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A Question of Character : Everywhere He Looked in South-Central, Jervey Tervalon Saw Compelling Stories. Finally He Had to Start Writing Them Down.

July 31, 1994|JERVEY TERVALON

Jervey Tervalon, 35, grew up on 2nd Avenue, attended Dorsey High School, graduated from UC Santa Barbara and earned a degree from the UC Irvine writers program. His first novel, "Understand This," was published this year. It tells the story of a murdered teen-ager through the voices of the boy's friends, relatives and acquaintances. Tervalon drew on his experiences growing up in Central Los Angeles and as a teacher in South-Central. He lives with his wife and baby daughter in Pasadena.

I grew up on 2nd Avenue between Exposition Boulevard and Jefferson Street in Southwest Los Angeles. The African American neighborhood I was raised in was a microcosm of the world. All of humankind was represented there; from those who commit the stupidest crimes to those who were more law-abiding than an honest police chief; from neighbors who worked from sunup to sundown and then some, to those who preferred another path, a more direct way of finding that almighty dollar.

Even as a small boy I knew that there were stories on my block, hanging ripe and so heavy that if you wanted one all you had to do was reach. And, as Ice Cube says, "You better tell somebody," and I did.

Early on, when I attended Foshay Junior High, I'd sit on the bench with the rest of the guys who hated dressing for gym and I'd tell them what I had been reading as though I made it up myself. I dramatically told the entire novel "Dracula" to those guys and kept them pretty entertained as our physical education grades slipped ever lower.

*

I realized then I needed to write because it was hard to find such a captive audience and mentally taxing to try to remember all the events of a Victorian novel and jazz them up for the junior high set. I wrote a poem for my eighth-grade English teacher and used her name as the refrain, and she really liked hearing her name over and over again and gave me a good grade. From there I sold a silly love poem to Scholastic magazine and made $15 and I was sold. It was the writing life for me.

I continued winning writing contests at Jefferson branch library and made a few more dollars. As a freshman at Dorsey High I took a creative writing course, and though I had horrible grammar, even worse spelling and penmanship, I earned an A in the class. I hoped I would be able to write science fiction novels to earn a living, but I realized that while I liked reading about spaceships and monsters, I just couldn't write about them.

I discovered I could write about my neighborhood. I could write about being a black teen-ager. I was interested in my life and the lives of my friends. I didn't see them on television, at the movies or much in books.

Where I saw the complexity of black life represented was in the music. Two songs by War were very descriptive of my neighborhood in the early '70s: "Why Can't We Be Friends?" and "Slipping Into Darkness." Stevie Wonder, too, made a great impression on me with his albums "Talking Book" and "Inner Visions." And like a lot of the young folk coming up in the '70s, I was divided between the spirituality of Earth, Wind and Fire and the funk of the Funkadelic.

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This diversity in black music helped me see more clearly the complexity of the black life going on around me. I felt I didn't need to explain black life or black people to anyone. What I needed to do was write truthfully about my life. I wanted to bring to the page the wide range of people I knew in South-Central Los Angeles.

My best friend in high school decided he wanted to read the Encyclopedia of Philosophy from A to Z, all six volumes. It was such a task that between chasing girls, playing chess for money and boning up on philosophical terms he didn't have time to attend class and eventually left school.

I had another friend who in the ninth grade decided he wanted to be a filmmaker right then and there and he did it. He had a film career all through high school. He made at least a dozen soundless shorts; kung fu movies, vampire movies, mad scientist movies. I was cast as an evil genius who would direct maggots to do my dirty work, and of course the maggots devoured me. I had to lie motionless while Chester engaged in primitive animation, slowly moving 10 pounds of rice upstairs and eventually covering me.

*

I remember my older brothers' eccentric friends who called themselves the Fellas. They'd sit for hours on the corner telling elaborate stories that to my ear sounded like an elevated kind of gossip/history. They could talk the paint off walls, and if they didn't chase me away for being too young, all I had to do was listen to develop an ear for dialogue.

I knew that if I could avoid the pitfalls of sociology and just go ahead and set the landscape and let the characters come forward to inhabit it, something good would be written.

My first novel, "Understand This," was based on my experiences teaching in South-Central. It's selling well and I've gotten great reviews, but I'm not too surprised. I'm just following the same rules I set for myself all along; show the life and let the characters speak. Everything else will take care of itself.

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