Sunday, June 2, 2013

Sunny Nash Writes Novel

Sunny Nash won First Prize for an essay that is now her novel. 

Sunny Nash, Author-Journalist
Photo: Houston Post
Sunday Magazine
The novel is based on the true story of a bi-racial city slicker, whose ancestors migrated to Houston from a Louisiana plantation where they lived under a Jim Crow system for 30 years after emancipation.

Now that my manuscript is complete, I can begin another process--the publication process. In today's digital world, literary publication is ever changing. An author must consider the numerous ways of getting a manuscript into print and/or a digital reader. In addition, promotion of the resulting book is not the end of the story. It is only the beginning.

Even before my manuscripts is signed for publication, I enter them into a number of critical literary competitions. Because the original essay, On Being Black in Houston - Sanko's World, upon which I based Salla Mae's Prayers, won first prize in a national literary competition, which I discuss later, I thought, why not test the waters with the book?

Entering literary competitions is part of my literary journey.

Write a Book That Will Sell
The writing process is the creation part of my literary journey and the most satisfying part of my literary journey. During this journey, I give birth to characters, give them life and watch them grow and sometimes change.  Without the literary journey, the prize at the end--be it money or honors--is meaningless. 

Of course, I'd like to make money on this story. What author would turn down a good payday for his or her writing? However, I have a philosophy about writing. I write stories that need to be told, the ones that would never be known without me. I believe that we all contribute to the history of us, but some of us are not able to put words to our stories. That's where I come in and you, too, if you are a writer or wish to become a writer.

I write about race relations, civil rights history and Jim Crow laws in America. Usually, I approach subjects purely from a nonfiction standpoint. I love reading and writing fiction but I had never considered myself a candidate for writing long fiction. In fact, I have contributed short stories to several anthologies, such as my short story, Amen, which appeared in the Southwestern American Literature Journal and The African American West.

In longer works, like my book Bigmama Didn't Shop At Woolworth's (Texas A&M University TAMU Press), now also on Amazon Kindle (Bigmama Didn't Shop at Woolworth's), my genre is nonfiction. Recognized by the Association of American University Presses for its value to understanding U.S. race relations, my book is based on my syndicated newspaper columns of the 1990s. In my column, I wrote articles about my part-Comanche grandmother, Bigmama, and the rest of my family, taking readers by the hand in the voice of a child on a personal tour of the history of civil rights. Thanks to my TAMU Press editor, Mary Lenn Dixon, I am completing another nonfiction book for TAMU Press about race in America.

Houston Post-Houston Public Library 
Library Competition

However, in writing Salla Mae's Prayers, which was born long before my column or Bigmama Didn't Shop At Woolworth's, I realized that a lot of history can be shared through long fiction, especially if the sources are primary. I knew Sanko personally and had access to his memories for a number of years. He told me his family story and allowed me to ask questions. At the time, it was just interesting conversation and I didn't know why he wanted me to know all of this. Only later did it become clear.

I chose to write Sanko's story as an novel after having written it as an essay that won first prize. I needed the literary freedom of dialog and scenes to frame the story within the context of the history of a particular historical period. I wanted to go inside the minds and hearts of my characters to show their fears, frailties, motives, weaknesses and growth.

Sanko's story was a series of conversations, years ago, between me and an elderly gentleman that I loved and respected. He told me he wanted to tell the story to someone who would, one day, know what to do with it. I really was hoping, at the time, that he would tell someone who already knew what to do with his family story. I did not know Sanko's story would become a book or even an essay that I would author. 

Years went by. Sanko died. My life took a new direction, but I never forgot him or his amazing story. Then, I had the opportunity to enter an essay competition about life in Houston, Texas. It was the perfect chance for me to start Sanko's story. I wrote my little essay and it won first prize. One of the judges, David Westheimer, wrote me afterwards and said I should write a novel about Sanko. I sat on Sanko's story for another few years before I knew what to do. David and I became friends and he continued for years to encourage me to write the novel. David said, "Sanko is such a compelling story that I can't forget it."

