The Transitional Voice of Walter Dean Myers by Ozioma Egwuonwu
Originally appeared in Mosaic #22 August 2008
Walter Dean Myers, perhaps the most prolific writer of African-American young adult fiction, and Mosaic contributor Ozioma Egwuonwu chat about his new book Game, as well as pulling from personal experience to establish an authentic voice for the young adult reader.
Ozioma Egwuonwu: Congratulations on the release of your most recent novel Game. Perhaps that’s a perfect place for us to start our chat. How did Game come to be?
Walter Dean Myers: If you’re writing any sort of creative thing, it has to interest you first, and it has to be something that attracts you. I have always liked basketball. Basketball has been my sport for years and years. When I am thinking about young people and talking to young people about sports and what they are going to be doing with their lives, they often have this idea that there’s this fairness concept in life wherein somehow things are going to be fair for them. Things are not usually fair.
Not only because someone may have more talent, but perhaps because people may like them better for whatever reason. If they see something is not fair or that something is not going their way, they have a tendency to quit. “I’m not going to play anymore.” “It isn’t fair, I’m going to walk away.” So I sort of combined these two ideas for Drew [Larson] because what he needs to do is mature fast enough to understand that he can triumph no matter what is going on around him. And that is essentially what is going down with Game.
OE: One message that I got from reading Game was that it seems that black people in general, and black youth in particular, need to work harder at everything–including the things they are naturally good at.
WDM: Yeah, you have to work hard at it, but they [black youth] have to understand that if you don’t work at it, well, then someone else will. This is one of the problems I see with some of the urban books that are being self-published. Sometimes it’s good to get your stuff out there if you believe in it, but there are people out there that are going to be working, polishing their material, and having it edited, and you have to compete with these people. It’s different today than in my day because when I was young, I was competing with people in the neighborhood, in the city, perhaps even the state. Today, you are competing with people at the global level. A couple of years ago, I spoke at a school in Bermuda, and I’m listening to these kids who are as sharp as anything, and I’m thinking there’s some kid in Bed-Stuy or Harlem thinking that he’s hot stuff because he’s better than some kids in his class, but he’s going to be competing with these kids from Bermuda and anywhere else in the world. He better understand that.
OE: That’s what’s key about taking this topic to write about it. When you think about it, high school is this pivotal point where your world is larger than the world you were in during middle school, but it’s not as large as the one you are going to enter–especially if you go to a larger college–and from there once you enter the larger context of the world. The fact that you choose to address this issue, and then have all those elements come into play as a young kid’s world is expanding, is extremely powerful and crucial.
WDM: You know, I have been watching all these eastern European ball players come over, and they are getting good spots in the NBA. For this book I went to Prague to see their ball players; how they play, and the level of play, wasn’t as good as the American level. But what was so interesting for me was that they were anxious to get into the NBA. To do the work. They had the same kind of hoop dreams as our ball players do.
OE: So the juxtaposition and comparison of Drew [an African American] and Tomas [an eastern European] was purposeful?
WDM: Absolutely. Here’s a guy who comes over and he’s white. He may even have a coach that prefers him just because he’s white. Everybody knows that if you have a white star then you are going to get more press attention. Now Drew has been playing, but no one came around until they had a white kid on the team. You see that all the time with ball players. In any field actually, but young kids need to know this. They need to understand: Yeah this is going on, but still you have to take care of your business.
OE: So when you think about Drew Lawson, how different is he than the other characters you’ve written throughout the years?
WDM: I think he’s only different in the sense that as I get older, my understanding of what’s going on deepens. People often ask: how do you get your ideas? Well, the ideas are not that varied, they’re just deeper. You know, you handle a basketball player and he’s not doing well in school. And he has to understand that reading and writing is important. Then after a while you say, there is a reason why he’s not doing well in school. There is something about his environment that he needs to understand. Then you say, well, he may see his white counterparts. It’s not sufficient to say that you are as good as he is or even better, because he is going to get the breaks and you’re not. But how do you react to that? You can be angry, vocal even, but you still have to think, he may get the breaks, but what am I going to do for me?
OE: Being able to get into their head, their world, that whole thought process helps make a novel more accessible for a young reader. How do you craft that accessibility when kids in this day and age are used to spotting fakes? They know when they are being spoken at. How do you craft that authentic experience, and has your way of doing so changed throughout the years?
WDM: I think that if you can tap into their concerns, tap into something that they’re seeing and that they’re concerned about, then they’re going to follow you. If you are going to be superficial, they may play along for a while, but it’s no big deal. If you are talking about something that they need to know about, they will follow you. What they will do—and I can see this in the letters that people write to me—they will say things like “I was thinking about that.” Maybe they couldn’t articulate that, and my job is to put it into words. Kids wonder about these things, but they can’t articulate them. They can’t even sometimes place the question firmly in their own minds. That is our job as artists.
