer and filmmaker, but they are seeing me now. They don’t know what I’ve been through, and they’d know you could go through these things but that you don’t have to be reduced to these things, and they would be inspired to follow their dreams. That’s why the book is dedicated to “all the young bucks.”

Structure: Part of my influence in terms of the plot structure is cinematic. There’s the story, and then we get into the layers: Mom’s story, the lyrics, my brother’s story. When you’re editing a documentary, you’ve got your narrative interviews but those are not the only elements. You need B-roll. Then you have to have music, so that’s a layer as well. Now you need graphic titles or special effects. If it’s historical, you’ll bring in archival images or video, right? We have the basis of our documentary with the interview, and then the music, the interview, the cutaway, the archival footage, the graphics all coming together to give us this experience. That’s how I approach writing. When I think of my memoir, I ask, what are the different layers that will help create an experience? I want you to be immersed in my world. The key is weaving those layers together.

On trusting readers: I’ve always felt like a bridge between worlds. The other day, I was on the phone, and on one line, I was talking to a billionaire, and on the other line, my friend called me on the run from the police and wanted me to Western Union him $40. This is my life. A lot of people listen to hip-hop, and they don’t necessarily understand everything the rapper is saying. They get the vibe. But a lot goes on between the lines that you have to know from the streets. To see how popular rap is gave me the confidence. If I tell my truth and write my story in the authentic way it happened, in the authentic language, even if people don’t understand everything, they will get it. When we’re authentic as artists, people feel the realness. They feel the universal truth. If I get in my Malo bag and write, even if people are not from Philly or the inner city, they’re going to feel it.