Proximity and Volunteering Have Benefits

After our first consult with Dr. B and Dr. L, we collected our notes and prepared to leave with what was left of our brains. Then Dr. B popped back in to introduce a young research assistant. Dr. B stressed that the study was strictly voluntary. She also said that it would advance breast cancer treatment but also benefit Gaye directly. 

Researcher H tentatively pitched the benefits of the study, (a clinical trial for a surgical appliance) . Gaye quickly agreed to participate in the study. Relieved of the burden of “selling,” the soft-spoken young woman bloomed in explaining how the process would work and immediate benefits like a prepaid parking card.

You can’t believe everything you find online and some you won’t want to believe

In the interim between the initial consultation and the test results we had time to continue our research. There is an abundance of information online from breast cancer forums to support groups to research symposiums. Sadly, not all of the information is good. 

But worse than the alternative treatments and the outright lies propagated by the lunatic fringe is the heartbreak of treatment-lag documented by actual breast cancer patients and physicians. 

So many of the journeys involved tone-deaf care or dusty care plans that would be easy to discount as sketchy anecdotes from disgruntled patients. But more than one doctor speaking at symposiums declared that they didn’t do lumpectomies—despite countless clinical studies that demonstrate the efficacy of lumpectomies over complete mastectomies in certain early-stage cases. Still other doctors stated that they didn’t “do” reconstructions. Those attitudes fly in the face of established findings linking reconstruction to overall positive recovery as well as decreased post-surgical depression. Without coordinated care, the patient is left to navigate recovery on their own. 

Far from standard

Having grown up here, I could not understand why so many people would come from all over the world to Houston for medical care. Didn’t they have doctors where they came from? Wasn’t the care at least comparable? Did they not read the weather report or have any concept of what 90% humidity feels like? 

From our reading, clearly the answer is ‘no.’ Sadly, in almost every instance of entrenched-outworn care, the attitudes were well off the established medical-research path both intellectually and geographically. To put a finer point on the pencil, it truly seems the further you get from Boston, NYC, Houston, and Los Angeles, (with honorable mentions for Cleveland, OH and Rochester, MN) the more…defused the care becomes. 

It is evident not only in dated care plans but also in continued subconscious, (we hope) biases women of color still face in healthcare. While breast cancer is more common in white women, black women are still more likely to die from it. There are myriad contributing factors but access and level of care are huge. This is immediately borne out in repeated anecdotal and as well as published findings in which black women are not offered lumpectomies or reconstruction after surgery at the same levels as white women. 

Location, location, location

One of the few benefits of living in Houston, Texas is the proximity to the Texas Medical Center. Heart surgery was pioneered here. Organ transplant innovations were piloted here. But more importantly, (for us, anyway) the University of Texas established the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center here, in 1941. 

M.D. Anderson ranks first internationally in cancer care and scientific study with over $800mm dedicated to cancer research in 2018. Surgical innovations, chemotherapy and radiation therapy innovations, even proton therapy were all developed at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. That knowledge then spread throughout the international medical community. Except where it didn’t. 

So, depending on the genetic test results and additional biopsies, Gaye had the prospects of a lumpectomy based on the indices gleaned from studies done at M.D. Anderson. Her oncology surgeon has a plastic surgeon in the loop for reconstruction. 

Reconstruction is one of the few cosmetic procedures insurance will pay for. That is largely due to studies that link the patient’s overall physical recovery and emotional health to body-image. Those studies were conducted around the country but M.D. Anderson led the charge.

Breast Center—more than a name

The hospital we went through is affiliated with a medical school of some renown but more importantly, the hospital refers breast cancer patients to a center established exclusively for breast cancer care. More than convenience, (and NOT having to schlep all over the fourth largest city in the country for tests, consultations, and counseling is a huge issue) it is a collection of “next logical steps.” 

What that means is when Dr. B left the exam room on our first visit, the clinical-trial researcher came right in. When the researcher exited, the genetic testing counselor entered. From there we crossed the hall for lab work. Easy-breezy-covergirl style.

Benefits

Dr. B stressed the benefit of participation in clinical trials but never tried to “hard sell” us on the process. However, what we found is that one test led to another. Surgical device trials led to a medication trial which led to a trial for the lymph node process. 

In the weeks that followed we got the results back on the genetic test results. The testing array screened for 67 genetic markers that could suggest thousands of genetic mutations and indices of congenital abnormality. BRCA, the genes we were most concerned with, came back negative. 

This is not the end, this is not even the beginning of the end, this is just perhaps the end of the beginning.Winston Churchhill 

Our care plan was still not set. There were still questions. Gaye would have additional biopsies, (which we’ll touch on next time). But the intense dread of BRCA no longer dominated our thoughts. Practical care, under the umbrella of a center made all the difference for us.

The photo at the top, Gaye at Harvard Hall, is by yours truly and is used by my very kind permission.

Get Organized to Beat Breast Cancer

Gaye at Fonda San Miguel, Austin

Days after the biopsy my wife and I sat in Dr. T’s office for the results. Dr. T, (my wife Gaye’s OB/GYN) confirmed the lump found in Gaye’s routine mammogram to be breast cancer. She also said it was early-stage. Of course Gaye would survive. 

I won’t say the floor fell out from under me but I did keep a tight hold on the chair. Cancer, but Gaye would survive. However, Dr. T’s urgency in calling a surgical oncologist was not lost on us. When she gave us the address and told us to go—that day—we went. 

Caregivers—it’s about her, not you

That diagnosis will knock you back on your heels, even if you think you’re prepared. Still, what you feel is NOTHING compared to what the diagnosis will do to her. It’s important that you pull it together. She will need you to navigate the details, to keep track of the parking-garage ticket and the medical insurance cards. 

As I drove, Gaye called our primary care physician, who as luck would have it, had relocated her practice a good 80 miles from us. We had an appointment with a new PCP but that appointment wasn’t for another three weeks. Of course we needed a referral in the next 15 minutes. 

I’d love to say this is where the heavens parted for us and the barriers fell but this is a factual account—right down to going to the wrong office—and medical office staff is still medical office staff. 

Use your energy and your time to her advantage. Gaye didn’t need me to rant, rave, or pitch a fit. She needed me to be calm for her. I drove and we went on to our appointment without a referral. 

“Well begun is half done,” Aristotle

Between the mammogram and the ultrasound and again between the biopsy and office appointment we had long days with our thoughts. If you or someone you love face this challenge, you will have long days with your thoughts and questions. 

Use the time to get it together:

  • Write down the questions.
  • Find your insurance cards. 
  • Make a list of all medications and SUPPLEMENTS with the dosage. 
  • If you have a smartphone, take photos and you’ll have your pharmacy number and address, too. 
  • Secure referrals, if you can.
  • The nurse navigator I mentioned in the previous article may be able to help. 