David Westheimer

David Westheimer, author of 16 fiction and nonfiction books, said this excerpt from my winning essay summed up the 8-year-old Sanko:

After Minnie marries hard-working Horace, they move to a little shack, much smaller than Callie Dee’s big rambling tastelessly furnished rooming house filled with whores. Horace is a rag man during the day, driving his mule wagon all over Houston collecting discarded clothing. For a few cents more, the paper company buys it. At night he delivers hunks of ice to people lucky enough to have iceboxes. Ironic, isn’t it? The iceman doesn’t have one.

It’s a good thing Minnie can make tasty meals from nearly nothing and almost always brings home leftovers. Horace is 6-foot-5, weighs close to 300 pounds and eats twice as much as his two homely daughters--Maxine and Bertha--put together. Sanko doesn’t think this marriage and new family are such a good deal. Two ugly, greedy sisters can never take the place of his whores. While Horace and Minnie work, Sanko gambles, delivers liquor, runs numbers and rendezvous’ on occasion with the whores back at Callie Dee’s, helping them pick up tricks and holding a percentage of the take for his trouble.

David Westheimer
David Westheimer, winner of the Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Medal in World War II (WWII) as a B-24 navigator, was a prisoner of war in Italy and in Germany. He wrote about his 1941 military experiences in his book, Sitting It Out: A World War II Pow Memoir with Photos.

Westheimer's B-24 was ditched off the coast of Italy, the first American plane lost over Italy in WWII. Behind enemy lines, David and six others were taken prisoners at Poggio Mirteto. Nine  months later,
the POWs almost escaped but were retaken by Germans, who transported them through the Alps to Stalag Luft III. Westheimer spent 19 months as a German POW before American troops liberated him on April 29, 1945. Spending a total of 28 months as a POW,  Westheimer wrote this book shortly after his release.

Von Ryan's Express
Starring Frank Sinatra
A journalist and author, David Westheimer was best known for writing the 1964 novel, Von Ryan's Express, which become a major motion picture in 1965, starring Frank Sinatra.

Von Ryan's Express is a great read for WWII enthusiasts, David writes the story of a trainload of American POWs' hijack of a German prisoner transfer train at the height of World War II and head toward their own lines with German troops in full pursuit. The story draws upon David's own POW experience during WWII.

David Westheimer also wrote the groundbreaking novel, My Sweet Charlie, addressing race relations in America in a unique and nonthreatening way without preaching.

David Westheimer's controversial novel expanded tolerance of racial equality between black and white  characters in literature.

My Sweet Charlie, released in 1966, in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, is about a southern pregnant white girl and a black New York lawyer, who on each other for survival while on the run in rural Texas. 

Jim Crow laws in most of the United States at the time affected black-white relationships, especially between black men and white women. These relationships were still considered taboo on screen, even if they were non romantic. Remember, it was illegal in the southern United States for blacks and whites to wed until the U.S. Supreme Court decision, Loving v Virginia in 1967.  

My Sweet Charlie became the 1970 Emmy Award-winning television movie, starring Patty Duke and the late Al Freeman, Jr. In a story In the African American community, this was a big step for Jim Crow Hollywood just as the Civil Rights Movement was simmering to embers and still rare to see interracial casting. Early Hollywood films had a long tradition of segregated casting and television followed the same tradition. Southern movie theaters and advertisers both refused to show or support interracial casts.

David Westheimer, born April 11, 1917, in Houston, Texas, was also a syndicated newspaper columnist. So, you see how fortunate I felt to have such a gifted mentor, whom I trusted to tell me the truth about my writing. When David and I met at my award reception for On Being Black in Houston, Sanko’s World, David had already made his career in Los Angeles, where he wrote his column and worked in Hollywood.

Still at the beginning of my writing career, although I had a portfolio of journalism, I was years from my career as a features contributor to the Houston Chronicle's Texas Magazine, a published author, syndicated columnist, exhibiting photographer and television producer. In 1995, the Houston Chronicle absorbed the Houston Post. Like so many other cities across the nation, Houston could no longer support two daily papers. Further, the digital age has attacked the print media with such energy that many print publications including books published on paper have suffered losses that threaten their survival..

