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Rasheed Newson talks "unapologetically Black" and "unmistakably Gay" debut novel

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Rasheed Newson — Photo by Christopher Marrs (they/them)
Rasheed Newson — Photo by Christopher Marrs (they/them)

Rasheed Newson has been writing his whole life. Despite being an established television writer who has worked on Bel Air, Narcos, and The 100, he completed his very first novel in 2022. My Government Means to Kill Me may have been Newson's literary debut, but with his lifetime of writing experience, it reads like a masterpiece.

"It's all on you"
Though he's been creating stories since childhood, Newson has spent the last 15 years as a professional writer. He believes his career began when he joined the Writer's Guild at 29.

"I came out to LA after college, assuming I would go into features, because that's what everybody loves," he said, "but then I fell in with people who were writing television. I met my writing partner, and we did some speculative pilots on our own."

"It took years before I found work in LA," he added. "Once I did, it was on television. It suits me. I love being a part of a company and a crew. I love that you get to dig into these stories and come back, so television is where I prefer to be."

Newson decided to switch from television writing to a novel to explore his ideas away from the collaborative process of a writer's room.

"I wanted to be able to express myself creatively in ways that are very difficult to do in television," he said. "Television is wonderful, but it is a collaborative art, and you ultimately find yourself conforming to what the group wants. You find yourself compromising, and I wanted to write something without compromise.

"I wanted to write something that was unapologetically Black, unmistakably Gay, and I wanted to present this history and these stories in a way that I felt was honest, without fear of having to tone things down because it might offend somebody out there somewhere."

While Newson feels at home on television, he embraced the challenges and benefits of writing by himself when crafting his debut novel. "The benefit [of writing a novel] is that you can do what you want. It's all on you," he said.

"The challenge is: you can do what you want, but it's all on you."

Finding time to write
One of the biggest hurdles Newson had to overcome was finding time to write his story.

"I have a husband and two small children, and I have a job in television most of the time. My time is not wholly my own," he said. "I've not been able to carve out an hour or two in the day where I know I can rely on this time to write. Pockets of time will appear, and I will pounce on them. That's my process. Write when you can, as much as you can."

He sets writing goals based on quality, not quantity, and celebrates the little victories.

"I try not to get on myself about word count or page count," he said. "The story is going to be done when the story is done, and the story doesn't get better because you're worried that you didn't write enough words today."

Newson also shares his victories, however small, with the ones he loves. "To be my friend, to be my loved one, is for me to read you this paragraph or this sentence I'm proud of. That tends to happen every day," he said with a smile.

Image courtesy of Flatiron Books  

New perspectives on history
Despite the challenges of writing a novel all on his own, he felt that My Government Means to Kill Me was a story that had to be told through the written text.

"If I thought the odds of getting the story out there were better [by] writing it as a TV show or a movie script, I would have done that," he said. "I chose a novel because I think that was the medium that was most receptive to the story the way I wanted to tell it."

The story he wanted to tell centers around a topic many know all too well, from a perspective not often shown. "I felt there were voices to the AIDS story that hadn't been elevated as high as I thought," Newson said. "I understand all the reasons why, but I wanted to put a young, Gay, Black, male, effeminate character in the heart of that world. I wanted him to feel like he could stand up and count."

He hoped that making Trey the hero would inspire other people who might not see themselves as activists.

"One of the things I wanted to do in My Government Means to Kill Me is to take a character who, when you meet him, seems an unlikely candidate to be somebody who is going to be a political activist," he said. "He's naive, he's a bit selfish [and] myopic, and yet he can answer the call of his time. That is all any of us can do — it's what we must do."

He also hoped Trey's story would bring visibility to people with intersectional identities. "One of the things literature offers [to readers] is a community ...that they can see themselves as the hero sometimes, that they can see themselves central in the story," he said.

"Until that can happen, there's an isolation that you're feeling. There's an exclusion you live with, and that must end. I think these stories also help everybody realize the unique challenges that people are falling into. These stories encourage us to see each other more clearly, and if we're to get through this together, we need to see each other more clearly."

Telling the stories that haven't been told
While Newson still did plenty of research to ensure that the information in his book was historically accurate, he also brought a unique perspective into the story as someone who had grown up during the height of the AIDS epidemic.

"I feel like I've been doing that research all my life," he said. "I was born in '79. I was a child when this was happening. I grew up in the shadow of that."

The story of the epidemic is also one Newson encountered throughout pop culture. "My entire life as a Gay man has been in the shadow of that movement," he said.

However, there were real stories that he felt hadn't been told, and perspectives excluded from the narrative. My Government Means to Kill Me takes a different perspective, but one still prominent at the time, and examines some of the untold details of the AIDS epidemic.

"Things that were important to me were highlighting the role of people of color. When you look again at some of the movies ...right after that, it's a pretty white cast, and it's centered in a very white, Gay, male way," he explained. "I also wanted to highlight the role of women, particularly Lesbians, who in many of those stories are completely silent or written out."

Newson was also aware that there were some stories that, at the time, people didn't want to hear. He is using his voice to tell those stories now.

"I also wanted to discuss some of the hard choices people had to make," he continued. "Hard choices that, at the time, if you'd mentioned them, would have muddied the waters. We were trying to get people to invest in drugs that ensure survival. The people taking care of people in the last stages of AIDS had to make decisions about assisted suicide or ending lives with dignity prematurely, before the body would give out."

Photo by Christopher Marrs (they/them)  

Inspiring the future
Even though the book takes place in the '80s, much of the sentiment feels true to today's political climate.

"The fight for Gay liberation has never ended. We're currently under attack from a lot of political leaders in incredibly harmful ways," he said. "This current moment disgusts me, because the political leaders are going after the Trans community, particularly children in the Trans community. The most vulnerable of our members are being singled out for attack. The need for political resistance, for us to gather across generations and fight back, is as critical now as it ever was."

Newson hopes that readers can make connections between the Gay liberation movement from the past and the current crisis facing the LGBTQ+ community, but he also hopes that readers find joy in his book as well.

"I hope they draw lessons from the past that apply to their life now," he said. "I hope that they hear a call to action. I hope they realize they can shape their times more than when they first started reading the book."

While the book touches on difficult topics, Newson included nuance, light, and even humor in his story.

"One thing I love about the Black and Queer community is that no matter how we've been persecuted, we retain our faith in a better tomorrow and our humor," he said. "As serious as the book can be in parts, I'd like to think that it's vibrant and life-affirming, and I'd like to think that it's funny. I'd like to think that people will enjoy the book and not feel like they have to take a hot shower and pour a stiff drink. It's a good time."

Newson loves reexamining history and is excited to bring more original stories about Black and Queer people to the forefront of literature. While also writing and serving as the showrunner for the hit NBC drama Bel Air, he plans on continuing his current trajectory with another historical novel, which will center on a Black Gay protagonist in the 1960s.

"I love getting to dig into an aspect of history," he said, "and saying to the reader, 'You think you know this period? Do you think you know this era? Let me tell it to you again from the perspective of someone Black and Gay. Maybe you hadn't thought about what we were doing during this. Now you're going to hear it.'"

My Government Means to Kill Me is available now. Fans of Rasheed Newson can find him on social media, on Twitter and TikTok at @rasheednewson and on Instagram at @rasheed.newson.author