Encouraging more ‘nerds of color’

A conversation with L.A. writer Jervey Tervalon.

  • Author Jervey Tervalon at home.

    Diego James Robles

Jervey Tervalon adores Los Angeles, and he wants you to adore it, too. The author, who also teaches literature at the University of California at Santa Barbara, challenges the notion that New York City is the cultural center of the cosmos. “Los Angeles is wonderfully diverse,” he says. “I’ve been dedicating myself to creating a model in which L.A. never has to take a back seat to New York.”

Born in New Orleans, Tervalon grew up in south-central Los Angeles and earned his MFA at U.C. Irvine. He taught high school in L.A. and co-founded Literature for Life — a nonprofit online literary salon and journal dedicated to bringing the work of multi-ethnic local writers and artists into area schools.

His sixth and latest novel, Monster’s Chef (Amistad, June 2014), tells the story of a former drug addict who lands a job as personal chef to a wealthy but suspiciously reclusive hip-hop artist. It’s a thriller (with recipes included) that pays homage to Tervalon’s New Orleans roots while casting a critical eye on L.A.’s celebrity culture. HCN contributor Melissa Hart recently interviewed Tervalon.
      This interview has been condensed and edited for readability.

High Country News  The author Héctor Tobar once wrote that you’ve been “engaged in a 20-year battle to be taken seriously as a writer who also happens to be African American and who most often writes about black people.” 

Jervey Tervalon  My first book, Understand This, got great reviews and was taken seriously here in California when it came out in 1994, but The New York Times barely mentioned it, and I’ve not been mentioned again in the NYT. People in the literary world can be snobby — they think of themselves as post-racial, but 90 percent of The New York Times book reviews don’t represent authors of color. 

Thankfully, there are West Coast institutions that are very helpful — Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation multi-genre workshop, Squaw Valley Writers Conference, and PEN Center USA’s emerging writers program are embracing diversity and open-mindedness in a way that smaller presses, in particular, have not.

Why should we wait for New York publishing to have some kind of revelation? Instead, we’ve gone out to find the best-quality literature we can to put into Literature for Life that reflects the diversity of Los Angeles. We’re going to offer an award for a short story or some other kind of writing that best shows Los Angeles at its core.


HCN How have you adapted — or refused to adapt — to the literary world as an African American writer?

JT I try not to listen to what people say about my work. A woman in a writing workshop once said she didn’t think my black dialogue was “authentic enough.” I was stunned. I write out of anger when I feel like I’m underestimated or when I feel someone’s been high-handed with me.

My newest book, Monster’s Chef, is all about issues of identity — what it means to be sexually ambiguous and racially compromised or identity compromised. People are constantly misleading the reader and each other about who they are. My own identity is pretty complex. I come from New Orleans, where I’m considered black, but my mother was Irish. We moved to a black neighborhood in Los Angeles, and I became a big strapping kid, so no one ever challenged me. I think of myself as a “pootbutt” — it means you’re a nerd. As a kid, I read everything I could get my hands on. Now, I think of my tribe as being a tribe of nerds of color. And that tribe is getting larger and larger.


HCN You’ve been instrumental in organizing literary events in and around Los Angeles. Why is it so important to talk about writing and literature?

JT At Locke High School, where students are largely African American and Latino, I’d teach American literature and photocopy work by Ralph Ellison, Gwendolyn Brooks, Pablo Neruda. One day I brought a fictional story about a girl being raped and a guy getting shot, and this one black kid read it, and he said, “This isn’t a real story, is it?” He thought it wasn’t legitimate because it was interesting. That was the ultimate compliment for what I was trying to do — circumvent textbooks by bringing in stories that create a sense of immediacy.

I read recently that black kids see themselves in textbooks 3 percent of the time while Latino kids see themselves 1 percent of the time. That needs to be addressed. Publishing houses are extremely white, which creates a self-perpetuating machine. Every so often, a Junot Diaz or a Sandra Cisneros breaks through, but textbooks haven’t changed substantially.

When you hear about indifference to literary cultures at the school level, that reflects teaching that says you don’t need to make stuff come alive — what you need is a prompt so that computers can grade an essay. If you want kids to be passionate about poetry, show them Pablo Neruda. Have an actor inhabit the persona of Maxine Hong Kingston. Kids will always remember this and respond positively. But if you chain them to a desk and tell them to study for an exam, you’re killing whatever spark they have to become passionate readers. If you’re not a passionate reader, I’m not sure how civilized you are.

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