Make peace with chaos, because there is always another form

At the surgical oncologist’s office, we navigated a comedy of errors including a large fee, (because we were unable to get the referral) and a defensive screen worthy of the NFL. Finally, we were shown into the examination room. The clinical staff was WAY more professional and compassionate than the office staff. Still, all the professionalism and compassion in the world doesn’t stop the onslaught of paperwork. The physician’s assistant asked Gaye the same questions that she had answered on the online form.

Zero-to-sixty FAST 

Dr. B arrived, like a rockstar. As I previously noted, Gaye knew Dr. B from mutual time at St. Joseph Hospital but had no expectation that Dr. B would remember her. To our surprise, Dr. B was genuinely delighted to be remembered. Her warm greeting was a safety line above the fear and high emotion.

Dr. B went from warm-greeting-to-matter-at-hand urgency in an instant. She also named the cancer. 

Invasive ductal carcinoma

One of the most common types of breast cancer and highly treatable. The lymph node involvement complicated things but Dr. B exuded enthusiasm. She assured us that the oncologist that she worked with, Dr. L, (who made her bones at M.D. Anderson) would manage radiation and, if necessary, chemotherapy. It all looked promising. Then Dr. B reviewed the patient information/history form.

Gaye’s family history of pancreatic cancer changed everything. Dr. B raised the spector of BRCA (BReast CAncer gene mutation) as well as the possibility of triple negative status, (aggressive with a high recurrence rate). Dr. B said Dr. L would consult with us but the first stip would be a DNA test to screen for BRCA genetic mutation. With professional precision, she stated if Gaye tested positive for BRCA, she would offer a double mastectomy.

A step ahead of despair, Dr. B said if Gaye tested negative for BRCA, then she would offer a lumpectomy. She explained that she would do a sentinel node procedure on her lymph nodes after the breast procedure. Both the tumor and the lymph node dissection would be performed in the operating room.

Gaye managed to ask, even if she tested BRCA negative, if a complete mastectomy might be more effective than a lumpectomy. Dr. B explained that in four-plus-years of research there was no data to suggest greater efficacy for a mastectomy in the absence of BRCA or triple-negative status. She also said and I paraphrase, “I can do complete mastectomy if you insist but there is no measurable benefit over lumpectomy and radiation and/or chemotherapy for your type and stage of cancer.”

Respect comes back ten-fold, pay it forward

I offered to leave the room during Gaye’s physical exam but Dr. B simply directed me to step around the curtain. After palpating the lump and the lymph node, Dr. B stated she would have a plastic surgeon in the room on the day of surgery to reconstruct after the lumpectomy and to close. She explained that plastics were simply better at minimizing scarring and filling in tissue. 

This is a HUGE deal for African-American women:

  • Keloids or hypertrophic/large protruding scar tissue is a condition prominent to African Americans 
  • Less than 30% of all African American breast cancer patients are ever even offered reconstruction

The thoughts and questions are no good if you can’t find them

My responsibility at the doctors’ offices was to take notes. The situation is overwhelming. The medical terms, (Gaye is a nurse and still had to look up a lot of what was said) the time-frames, and information overload is all crazy-overwhelming. Also, the most compassionate doctor has multiple patients waiting. They tend to go fast and they are not inclined to repeat themselves. 

Get organized, I can’t stress this enough. You don’t want to get in front of the doctor and start digging through a stack of envelopes, the back of receipts, or napkins for the questions you wrote down but don’t have organized.

We chose the Rocket Book. Once marked up, pages can be loaded onto your smartphone or your computer. Here’s the cool part, you can then wipe the pages clean and start over again. You’re not likely to confuse it for your work notes or your kid’s notebook. 

RocketBook

I filled up four pages with all the doctor said until Dr. L, enchanted by the Rocket book, took it from me and began to note everything she said, even drawing diagrams of the cancer cell.

Dr. L’s notes

That book has been indispensable in researching terms and reviewing what was said. Not the least of which is stopping some panic attacks when research turned grim but really didn’t apply to our situation. This is a long road. Starting off with an organized system eases the journey.

“If you stay ready you don’t have to get ready,” Bob the Drag Queen.

Please note: we received no compensation from the makers of Rocket book. We bought it because it looked like a good solution for us. Someone else may opt for an iPad or even notes on a phone. Which ever organizational tool you choose, do get organized and stick with it. 

All photoes belong to me and are used by my permisison—which I think is damn decent of me.

The Blue Bar—Review

The first lines into Damyanti Biswas’ The Blue Bar serve as an introduction in situ. Not just to Tara, the bar girl on assignment at a crowded train station, but to the city of Mumbai. A city of islands, Mumbai is a perfect character in a crime story with disparate people, each an island to themselves. More than a setting, The City of Dreams is in turns squalid and seductive, sinister and sophisticated. And always as shocking as Tara’s low-slung saree. 

We meet our other protagonist, Inspector Arnav Singh Rajput, fittingly at a crime scene. Called to a construction site after the discovery of a headless, handless body, Inspector Arnav is both appalled by the attitudes toward the victim but also quietly resigned to another day on a tough police beat. Then one body leads to two others.

As daunting as the specter of a serial killer might be, Arnav must also contend with pressure to reopen a rich, well-connected developer’s construction site as well as administrative pressure to put the case of headless bodies to rest. Instead of complying, Arnav pushes harder and his investigation quickly escalates from minor annoyance to major impediment. 

Consequences stack up in a political town with deep party roots and deeper political bloodlines. When Arnav ignores not-so-subtle warnings that the investigation may impact his advancement, the powers-that-be amp up the pressure. Yet as the vice tightens on him, Arnav driven to hunt for the killer and end the slaughter. 

More than a standard mystery, The Blue Bar is also insight on social norms that—while not causing these horrific murders—certainly contribute to a shrug-and-tsk-tsk acceptance of violence against women. Indeed the eponymous Blue Bar is a venue where women dance to “lewd Bollywood songs” for money. As seen in similar establishments in the west, the step to prostitution is more skip than leap.

So, ultimately, the villain here is misogyny, bar girls to office girls to Bollywood actresses, women are treated as commodities for trade. Just as often they are discarded as refuse for the crime of existing. Blamed for the way they dress, the work they do, or simply being out of the house, their only real provocation is bringing a moment of light or joy to otherwise mundane lives.

In genre’s best tradition, Biswas raises questions of social responsibility, (here, it’s how we treat women) but leaves the answers to us. Echoes of her opening lines on beginnings and endings run through my thoughts as I type this.

