‘I Finally Bought Some Jordans’ Author Michael Arceneaux Talks Finding Joy Amid Grief, Loss, and the Pandemic Years

In his third collection of essays, the journalist and New York Times best-selling author recounts the pivotal moments of the last few pandemic-filled years that turned his world upside down — and almost made him lose faith in Queen Bey.

You know the saying, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.” Well, writer Michael Arceneaux may have earned himself a couple of chuckles after finishing up the book he didn’t anticipate writing amid the unexpected pandemic (he prefers to call it the plague). 

In his previous books, “I Can't Date Jesus” and “I Don't Want to Die Poor,” the New York Times best-selling author tackled stressors like love, sex, religion, family, race, daunting student loan debt, and financial instability through the lens of a millennial gay Black man navigating a heteronormative, patriarchal society. Arceneaux already planned to revisit some of these subjects in his broad third essay collection, “I Finally Bought Some Jordans,” out on March 12. However, the texture of that multi-layered dialogue changed when COVID-19 upended his life, informing so much of the angst he didn’t know he’d need to transfer from his mind to book pages. 

“I always want to make people laugh and think, but I didn't really feel that funny,” Arceneaux tells of how this book-writing process—his longest ever—drastically shifted amid a deadly outbreak. The pandemic altered the way the author urgently wrote about missing his family in Houston while longing for opportunity elsewhere, suddenly losing more close friends, the challenges of dating during quarantine, the worrisome U.S. presidential election, and experiencing ageism before his impending 40s. Some of those woes, plus the historic Hollywood strikes last year, also provoked his biggest fears for Black creatives trying to survive and thrive in the unpredictable entertainment and media landscape, especially “country gay Black people from Houston like me,” Arceneaux says. And yet, he found that humor, as dark as it is in the book, offered a small comfort amongst the chaos — see chapter nine about his comical pandemic battle with Airbnb roaches. The writer hopes his words —including a laugh-worthy moment when he almost doubted Beyoncé’s “Renaissance” album— do the same for readers. 

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“I'm happy people are telling me they still laughed at the book, but it's darker, just because that's life,” Arceneaux admits. “But I had to be honest about the state of grief that I was in.”

To be honest, Arceneaux is still experiencing a spell of sadness. Our conversation takes place a day before the four-month anniversary of his mother’s passing, whom he lost to cancer in October. Still, he graciously opens up about navigating the worst time of his life when most third-time authors would be celebrating, as he’s hopeful his latest memoir can be a bright spot in others’ lives.

Arceneaux spoke to about writing the unexpected in “I Finally Bought Some Jordans,” his state of grief, holding space for uncomfortable conversations, and why he’ll always look to fellow Houstonian Beyoncé to remind him of how far he’s come. “I Finally Bought Some Jordans” is your third collection of essays. What encouraged you to stay on this path with this particular style of literature?

Michael Arceneaux: Honestly, things might take me longer than I'd like. But, more often than not, I have a pretty clear idea of what I want to do, in certain mediums, anyway. And when it came to books, I've always just been a fan of essay collections when I was coming up, like David Sedaris or Sloane Crosley. There weren't really too many —I mean, there are plenty of Black essayists I can think of— but that kind of mix of humor and pathos, or being able to make fun of a lot of really crazy things in a way that I feel like white authors usually get to play around with, but not necessarily Black. So, I had already been a big fan of those types of essay collections. And fortunately, people like Helena Andrews and Roxane Gay helped open the door. In the book, you say you already knew what you wanted it to be when you first sold it, but it doesn’t have the “happy ending” you envisioned. What changed for you as you went through the writing process?

MA: Honestly, everything changed. It was a different title. It was fun, but it wasn't my strongest. And I mean, I'm 39. I'm a pop-pop now, but I'm not that old. So there's no real idea of closing my life and, "Oh, this is a happy ending." But I did say more into middle age, I wanted to be at a certain place in life. And as I write, in some cases, I am, but what you really can't prepare for is, which is ultimately a theme with all my books, life throws a lot of curveballs at you. So when I sold the book, the plague had started, but even then, I didn't know it would be this long. And as I learned when I was writing it, I didn't realize the deaths that I was dealing with the year before, and then the year after selling it, how much that would inform me. Then, when I finally got out of that grief, literally, the day I saw my editor was in town, 10 minutes later, my mom told me she had cancer. So it's just been a lot of grief and death and sickness, the strike, and all these other things going on that shifted where I was as a person. Your last book was published at the start of the pandemic, and much of this new one reflects on the troubling times you experienced because of it. Did you anticipate having so much to write about from that perspective?

