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AUTHORS : Class Gets Straight Talk on Being a Novelist : Education: White author explains writing from the viewpoint of a black protagonist.


The 11th-grade honors students at University High School were ready with index cards full of questions. But there was one question they all shared: How can a shy white woman with a slight build and a voice to match step into the man-sized shoes of a large, forthright, black woman and tell her story?

"I didn't make that choice," replied novelist Susan Straight. Some of her characters grew from seeds her African American mother-in-law planted in her brain, she said. Her mother-in-law regaled Straight with recollections of hard times in the South, old customs, superstitions and slavery.

"Those stories are bigger than anything I could have come up with," said Straight, 34.

Other characters came from memories of her early days in the racially mixed Riverside community where she met her husband, Dwayne Simms, her childhood sweetheart, and where they still live.

"I just wrote about people I knew," she said.

She had driven nearly 75 miles from her home in Riverside to West Los Angeles that morning, and she apologized to the class for being even quieter than usual.

She had spent the last week cooking, she said, feeding the stream of friends and family members mourning her mother-in-law's death.

"It's been a rough week," Straight said.

The English class had spent three weeks reading Straight's "I Been in Sorrow's Kitchen and Licked Out All the Pots," the story of Marietta Cook, a tall woman from South Carolina with "blue-black" skin and big feet who tries to retreat from the world. The novel chronicles her odyssey from teen-age misfit to a strong adult who raises two successful sons.

Students spent three weeks in groups presenting their personal responses to different chapters. One group prepared a buffet, bringing foods that were staples in the diet of the characters in the wooded marshes of the fictional Pine Gardens, Marietta's hometown. Other students created a small mural depicting symbolic images in the novel, such as the head wraps worn by women characters.

"This is an ideal book to teach . . . a story about an adolescent uncomfortable with her skin," said Suzanne Borenstein, the teacher. She said she hoped to help her students "expand their empathy circle, so by the end they understand single parents. I wanted these kids, who seek traditional role models, to see what was heroic about Marietta's life."


In one of the more effective class projects, called "Looking for Marietta," students were assigned to interview people from different backgrounds and write their stories.

Serena Deng, 16, interviewed her family's housekeeper, a woman from the Philippines who had worked in her home for three years.

"What struck me was how she saw the difference in cultures," said Deng, who learned of the woman's immigrant experience for the first time. "She said the people in L.A. don't have a sense of community like they did in the Philippines, and she missed the closeness of her own home."

After talking with the housekeeper and reading the book, Deng said, "it made me think more about other people from other cultures, and what their parents might have gone through."

One student took issue with Straight's depiction of some characters.

"Why are all the whites in the novel portrayed negatively?" asked Ben Braun, 16.

"The guy who runs the plantation is negative," Straight said of the character named Mr. Ray. "I actually had to tone him down because my editors told me I had made him too evil the first time."

Yet, she said, "This was the South in the '50s." She defended herself by reminding the student that other white characters in the book, including a college recruiter and a historian, treated Marietta with respect.

Straight said she grew up and in a racially mixed, close-knit community, where she still lives. "If my kid walks out of the house without socks, I'm going to hear about it," she said.

Living in Los Angeles in the early 1980s while attending USC, Straight said, gave her the opportunity to become anonymous.

Now an assistant professor of English at UC Riverside, she also teaches writing workshops to prisoners at the California Youth Authority. She has two children, Gaila, 5, and Delphine, 3, and is expecting a third child. Simms, her husband of 10 years, is a corrections officer at a juvenile institution in Riverside County.


Straight's first book, a collection of stories called "Aquaboogie," won the Milkweed National Fiction prize in 1989. That was followed by "Sorrow's Kitchen" in 1992 and her latest novel, "Blacker Than a Thousand Midnights."

Getting the novelist to meet with her class was important, Borenstein said. "We've studied Toni Morrison and Paul Lawrence Dunbar and Langston Hughes," but meeting Straight reinforced the lessons she hoped "Sorrow's Kitchen" would convey.

After the class, Straight apologized again, saying she had to hurry back to Riverside. A neighbor, the father of four, had been killed in an auto accident the night before.

She had meals to cook.

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