If not readily apparent, The Blue Bar is a deeply affecting story without benefit of spoon-feeding or the burden of preaching. 

Two years ago, I had the good fortune to find Damyanti Biswas’ excellent crime novel, You Beneath Your Skin. That book absolutely captivated me and I still think about Anjali Morgan, Jatin Bhatt, and the crew at the Vigil. The Blue Bar not only measures up to the standard set by that first effort but exceeds it. If possible, Biswas’ skill has developed even more and her prose are even more fearless. I have no doubt that The Blue Bar will stay with me just as YBYS has. 

Indeed, Biswas infuses Mumbai with the same life that she so deftly revealed in the New Delhi of YBYS. When Tara reflects that she will neither leave Mumbai nor would she want to, I feel her sentiment in my deep love of cities. Even as we are elbow-to-elbow with Arnav while he hunts the killer, I feel the love for a wondrous place full of danger but also of vibrant life. The sweltering heat, the “tinny songs,” and food-stall aromas brace us as we slide in the direction we want to go (justice?) while the throngs carry us along but not entirely as intended (resolution?). 

In short, reading Damyanti’s latest is like catching up with an old friend or making a new friend all over again. You can find The Blue Bar highly here. Check it out.

Utrasounds, Biopsies, and Nurse Navigators, Oh My

Utrasound, not as fun as it sounds

Due to continuing COVID-19 protocols, I sat in my little hoopty and prayed novenas while Gaye, my wife, was in the Memorial-Hermann Imaging Center. An annual mammogram had revealed a suspicious lump. Her doctor ordered an ultrasound for follow up. 

We had talked all the way to the center, as we always talk, all the time, deep thoughts to cat videos on TikTok. As we discussed plans to remodel our home, our conversation that day felt different. Debates of putting a cover over our patio or waiting until we replaced the nearly-twenty-year-old roof felt forced. Mostly, we talked to suspend anxiety.

Gaye lost a sister to pancreatic cancer. Less than two years after that, her mother died of the same disease. She had grown up in a community hemmed in by refineries. The rates of cancer in that community exceeded the rest of the county.

Fun or not, followup is imperative

Still, I tried not to worry. Fibroids plagued Gaye for years. So I held onto the idea that this lump was just a fibroid. They’d take another look and see that.

Then the ultrasound tech called and asked me to come in for the radiologist’s consultation. She said she would meet me at the door. Fear grabbed me by the throat.

From the door, the tech led me to a dim-lit room where my wife sat in a paper gown, still in the slacks she had worn to work. The radiologist was with her. Her face was open and expressive and conveyed the doctor’s bearer-of-bad-news regret. 

Find the helpers

I must’ve grayed-out because I still don’t recall the doctor saying the word “cancer” but she did show us the irregular shape of the lump, magnified on the screen. She also said that a biopsy would reveal type and stage. There was a suspicious lymph node, too. The radiologist did offer that the lymph node might be plump due to a recent COVID-19 booster.

In days, (that seemed like weeks) Gaye reported to the imaging center for the biopsy. She chose to go alone. As scary as it must have been, Gaye is nothing if not practical and thought I should save my leave time in the event that the biopsy turned out to be cancer. 

There was some comfort. The radiologist who performed the biopsy was a woman and Gaye said that she extended been-there compassion and consideration. The same ultrasound tech assisted and she remembered Gaye.

Sisters gonna work it out

They had a pleasant conversation through the course of the biopsy. To Gaye’s surprise, the only part that she considered painful was administration of the local anesthetic which she said felt like an ant bite. In fact, the popping sound of the spring-loaded needle, (used to retrieve the sample) was the worst part. Before Gaye knew it, they had inserted a second needle to place metal markers, identifying the tumor and suspect lymph node. 

The radiologist said the marker served an additional purpose. If the biopsy found the lump to be benign then the marker would serve to identify the lump as safe in future mammograms. By that point Gaye and I were living on ifs. 

In the lead up to the procedure, the ultrasound tech told Gaye to bring a sports bra on the day-of. Gaye said that was the best advice ever. After five separate punctures for the biopsy and marker placement there was no way she wanted to struggle into a traditional bra. 

Nurse Navigators Are Your Friends

Memorial Hermann, like many large healthcare providers assign a registered nurse to help the patient navigate the course of care. Often that course of care looks more like an obstacle course. The nurse navigator can help coordinate diagnostics (lab work, biopsies, etc.). They can also assist with billing issues. Our insurance company assigned a nurse navigator as well who helps with financial questions. 

This is huge. With copays and office fees for everything you will meet your deductible fast but medical office personnel don’t know (or necessarily care) and will still try to collect from you. This will be a recurring theme. Getting a refund after the fact can be like pulling your own teeth: slow and painful.

The Memorial Hermann nurse navigator, “Nurse T,” called Gaye the day after the ultrasound and continues to call Gaye even though we have opted for another facility. Practicalities aside, those calls are also emotional lifelines. Those calls are especially helpful when the waiting weighs on you like bricks around your neck.

Nurse T was there on the day of the biopsy. She came into the dressing room to help Gaye. She also told Gaye what to expect in the procedure—right down to how they would position Gaye—as well as what her next step would be. When it was over Nurse T was there to help Gaye get dressed and to support her emotionally. No matter your beliefs, this is proof of human divinity.

The 5 days between the biopsy and getting the pathology report was hard. Use this time to talk with friends and family. This is not the time to lone-wolf it. This is also not the time for negativity or diva-behavior (others’) choose your support team with care. 

Takeaways: 

  • If every you or a loved one need a breast biopsy please get a post surgical bra. They are soft, non-constricting and easy on the puncture site. No underwire is a HUGE comfort. The better bras have pockets for ice packs. 
  • Lean on the navigator she will walk you step by step on procedure and next step after the procedure. 
  • Don’t skimp on the bras. Ultimately, Gaye had three biopsies, (more on that later). If surgery is necessary, the bras will be imperative. Once treatment is complete she plans to donate her bras.

As we proceed with details of our journey, we will tackle clinical, emotional, and social obstacles as well as ways to round-off the rough edges. We welcome any productive, helpful comments.

Life, Breast Cancer, and Butt-Kicking Boots

There’s what you plan and then there is what life throws at you. My wife, Gaye and I had plans to remodel our house as COVID-19 numbers dropped. Gaye had talked about returning to school for another degree. We were waiting for dates to make a trip to NYC for a Basquiat exhibit compiled from his family’s collection. I had plans to publish my book this year. 

In fact this blog was dedicated to crime and writing. 

