They didn’t know each other growing up in Jacksonville, and they’ve still never met in person. Different times, different places. But in the past year, Deesha Philyaw, Dawnie Walton and Dantiel Moniz have on the phone and online become friends, fans and supporters.
They’re drawn together by their hometown, though only one still lives there, and just for a little while longer. And they’re drawn together by the fact they are all writers, all Black women, and they’ve each published books during the coronavirus pandemic — debuts that have each received rave reviews and wide attention.
Philyaw’s collection of short stories, “The Secret Lives of Church Ladies,” won the prestigious PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction and was a National Book Award finalist. She will co-produce an HBO adaptation of her book with “Westworld” star Tessa Thompson.
Walton’s novel, “The Final Revival of Opal & Nev,” published by Simon & Schuster, won ecstatic reviews from all over. She tells of the unreality of waking up in her Brooklyn home to find The New York Times review, which began this way: “This novel is so good, I want to rent a velvet-swagged amphitheater and gather a large audience to blare through a microphone just how much I like it.” And Walton was recently featured on NPR’s “Fresh Air” show for an extended interview.
Moniz’ collection of short stories, “Milk Blood Heat,” was called an “electrifying debut” by a Washington Post reviewer who wrote it is “exhilarating and shocking and even healing.” She won the Alice Hoffman Prize for Fiction, among other awards, and is leaving Jacksonville soon to teach creative writing at her alma mater, the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
‘The Three D’s’
“We call ourselves ‘The Three D’s,'” Philyaw said.
Having left the city after high school, Philyaw didn’t know of any other writers from Jacksonville. “Then to meet two other Black women writers — how small is this world? And they have a book coming out the same year? It’s really beautiful, and we’ve become the biggest fans.”
Walton had met Moniz online a few years ago and was a fan of Philyaw, though she didn’t know they had the same hometown.
“We call each other cousins at this point,” Walton said. “They’ve both been so wonderful, and their collections are just so wonderful — you see so much of Jacksonville in their books.“
For now they’ve all participated in an online roundtable discussion for Kirkus Reviews and figure that with the pandemic easing, it’s just a matter of time until they meet in person.
“I definitely can’t wait to give them a giant hug,” Walton said.
“Unfortunately the zeal of the newly converted is bewildering to the children of the newly converted. One Saturday night, you’ve got every blanket in the house draped over your head to drown out the sound of your mother’s headboard banging against your bedroom wall as she hollers her soon-to-be-ex-best friend’s husband’s name. And the next Saturday night, she’s snatching the softened deck of playing cards from your hands because “Games of chance are from the devil!” — From “When Eddie Levert Comes” from “The Secret Lives of Church Ladies
Philyaw left Jacksonville in 1989 to go to Yale University and has lived in Pittsburgh for decades. She wrote freelance essays, co-wrote a book on co-parenting with a divorced husband, started several novels that stalled, then came up with the short stories of “The Secret Lives of Church Ladies.”
Jacksonville — and the people she knew there — had stayed in a corner of her mind.
“Jacksonville is all over my collection, even though it’s never named as such, but that’s where I was born and raised,” she said. “It looms large in my feelings of nostalgia and my memories, which I tapped into to write these stories. The voices of the women in my stories are the stories of my youth.”
The food of her neighborhood and her youth comes up too. She notes that of nine stories, two of them feature crab boils. Peach cobbler shows up as well.
Philyaw was raised by her mother and grandmother in Sugar Hill, an old, historically Black neighborhood just north downtown. She grew up in the churches in the area and wondered, as an adult, about the church ladies — those women whose lives seem to revolve around the church. When she began writing her short stories, it was those women who came to her.
“It was those women in Jacksonville who I’d grown up with who presented themselves,” she said. “There were all of these restrictions and double standards and hypocrisy in the church, yet it was certainly a place of celebration.”
And what of their secret lives? Well surely they involved sex. That was a topic Philyaw found rich in imagining.
“I never knew how they grappled with things like longing and desire,” she said. “You’re told all of these don’ts and then you do — and then what?”
Philyaw, who’s 49, laughs as she tells about her childhood. She was the kind of kid who liked to play school — during summer vacation. And she had to be the teacher.
Her mother worked as an elevator operator at the Florida Theatre downtown, and young Deesha would visit her there, though you could ride the elevator only so many times before coming bored. So she’d make the short walk to the old main library, Taylor Hardwick’s mid-century modern masterpiece, and plop on the floor with books.
It didn’t matter what kind of book. She’d read a book a day, at least. Kids’ books, young adult novels. Even Jackie Collins. “That’s how I learned how sex worked,” she said.
She went to Stanton College Prep from seventh through 12th grade and then was accepted to Yale. Friends teased her as she left: Don’t turn white.
As she boarded a train to Connecticut, she took with her a book given her in 10th grade by her history teacher, Mark Johnson: “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” She said she hadn’t read it yet, and didn’t have much of a sense of history.
On the trip, though, she read it, intently. “It was writing about someone outside the South, in the North, about global Blackness, white supremacy. I got off the train at Yale and I felt like I had been a child when I got on the train, and much wiser when I got off.”
At Yale she met students from all over, and Black students from all over. “I never felt Southern until I went to Yale,” she said. “I didn’t know I had an accent, because I didn’t; in Jacksonville I spoke like everybody else.”
And when it came time to write “The Secret Lives of Church Ladies,” it was the voices of the South — particularly Black Jacksonville — that came into her memory and took to the page.
“The way people speak, the humor, all of that, is definitely Southern. The older women characters, they talk like my grandmother talked,” Philyaw said. “It was taking things I knew to be true, then building these particular characters with those particular quirks.”
