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Many Can Identify With Arceneaux's Book: 'I Don't Want To Die Poor'


Michael Arceneaux graduated from college in debt and he has spent the last 13 years chipping away at those private student loans. As a black man who grew up without money, he says he wouldn't be a New York Times bestselling author without borrowing the funds to go to college.

MICHAEL ARCENEAUX: All I really wanted to do was do right by my family and do right by myself and to, basically, if I can be blunt, dream the same way a lot of the white men and writers and anchors and all these talk show hosts and people that I admired.

GREENE: Grappling with this debt is the subject of his new memoir "I Don't Want To Die Poor." I asked Arceneaux what it's like to publish his book in this moment, when millions more Americans find themselves without work and without a way to pay off their own debt.

ARCENEAUX: Honestly, it's been very weird promoting a book during a pandemic for a lot of reasons, but also because so much of the subject matter is about struggling and me realizing that a lot of people right now are already struggling. I appreciate when people tell me that my book is timely - like, some of my friends - like, now more than ever.

But the thing is, it already was timely, which is why this situation is so much worse. I think the spirit of the book - even if it's darker, it's funnier and, if nothing else, there is, like, hope in it - but I'm very sad that now more than ever will people have to be experiencing some of the stuff that I experienced because that wasn't the intent.

GREENE: Well, let's talk about your experience. I mean, a lot of the stress in your life goes back to going to college at Howard University, bringing in a lot of debt. I mean, do you regret your college degree? Like, how do you think about it?

ARCENEAUX: If not for Howard, I don't think I would be talking to you. I don't really like to live with regret. I regret the way I went about it, through private student loans. But the choice to go to Howard University for my specific goals, from where I'm from, I would have never had the type of access if I didn't go to Howard. It's just a very difficult thing to say, like, to go back and say I wouldn't have done it.

GREENE: Well, then what advice do you have for people thinking about college. And, you know, I mean, obviously, at this moment, people might be thinking, like, everything seems so uncertain. College is something I've always thought about. Is it worth it? What would you tell them?

ARCENEAUX: Choose what you want to do, but be very realistic if you want to really pay the cost. It's not just financial costs; there's an emotional toll that you will take tackling all of that debt. The inconvenient truth is there are only certain ways for a lot of us to have any type of chance of having social mobility. You know, the thing is I - like, I make a pretty good living, but, you know, we're all, again, born with certain barriers.

In my case, you know, if you read "I Can't Date Jesus," my first book, you see that, you know, that as a black queer person from a working-class family, religious background - it wasn't the most tolerant place, as much as I love my parents. But, you know, you come with those struggles. And then for a lot of people, we - you know, we have our own thing, and then you add the financial stuff. It just only can kind of magnify the problem.

This country just values wealth so much, but we don't talk about the fact that most of us don't really make that much money. Or even if we make, quote-unquote, "a lot of money," more times than not we're probably not being paid what we should be. And the only people who are not being paid what they should be, typically more than not, are responsible for, like, exploiting the labor.

So this was me trying to really be honest about the fact that, like, yeah, I'm really proud of some of the things that I've done, but the fact is you can make The New York Times bestseller list and lose your health insurance that week.

GREENE: I mean, you use humor throughout the book, even, like, talking about the banks that will call you and harass you, saying that you owe money and you have to make a payment on loans over the years. Like, you make those moments hysterical. Like, to what extent is humor a coping mechanism for you?

ARCENEAUX: For me, humor is how I always stayed alive. When the moments feel natural - even when, like, some of the darkest chapters, there's a joke, that's just who I am, and that's just all I know. But I think sometimes you also have to laugh because it can usually help you either kind of break from crying all the time or at least just give you the little boost that you need.

GREENE: One of the chapters that I really enjoyed was - you talk about being tempted by other professions that may have paid more, like being a rapper.

ARCENEAUX: Yes (laughter). Yes.

GREENE: How serious were you? Are you a good rapper?

ARCENEAUX: I will let you know when my mixtape drops.

GREENE: (Laughter).

ARCENEAUX: I really am mad I'm not the gay 2 Chainz or gay Future. I'm very happy Lil Nas X exists, but I'm also like, wow, Michael, you should have tried sooner, although we would be different.

GREENE: I will be listening.

ARCENEAUX: Thank you. See - that's the encouragement we need.


GREENE: So I know there was a time when you, as an adult, had to go back and live with your parents a second time.


GREENE: And I know your relationship with both your parents has been complicated over the years. I mean, you talk about your dad being abusive at times. You talked about your mom and coming out when you were young. What was it like living under the same roof? And what did you learn?

ARCENEAUX: You have to really, really humble yourself to move back twice into the nightmare. Again, I love my family, and I love my - I'm still grateful, but it was - there were parts of it that were really just a nightmare. I didn't like it. The first time was really difficult. The second time was just more humbling, if not humiliating, because I was almost 30.

But in that mindset, I just was like, you know, I don't want to do this; I don't technically have to do this, but it's the most responsible thing to do. Yeah, the first time was more challenging than the second, but I think I just had a better perspective the second time. But it's never easy, especially when you know you have that kind of history.

GREENE: Let me give you the last word here. I mean, your new book is called "I Don't Want To Die Poor." And, I mean, realistically, we're facing an economic situation, just in this moment at least, where I think a lot of Americans are afraid of where they might be headed and thinking about money and being out of work. Any bit of advice you want to leave with everyone?

ARCENEAUX: I would say, in terms of bills, particularly, like, the loans, if you don't have it, you can't give it. Accept the damage it will do in the meanwhile is temporary. And if anything, the sky is falling; a lot of people will be struggling right now. Pay what you can to what matters most.

If you are fortunate enough to be able to work right now, which very much is a luxury, home can easily become a prison when you are chained to work. And there is pressure to perform, especially now, when people are losing their jobs. Do the best that you can, but do so within structure, and allow yourself the space to just be because you don't need to create right now. You don't need to produce.

And more than anything, it's OK to not be completely functional during a pandemic. But I genuinely believe things will get better if you just keep going because that's all you really can do.


GREENE: That was Michael Arceneaux. His new book, "I Don't Want To Die Poor," is out now.

(SOUNDBITE OF KEEM THE CIPHER'S "SHINE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.