Then, during a routine mammogram a technician detected a lump. Gaye has been a registered nurse for 20 years and already had a feeling of what the diagnosis would be. Still, you hold out hope. When the radiologist confirmed a suspicious 1.2 centimeter lump and recommended a biopsy, we held out hope that it was another fibroid. Fibroids, (nodular benign lumps) had plagued Gaye for years. Even though this lump was irregular in shape, even though the radiologist expressed concern that there might be “lymph node involvement,” we held out hope. 

All other plans fell around us like dust. Our remodel and school went on hold. The trip was forgotten. I shelved (puns) my publishing plan. As the renewal for my domain registration and site hosting loomed, I considered letting it all go. How do you knock out little articles about writing and crime when the person you love may have a deadly disease? 

What we did, based on years of education, professional experience, and sober maturity was start researching breast cancer, cancer treatment, and cancer physicians. We found the following:

  • There are seven distinct types of breast cancer
  • Each tumor has its own DNA
  • There are gene mutations, (BRCA1, BRCA2)
  • Each type has treatment indices and treatment limitations
  • Treatments range from chemo, radiation, surgical intervention, to hormonal therapy
  • There are massive encyclopedias of clinical/scientific data on breast cancer
  • There is NOT a great deal of relevant patient-generated information

From what we found and what we could process—a breast cancer symposium of clinicians and scientists on YouTube flew completely over my head—Gaye and I were able to work up a pair of best case/worst case scenarios. 

While not thrilled with the prospect of surgery, Gaye did her best to take it in stride. She recalled a woman in her 20’s who suffered a form of cancer that necessitated a double mastectomy. Another woman, in her 70’s was devastated by the loss of a breast. The young woman was grateful to be alive. Her outlook was positive and she was highly motivated. The older woman struggled with her body image, indeed, her identity after surgery. Gaye says both women gave her perspective on what she faced.

Doctors LOVE data. They do NOT love details.

On April 19th Gaye’s OB/GYN, (Dr. T) called us to her office. Gaye said she already knew but I held out hope. The results were cold-light-of-day conclusive: 1.3cm cancerous tumor. The second biopsy revealed the left axilla (lymph node) as suspicious for malignancy. Determining the stage (progression measured by size of the tumor and type of cancer) was pending additional information. 

Dr. T immediately turned to treatment, asking if we had a surgeon in mind. Of course you’re not asked that question often but it is a testament to the good doctor that she did ask rather than just knock out a referral. And our location means there is a basis to the question.

One of the few benefits of living in Houston is that we are the medical center for the nation, with internationally recognized programs across 80 hospitals in the city and over 200 in the county. So, yeah, we have options. 

Again, Gaye is a nurse. She worked her way through college as an emergency room clerk. As a result she knows many prominent doctors (as well as a few to be avoided). To her credit, she also knows when to defer to the experts. Rather than name a specific surgeon, (who she had researched) Gaye asked for her doctor’s opinion. 

Dr. T first acknowledged M.D. Anderson Cancer Center but expressed a concern of the possible wait to get in. Clearly, treating cancer of any type is a time sensitive issue. Then Dr. T deftly segued to a doctor she knew. A woman, with credentials, publications, and research cred. It turned out she was the doctor that Gaye had researched and debated asking about straight away. If the angels didn’t sing they were certainly humming.

Dr. T thought she could get us in to see the surgeon that week and made the call, (on her cell phone because they’re girls like that) while we waited. As it turned out, the surgeon, (Dr. B) remembered Gaye and told us to come to her office that day. I’ll write more about that part as we go forward.

So, yeah, other aspects of life are still on hold. We begin our cancer journey with hope but also a solid plan of treatment. Gaye has good days, where she’s ready to lace up her butt-kicking boots and go hard-combat on cancer. She also has low moments where the fear gets up on her and while we have friends and family supporting us and lifting us up, what Gaye wants most is information and an idea of what to expect.

Navigating this process is, to quote Gaye, hell. So many very competent, very professional people forget that we don’t know what they know about the process. The billing department never knows what the scheduling department knows. Know one knows what the insurance company knows.

Hence, this repurposed blog. My plan is to share our journey and our fight. To give people an idea of what we faced and if not a plan of action for themselves, then which brand of post-op bras worked best and what little step/treat/consideration made the long days a little better. 

Whether you face cancer yourself, want to support someone else who is, or simply are curious, I hope you’ll join us and offer your own experiences in comments or messages.

The photo above, Butt-Kicking Boots, belongs to my Missus and its use here is by her kind permission.

Who Does Your Story Look Like?

In his argument before the U.S. Supreme Court for desegregation of public schools, (then) Civil Rights attorney Thurgood Marshall presented research data by clinical psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark. The Clarks’ research demonstrated that African-American children raised in segregated environments chose white dolls over dolls of color. Moreover, so absolute was the indoctrination that children of color—some as young as five—identified white people as preferable if not superior to their own people. Of course this could do nothing but harm the children of color who did not see themselves in the world in which they lived. While not the winning plank in Marshall’s case, in their unanimous judgment, the Warren court cited the Clark studies in their decision on Brown v. Board of Education. 

“If horses had gods, they would look like horses,” Xenophanes, c. 400BCE (wildly paraphrased)

What does this have to do with writing? you ask. As it turns out, a lot. Currently, women overwhelmingly represent fiction readership. This is an active cultural shift from two centuries of male-dominated-male-centric fiction to stories by and about women. Equally, within this reader-group, women of color have made significant gains as a market demographic. 

Or—as we’re addressing people and not walking debit cards—in the common parlance, black, brown, and Asian women read, too. So, why are so many primary characters still white? 

There is an argument of “accessibility” to the audience. When the Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens was released in certain markets, John Boyega’s character, Finn, was omitted from the movie posters. Boyega is an English actor of African descent. The view was that certain eastern audiences would not watch a movie that prominently featured a black actor. 

Movies, right? What are you gonna do?

But I recall a sci-fi book from the 1980s that featured a zero-gravity boxer running from a totalitarian government, organized-crime corporations, and drug cartels. From the text the hero was clearly supposed to be a man of color. Clearly, as in a scene in which he is chided for sitting on his “black ass” rather than participate in the resistance. The cover, however, depicted a slightly-tanned, blue-eyed man with a Barbie-doll nose and a Robert Conrad pompadour/hair part. 

Fast forward a decade and Michael Crichton’s Rising Sun is a best seller. It was also labeled anti-Asian in general and anti-Japanese specifically. Crichton claimed his intention was a level, measured warning, through fiction, of how foreign corporations were outpacing American firms that were stuck in 19th century mindsets.

As activist Guy Aoki stated, if that (measured exploration of corporate culture) were the case, Crichton failed. Peter Smith, the lead (white) character is heinously racist. The Japanese characters all but laugh maniacally and twirl their mustaches. The book ends with Smith, (still racist) holding forth on the threat that JAPANESE corporations represent to American business. So much for a character arc. Also, apparently, ONLY white people and Japanese people live in Crichton’s 1990s Los Angeles.

