Mowry, Jess 1960–
Jess Mowry 1960–
Jess Mowry’s writings reflect the pain of American teenagers who are struggling to grow up in the midst of inner city turmoil. Mowry, who writes novels about and for black urban teens, was raised in West Oakland, California—a neighborhood under siege from the easy availability of guns and drugs. In bestselling books such as Way Past Cool and Six Out Seven, Mowry describes the lives of desperately poor youths who are resigned to the fact that they might not live to see the age of 25. Theirs is a world without parents, where drive-by shootings and black-on-black violence have become commonplace, and where the only hope for survival and nurturing comes from fellow gang members. “Few authors capture the slang and terrors of inner-city streets the way Mr. Mowry does,” noted Michael Upchurch in the New York Times Book Review. “In four short years Jess Mowry has emerged as a vital and important literary voice, observing his home turf in uncompromising language and with undisguised anguish.”
The authenticity of Mowry’s observations stems from his own experiences in Oakland as a teen gang member and later as a mentor and protector of young people in his neighborhood. In his fiction as well as his infrequent interviews, the author calls for love and reconciliation between inner city people of color. He believes the real enemy is a white establishment that is indifferent at best—and secretly supportive at worst—of the social conditions that have led to high mortality among black youths. Mowry calls media portrayals of gang life and drug use “whitey’s great big new video game,” an effort to dehumanize ghetto kids in order to explain their violent behavior. “There can’t be much of a secret to writing if I can do it,” he told the San Francisco Examiner. “Mayfoe it’s just that I’ve come up with a new angle—looking at these kids as human beings instead of the hardened animals a lot of people seem to be portraying.”
Almost overnight Mowry went from living with his family in an abandoned bus and collecting aluminum cans for a living to the financially stable existence of an emerging author. Rather than packing up his four children and whisking himself and them away to the relative safety of a suburb, Mowry has chosen to remain in Oakland and to distance himself considerably from the expected rounds of high-profile readings, publicity appearances, and promotions the book business demands. “If all I cared about was money, it would have been way past cool,” he told the
Born March 27, 1960, in Mississippi; son of Jessup Willys Mowry (a mechanic, crane operator, and scrap iron collector); involved in long-term partnership with Markita Brown; children; four. Politics: “Survival.”
Worked odd jobs such as hauling garbage, collecting scrap iron and aluminum cans, and doing yard work, 1973-90; writer, 1988—. Has also worked as a mentor to children at a private center in Oakland, CA.
Awards: PEN Oakland-Josephine Miles Award for excellence in literature, 1991, for Rats in the Trees; Way Past Cool and Six Out Seven appeared on the Quarterly Black Review of Books bestseller list.
Addresses: Home —Oakland, CA. Publisher —c/o Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 19 Union Sq. W, New York, NY 10003.
New York Times. “I don’t give tours of the ghetto. I don’t write for white people so they can cluck their tongues and say, ’How can they live like that?’” This level of artistic integrity may be frustrating for Mowry’s agent and publisher, but it has strengthened his ties to those he wishes to reach—his readers. Fellow Oakland writer Ishmael Reed told the Los Angeles Times: “I am hearing the same gunfire [Mowry] is hearing. Everyone’s writing an inner-city book now, doing an inner-city movie, and they are being done by middle-class people who don’t know what they are talking about. He knows these characters he writes about better than anybody.”
Mowry was born in Mississippi in 1960. His father was black, his mother white. When he was only a few months old, his mother abandoned him, and he has never seen her. “Probably married into the KKK by now,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle. Mowry was raised by his father; they moved to Oakland in the early 1960s, and Jess, Sr., supported them by working as a crane operator, truck driver, and scrap collector. Mowry recalled his father in the San Francisco Examiner as strict and strong-willed, the kind of man who would not back down when he knew he was right. “The man loved me,” the author said. “But when he said something, boy, you’d better do it.”
