Jervey Tervalon and Carla Sameth Photo by: Evans Vestal Ward Jervey Tervalon and Carla Sameth

Word up!

The Pasadena Writing Project aims to change lives with THE STROKE OF A PEN

By Carla Sameth , Jervey Tervalon 05/06/2010

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Because I read obsessively as a child, I have a life as a writer; because I write, I teach students how to read a novel and how to read their own work. My life and career unfolds, but it really comes down to a love of reading and explaining the pleasure words on a page can create. Whatever I can do for my students is the result of my having been lucky enough to have a professor in college, Marvin Mudrick, who believed that student work could compare with the greatest literary achievements. He took my work seriously, and as a consequence I took my own work seriously. He enjoyed my stories about being terrified of gangs, and of hanging out on the corner. He said it reminded him of growing up in a Jewish neighborhood in Philadelphia and his own experience of being beaten up by bullies. Because of him, I realized early on that writing was important and that I should continue to explore the material of my life: my upbringing in South Central Los Angeles.  This focus on life and literature appealed to me and made sense of what a writer does; not in the abstract, not with disembodied themes and motifs, but in an immediate, visceral sense.

When I taught at an inner-city high school, I casually suggested that Shauntell, a shy and intelligent underachiever, read Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina.” When she reached the book’s tragic conclusion, she couldn’t repress the tears that burst from her eyes. Tolstoy had transported Shauntell from Los Angeles to the cruel salons and parlors of aristocratic Russia.

Like Shauntell, I’m a product of California public education. I attended Los Angeles’ Foshay Junior High School in the early ’70s. Franz Kafka’s “The Penal Colony” will give you a sense of what it was like to be an 11-year-old boy in that brutal educational environment. Even then, I found literary analogues for the world around me. Foshay’s lawmen were
gym teachers, pacing with walkie-talkies and using squash paddles for corporal punishment. They were soon overwhelmed by new gangs sprouting in the neighborhood. One summer they just appeared, springing from the concrete, the lawns, the backyards and the schools, wearing sporty bomber jackets with thick fur collars, shiny starched Levi’s and a black or red handkerchief. Some big-head pootbutt with bad teeth and breath would
get the “look” — slit-eyed, barely even a nod, trying damn hard to exude menace — and kids started converting, so many on that sullen, silly trip.

I nudge other students toward Kafka, Conrad and Coleridge for the same reasons I embraced such authors, the same reasons I urged Shauntell to read: for pleasure, of course, but also to glean ideas and information that may give them an edge up, help them to live and to read another day. I believe that regardless of what course my students’ formal education takes, the epic blues song of “Anna Karenina” can inoculate them against some small measure of life’s pain..
— Jervey Tervalon

My friend Jervey says that writing is responsible for most everything good in his life. I say that, in some respects, writing saved my life. At age 10, my fourth-grade teacher kept me after school — writing — and kept me, then known as “Sammy Boy,” from getting suspended. I was the tomboy hanging with my three boyfriends. We were a mini United Nations — Jewish, Japanese, German and black — living in a world where it was still OK to tie kids to chairs, tape their mouths shut and group them in order of smartness with the punishment being to sit in the back with the bad kids.
I had a host of mentors growing up who alternatively pushed me and nurtured me as a writer, including my mom, who stayed up typing stories for me when my handwriting was too slow and messy, or the elderly rabbi working with me for my bat mitzvah who asked me to keep sending him poems.

Throughout my teenage years, I wrote stories that soaked up a lot of teenage angst, including a fictionalized story about suicide in a hibachi. Years later, the first snippet of my memoir was included in a book, “Bringing the Soul Back Home — Writing in the New Consciousness,” by Katya Williamson, the leader of a women’s writing group that carried me through seven lost pregnancies and into motherhood.

Like me, my son Gabriel’s writing voice kept him afloat. At 11, he convinced me to go with him to a family writing workshop where suddenly a room full of adults, kids and instructors were listening and applauding when he read. At his bar mitzvah, 200 people learned from his sermon about teen prostitutes, Bernie Madoff and what to do if your wife is unfaithful. At the encouragement of his cantor, Gabriel read his poems, and an editor at La Opinion who attended the bar mitzvah translated them into Spanish the next week in his column.

Gabriel recently reached out a writer’s hand when he raised money for a creative writing scholarship awarded to a student graduating from elementary school. Maybe writing will save her life, too.
— Carla Sameth

Carla Sameth, president of iMinds PR, a Pasadena-based public relations company, and Jervey Tervalon, an award-winning novelist and USC professor, are the co-founders of The Pasadena Writing Project. In the next year, they are planning to host a city-wide literary arts festival. For more information on upcoming events and workshops leading up to the event, please email or call (626) 793-7393.


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