The Rest of Us
by Jenzo DuQue
Issue #268 • August 18th, 2020•Buy Now!
Edited by Patrick Ryan
We fell in love with Boyz n the Hood—José, Cristian, and me—when we were just turning ten. Instead of identifying with its morals, we saw only ourselves onscreen. When Ricky and Tre split up in the back alleys and the Bloods gunned Ricky down, we clapped and cheered as Ricky fell and his white shirt bloomed into red. We felt famous. Those houses in South Central looked just like ours, had the same trash and the same potholed streets, snapbacks with matching bandanas, malt liquor shatter across stoop steps, the pop-pop whole corner dive, the black and brown faces pressed to asphalt. And José was always something of a Doughboy, did the end of the movie speech best—the one where Doughboy tells Tre the world don’t know, don’t show, or don’t care about the hood. Became our motto every time another siren went off or another crackhead came stumbling by. We’d stay quiet, trading Flamin’ Hots and Kool-Aid while we people-watched from behind my gate, trying not to roast in the awful lake effect heat. Then Cristian would start it and get us all going: “I ain’t been up this early in a long time...”
“We all gotta go sometime,” José would conclude, and then we’d follow suit. Only, they’d gang up on me so fast, because I had skipped a grade. I was the bookworm, teacher’s pet, house slave. It didn’t help that I could pass in the right light but they couldn’t. My skin never turned dark dark, just less pale in the summer.
Jenzo DuQue was born into a Colombian community in North Chicago and is based in Brooklyn. He received his MFA from CUNY-Brooklyn College, where he served as an editor of the Brooklyn Review. Jenzo is an emerging writer and graphic artist, with pieces that have appeared or are forthcoming in Glimmer Train, Joyland, Cosmonauts Avenue, and now, One Story. Read more at jenzoduque.com.
Patrick Ryan on The Rest of Us
In the same way you listen to Willie Nelson sing and pluck his worn-out guitar and know he was meant to be a singer plucking a worn-out guitar, when you read Jenzo DuQue, you know he was meant to be a writer. His prose has an urgency to it, a forward lean, and his voice is fluid. He blends sounds, words, languages. He writes with his ear.
“The Rest of Us” tells the story of three boys growing up in a melting pot that refuses to melt. José, Cristian, and Frail Boy (as the narrator is known) are street-smart kids pumped up with their own ambitions and tamped down by societal expectations. They have to figure out how to stand their ground while taking their cues from others, and the older they get, the more cues there are to sift through.
“Suddenly,” Frail Boy tells us, “we were young men.” And there they are, stepping out of childhood and into a dangerous adult world that has been right under their noses the whole time they were growing up. What unfolds does so easily and brilliantly—or so it seems, until nothing about it is easy or brilliant, until everything about it is complicated and, at times, dangerous.
I don’t want to tell you too much. I don’t want you to read this story with any expectation other than to be blown away by its narrative drive and its wonderful blend of languages. We’re thrilled to be publishing Jenzo DuQue’s “The Rest of Us,” and we look forward to what he does next.
Q&A by Patrick Ryan
PR: Where did the idea for this story come from?
JD: It’s really the result of so many moving parts. This story doesn’t exist without “We” by Mary Grimm, a first person collective story about suburban women that I read during my MFA and thought, “How would I do this?” Next came Boyz n the Hood, which I re-watched the summer of 2017, and I was like, “Man, this movie was so iconic to us growing up,” and then—bam—I had an entry point for that “us.” From there it was a blend of slam and spoken word poetry, hip-hop, and also wanting to write a love letter to my childhood, my neighborhood, my city. I also need to shout out Danny Brown here, because listening to his music has always hit close to home for me, and I don’t think a lot of my ideas would materialize without the landscapes Danny creates through music and storytelling.