Crichton’s dismay at being called a racist, (his words) did not stop him from staging a publicity stunt in “protest” (support?) of the movie adaptation. He called Wesley Snipes’ casting as Smith, who was white in the book, a form of reverse-racism, (a 90’s hot button). Mostly he made these statements after:

a)     Selling the movie rights

b)    Writing the screenplay

c)     The movie has been pummeled by The Fugitive

d)    He had already cashed the check


But that’s just promotional games, right? Yeah, no. Boyega’s role in The Last Jedi was pared down from co-lead to subplot character. By The Rise of Skywalker, C3PO (the droid) got more screen/dialogue time than Finn, (the human). This perpetuates the idea that characters of color not only don’t matter but actually “hurt business.”

“But, but, but I don’t see color…” anonymous (usually after the person who said it realizes how stupid it sounds)

Also in 1992, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars debuted. The bedrock-real, hard-science book captured imaginations and spurred renewed talk of interplanetary colonization. Arthur C. Clark (science ficiton and science fact pioneer) said Red Mars should be mandatory reading for potential Mars explorers. The (eventual) trilogy has been celebrated around the world for its pragmatic vision. Apparently it’s a vision that does not include many (any?) people of color.

Robinson state that his “first hundred” colonist were international. He pointedly does not describe those characters. Well, mostly, doesn’t describe those characters. We know that Maya Toitovna is Russian and “beautiful,” (the only such description in the book). We know that Hiroki Ai is Japanese because Robinson, (through dialogue of two other women) addresses the isolation and distrust Ai faces due to the Asian “dragon lady” trope AND THEN PROCEEDS TO WRITE AI AS THE ASIAN DRAGON LADY TROPE. There are non-discript Muslims—neither brown, nor white—but laughing maniacally and twirling mustaches. Yep, one big-happy-non-color-specific family. One of the characters is named for an alpine flower because Robinson is subtle like that.

Oh, then there is Desmond “Coyote” Hawkins, a Trinidadian stowaway. John Boone is the (John Wayne-esque) hero who manipulates his way in to the first group of colonizers even though he is medically unfit and drug-addicted. Maya Toitovna sleeps her way onto the mission. But it is the Trini man (the ONLY named man of color) who has to hide/doesn’t belong.

So who does diversity well?

Love her or not, Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games books are diverse with characters of color and significance to the plot and agency/goals independent of the protagonist, (not just the best friend, comic relief, guy killed in chapter three). HUGE respect for Cat Winters who (in her book The Steep & Thorny Way) not only writes racial diversity but manages to find a gay character in 1920’s Oregon when K.S. Robinson couldn’t find a gay character on 21st century Mars. Honorable mention to George R.R. Martin, (again, love or hate) who also writes a rich cast of Asian, brown, and black people as BIG characters who do big things.

But why?

That’s the ultimate question and I think the answer should come from the author’s motivation. There was a Miami Vice knockoff on CBS called Houston Knights. The two leads were white. All but one supporting cast member was white. There were no Latinos, no Chinese/Vietnamese/Korean people, no Indian/Pakistani people, no Nigerian/Ethiopian/Congolese people…in Houston, Texas. At the time Houston Knights was in production, Vietnamese student’s outnumbered African American and whites in my middle school and Latinos outnumber us all. By contrast, Attica Locke’s Pleasantville set in a historic African-American neighborhood sure looks like my Houston. So does Walter Mosley’s 1940s Los Angeles.

It’s just dollars and sense…

Obviously we want to be read. But just as we seek out the books that speak to us, the books we can see ourselves in, so do people of color. Black women are more than maids, nannies, and wisecracking besties. Black men are more than ominous villains or noble-savage sidekicks. Latino men and women, Asian men and women are WAY more than fetish pieces and/or caricatures. Living, breathing, READING beings want to see themselves in the stories they invest in. 

I do not own either of the images here. Both are used for educational/instructional purposes as covered by the Fair Use Doctrine.

Writer’s Postmortem: Claws

Debuting in 2017, TNT’s comedy drama Claws followed the exploits of nail salon owner, Desna Simms who uses her salon to launder money for a west-Florida crime family. The Guardian called Claws “Breaking Bad meets Steel Magnolias.” Clearly, the show was unlike anything we’ve seen before. 

Fun stuff, right? So today we deconstruct what made Claws so good as well as where it detoured. Obviously, there will be spoilers. 

What’s good?

Desna is a compelling character. By all appearances she is part-and-parcel of the low-end-strip-center her shop is based in. However, Desna is smarter than where she comes from and more ambitious than raking nickels and dimes from the table she sets with fifties and hundreds. 

Desna is more den-mother than boss to a crew of women right on the ragged edge with her. Jen, a recovering alcoholic, is married to Bryce, a recovering crack addict and third-stringer in the crime family they all work for. Virginia is a stripper who Desna is forced to hire by Roller, the man they are both in a sexual relationship with. Polly, a mentally ill, compulsive liar and conman is fresh out of prison. Likewise, Quiet Ann is a convicted felon and the closest thing Desna has to “muscle.” Desna also cares for her brother Dean, a grown man on the autism spectrum. Where she excels as a character is in balance. As ambitious as Desna is, she’s more cautious, with too much to lose on reckless moves.

Niecy Nash brings Desna to life with multifaceted zeal. Just as Desna balances ambition with caution, Nash is a master of infusing the hard-edge crime drama with great comedic humanity. I’ve been a fan forever and this was the lead role I always wanted to see Niecy own.

“I firmly believe that a story is only as good as its villain.” Clive Barker

Clay “Uncle Daddy” Husser is Desna’s nemesis and just as Niecy completely inhabits Desna, Dean Norris gives Uncle Daddy a vital heartbeat. The scion of the Husser crime family Uncle Daddy has raised his nephews, Roller and Bryce (after the suspicious death of their father) while striking out to be more than a captain in the Dixie Mafia. Uncle Daddy is in turns terrifying and side-splitting hilarious. 

“Location, location, location…” Harold Samuel, founder Land Securities

The city of Palmetto is the MVP here. With little/no national notoriety, the city reflects what Rush called “Middletown.” Neither small-town cozy, nor big-city exciting, Palmetto suffers big-city problems, (e.g. addiction and crime) with small-town constraints, (limited employment/education prospects). The location is as individual as a person and as personal as the communities that shape each individual. Side note: when I railed at an over-the-top wake depicted in season one, friends from Florida were quick to insist how accurate the wake is to the place in which the scene is set. 

