New School and Summer Writers Colony alum Ryan Berg's (BA '05) debut book, No House To Call My Home: Love, Family, and Other Transgressions, took him 10 years to write. Berg worked with homeless LGBTQ youth at the Keap Street Youth Home in New York City, and was inspired to help them tell their stories. But what was their story, collectively, and how would he tell it? Berg spoke with Anna J. Witiuk, a Riggio: Writing & Democracy Honors Program scholar, about conceptualizing, compiling, and writing the story.
Anna J Witiuk: The "Author's Note" at the beginning of your book states: "This book is a work of nonfiction, not journalism. I did not record conversations, conduct interviews, or have access to documents as I was writing it. The people in this book are real. Dialogue was recreated from memory or retrieved from notes I took after the conversations took place.” Why did you feel it was important to open your book with this clarification?
Ryan Berg: I wanted to be clear that this wasn't a book of transcribed conversations. I worked and lived with the youth. I didn't intend to write about the youth while I was doing the job. Because I was interacting with them, and building a relationship with them, I felt like I had to acknowledge that the book isn't objective in the way journalism is intended to be. I think many creative nonfiction writers use the tools of fiction, which makes for better storytelling, but when they do that, they have to be clear. A writer’s contract with the reader needs to be spelled out.
AW: Do you feel that the nonfiction writer often has to justify or clarify their work more often than writers in other genres?
RB: Writing about others’ experiences can bring great responsibility to the writer. Creative nonfiction narratives in particular are an exercise in power, and I want to exercise that power legitimately and justly. As the writer, I control the narrative and am actively putting the story out into the world. I believe it is of utmost importance, when writing about marginalized populations, that I examine my own power and privilege, and the lens I look through. It's important to interrogate my motivations and make sure I'm operating with as much empathy as possible.
AW: Your constant frustration and sometimes anguish working within this youth housing system is palpable throughout the book. It often seems that no matter how hard you try, just as a decent human being and a compassionate worker, that there is little change that can be made in the trajectory of these kids’ lives. This is often the feeling I have when I sit down to write any piece with a social or political voice: that all systems are rigged and cemented, so what’s one more protesting voice really going to change? Did you have these worries when writing this book?
RB: A chorus of voices is louder than one. And quite frankly, there are not nearly enough people acknowledging the effects of structural racism and oppression—and its collateral consequences—on young people. The common narrative for homeless LGBTQ youth is one of family rejection. This accounts for a great number of youth who experience homelessness, but it isn't the only story. We live complex lives, as do the youth and their communities. There's an interconnectedness within our many identities and stories, and each of them needs to be honored. Oversimplifying by saying that young people experience homelessness only because of family rejection, or only because of generational poverty, does little to honor the nuance of their experiences. It does not adequately represent the challenges they face. As a youth worker, my acknowledgement of the struggles that young people face affirms their reality.
We have this myth in America that upward mobility is available to anyone who gives enough effort—“If you try hard enough you can make it happen!” Bullshit. In this job, you often see young people you work with applying the same amount of effort as others who have more privilege. These kids work their asses off to have a better future, to break the cycle their families have been entrenched in, yet the outcomes are very different from their privileged peers. So telling these stories is important. Telling these stories is an attempt to correct a historic record that renders marginalized people invisible. These are not the issues or failures of these individual youths and their communities, but rather the results of our society’s structural oppression and general disregard for poor, young people of color—especially those who are queer.
I don't claim to have the answers. I also don't claim to speak for anyone. That's the challenge. I'm a white male. I have experienced great privilege, comparatively. I try to be clear that this writing is my own, and that the lens I look through is mine. Through this book I wanted to create a space for folks to tell their own stories. And I hope what comes across is that a caring, consistent adult can make a huge impact on the life of a young person who is disconnected and without community.
AW: What drove you to keep going back to work with these kids; and now, ten years on, to share their stories through this book?
RB: I couldn't shake their stories. And the crisis of LGBTQ youth homelessness is criminally under-reported. The only time anyone finds the topic worthy of a news story is when there is new legislation on the issue. Well, legislation won't come unless people insist on a shift in political and social awareness around the issue. Being educated on it is a good first step.
AW: Were the kids in your book aware that you were going to publish their stories, though their identities were concealed? If not, were you making a conscious decision to, in part, sacrifice the kids’ agency over their own stories for a greater good?
RB: The youth who I could find knew I was writing about the group homes. I tried to contact and find others but couldn't.
AW: Did any of the kids read your book, and what did they think?
RB: Yes, some former youth and former co-workers have read the book. On my book tour in New York I had the honor of reading alongside two youths who are represented in the book. The youths who read it seem to like it, though some insist they should have gotten more stage time.
AW: This book was published ten years after your work at the Keap Street Youth Home. Could you talk about some of the reasons for this long pause? Did you always know that you wanted to write a book about your experience?
RB: Writing, working, and living is all hard to manage. I write slowly. I was learning how to write a book as I wrote this book. I rewrote, and rewrote. I cut 140 pages and restructured the whole book right before sending it out to publishers. Although it wasn't intentional, I'm glad it took ten years to get the book out into the world. I think it shows just how little has been done in those years to address the issues the book brings up. I didn't always know I'd write this book. But when I couldn't shake the stories and nothing else was being said about the topic, I felt that writing the book was unavoidable.
AW: In the book you include the moment—though it was brief—you were finally allowed to set up a small writing group for the youth of the Keap Street Home. Have you continued to pursue this kind of creative engagement, specifically with at-risk LGBTQ youth, after leaving Keap Street? Do you have advice for others who are interested in doing the same?
RB: Not in any formal capacity. I still provide creative feedback and guidance to two former youths I worked with. One is writing a memoir; the other just applied for Buzzfeed's Emerging Writers Fellowship. I'd like to engage youth in creative work more consistently but my current role doesn't really allow for it.
As far as advice for others looking to do creative work with marginalized youth: find what interests the youth you want to work with, meet them where they're at—emotionally, creatively—and engage them from that vantage point.
AW: At The New School, and in the Summer Writers Colony, we focus a great deal on the writer’s voice in the world: If we have a voice, who is hearing us? Who is our audience? Did you write this book with a particular audience in mind? Are their others you wish to reach, and how do you plan on reaching them?
RB: I, of course, want a wide readership. I think this book can speak across differences. It's true that the circumstances of these young people's lives are harrowing, but everything they experienced and expressed —the love, the loss, the chaos, and the betrayals—are universal human experiences. I'd always love for more people to read the book. I keep putting myself out there. I say yes to everything: conferences, book festivals, community events, bookstore book clubs. You have to fight for your work if you want to be read.
Anna J. Witiuk is a serial anthropologist and storyteller who writes because she needs to. She is a creative writing major at The New School, and a student of its Riggio Writing & Democracy Honors program. This is her second year on staff as Poetry Editor for the school’s 12th Street Journal. Her writing can be found in the Sink Review and the 12th Street Journal, among other publications.