By Seija Rankin
November 18, 2020 at 12:00 PM EST
Credit: Syreeta McFadden

No one knows the value of having varied literary interests more than Mychal Denzel Smith. The author has penned two nonfiction novels about race in America — the first, Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching, offers a raw account of what it means to be a young Black man in this country — and when asked to discuss the most important books of his reading past, he offers everything from Ernie's Big Mess (yes, Ernie of Sesame Street fame) to Andrew Carnegie Medal winner Kiese Laymon.

Smith's new book, Stakes Is High: Life After the American Dream, which is named after a 1994 De La Soul single, examines the liberal reaction (one of shock and dismay) to the 2016 election results and calls on Americans to reckon with our truth. Here, he offers an insight into his pop culture inspirations — the books, TV shows, and songs that have helped shape him into the writer he is today. Oh, and a little bit about why Avengers movies are the perfect distraction.

My favorite book as a child

The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin. I first read it in fourth or fifth grade because we had a reading program where you accumulated points based on the books you read, and higher-grade-level books were worth more points. I read dozens of books in pursuit of a prize I now can't remember, but this is only one that stuck with me. It's here I realized how much I like a good mystery, but in subsequent readings over the years (I still return to it) I see it as a critique of the American dream. It defined a lot of my later interests.

The book that made me fall in love with reading

I was a fairly early reader. The way she tells it, I made my mom teach me when I was 3. I wanted to do everything early, to keep up with my older cousins. So I can't really remember not being a reader or not loving reading. One I returned to quite often in those days was Ernie's Big Mess, where Bert and Ernie have a breakup because Ernie is so messy and Bert can't stand it anymore so he kicks him out. Ernie tries to live with several other residents of Sesame Street, but nothing works. Meanwhile, Bert realizes how much he misses Ernie and goes looking for him. They come back together in the end, and it's a pretty great love story.

The book that made me want to become a writer

I don't know that there's a book that made me want to become a writer as much as a realization that writing is where I could express myself uninterrupted. I was smaller than most kids and got branded shy early on (which I don't think was totally accurate), which meant I was ignored or talked over quite a bit. The draw of writing was that no one had that power over me on the page. Later it was all about ideas, the fight to make them as clear as possible, to make radical politics the most sensible and appealing. All that said, a book that has made me go, "I want to be able to write like this," is Jesmyn Ward's Men We Reaped. Really, all of Jesmyn Ward's work, but that book in particular is a gem I can only dream of approaching.

A book, movie, or TV show I've watched over and over

I watch so much TV. The show I've watched most is probably Daria. It's my favorite show of all time. When asked, I'll usually throw in The Wire and Mad Men, which are definitely up there, but that's just so people will trust that I have absorbed the canon. The real answer is Daria. I may watch the whole series, in full, two to three times a year, plus pull up random episodes I'm thinking of when the mood strikes. I'm going to pitch an essay about Daria now.

A classic book or movie I've pretended to have read/seen

I don't have the energy to pretend I've read/seen something I haven't. What I will do if I'm feeling sheepish about not having read/seen a particular thing that seems to have escaped only me is nod and smile and make the other person feel good for bringing it up.

The last book, movie, or TV show that made me laugh out loud

I recently got into Superstore, and I don't know why I wasn't watching this entire time it's been on air. It's the kind of laugh-out-loud funny that I've needed to counter the stress of 2020. And not that I don't appreciate the great dramedies and auteur-driven works of the era, but Superstore gives that pure sitcom energy that sometimes is just what you need.

My favorite show on TV right now

It's not on right now due to COVID, but Succession. I love it for being a darkly comedic critique of capitalism, sure, but ultimately there is nothing more entertaining to me than messy white people. And they are the messiest.

Credit: Peter Kramer/HBO

The first album I bought with my own money

By the time I was album-buying age, we had entered the era where some people were illegally downloading stuff, burning it onto CDs, and selling that copy to eager consumers (like people whose parents didn't allow them to have music with parental-advisory stickers) for about $5. If we're counting that, then Beanie Sigel's The Reason. I can't remember my first legit purchase, but I used to like telling the story of how I ended up buying Run-DMC's Raising Hell. But I've moved on from the point where that story was even remotely interesting.

A song that always makes me feel better

"Umi Says," by Mos Def/Yasiin Bey, is able to make me cry in a way that makes me feel better. To feel good and loved and warm and romantic, that would be "Day Dreaming," by Aretha Franklin.

A piece of pop culture I revisit whenever I have writer's block

My go-to for years has been Jay-Z's The Blueprint. It gives me confidence. In order to finish writing Stakes Is High, it was Avengers: Endgame. I suppose it was the similarities in the apocalyptic themes. There's also John Mulaney's stand-up special Kid Gorgeous, but especially the around seven minutes bit he does about school assemblies and the "stranger danger" lessons from childhood. It's some of the best writing ever.

The artist or author that I wish more people knew about

Kiese Laymon. Not because he isn't already wildly popular, but because he should be read by every. single. person on the planet.

My guilty pleasure movie or TV show

I long ago stopped feeling guilty about things I like. I have so many other places to put shame and guilt, why waste it on things that actually give me pleasure? That said, I know Supermarket Sweep isn't anyone's idea of "prestige" television, but I'll be damned if it isn't highly entertaining.

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