How one Southern woman’s dream of being a novelist came true and what a magical and personal journey that was
I grew up in a community of older black folks. By today’s standards they wouldn’t be considered old, however this was the 1970’s. Most of them were in the their 40’s and 50’s. They’d migrated from rural parts of Georgia like Athens, Augusta, LaGrange, Macon and Monroe. They were fleeing sharecropping, menial labor, and nonexistent opportunities those towns give (especially to black folks) to take their chances in the big city — Atlanta.
In the Dixie Hills community where I grew up, these old folks had saved for decades to build the simple wood framed houses that captured their version of the American Dream. When I write about them, I refer to them as the Old Folks mafia, because they stuck together through thick and thin and through life’s challenges, which congealed them as a collective just like cold grits.
In this fertile community of old folks, I grew and developed as a writer. I listened as they told the latest tales of Mr. Walker’s escapades with some nefarious woman from Dixie Hills apartments or how Miss Jane Lee threw her sorry-butt excuse for a son out the house for the umpteenth time. “She’ll let him come back,” Mama said with a crooked smile. Mama, also warned me not to get involved in old folks’ talk. I was to remain quiet — no interjection — while she still conducted her talk-affairs with me in ear shot. I absorbed all the hallowing stories of life and stored them in my six-year old brain.
I’d always wanted to be a writer and I wrote lots of poetry; some bad some okay. By age ten I’d written a poem good enough to get published in our school district newsletter. It was about Dr. Martin Luther King as a boy and his dreams of black folks not being judged by the color of their skin. Shortly after that I had another poem published on the magic and beauty of spring time, when all that is dead and gone renews and grows again.
The Old Folks mafia celebrated me, seeming to even imply I was one of them as they allowed me to sit closer and sip lemonade while they sat on the back porch reporting the happenings and going ons of the Dixie Hills community. Still I wasn’t allowed to talk; only listen as I did with satellite ears.
In high school, my poetry moved to protest anthems and antsy love poetry. I both wanted to fight for my complete freedom and to find someone who wanted to love me forever.
Nikki Giovani, Sonia Sanchez, Mari Evans, Don Lee, Gwendolyn Brooks and Emily Dickenson were my saviors, and I wanted to emulate the power and red dirt heartache I felt when I read their work.
It was in high school when I fell off my writing path. My first adult nemesis was a tenth grade English teacher I’ll call X. X insisted that none of my ideas were good, certainly not original, and that I was the worst speller they’d encountered. I wish I could say I held council with my Old Folks mafia and that they stormed into my high school to corner that teacher and string that person up by their big toes and gave them the what for. But that did not happen.
X’s words took up residency in my brain. As they settled into their new dwelling I began to focus on my drawing and visual arts. I entered college as an Interior design major. I talked myself into using my drawing skills to earn a living, and once I earned that living I’d have time to write.
I graduated from the University of Georgia in 1986 and managed to save enough to move to northern California to look for work in interior design. I sent out dozens of resumes and even got some interviews. One large architectural firm in particular was where I really wanted to work. Not knowing much about interviewing, they sat me in a room to take a test and instead of saying, “I’m not good at test taking, let’s talk about design instead.” I walked out left the blank test on the table and walked the downtown streets of Oakland, CA wondering if I’d ever find my way.
Eventually, I went to grad school and studied education; still not ready to call myself a writer. I hung out in the writing lab offices getting tutored on sentence structure, building paragraphs, laying out an academic paper and forming an academic voice.
After graduating I worked in children’s television for a while, but eventually landed at a large consulting firm that hired freelance creatives. After two years and a good break-up, I found a writing class and began to study creative writing. More years passed, and I continued to work and I even found a great girlfriend. But then I tore my meniscus and had to take time off from work. A lightbulb clicked on in my brain and I knew this was a good omen. I applied to a creative writing program.
After I started the program I wondered “Can I write? Will I be able to complete a novel? How will you earn a living?”
Over the last twelve years I have consistently written through multiple moves to various cities, health challenges brought on by fibroids and arthritis, and the long road to adopting our son. During this time, I’ve rewritten my novel four times with multiple iterations, and my novel has gotten better and better. I worked with trusted people during that time like a writing doula (coach) and editors who gave me valuable feedback. Throughout this process, I began to intimately know and trust my writing voice. What’s most important is over these years, I completed a novel that I’m proud of.
The novel I’ve written is entitled, “Something Better than HOME.” It’s a coming of age, coming out novel that takes place in the 1970’s South. It’s about a witty, imaginative and strong willed black girl who has an insatiable desire to be herself. She crowns herself king of her small backyard but being a king isn’t what a proper Southern girl should want. Her Mama and Daddy try to contain and change her and so began her journey to claim her humanity and to find a place she can live proudly out of the closet — a place she can call HOME. And of course, the novel features characters like the Old Folks mafia.
That’s my story. I’ve travelled from the girl who played in red Georgia clay in my backyard to the woman who propelled herself out of the South and landed as a writer, novelist, essayist and myself. Fully human, fully me.
by Leona Beasley
Leona Beasley writes about the eccentric and sometimes queer characters of her Southern youth despite having escaped to the North to get away from them. She lives in a hidden gem of a city near New York City, but she’s unwilling to reveal where because she doesn’t want what happened to Brooklyn to happen here. She lives with her wife, young child and mom-in-law. You can follow Leona on Instagram and on Twitter.