2010 National Book Award Finalist,
Young People's Literature
Walter Dean Myers
Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers
Interview by Eisa Ulen
Eisa Ulen: Reese, the male protagonist in Lockdown, is young, Black, and incarcerated. Why was the story of this teenager’s experience in a juvenile detention facility so important for you to tell? What inspired the story of this young man seeking liberation?
Walter Dean Myers: Over the years I’ve spent a lot of time in Juvenile Detention facilities and corresponding with young men and women who are locked up. The thought always comes to mind that if I could have reached these young people prior to their difficulties I might have made a difference in their lives. What I have been looking for is some way to reach out, to give troubled youngsters a voice of their own. What inspired this particular story was the consistent lack of outside support these young people get, and a reading of Victor Frankl’s experiences in a concentration camp. Incarcerated children need to somehow find the strength within their own psyches to break from negative influences. I hope that giving voice to their problems will help.
EU: By telling the stories of those who dwell outside mainstream American life, you consistently bring the marginalized to the center in your work, and focus on young people struggling with violence, dysfunction, and an adult world that is, at best, disinterested in their futures. Why are the stories of the dispossessed so important to tell? Who, if anyone, do you think of as your core audience when you write?
WDM: I don’t feel that the dispossessed are hopeless, just in need of a helping hand. When I was fourteen my family was dysfunctional. I had an alcoholic mother, a father suffering from depression, a recently murdered uncle, etc., etc. I barely survived that period and there were those willing to write me off. The kids I interview in prisons are often desperate to understand the world around them, and we who are fortunate enough to be secure in our lives need to understand the kids. I offer my books as bridges.
EU: In chapter 18 of Lockdown, Nancy Opara tells Reese that he looks like he is Hausa. Mr. Hooft jokingly tells Reese to “Tell her you’re an American!” But, later in the same chapter, Mr. Hooft says: “You know your name. You look in the mirror and you see your face, your eyes staring back at you, but what does it all mean? Are you a man? One time a man was somebody strong and big, but who are you when you are not strong anymore? Not big anymore?” Hooft is thinking about himself here, but he could also be reflecting on emerging men like Reese. Is part of Reese’s problem the problem of identity? Is his struggle to come of age compounded by his invisibility, his erasure from the world outside the Progress detention facility?
WDM: Teenaged boys often struggle with identity issues. In the inner city, where male role models are hard to come by it’s difficult for these young men to place themselves meaningfully in our society. The result is often a cartoon type of identity involving casual violence and gang involvement to define the masculine role.
EU: War is an important theme in Lockdown, as Mr. Hooft tells Reese of his memories of detention in a children’s camp during World War II and Toon gives Reese a copy of Lord of the Flies to thank him for coming to his rescue during a fight at Progress. Do you think the chaos of life as Reese remembers it on the streets of Harlem is like the chaos of war? Is the world inside Progress often like the deserted island in William Golding’s novel?
WDM: The man who served as the model for Mr. Hooft spent only seven months in a children’s camp during the war but was radically changed by the experience. War demands a psychological distortion in which it becomes ‘normal’ to kill strangers, to hate an enemy you have never seen, and to be constantly wary of everyone’s intentions. Prison life is also a distortion. The difficult circumstances of incarceration move the inmate away from loving their fellow human beings and trusting in the good of mankind, to a much more chaotic and scary place.
EU: New York City is a very special place in your narratives, as most of your characters live in the city, especially in Harlem. What was life in Harlem like when you grew up there in the 1940s and 1950s? What impact has gentrification had on Harlem life in the 1990s and early 2000s?
WDM: People don’t often discuss segregation as building a community. In Harlem in the 40’s and 50’s the idea that black lawyers, doctors, and other professionals had to live in the black community actually strengthened Harlem. As a kid I met Langston Hughes (he came to my church for a reading), Ray Robinson, Count Basie, and others. I went to the Apollo and saw entertainment greats as well. With integration it was the flight of the black middle class which was most devastating to Harlem. I think that gentrification will bring in other races but will also bring in a black population that is well off and will once again stabilize and build my old neighborhood. At any rate, I hope so.
Eisa Nefertari Ulen is the author of Crystelle Mourning, a novel described by The Washington Post as “a call for healing in the African American community from generations of hurt and neglect.” She is the recipient of a Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center Fellowship for Young African American Fiction Writers and a Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center Fellowship. Her essays, exploring topics ranging from Hip Hop to Muslim life in America post-9/11 to contemporary Black literature to the gap between the Civil Rights generation and Generation X, have been widely anthologized. Nominated by Essence magazine for a National Association of Black Journalists Award, she has contributed to numerous other publications, including The Washington Post, Ms., Health, Heart & Soul, Vibe, The Source, The Crisis, Black Issues Book Review, Quarterly Black Review of Books, TheRoot.com, TheDefendersOnline.com, TheGrio.com, and CreativeNonfiction.org. Ulen graduated from Sarah Lawrence College and earned a master’s degree from Columbia University. A founding member of Ringshout: A Place for Black Literature, she lives with her husband and son in Brooklyn. You can reach Eisa online and read her blog at: www.EisaUlen.com.