OE: And do you ever have a particular kid in mind? Is your work ever crafted from the particular mental landscape of a child who you know?
WDM: Very often. Very often I’ll meet some ball player. I’ll meet some young man. For example, there was this kid that was playing for Lane High School. He went through this long interview and during it they were saying how good he was. I’m watching the kid play a couple of games and they were talking about what schools he may go to; and they knocked his schools down to such minor schools. And I was asking why if he’s that good? What was it about this kid? I was looking at him and at my nephew playing for Towson State–now he’s playing for Switzerland–and I sort of combined these two guys to make Drew.
OE: And it’s set in Harlem!
WDM: (LAUGHS) You know it’s important for me to set these things in Harlem because every kid in America recognizes Harlem as black.
OE: Has the role of Harlem changed in your work or does it operate as just a backdrop?
WDM: It’s changed in that when I was first writing about Harlem, I was just so glad to write about Harlem. I spoke to James Baldwin. I met him in my thirties. He was raised about a half a mile from me—about 10 blocks. You know, when I was a kid, all we read were British authors, so that’s how I wrote. It was an “ode” to this and an “ode” to that. Always emulating those British authors, but when I first read Baldwin and he was writing about Harlem, that was a freeing experience for me. He gave me permission to write as a black author. When I finally met him, I told him that. He said that he had the same experience growing up in Harlem. But when I left him that first time, I thought to myself, I wish I had known that as a kid. That other people felt the same things that I felt.
Now when I was a kid, I didn’t walk around thinking Woe is me, I’m black. I feel bad about being black. I didn’t even know to a large extent that I did feel bad about being black. I didn’t understand that my values were being dictated to me by what I was being taught, so when I went to school and saw all those British authors, I was thinking that these are the people that were the brightest and the geniuses. I didn’t even know that was what was going on in my head until I reached my twenties. I began to understand that after I started to read Baldwin. I think being able to go to a kid who’s going to Boys and Girls High School or Lane and say to them, “This is what might be going on in the back of your mind.” I think they recognize it.
OE: I’m just thinking about the long tradition of transition of which you speak. For you it was the work of James Baldwin, for me it was Piri Thomas’ Down These Mean Streets. Both experiences stem from this notion of needing to see and connect with an experience that is similar to your own that can still inform you. Do you believe this has become even more important for young readers today?
WDM: It’s more important now. I’m working on an essay, which I am calling What Black Boys Know. And if you are a black kid in America and living in an urban setting, you are going to see every day in your life so many people standing around idle. They don’t have jobs, and they aren’t counted as unemployed. You are going to see a failure rate that is so high. When you see that, that has to affect you. You either have to say, oh no, I am better than they are, or that there is something inherently wrong with us. It’s my job as an artist to say: “Let’s talk about this. Let’s articulate this, let’s put this out there so that we can explore this concept of why are these young people out here. What’s going on?” I’m also old enough to know some things that most young people don’t know. I can put what’s going in the schools and press coverage into a book because I have the knowledge. I have been around this all my life. And a teenage boy sees these things, yet doesn’t quite understand them. I bring that understanding.
OE: So when you sit down to write a novel, is it always with that intention—to bring that understanding? Or is it all about inspiration or a particular message you wish to convey?
WDM: Well, what tends to happen is that I will see a problem that interests me–again the project has to interest me– and if it interests me as an African-American male, then I think it will interest a young person. So I am exploring a problem and I don’t want to tell my young reader what to think, I want him to know one thing—that the problem is real and there are other people thinking about it, and I want him thinking about it too.
OE: In your mind, is your reader for the most part always a young black male?
WDM: Yeah, and the reason for that is because I am writing from my experiences. You mentioned earlier that high school is a much larger world then middle school, but it’s also a transitional world in which young people become aware of who they are. They become aware of the fact that they have to make it in the world. And very often they reach a state of despair because they understand that when they fall behind–if they are in the 10th or 11th grade and they are reading at the 5th grade level–they can understand that. They see that. When the teachers are lecturing to them, they understand how far behind they are and very often they are looking at themselves and thinking there is nothing they can do. The dropout rate in New York is 50% as far as black kids are concerned. A 50% dropout rate should be in the front page of the news everyday. You couple that with the incarceration rate, that is going to affect all of their lives forever.
OE: Earlier in our chat we spoke of transition points. Walter, the work you’ve contributed over these past years has aided many young readers in their own personal transitions. What would you say to anyone trying to get into this “struggle”– this war to save young black kids in America? What would you say to them?
WDM: My thing now is awareness. Let’s discuss these things openly. Let’s discuss them in schools. Openly. We need to have deeper discussions among our teenagers. I have enough faith in these kids that if you discuss these things with them, then they will be able to understand them and they will be able to use them. Not all of the kids will be able to use it, but many, many kids will be able to make use of those discussions.
OE: And those are the ones you’re trying to reach?