School held little allure for Mowry, but books did. He was always reading, and he would devour any kind of literature, from European classics to mechanical manuals. His father also liked to read, and they often traded books. Mowry’s most vivid memory of school is of getting in trouble for reading ahead in his textbooks. He dropped out of school at 14, just after finishing eighth grade. “I mostly just hung out on the street and helped my dad at his job in the scrap yard,” the author noted in the Los Angeles Times. “He’d go around in his GMC flatbed picking up cans and scrap. But he always brought home books. He was always reading things, it didn’t matter what. And I’m exactly the same as him. I would read anything—even the manual that came with his crane.” Mowry added that although he ran with gangs as a teenager he turned away from drugs and crime at age 17. “Maybe reading had something to do with it,” he said. “Maybe I knew there was another world out there some place.”
After leaving school Mowry held a number of jobs, including a stint as a bodyguard for a drug dealer. He spent some time in a gang and saw a number of his friends get wounded in fights or arrested by the police. At 16, he began a relationship with Markita Brown, a young woman from his neighborhood. His involvement with her, his reading, and his concern for their young children helped turn him away from gang life. The Mowry clan—Jess, Markita, and eventually four children—never had to apply for welfare, but their existence was always precarious. At times they lived in an abandoned bus in a vacant lot, making ends meet by collecting cans and scrap metal.
The Mowry home was always open to neighborhood kids who needed a port of refuge from violence on the streets or abuse in their homes. Mowry found he enjoyed helping troubled youths and sometimes their older family members as well. One way he interacted with the kids was to tell them stories. “I… would make up stories the way my dad done for me and the kids would say, ’That ain’t the way you told it last time, ’” the author recalled in the San Francisco Examiner. “So I wrote them down. Then one of the kids gave me a copy of the Writer’s Market…. and I saw this interview with Mr. Howard Junker of Zyzzyva magazine and he looked kind of kicked back so I sent him a story and he wrote back and said send me one that ain’t got drunks and gratuitous f—s in it. I sent him another and he published it.”
The first stories Mowry sent Junker were written longhand, in pencil. After Mowry sold his first short story in 1988, he bought an old electric typewriter for ten dollars and began to use that. Within a year his work was appearing in literary magazines in the United States and abroad. Mowry was astonished. “I’m getting published by these magazines with guys like college professors,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “There’d be the list in the back, ‘So and so is a professor teaching creative writing,’ and there’s Jess Mowry. ’Graduated eighth grade.’ I’m wondering what people think.”
Howard Junker offered one assessment of Mowry’s work in the New York Times: “His writing is very natural and raw, and he has a terrific ear for how people talk. He hears their lives, in a sense, and his narrative is very strong. His sense of construction is naive, yet very powerful.” Junker added: “There was that kind of professionalism about him right from the beginning and that seriousness of purpose, much more than that alleged professionalism from people at writers’ workshops. And that fierceness of what he was doing. Jess is not deterred by circumstances. He needs to do what he needs to do and he does it.”
Mowry’s first collection of stories, Rats in the Trees —for which he was paid $500 by a small publisher—won the PEN Oakland-Josephine Miles Award for Excellence in Literature. Just two years later, his novel Way Past Cool was bought by the prestigious mainstream publisher Farrar, Straus, & Giroux for a $30,000 advance.
Way Past Cool tells the story of two days in the history of a pair of rival gangs, the Friends and the Crew. The central characters, a 13-year-old gang leader named Gordon and a drug dealer’s bodyguard named Ty, both try to make sense of the madness around them without becoming grim statistics themselves. Atlanta Constitution contributor Judy Willis described Way Past Cool as “a raw portrait of life painted in nubby, jagged black-and-white textures. Graphic and gritty, it presents a straight, no-chaser dose of reality as it’s experienced by those left unprotected by family and society.” In the San Francisco Chronicle, reviewer Brad Newsham concluded: “Despite Mowry’s lack of formal education and his premature fame, Way Past Cool speaks for itself, loudly and eloquently, revealing its author as widely read, wise beyond his schooling and clearly a master of fiction.”