Over the course of our friendship, I moved to Los Angeles, too, hoping to widen my horizons to include film but, like David, I continued to write my syndicated column while I pursued Hollywood opportunities. David and his wife Dodie took my daughter and me to dinner often, but mostly we began to use email to communicate. No matter how we communicated, the conversation always ended with David asking, "How are you doing with the novel?"

I got tired of not having an answer to David's question. One day
, I sat down and started a piece to enter into a national competition. I needed to produce three chapters of unpublished fiction. One chapter of Sanko's story emerged and then another and another. I did not win the competition but I had my start. I sent the chapters to David. He read and commented on them constructively until I had written the entire book. Finally, when David had read the whole manuscript, he sent me a note: "It is time to send it out." That was his last email to me.

David Westheimer died November 8, 2005, in Los Angeles, California. I was so devastated over the death of my friend and mentor, I couldn't read or write another word concerning Sanko's story. It took me five more years to realize the responsibility I had to two men, Sanko and David, and Sanko's family.

The original story, under the title, On Being Black in Houston, Sanko’s World, written for the Houston Public Library Literary Competition, won first prize and appeared in the Houston Post Sunday Magazine on December 28, 1986. The day of the publication, my daughter and I had a reunion with Sanko's family. Only then, did it become clear to me why Sanko told me his story. He wanted his offspring to know. That was his way to achieve immortality.

Salla Mae, for whom the novel is named, was Sanko's grandmother. Loving and harsh at the same time, this former slave also found humor where ever her weary life could locate a laugh. Sanko remembered his grandmother well. "I was a little boy when she was alive," he said. "But I will never forget her laugh." Through Sanko's conversations with me about his grandmother, Salla Mae, the book takes us into the entangled relationships of plantation life during Salla Mae's girlhood, weaving the intriguing story of a family's emergence from isolated rural plantation existence as some one's property to the freedom of life in urban frontier sprawl.

The novel is told through Salla Mae as she prays for the welfare of her offspring, separated from her on the plantation where she still lives and works as she had when she was a slave. Her son, Odie, is the first to leave and then her daughter, Minnie, Sanko's mother, is sent away to live with Odie, a decision Salla Mae regrets after learning Minnie is being abused, the very reason she sent her away from the plantation. Salla Mae's Prayers, a multi-generational saga,  is based on letters that Salla Mae's children must have other people write for them, letters she must get other people to read to her. Salla Mae and her offspring were illiterate at that point. Salla Mae's untrained dialect is reflected in her prayers. Salla Mae's Prayers, which has taken  25 years to finish, is worth the love, and every tear and drop of sweat put into it. My advice to every writer is: Never give up on a great story.

Bigmama Didn't Shop
At Woolworth's
by Sunny Nash
Sunny Nash is the author of Bigmama Didn't Shop at Woolworth's, and wrote biographies for the African American National Biography by Harvard and Oxford. Nash's work is collected in The African American West; Blacks in the American West and Beyond; Reflections in Black, A History of Black Photographers 1840-Present; Ancestry; African American Women Confront the West; Black Women in Texas History; Companion to Southern Literature; Texas Through Women's Eyes; Black Genesis; African American Foodways; Southwestern American Literature Journal; and others.

Sunny Nash Awards: California Arts Council Literary Fellowship 2010 & 2003, Charter Communications Producer of the Year Award 2004, Association of American University Presses 1997, People’s Choice Nomination 1991, Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Nomination 1990, Houston Public Library Literary First Prize 1986, J. Frank Dobie Second Prize 1985.

Sunny Nash Research and writing are cited in Remembering Woolworth's: A Nostalgic History of the World's Most Famous Five-and-Dime; The Source: a guidebook to American genealogy; Bibliographic Guide to Black Studies by the Schomburg Center in New York; Interdisciplinary Journal for Germanic Linguistics; Journal of Women's History; Ebony Magazine; Hidden Sources: Family History in Unlikely Places; and others.

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  1. I recommend Bigmama Didn't Shop at Woolworth's book to everyone who is interested in the evolution of civil rights.

    1. I really appreciate that recommendation. Please join my blog so that you can get regular updates.


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