Comfort, Community, and “Geek Culture”

Joseph Earl Thomas, a Ph.D. candidate in English, unpacks his difficult upbringing in an award-winning memoir.

Monday, May 22, 2023

By Karen Brooks

Joseph Earl Thomas, Ph.D. candidate in English

Drake Masters

In his new memoir, Sink, doctoral candidate in English Joseph Earl Thomas chronicles his tumultuous childhood in the Frankford section of Northeast Philadelphia, where he faced physical and verbal abuse, poverty, humiliation, and hunger. A February New York Times review called the book “an extraordinary memoir of a Black American boyhood.”

“Most of my life was filtered through ideals of masculinity in which physical prowess was the only kind of knowledge that was acceptable or would be tolerated,” Thomas says.

Comprising a series of vignettes told mostly with third-person narration, Sink captures Thomas’s daily pain and loneliness but also describes his ability to escape through “geek culture”—fantasy and virtual worlds like those in video games, Japanese anime, and the Pokémon franchise. During his coming-of-age in the late 1990s, these worlds provided Thomas with a safe haven, a sense of community, and the confidence he needed to grow and thrive.

An excerpt from Sink won the 2020 Chautauqua Janus Prize, which recognizes an emerging writer’s single work of short fiction or nonfiction. Thomas has also received fellowships from Fulbright, VONA, Tin House, and Bread Loaf. He’s currently working on a novel, God Bless You, Otis Spunkmeyer, and a collection of stories called Leviathan Beach.