The author of 'I Can't Date Jesus' reveals why it took him years to get published, and why David Sedaris comparisons can only go so far
Michael Arceneaux, a frequent Essence and Complex contributor, has built up a robust following over the years, with his wry commentary on everything from race to sexuality to popular culture. His first book, I Can’t Date Jesus: Love, Sex, Family, Race, and Other Reasons I’ve Put My Faith in Beyoncé, expands on what readers have come to love, while also offering a glimpse of his own life story: his development as a proud gay black man, his coming-out story, how artists like Lil’ Kim and Janet Jackson helped him shape his identity.
The book has drawn raves from the likes of Samantha Irby and Roxane Gay, and in its darkly humorous approach to heavy topics, recalls authors like David Sedaris. But if his book provides any indication, Arceneaux’s voice is singular and vital. Over the summer, in advance of his debut’s publication, the author chatted with EW about the struggle to get published as a gay black man, the pain of reliving traumatic memories, and of course, where that perfectly Beyoncé-flavored subtitle stemmed from. Read on below, and buy your copy of I Can’t Date Jesus here.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I need to start with this: Your book is subtitled “Reasons I’ve Put My Faith in Beyoncé.”
MICHAEL ARCENEAUX: I don’t want to be overly inflammatory, and I am all things Beyoncé in my mind. I’ve been stanning for her for 20 years. I mean, I’m a gay man from Houston, Texas. [Laughs]
But it also gets at a larger idea in the book, about pop culture’s importance to you.
Yeah. Janet Mock once said that for a lot of people, particularly marginalized people and people who aren’t of a lot of means, pop culture is their access point. For me, growing up in an isolated home — I wasn’t really allowed to go out and do as much as I would’ve liked — pop culture is how I learned how to be myself. I write in the book that people like Janet Jackson and Lil’ Kim taught me about sex. My mom explained sex to me at a very, very, very early age, so I had procreation down. [Laughs] But thinking about my body and the feelings I was having, I learned through them. It’s where I could access anything out of my purview. Pop culture’s always been a really important part of my life; I don’t know where I would be without movies and TV shows and music. I’m grateful to my parents and I love my family, but we didn’t talk about a lot.
This is obviously a very personal book. What made you want to tell your story to the world?
Well, it took me years to get this published.… When I read books like Ta-Nehisi Coates’ first book, even though I was in my late 20s, I thought, “Why not me?” I already knew what story I wanted to tell. I was given a lot of polite nos. Some people were more candid than others; the word “niche” was used a lot. There’d be people who were black in publishing who’d tell me in so many words that white people didn’t care about black people that much, and black people were homophobic. Those were two notions that I rejected. Around 2015, I finally got an agent. Even when I first sent the proposal out, it was a lot of polite nos. There was still a lot of pushback. I’d have two-hour meetings with publishers — “You’re so great! We love you!” — and then they’d tell my agent, “Yeah, I like him, but….”
Part of that has to do with the fact that the book is a mix of humor and pathos. For me, I love someone like David Sedaris. I think it’s easier for people to consume white gay queer men doing this. It’s different if you’re not [white] because so often we consume otherness solely in terms of pathology. It’s like, “I’m black and gay, so it must be so awful to be me.” The idea of me being able to make fun of my trauma and what I’ve gone through — [publishers] didn’t think there’d be an audience for that. But thankfully we’re proving that there is.
Your voice is comic, but you don’t avoid darker stuff you’ve lived through.
I’ve been adamant about not wanting to be the “sad black gay.” But I struggled with the reality of my life. Like, “Oh s—, you have very traumatic episodes of your life. You’re not a beam of sunshine, no matter how hard you try to be.” Writing about my father did make me cry. It takes a while for me to cry, and I don’t say that in a boastful way. I wish I was able to emote more. But my father was a hard thing to revisit — through nightmares that followed me into my 20s, or how if I go home sometimes he pops up here and there. It was also difficult to write about my mom, and that gray area we still have — how, as much as I love her, she’s still not totally accepting of my sexuality.
Since you were mining material from painful memories, did you ever find it hard to follow through? What was your process?
It took about eight months, which is not a lot of time, especially when you freelance for a living. It’s a lot of writing. Towards the end of summer-fall, I had to download the Freedom app and block myself from the internet. And I would tell people, if they saw me outside, to yell at me outside, like, “You need to be writing your book!” [Laughs] People actually did do that. They’d yell at me, like, “Why you outside?” Particularly in my Harlem neighborhood, they’re like, “You’re not supposed to be here! What page you on? Where you at?” I was like, “You’re right. I should not be here.” [Laughs] I had support.
On social media, you’re very tapped into the current political climate and everything surrounding our current president. I imagine you had to work on tuning that stuff out too, even as you explore some of it in the book.
Oh, that man. He’s all-consuming, I did not want to write about him. It was suggested by my editor, because I write actively about him. “Why would you not bring him up?” Even when you want to look away, you can’t escape him — no matter where you go, someone’s talking about him. It can be distracting. There were moments where I needed to turn off MSNBC.… I’m very much a political nerd. It was hard to look away from the freak show. But I had to turn off my TV.