Forest of Memories
A new memoir explores the Pine Barrens – and race
By Jayne Jacova Feld

A new memoir “The In-Betweens” caught the literary world’s attention with striking stories about growing up biracial in America. Medford’s Davon Loeb leans into the moments when he felt out of place – too white for his Black cousins, uncomfortably non-white during Black History Month in rural South Jersey, and the only one half-white among his siblings. 

Just as distinctly, he describes the simple joys of a childhood spent exploring the sprawling wilderness of the Pine Barrens – riding bikes everywhere, building tree houses, getting lost in the woods yet always finding a way out. 

For him, South Jersey was not just a scenic backdrop but a crucial element of his journey to self-discovery, anchoring the many identities he explores in his recently published book.

“The Pine Barrens were such a beautiful place to grow up,” says Loeb, 36, an English teacher at Shawnee High School. “There was safety in being able to leave our doors unlocked, play in the woods and ride our bikes all day without worry. Neighbors were almost like our relatives.”

“I’ve always navigated the world in-between spaces… I’m both Black and I’m White. I’m both Jewish and I’m not.”

“My credibility comes from this place. It’s so visual,” he adds. “And once I have you hooked, I can tell you something about race that maybe you haven’t thought about and how being in a community as a minority had its complications. There was a sense of danger, not necessarily physical, but of coming of age in a place where no one looks like you.”

“The In-Betweens,” with its short, poetic essays, has gotten attention where it counts – from positive reviews in literary magazines to being excerpted in major national outlets, including the “Los Angeles Times.” This acclaim has opened doors for Loeb, ushering in teaching opportunities beyond his Shawnee classroom and sparking fresh writing projects. His more recent published works have been essays exploring the rich themes of his memoir, including race, culture and education.

“Having the opportunity to travel, share my story and teach college students truly feels like living a dream,” says Loeb, who has crisscrossed the nation for book tours, lectures and writing engagements during breaks in the public-school calendar. “It’s also really special to me to be able to go back to where I graduated from – Montclair and Rutgers – and other New Jersey schools for events.”

“The In-Betweens” took its first breath as Loeb’s senior thesis in 2015, during his time in the creative writing graduate program at Rutgers University-Camden. What began as a collection of poems matured into a form Loeb calls lyrical storytelling, gaining depth with each revision. Initially published by a small press, the memoir’s early reception fell short of expectations. However, rather than marking the end of the book’s shelf life, the pandemic offered an opportunity. It provided Loeb with the perfect moment to reexamine and polish his work.

“Rewriting it at a time of so much racial division and tension in the country not only reignited my desire to tell my stories but it coincided with changes in the publishing culture towards more interest in writers of color,” says Loeb, a married father of 2 young children who often finds time for his writing in the quiet hours before dawn.

As it evolved through multiple drafts, one thing that never changed was the title. 

“I’ve always navigated the world in-between spaces,” he says. “As a biracial person, I’m sort of in between 3 or 4 different places. I’m both Black and I’m White. I’m both Jewish and I’m not.”

The struggle is a recurring theme throughout the book, depicted through a range of experiences – from being singled out to defend hip hop by his white music teacher to being dubbed the “white boy in the middle” by his Black cousins during keep-away games and delving into his Jewish roots during a school trip to a Holocaust museum. He writes about navigating his different worlds: summers spent in Alabama with his Black family, enduring awkward visits with his often-estranged Jewish father in North Jersey and the Poconos to bonding over matzo ball soup on rare visits with his grandmother and half-brother.

Loeb says it’s these personal stories of struggle and identity that make his story relatable to many.

“You can both be Italian culturally but also American, from similar socioeconomic backgrounds that also feel like different identities,” he says. “In telling my story, readers may recognize their in-between spaces as well.”

While “The In-Betweens” isn’t included in the creative writing syllabus at Shawnee, the art of memoir writing is a big part – not just to help Loeb’s emerging writers learn the genre but also as a vehicle to make sense of their own lives.

“I encourage my students to tell their own stories and discover self-awareness through their happiest and even their messiest memories,” he says. “It’s how you gain a metacognition about what you’re thinking about and what you’re going through.”

This approach has profoundly impacted Loeb’s life as well.

 “I am as much a Black man as I am a Black and Jewish man, as I am a father, as I am a son, as I am a teacher and a friend,” he says. “It’s all these different things that make us who we are, that make me who I am. I’ve grown to love and appreciate and accept it through telling my story and realizing that my story can help other people tell their own story. It’s just so powerful. It’s what we all try to do as authors.”  


June 2024
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