“He ain’t heavy…”

Among standout characters like Quiet Ann, the violent felon with an advanced degree and Polly, the demented con-artist, Desna’s brother Dean could’ve easily been a two-dimensional construct played for laughs. Instead Harold Perrineau’s nuanced performance elevates Dean above sidekick, to fully formed character. Dean is intelligent but undisciplined, insightful but immature, and completely unfocused. In season one, he aspires to be an artist and/or bodybuilder. In season two, he decides to be an exotic dancer. With no trickshot of mathematics, no magical card counting or odds calculating ability, Dean stands as an honest depiction of a grown man on the autism spectrum. Dean is also crippled by childhood abuse. As a result, he is oblivious to how dependent he is on Desna. However Perrineau’s Dean is the audience’s “wait, why are you doing this?” voice.

So what went wrong?

Claws starts with a dispute over pay. Desna was promised $22,000 for her work, laundering hundreds of thousands of dollars. Instead, Uncle Daddy gives her $12,000, adding ample insult to racist/sexist injury. Aside from the blatant commentary on women’s disparate pay, Desna has to also put up with Roller’s continual abuse and less-than-consensual sexual advances. 

While Desna grows as a boss she never has a genuinely healthy relationship. The series especially paints black men with the “the same as, if not worse” brush. This persists from season two, with Desna falling prey to Doctor Gregory Ruval, (cocaine smuggler) to season four and Tony, (UPS-cum-DEA-agent). Both men seek to use Desna.

Claws is rich with supporting characters. Of course even the best of teams have weak links. Roller’s arc spans from abusive meat puppet to benign meat puppet. Bryce has even less of an arc. However, Dr. Ken is the worst, simply because the character is rich with unexplored potential. How did a doctor end up in the Husser’s pocket? How is it that he’s single? He’s the character with the greatest dramatic potential and the laziest follow-through.

WTF?

I get it. A fourth season wasn’t guaranteed. And so season four felt like an afterthought. Heel-turn Desna, taking everyone’s surrogate mother to selfish-ville, was just lazy and implausible. Season one’s “no more herpes” line was vicious and tonally off. But that’s first season writers finding their stride, which they did. Heel-turn Desna was “let’s just get this over with and cash this check” writing. 

Her grudge with Quiet Ann strained credulity even harder. Ann was always Desna’s ride-or-die. Fingernail or not, there is no way Ann would hold Arlene’s death against Desna, who has never demonstrated that level of violence. Indeed, their relationship is based on intense loyalty.

Sadly, if there is an overarching theme, it is uneven writing and WAY uneven tone. True Claws is a crime drama and therefore violent. However every story establishes a tone in the first act that tells the viewer (or reader) what to expect. If the climactic shootout in Heat involved aliens, Michael Mann would have broken his contract with the viewer based on the tone he established in the first 20 minutes of the film. 

Was Dr. Ruval’s death over the top, not really. All the ground work had been laid. Arlene’s death was problematic but didn’t breach credulity. Bryce killing DEA Agent Tony? Someone had to. But Virginia brutally murdering kindred spirit Georgia over what turned out to be a misunderstanding? Well, I had already check out as a fan by this point. I only continued to watch to learn how NOT to close out a story.

“Endings are hard…” every writer, ever

The ultimate failing in Claws is the ending. Somethings were done well, Clay arrives at his ultimate, logical conclusion right on schedule. No quibbles, there. The DEA’s blundering, fits right with me as a resident of Houston, where a police officer of dubious intent lied to obtain a warrant which resulted in the deaths of two innocent people. So, sure.

That Mission-Impossible bit with Quiet Ann? Fonzy, in leather jacket and water skiis was more artistically credible. It completely voided the contract.

And ~sigh~ finally, Cuba. This ending swings in out of the trees like the music in Elvis movies and makes just about as much sense. Forget how Desna is funding this new lifestyle or how Bryce is suddenly sane enough to tend bar, this is NOT the destination that the writers laid the groundwork for over four seasons. 

In short, the producers, (et al) failed to deliver on the promise made in the first episode, first season, or, for that matter, even the final season. The fans deserved better. Hell, Desna EARNED better. 

The photo at the top, “Claws Promotional card” is the property of TNT/Warner Brothers Television. Its use here, for educational/illustrative purposes is covered by the Fair Use Doctrine.

Writer’s Postmortem: The Book of Boba Fett

In 1981, an iconic heavy named Boba Fett burst on to movie screens and into legend. With a spaceship that looks like a snail, merit-badge-project armor, and a dented helmet, Boba captivated all the fanboy’s ardor through economy of speech (he only has four lines of dialogue) and action. He stood toe-to-toe with Vader (though he had to look up to do it) and made his ends. 

But today we’re talking about Disney’s television series, The Book of Boba Fett—what works and what doesn’t—from a writer’s perspective. Obviously, it would help if you’ve seen the show or at least have an idea who Boba is. That said, prior viewing is not necessary, we are about writing, here. Also, obviously, there will be spoilers. Read accordingly.

The premise is incredibly compelling: one of the most compelling henchman in cinema history

survives lazy writing his employer’s stupidity and decides to be the boss. Indeed the end scene/teaser from The Mandalorian set up a completely different take on the Star Wars universe. More Michael Corleone than Luke Skywalker.

Sadly, that premise/promise was bungled in delivery. 

We’ll start with what Jon Favreau, Dave Filoni, et al got right.

The man behind the dented helmet 

First and foremost, they, (Disney) got Temuera Morrison as Boba Fett. Seems like a no-brainer until you realize that modern entertainment is all about young/pretty. Morrison understands what makes Boba work and uses every inch of his stature as well as every year of life on his face to portray a man who has been through the wringer and is tired of stacking nickels and dimes while making other sentients rich. He’s kicking assumptions, taking names—and not all that hung up on the “taking names” part. 

Lesson to writers: know your character’s strengths and write to best demonstrate what makes them special.

Support

Disney brought in Ming-Na Wen’s Fennec Shand as Boba Fett’s right hand. Shand is a highly skilled assassin introduced in The Mandalorian and then featured in The Bad Batch, an animated series that follows events and characters depicted in Star Wars: The Clone Wars. Like Morrison, Wen understands the character and uses all of her impressive talents to dizzying effect. David Pasquesi, as the Majordomo for the mayor of Mos Espa is a great addition. With neither a blaster nor a lightsaber, he survives on his wit and deportment, (think C3PO crossed with Verbal Kent from The Usual Suspects) The Majordomo is probably my favorite new character if only for the comedic timing and all-too-human reactions to life-or-death situations.

Lesson to writers: a rich supporting cast allows for a richer, multifaceted story.