PR: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
JD: I would say the collective’s transition from childhood into adulthood, along with reconciling the opening of the story with its conclusion. Nabila Lovelace’s Sons of Achilles was integral to overcoming those humps, which is why a line of her poetry is the epigraph. It dawned on me that what I wanted to tell was what I’m most interested in: what it means to be an apprentice and a victim of violence. That beautiful and complex duality is what makes us human, and what makes compelling fiction resonate across experiences.
PR: Were there any surprises during the writing? Another way I sometimes ask this question is, how different is the finished story from the one you originally set out to write?
JD: I was most surprised by the ending. A good professor of mine said that a story’s end should feel surprising but inevitable, so when I realized Frail Boy was still out there—preaching from those same streets he no longer recognized—it felt right, like he had been leading us there the whole time. However, I don’t think that I set out to write a gentrification story (though that story is important to me, too); it was more about creating a record of a people and an experience often dismissed. It just so happened to be that those two ideas were more linked than I conceptualized, and “The Rest of Us” turned into a broader commentary on storytelling, who gets to take up space where and why.
PR: Let’s talk for a minute about the voice. The point of view. I often like to imagine what a story would be like in a different point of view than the one it employs, but I can’t for a moment imagine “The Rest of Us” in the third person because the voice of the story is so powerful. Did you struggle with it at all? Did you read it aloud to yourself as you composed it, or as you revised?
JD: The voice carried the story in my head from the beginning, and once I sort of relinquished control, I was able to see that I would follow Frail Boy anywhere, because he was always going to find the most interesting way to say something, while also sounding like someone I was just chatting with from around the way. And absolutely, I read this voice aloud to myself hundreds of times. In truth, I do that for all of my writing. I love mixing media, I love different kinds of poetry and hip-hop, and I love performing my work. What that translates into is me thinking very carefully about the sounds of words—harmonies, soundplay, rhymes—especially when I’m incorporating Spanish, as I want the two to bleed into one another so much that they are indistinguishable. That’s what being bilingual means to me: inserting doubt into whether these are two separate things, because they coexist, act as interchangeable. And I feel like there are parallels of that duality throughout the story, in Frail Boy’s voice, in his victimhood and apprenticeship of violence.
PR: What went into the fairly long monologue José and Tomás’s mother delivers? You blend the languages so fluidly. I’m guessing you either tooled and re-tooled that monologue, or it just flowed out of you in one creative burst.
JD: I have a tendency to write in bursts, to meditate on something for a really long time and then just let it pour out of me. The phone call was partially inspired by Saba’s “Prom/King.” In the song, Saba receives a phone call from his aunt asking where his cousin is, and Saba gets in a car to search for him. Originally, I wanted this monologue to come from Frail Boy while searching for José and Tomás, and to capture all the literal spaces the “Us” of the story had occupied. But once I started to channel Mari’s voice, I just had to see it through, to stand back and let it take up space on its terms. From there it was polishing, thinking carefully about when we shift, and what context gives to someone who doesn’t know the language. But that’s also sort of the point: that just because you don’t know a language doesn’t mean you can’t engage with it, which is why the way words sound matters to me. Desperation, fear, nostalgia—all of these transcend language, so instead the monologue became about capturing the figurative spaces occupied, the experience, the sense of time and place.
PR: How long did it take you to complete this story?
JD: A little under two years, in random bursts. I workshopped the first few pages in school and then didn’t look at it again for at least half a year. Then I toiled with it on and off until we (thankfully) got here.
PR: Finish this sentence in just one word—the word you think best captures it: “This story is about __________.”
PR: What are you working on now?
JD: I’m trying to finish my short story collection, which borrows its title from this story. Most of it is written, but I need to get the final manuscript together so I can start looking for representation.
PR: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
JD: Helen Phillips once told me, “The more true to yourself you are, the more your work will resonate with readers.” To me, that means as a writer, you are the final authority on your work. That’s not to say that outside input isn’t a critical part of the process, or that good writing somehow exists in a vacuum. But only you can decide when it’s time for dialogue or resistance. And that meticulous balancing act is a key component of being true to yourself.