“Disclosure: My father, a drummer named Jimmy Curtis, fell in love with Opal Jewel in the summer of 1970. For the duration of their affair he was married to my mother, who in ’71 got pregnant with me. Before my birth, before the world had a chance to know much about my father beyond these facts, he was beaten to death by a racist gang during the riot at Rivington Showcase. And before my mother could bury his broken body, his mistress blazed to stardom.” — opening paragraph to “The Final Revival of Opal & Nev”
Walton’s “The Final Revival of Opal & Nev” is largely told as an oral history, conducted by a journalist searching for the story of Opal Jewel, an outspoken, edgy, style-setting Black woman who partnered with a white Englishman in an influential 1970s rock band.
Walton grew up in Jacksonville’s Riverside neighborhood and frequented the late, lamented Einstein A Go-Go in Jacksonville Beach, which specialized in up-and-coming rock bands far edgier than those that played at most other local venues.
The inspiration for Opal came largely from Walton’s time spent at Einstein A Go-Go, where white faces were far more common than Black.
“Being a Black woman in that scene, I didn’t have a lot of people who were a reflection of me,” she said. “I knew I wanted to insert Opal into that history — someone who would have influenced the artists I grew up loving, who could be all the things I wanted her to be, which was stylish, smart as hell, funny, and political.”
And the inspiration for the book’s journalistic oral history approach came from her long career as a journalist.
Walton, 44, went to Stanton College Prep, as Philyaw did but five years apart. She was an intern at The Florida Times-Union right out of high school and did some writing for the paper’s long-gone Teen Rap section.
“I reviewed ‘The Lion King,’AA”she said, laughing. “That’s how long ago it was.”
If you’re keeping track, that was in 1994. That fall she went to Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, a historically Black school.
“What I came to realize is that those feelings I had of being weird, they were kind of off-base. When I went to FAMU and met such a diversity of Black girls my age, I finally felt free to be everything I was, which was Black and a rock’n’ roll fan,” she said. “When we were together, we felt free to be whoever we were, to be able to step into ourselves.”
After college she worked for The Oregonian newspaper in Portland and The Washington Post, then moved on to New York where she became an editor for websites and magazines, including Essence and Entertainment Weekly.
In 2013, single again, she began wondering: “What am I doing with my life? Am I happy?”
Inspiration came while Walton saw singers Lynn Mabry and Ednah Holt in a documentary called “20 Feet from Stardom” about backup singers. They were singing with Talking Heads, long one of Walton’s favorite bands, and she was drawn to these “two amazing Black women. They were so compelling and joyful and carefree and committed to the music.”
She wanted, she said, to draw them out of the screen. So she began waking up at 5 a.m. to write about Opal, this stylish, iconic Afro-Punk figure of her imagination.
She began having fun again. And she started to think that what she had might be good. After a writing residency, she went on to get a master’s in fine arts at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop where “The Final Revival of Opal & Nev” really began to come to life.
Walton said she’s heartened when she hears from women who tell her they appreciate the many dimensions she’s given to Opal, a character she wanted to be iconic.
“I wanted to talk about the public image of Black women, especially when filtered through media, and kind of the tightrope that a lot of famous Black women have had to walk in terms of embodying certain images, but also feeling trapped by them,” Walton said. “I wanted to show the community that can exist between us, even when the connections are a bit complicated.”
“‘Pink is the color for girls,’ Kiera says, so she and Ava cut their palms and let their blood drip into a shallow bowl filled with milk, watching the color spread slowly on the surface, small red flowers blooming. Ava studies Kiera. How she holds her hand steady — as if used to slicing herself open —while sunlight falls into the kitchen window and fills her curls with glow. Her mouth is a slim, straight line, but her eyes are wide, green-yellow, unblinking. Strange eyes, Ava’s mother always says with the same pinched grimace usually reserved for pulling plugs of their hair from the bathtub drain.” — opening of the title story, “Blood Milk Heat”
Moniz wrote and wrote as a young girl, making books bound by hand. “I still have them,” she said. “They’re so embarrassing. So many.”
She’s been rewriting her first book, a mother-daughter relationship story set partly in Jacksonville. which she finished at 12, for the past decade. It might show up in a new form some day.
And she read voraciously, eerie stuff like V.C. Andrews, R.L. Stine and the “Goosebumps” series, but also Advanced Placement literature: “The Color Purple,” “Beloved,” anything.
“Everything,” she said. “My parents didn’t really monitor what my reading habits were. It was just, ‘Oh, she’s reading.’ So I read a lot of everything.”
Moniz is 31 and grew up off Monument Road. She went to Douglas Anderson School of the Arts to write and then majored in creative writing at Florida State University and studied further at graduate school in Wisconsin. She’s moving back to Wisconsin soon to teach at that graduate school.
Her debut short-story collection, “Milk Blood Heat,” is set in the Jacksonville area, featuring mostly girls and young women, stories that explore what Publisher’s Weekly called “themes of adolescent discovery, family strain and temptation’s dangerous appeal.”
“It was really important to me to write about Jacksonville,” Moniz said. “This whole entire place shaped me. I feel like I have this complicated relationship with my home.”
She chuckled as she talked about how it important it was to her, growing up, when the “Twilight” series of books set some of its story in Jacksonville. To her, that meant she too could write about her hometown.
“For me it was more important to capture the atmosphere of what this palace feels like, rather than the exact detail,” she said. “It’s definitely a particular experience to live in the South, in Jacksonville, Florida. I’m always going to be the person who won’t let anybody talk trash about this city, this state, though hey, I can do it.”
Much of her work is interwoven with dark, unsettling themes, emerging from the city’s bright sunlight. That’s led some to label her work Florida gothic. She’s fine with that term.
“I like darkness,” Moniz said. “My husband is like, ‘Sometimes you’re really morbid.’ I’m like, ‘Somebody has to be.’”
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