After a move from Baltimore to Virginia Beach toaccept a position as the music writer and culture critic at the Virginian-Pilot, Rashad Ollison found himself with the need to write about his childhood journey. Growing up in rural Arkansas amid soul music and dysfunction, Rashad took the route of introspection and saw that many of the problems that plagued his family were rooted in pain that had been passed down for generations. The result was a thoughtful, poignant book called “Soul Serenade: Rhythm, Blues, and Coming of Age Through Vinyl.”
The Georgia Voice: What inspired you to revisit your childhood in order to write a book about it?
Rashod: After I moved to Virginia, I was in a brief and painful relationship that stirred some abandonment issues in me. I was in a very lonely and depressed place. I decided I needed to get myself together, so I started “Operation Reinvent Rashod.” I hired a therapist to help me work through my depression and abandonment issues. I also hired a fitness trainer to help me get in better shape. I was wearing a size 48” waist. Finally, I wanted to challenge myself creatively as a writer. As a journalist, most of the writing I do is contextual where I report and explain things. I wanted to show a reader instead of explaining to a reader.
Initially, I wanted to appropriate parts of my childhood into a novel. But it ended up being a memoir written like a novel. I hoped that it would give the reader a visceral feel for what it was like to grow up in central Arkansas during that time as a gay African-American male.
You wrote about how your parents both came from a place of dysfunction due to past traumas that impacted your childhood.
My mom had come from a traumatized childhood and sometimes people who experience trauma early in childhood never get to a point where they open up themselves emotionally to others. She was a reliable person and wonderful provider, but not very nurturing. My father, on the other hand, couldn’t be depended on for anything but he was very emotionally available and affectionate. Getting hugs and kisses from my dad was very validating. When he left, that left with him. I spent a lot of time after he left looking for more of that type of validation. I finally had to learn to validate myself.
What was your experience of growing up as a gay, black kid?
I think my family knew, although there was never a “coming out” moment. I knew pretty early on what was going on with me sexually. I worked in the library at 15 and what I needed to know (like sexual health), I looked up. Other than the whispers of “He’s a fag,” I didn’t really have the harassment, rejection and other negative experiences that many other black men have had.
It has been an exhilarating, affirming experience. Some of the people who were in the book—church members, teachers—they came out to hear me read excerpts. It’s been emotional.
Why do you think audiences are connecting with your story?
My story is a human story of resilience, of finding your way, defining who you’re going to be and charting a course to become that despite the chaos that may be around you. I told this story through some rich and vivid cultural specificities that are unique to my black experience in central Arkansas between 1983 to 1996. But at the heart of it is a story about a family trying to love each other in different ways. There are people who have gone through a lot of trauma that has long ago been normalized and sometimes, all some people are capable of doing to show love is to keep you fed and alive. It’s important to recognize that. These are people trying to find a way out of no way. I think everyone can relate to that.