In situ

We get a deep dive into Tatooine. More than just a malicious backdrop, we see the people who work and live on the outer rim and eke out an existence on the edge of the law. Exploring the loose alliance and fragile peace between gangs is a nice counterpoint in a universe not known for compromises or limitations. 

Lesson to writers: place is often a character, (Robert B. Parker, Walter Mosley, and Jacqueline Carey all write place as an integral part of the story).

So, what went wrong?

Flashbacks

A flashback (when used properly) can give the reader insight or context once a fast-paced story is cracking along. Three full episodes of flashbacks is not proper use. This character was built on the “less is more” principle.  When we see Boba, in the middle of the desert wastes, without his iconic armor, pack on his back (with a Tuskan Raider gaffi stick) , we’re hooked by HUGE drama.

Lesson to writers: flashbacks dilute drama and saps energy from your action. Use sparingly and ONLY after you have established your character. Flashbacks are NOT the way to do it.

Supporting characters and consistency—a how-NOT-to

In The Mandalorian, we’re introduced to an Ugnauht named Kuiil, (voiced by Nick Nolte). The craftsman-turned-farmer has a fully developed character and rich (albeit tragic) story arc. BoBF starts off well with Fennec Shand and the Majordomo—both fully formed and compelling characters. The director(s) built on that success with Danny Trejo’s cameo, (an amuse-bouche of pure delight) as the Rancor trainer. 

Garsa Fwip (Jennifer Beal) presents, (BoBF episode 1) like a cool drink of water after a trek across the Dune Sea. The Twi’lek owner of The Sanctuary, (an upscale cantina) Garsa appeared deeper than simple window-dressing with potential to be a conduit of resources, a la Casablanca’s Rick Blaine. Beal also brings a warmth that this cast of cold-blood killers need. Then the director(s) blow up The Sanctuary and we don’t see Garsa Fwip again. Clearly, Garsa was intended to have a greater impact/reach before someone decided to prune the character. 

Lesson to writers: If (in revisions) you decide to cut that arc-spanning character in chapter 5, be sure to prune all that foreshadowing groundwork you laid in chapters 1-4.

The Mods—could you not?

Basically human teens, the Mods have bought cybernetic upgrades. For the purpose of…? Jokes, (sorta) aside, the Mods represented an interesting possibility. Sadly, among Gamorrean guards and Black Krrsantan, the Mods are little more than poorly-executed background noise. Like their cybernetic appendages, the director(s) don’t know what to do with the Mods. Seriously, there is a “car” chase that would suffer in comparison to any A-Team episode from the 1980s.

Lesson to writers: if it (he/she/they) doesn’t advance the story or the plot, it’s just in the way.

What was the point, again?

Of all the missteps in BoBF, the most egregious is the finale. In The Mandalorian season 2 post-credit scene Boba Fett fights his way into Jabba the Hutt’s palace and shoots Jabba’s successor in the chest. Cold. Blooded.

In the promos for The Book of Boba Fett, Boba says he’s taking over as crime boss. As a gang of two, he and Shand disarm the corrupt Mayor of Mos Espa. They battle the Hutts to a standstill. All of their efforts culminate in a boss-battle with the Pike Syndicate. All for Boba to become…the friendly town/planet sheriff? Seriously? 

Lesson to writers: Your final chapter should answer the question asked or meet the challenge raised or, generally, deliver on the promise made in the first chapter. You cannot promise The Godfather in space and then Deliver Mayberry Tatooine.

I may give Boba another shot if there is a second season but for me to stick with it there will have to be much more consistency. Agree? Disagree? Boba who? Hit me up in the comments and let me know what you think.

The image at the top is the title card from The Book of Boba Fett and is the property of Disney+ and/or Lucasfilm. Its use here for educational/illustrative purposes is covered by the Fair Use Doctrine.

Black History Month Authors: Octavia E. Butler

Over the course of a 35 year career, Octavia Estelle Butler took the every-day people of the world and then injected them into the slipstream of science fiction. I know, that sounds nice. The incredible part is that she was the first African-American woman to publish science fiction under her own name. Long a monolith of white-male perspective, science fiction’s bedrock for nearly a century was the white male: extraordinary, destined, messianic. Butler saw the potential for so much more.

I was attracted to science fiction because it was so wide open. I was able to do anything and there were no walls to hem you in and there was no human condition that you were stopped from examining.

Butler’s work explores themes of racism and injustice, gender and sexuality, the myriad lasting effects of genocide and survival—indeed the things that define humans from monsters. Through science fiction she creates a dialogue between the reader and the author. In creating worlds, she creates an almost-safe space to discuss hard things. In the process, she opened the genre up to women, people of color, and a broader world of hopes—and fears—informed by a very different reality from the whiz-bang boys. 

Her purported impetus has become the most cited aspect of her life: a 12-year-old girl, watching Devil Women from Mars, decides she can write a better story than that. And the rest is history…for the folks who would rather remain blissfully ignorant of the work that went into turning a cute idea into a groundbreaking career. 

The truth is much richer. 

Butler’s writing predates that television viewing event by several years. Diagnosed early as dyslexic, Octavia (Junie to her family) nonetheless harbored a deep fascination and love for the printed word. Like many bibliophiles, the books were young Junie’s first/few friends. As she grew older books were also her only refuge.

Junie was tall. One writer called her a mountain and attributed power and affection to her stature and prepossessed atmosphere but the over-tall child was an over-tall target for the cruelty of other children. That Junie was dark, with strong Afrocentric features only added to the bullies’ arsenal. If her stature and features were not enough, she was also painfully shy bordering on psychologically mute. 

While the effects of the ridicule and cruelty informed Butler’s writing, Lilith Iyapo’s experiences in Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago, (collected in the 2000 publication Lilith’s Brood) reflect an even harder reality: so-called integration in 1950s and 60s Los Angeles. The author’s experiences, accompanying her housekeeper-mother to work, witnessing harsh treatment from “good” white people in Pasadena directly informed the social dynamics among a group of multi-racial survivors intending to repopulate a resurrected Earth. 

Written at the height of the cold war, in the wake of the murders and incarcerations that silenced the Civil Rights movement, Dawn was clearly a book of it’s time. The alien Oankali have held the few human survivors of nuclear war in a stasis while the ruined Earth heals. Intergalactic conservationists, the Oankali see a chance for a genetic exchange and the possibility to rehabilitate and save humanity from itself. 

Spoiler alert!

But Dawn, (like every other Butler book) is also a book of today. When Jean, a HIGHLY entitled white woman, challenges African-descendant Lilith’s appointment as the leader among the first group to land on Earth, the racism is palpable. When Lilith demonstrates her qualifications to lead, through quiet-confident capability the group-think of racial distrust only grows more pronounced and more violent.