MA: No. Honestly, I ended up changing some things around. As I went back and interrogated my work, I was like, "What do you want to say? What points are you trying to get across?" Much like the grief, I had to really settle like, "Wow, the plague did a lot more damage mentally to me than I realized. And it's changed my perspective on a lot of different things.” I know people don't necessarily want to talk about it; at least Americans don't, but I feel like it's still so pronounced. There aren’t many spaces to talk about it because people want to move on. But I think now, people are starting to realize, "Wait, I'm not as okay as I thought." So this was just my admission. In your previous books, you discussed topics like race, sexuality, debt, and financial struggles, some of which you still touch on in “I Finally Bought Some Jordans.” But in this new book, you talk at length about pandemic life, dating woes, your family, childhood trauma, being away from home, and returning to it, all while reflecting on how much progress you’ve made in your life. How did you decide what this collection of essays would be about?

MA: There was what I thought I was going to write initially, and then what ended up being the book. It's not that big of a detraction, subject matter-wise, but internally, it's a lot different. I had to be honest about where I was in my life, and I think I might explore this more broadly in future stuff, but there's a loneliness epidemic in this country. Like I said, there's been a lot of death and grief and pain. A lot of people are still hurting financially. It's an election year. It's like, how, in any small way, can I make people feel less alone about some of the things that maybe they don't want to talk about? The title of your book makes a lot more sense once you get to that chapter — about finally treating yourself to something nice after years of being weighed down by student loan debt. Did that feel like a big first step in turning over a new leaf? 

MA: Yes and no, but mostly yes. I initially wanted this book to have a prettier bow around it about the status of my life. It'd be great if the Jordans were maybe a home. But then I wonder, "Do I even want a home?" You have this idea of where you think you should be, or at least in my case, that you sometimes forget how far you've come. I had all the best intentions when I went to college. I really wanted to do better by myself and my family, particularly my mom. All that debt did a lot of damage to me. And so, for me, it was just a way to treat myself but to also say, "A lot of the things that I'm still pushing for will come. But in the meanwhile, stop worrying about where you're not at, and just look at what's in front of you, and find little things to bring joy or a smile to your face.” Or, literally, just a little childhood reminder that you're not that person anymore. And even if you are that person, but in a different space, respect the journey. That way, the more you appreciate these small victories that turn to medium victories that turn to big victories. Either way, you'll be content and happy. You talk about your mom a lot in the book, particularly sharing the advice she’s given you in recent years: be grateful for all the great things you’ve achieved in life and not fear so much about your future. Have you heeded that guidance yet, or has your anxiety around those things only heightened since her passing?

MA: To be honest, last year was really difficult. Between the strike, randomly, Brett Favre threatened to sue me about some article I wrote about him in that Mississippi thing —God getting him, so no worries— losing my mom to cancer, [it] was so hard. It was the worst year of my life. Regardless of material and work, I lost my mom. I actually thought my struggle to finish this book kept me from her. So, I have to be honest and say I retracted a bit in the space I wrote about being in. Fortunately, I feel like I am constantly getting reminders from people, strangers, and her, when I manage to go out, that my work has impacted people. My work has made people a little more open-minded and less alone. I've made tangible contributions with my work and my art, and my mom, who's informed so much of who I am as a person and writer. I don't necessarily feel that way lately, but I think deep down, in my heart, I am living by that. I've just been having a really rough time. The new book is a deeply personal reflection of your life these past few years, including the highs, the lows, and everything in between. What are you hoping readers take away from it?

MA: I always want to make people laugh and think. I want people to feel less alone. I think maybe that last part more than anything. I hope people walk away [knowing] that if they've been carrying something that's been bothering them the last couple of years or felt like the world keeps going and nobody stops to reflect and pause, you don't feel alone. And a little bit of hope because, whether it's widely acknowledged or not, these are really hard times, and I'm struggling with a lot of faith myself, particularly in my grief. But I try to end every book on a hopeful note because I'm writing about my life, and I feel like all you have is hope. You finish the book talking about embracing the end of your 30s, what you hope your 40s will be like, and how you almost doubted Beyoncé’s “Renaissance.” Why did those three things mesh together in that final chapter?

MA: I struggled to write the book, but also, I was like, what is the easiest way I can convey in a serious but silly way, “This is how much the last couple years have wrecked my mind"? It got so bad for me that I doubted Beyoncé, just for a second. I didn't dislike “Break My Soul,” but I was like, "This ain't what I was expecting." I wasn't sure, and that's what I get because I know better. I'm an original stan, a founding Beyhive member. Even looking at Usher, it's exciting to see somebody in their 40s not only continue to make great art but some of the best art of their career. They both look amazing. Everybody has that level of "You can replicate that." But to me, Beyoncé informs a lot about how I see myself as a Houstonian, a Black Southerner, and somebody entering a new decade of life. She's given me another reminder: "You can still create your best. And things that you might've wanted to do sooner, they weren't meant then. They're supposed to come out now." I always try to look to her for inspiration, so when I was a little off, I just wanted to chronicle [the thought of] don't be dumb like me. Don't ever doubt Beyoncé.

Michael Arceneaux’s “I Finally Bought Some Jordans” is available now where books are sold. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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