M.K. Asante joins us for this interview from a recording studio—which is appropriate, given how deftly his writing weaves rap lyrics, poems, diary entries, and voicemails to create a powerful ballad about a family in crisis. Asante’s latest memoir, Nephew: A Memoir in 4-Part Harmony (Amistad/HarperCollins, May 21), is essentially a letter to his nephew, Nasir, who has been hospitalized by gunshot wounds he sustained while shielding his young cousins from a drive-by shooting. What follows is Asante’s attempt to document the family’s struggles and triumphs to show Nasir where he came from and help him to avoid making the same mistakes.

Asante introduced readers to his family in his first book, Buck, taking us into his gritty Philadelphia neighborhood, sharing his losses and struggles, and showing us the first stages of his older brother Uzi’s incarceration. In essence, Nephew is a follow-up to Buck; Uzi looms over each page, his incarceration affecting each family member, especially his son, Nasir, for whom he takes no responsibility. Eventually, Asante steps in, playing a father-figure role to his young nephew, determined to offer the stability and mentorship that Uzi won’t. Kirkus praises the book’s “passionate, moving, spirited reflections on art’s therapeutic potency.”

I spoke to Asante over the phone about his writing process, breaking generational cycles, and his complex relationship with his brother and nephew. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

The book includes lyrics, poems, diary entries, letters, and even voicemails from various family members. Can you walk us through the process of fitting all these pieces together?

I approached it like building layers. My narrative, the story that I’m telling you, is the primary layer. Then the lyrics from my nephew and my brother are also helping to tell the story that’s in the primary layer, but, independently, they tell their own stories. It’s about taking all these elements that people might see as scraps but the quilt-maker sees as part of something bigger and more beautiful. Once I’ve identified the layers that I want to use, it’s then just a process of weaving and melding and making sure that they speak to one another.

In the book you discuss how Black Arts Movement poet Sonia Sanchez reveals that her purpose as a writer is, in her words, “to keep in contact with our ancestors and to spread truth to people.” Do you see your book doing that?

That’s certainly my goal as a writer. I go by M.K. Asante, but my first name [Molefi] means “keeper of traditions.” So I’ve always felt like a custodian of the culture. And I’ve always felt like it was my job to make the ancestors proud, and to do the things that they may have not been able to do, and to make sure I take those opportunities and give those opportunities to the people coming after me, as well. It’s very important to me in that ancestral tradition to speak truth.

Has seeing how your brother approached fatherhood changed how you yourself parent?

Absolutely. Nasir was like my first experience being in a fatherly role. I was pretty young, didn’t have any kids, and wasn’t thinking about it at all. When Nasir was born, I immediately felt connected to this kid, even though he didn’t know my brother. I immediately felt connected to him, and it kicked in—this instinct that I didn’t even know I had.

I was in college and people wanted to hang out with me, but I just wanted to hang out with my nephew. It taught me to be protective in a way I wasn’t before. The situation with my brother, the way he wasn’t involved in his son’s life, disturbed me from the beginning, but it didn’t really hit me until I had kids. It was never an option not to be a part of my kids’ lives. Now that I’m a father, I’m seeing how important all these moments are with my kids.

There’s also a lot of writing devoted to the generational cycles of violence, poverty, and absentee parenting. Do you think the cycle has been broken for the next generation of men in your family?

I’d like to think a couple of things. One of the differences with Nasir is that he’s got a really strong support system. I think the other difference is that he’s aware. Part of the journey of this book was him also learning things and implementing changes in his life and being aware of [his family’s history]. His involvement in this book and this project means that he understands the story and that he understands his legacy.

What conversations about mental health need to happen in Black families? What progress has been made?

I think these conversations are starting to happen. I’ve even seen some change in my lifetime. I remember, growing up in the ’90s, you didn’t talk about that kind of stuff. You didn’t talk about going to a therapist—there was a real stigma around it. And so I’ve seen a real shift in terms of Black people being able to even have the conversation.

I hear young people talk about their mental health and mental wellness. I’m a professor at Morgan State University in Baltimore, and we have Mental Health Week. Things have changed a lot, and I’ve seen that talking about mental health has become more accepted.

Has the writing of these memoirs changed your relationship with your brother?

I wrote Buck before this, a memoir that was the beginning of this story. When you start Buck, I’m 12, and Uzi’s 16. We’re living in our parents’ house in Philly, and he gets arrested and I get kicked out of school. I’m going through all these things, and I discovered in high school that I want to be a writer. Buck introduces you to Uzi and his letters from jail, so me and my brother have already gone through this whole I’m a public memoirist who writes about my family. He’s fine with that. He understands. Our relationship has always had a level of complexity because of my relationship with his son, but writing this book didn’t change our relationship.

What’s the takeaway for readers?

First, love is everything. It’s the thing that makes a father show up or makes an uncle show up. It’s the thing that makes a nephew save his little cousins. The other thing is that it’s never too late. I always told my brother that it’s never too late, and it’s still not too late. That’s the amazing thing about life. If my brother got his shit together right now, and decided that he wanted to be different and have a different role in Nasir’s life, it’s absolutely possible. Would it be super easy? No. But is it possible? Absolutely.

Mariette Williams is a South Florida–based writer with bylines in Travel + LeisureTeen VogueCosmopolitan, and Essence.