I wanted to write a memoir but the connective tissue of the memoir didn’t interest me. I wanted to render memories that would pop up like mushrooms and quickly vanish. I owe much to where I was raised, in a black neighborhood where people talked to each other and spent time on the porch and on the corner, as did my brothers and their friends as they smoked weed, drank Mickey Big Mouths and Heinekens, and talked all the time about the insanity of Vietnam, nuclear war, and H.P. Lovecraft, and from there they’d segue into the adventures of the many memorable characters in the neighborhood. I tried to do that here. A new installment will appear here every Saturday this and next month.
The Squaw Valley Writers Conference (it’s now known as the Community of Writers) attracts amazingly talented writers and occasionally an unusual number (more than a handful) of black folks would show up. I remember being at a picnic table of black women and we were enjoying the moment, so many of us being together, when we hear a voice shouting, “What all you doing here!” and we look up and see Terry McMillian. She sat down with us and it was very sweet moment. Strange as it may seem to some, black folks do seek each other out and find pleasure in each other’s company and even more so when it’s and unexpected and somewhere where darker skin is rare.
Some summers later it happened again. This time I was having coffee trying to get some writing done before I was to lead a workshop when I saw a beautiful dark-skinned black woman.
I introduced myself to her and she hesitated before responding. She had an accent I couldn’t place as we chatted a bit. I asked her what she was working on, and she gave me some pages to read. I was grateful to have a reason to talk to her again. That night I read the work and I was stunned. The conference always had well-known writers with great talent and equally talented writers no one may have heard of, and she fell into the latter group. Her depictions of life in Nigeria and a brutally complex family felt more like reading Tolstoy than most contemporary fiction. When I met her for coffee, she was as stunning as the cloud-draped mountains behind her, but I wasn’t there to flirt with her. All I could say was, “You’re more talented than any writer here,” and I had no idea I would say that. Maybe she thought I was complimenting her as a form of seduction, but I wasn’t. I truly believed her work was that good. After that we ran into each other a few more times and then the conference ended. A few months later I got a book from her publisher and a note asking for a blurb. I don’t often get asked for blurbs and never from an incredibly talented and beautiful Nigerian woman. I hastily pulled a blurb together for her, and since I was on the board of PENUSA and we didn’t have any work to submit from PEN West to the national competition, I suggested we send her novel and her book won. Then it seemed as though she won every literary prize that year, including being interviewed by a Noble Prize winner. I like to think that my suggestion somewhat helped propel her book into the stratosphere. Even Beyoncé referenced her in a song. When I finished my novel, I asked my publisher to send it to her for a blurb, but she declined. My feelings were hurt for a hot minute then I got over it. The writing gods have been kind to me, and she is incredibly talented, and I did help advance her career, however slightly, and for that I’m grateful and still a little pissed.
Jervey Tervalon was born in New Orleans and raised in Los Angeles, and got his MFA in Creative Writing from UC Irvine. He is the author of six books, including Understanding This, for which he won the Quality Paper Book Club’s New Voices Award. Currently he is the Executive Director of “Literature for Life,” an educational advocacy organization, and Creative Director of The Pasadena LitFest. His latest novel is Monster’s Chef.