“I’ve fought men and women and no woman hits like that.” Jean, Dawn

Rather than rejoice in their “Yay! Humanity has a second shot!” moment, rather than remake Earth into Eden that was lost, a hateful clique falls back on tribalism and they choose the murderous Curt Loeher to lead them in mutiny against Lilith and the Oankali. In full acknowledgement of the bullet that they dodged, they insist on recasting the institution of murder, like recasting a gun. Lilith, in a supreme show of leadership works through the loss of a second family and even more loss to guide mankind away from its worst nature.

The burden of the survivor is another recurring theme in Butler’s work. Inspired by a classroom discussion with a Black Power activist who expressed bald-faced contempt for the older generations of African-Americans based on his perception of their willing subservience to whites, Butler wrote Kindred. The story of a 20th century black woman named Dana who travels through time to the Maryland plantation of her ancesters, Kindred is both a defense of the survivor as well as a groundbreaking attempt to more accurately depict genocidal slavery.  

I began writing about power because I had so very little. 

As may be surmised, Butler never aspired to write the “easy” read. If she didn’t have the answers she did have the courage to raise the hard questions on a BIG canvas with speculative nuances. Butler eschewed comfortable tropes and mass-market storylines. With no interest to feed pablum to adults, she served truth and discomfort and meaningful dialogue—all with a hard-won optimism. As a result, her books seldom found the success of traditional space opera or “hard science” (means “white”) novels. 

But she did find an audience. Fellow writer Harlan Ellison was one of her earliest champions, encouraging her to attend the Clarion Writers Workshop. At Clarion Samuel Delany, (a fellow “groundbreaking” writer) became a life-long friend. Both of the men I reference were known to generations of readers as visionaries with powerful voices. Both were known for their passion and strong opinions. Ellison in particular was known to be a brilliant, if at times, caustic critic of science fiction. 

That both men fostered and promoted Butler’s work is a testament to her staggering talent. The MacArthur foundation agreed, awarding Butler with a genius grant—the first awarded to any science fiction author. That her work continues to inform and shape science fiction is a testament to her enduring vision. They believed in her work to produce better stories and address more pressing ideas.

In her later years, Octavia Butler became a teacher, at Clarion and other workshops, to guide other women, other people of color to express themselves and their hopes, dreams, and fears. She trained best-seller Walter Mosley to reach beyond tropes when he workshopped his first science fiction pieces in her class. 

Why aren’t there more SF Black writers? There aren’t becaue there aren’t. What we don’t see, we assume can’t be. What a destructive assumption.

Much like Lilith Iyapo, she awakened readers and writers to a life possible beyond heartbreak and loss and mundane ideas. 
Octavia Estelle Butler authored over a dozen books, even more short stories and essays. She died at the age of 59 and it was nowhere near enough time for us to have known her. The trio now collected as Lilith’s Brood remains my favorite of her works. But if you only read one book by Butler, please, choose Kindred.

The photo above, “Me but with books,” is owned by myself and used by my permission. Damn-nice of me, I think.

Black History Month Authors: Chester B. Himes

American novelist Chester Himes should have been a literary titan like his contemporaries Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright. He should have been a professional like his parents, (a trade school instructor and English teacher). He should have been a scholar, like his brother Joseph, a renowned sociology professor.

Instead Chester Himes, convicted of armed robbery, was sentenced to 20 years before he was 25 years old. In prison he applied his intellect to writing short stories to black publications as well as white magazines building his skill and reputation as a talented voice. Released after 10 years, Himes sought to capitalize on his accomplishments.

Langston Hughes introduced Himes into New York publishing pools. Himes became a screenplay writer in Hollywood, (until notoriously biggoted Jack Warner had him fired). He contributed to the NAACP’s publications on 1940s race riots. His first novel If He Hollers Let Him Go, was published in 1945. 

Blacklisted from Hollywood, Himes attended the Yaddo artist community, living next to Patricia Highsmith. He would publish five books on race, labor relations, and politics in ten highly productive years. In spite of critical acclaim none would find the success of Ellison and Wright’s works. 

It was only when Himes revisited his past, drawing on his wayward youth to write The Primitive, (retitled A Rage in Harlem) would he find commercial success. Over nine books, Himes paced readers through the underbelly of Harlem with his detectives Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson. He also explored recurring themes of racial injustice, homosexual love, and being an outsider in your own land. 

Lawrence P. Jackson’s biography is an exhaustive chronicle of the complex man and his struggle to be heard (read, you know, whatevs…). Jackson’s light touch is both engaging and masterful. Himes is no easy subject. Jackson explores Himes’ tenuous relationships—family and friends, professional and personal—all fraught with Himes’ self-destructive tendencies. He never returned to his family’s embrace after his brother, (blinded as a child in a science demonstration) exceeded him academically and in their mother’s affections.

You’ll see shades of Hime’s struggle in A Rage in Harlem between estranged brothers Goldie and Jackson. Himes also explores the tension of men who develop affection and intimacy in prison (only to lose those ties under scrutiny of the larger society) in Rage as well as Cotton Comes to Harlem and The Heat is On. Sexual identity is a reoccurring theme in all of Himes’ work.

Himes legacy is in “lit’ing” up crime fiction while staying true to his experiences as a felon and a black man in America. Poet and satirist Ismael Reed famously said, “Chester Himes taught me the difference between a black detective and Sherlock Holmes.”

Mickey Spillane, Dashiell Hammett, and (to a lesser extent) Raymond Chandler had blazed the hardboiled path but Himes had lived it as a hustler, petty gangster, and heister. Like Hammett, his experience informed his writing in ways Spillane and Chandler could only wonder at. 

A lot of parallels are drawn, (rightly) between Himes and Walter Mosley. But having read the Harlem Detective novels I see direct lines into James Elroy’s work, but without Elroy’s latent vitriol. Himes works should be on every crime fan’s to-be-read stack. A Rage in Harlem, the first, is a great place to begin. All of the Harlem Detective Novels are good reads but Digger and Coffin Ed are conspicuously absent from Run Man Run and it is my least favorite of the series.  

In his introduction, Lawrence Jackson states that he intended his biography as the “big book,” Chester Himes’ life deserves. Indeed his fast 600 pages represent a considerable portrait of the artist. But like best of Chester’s own work, I couldn’t help but wish for just a bit more. 

Check out Himes work. If crime isn’t your thing, check out Lawrence Jackson’s excellent biography. It is among the best I have ever read.

The photo at the top, “WAY Past My Bedtime” is by and belongs to myself. I’ve kindly agreed to the photo’s use here for educational/illustrative purposes. Which I think is damn nice of me.