The success of Way Past Cool went far beyond Mowry’s expectations. The author was forced to take a stand on such issues as publicity tours, interviews, and even where and how he lived. From the start, Mowry refused to compromise. He would not lead curious reporters to the bus he had shared with his family all those years. He would not show them the ghetto streets from which his imagination wrenched the stories. He would not give readings to middle-class, white audiences who could not be expected to understand or appreciate his characters’ struggles. Nor would he seek vast sums of money for his work so he and his family could flee the neighborhood they had always called home.
The vast entertainment industry was served notice that Mowry was different almost immediately. The Walt Disney Studio offered him $250,000 to write a screenplay based on Way Past Cool. He turned them down, in part because the contract stipulated that he would have to work on the screenplay at the Disney corporate center in Los Angeles. “I would have been happy to write them a screenplay,” the author told the Los Angeles Times. “What I said was, ’I take two months to try to write this screenplay. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to pay me.’ They said, ’You can’t do that. You’d sell it to someone else.’ I said, ’I wouldn’t do that. ’ They just wouldn’t even hear that. I had one of those Hollywood agents tell me, ’Oh, you’re playing the honesty angle.’ They sent me a 30-page contract. They talk world rights. They talk about universe rights. It’s like, if space aliens come down and want to rent videos, they got it covered.”
Mowry finally did accept $75,000 from Disney to option Way Past Cool for the screen but was relieved to hear that the studio did not plan to make the film after all. He reviewed several screen treatments by other writers, but these versions differed vastly from the story he had chosen to tell. “There’s a scene in Cool —kids get beer from a drug dealer who pays them off,” Mowry told the Sacramento Bee. “Disney wanted them to take the beer to a Korean market and trade it for Cherry Coke. Now, you ask me about making a Fisher-Price version of Way Past Cool. I don’t think so.”
Mowry wanted to stay in West Oakland after his success with Way Past Cool. He donated a portion of his book earnings to charity and planned to live modestly for years on the rest. Eventually he was more or less forced to move when tension developed between him and his less fortunate neighbors. He took his family—and several other needy children—to a bungalow in another part of Oakland
and continued to write in another old abandoned bus. His next major novel, Six Out Seven, was published in 1993.
Six Out Seven follows the fortunes of Corbitt Wainwright, a Mississippi teenager who journeys to Oakland, joins a gang, and befriends a disabled eight-year-old boy. Like its predecessors, Six Out Seven reveals a grim world with little or no adult supervision—a hopeless realm of poverty and violence whose very self-destruction seems to suit the white-run social superstructure. Once again, too, Mowry suggests that only a new level of mutual love and support will save these youths from an early death mandated by society’s indifference to them. In the Los Angeles Times, Bob Sipchen wrote of Six Out Seven: “With luck, Mowry’s heartfelt, beautifully written book will make readers see that the kids he portrays are everyone’s kids, and to let their dreams wither unnurtured is everyone’s shame.”
Los Angeles Times reviewer Robert Ward noted that Mowry’s characters “are just kids, kids who are the living embodiment of the great lie that is called the trickle-down theory.” Mowry himself told the Los Angeles Times that while he sees no immediate solution to the problems he addresses in his fiction, he hopes his readers—especially his black readers—will find inspiring levels of humanity in his work. Urban black kids, he said, “are the future. But people turn their heads and look the other way. They prefer to think of these kids as animals, damaged, no hope for them. I’m trying to show these kids as human beings trying to fight a tank with BB guns.” He concluded: “You write about what you know. You draw from what you see. You can’t make up something worse than the truth.”
Rats in the Trees (stories), John Daniel & Co., 1990.
Children of the Night (novel), Holloway House, 1991.
Way Past Cool (novel), Farrar, Straus, 1992.
Six Out Seven (novel), Farrar, Straus, 1993.
Also contributor to periodicals, including Writer’s Digest,
Alchemy, Obsidian, Sequoia, and Santa Clara Review .
Atlanta Constitution, May 10, 1992, p. N-10.
Los Angeles Times, April 10, 1992, p. E-1; July 4, 1993, p. E-1.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 19, 1992, p. 2; November 7, 1993, p. 2.
Mother Jones, May/June 1992.
New York Times, May 28, 1992, p. C-20.
New York Times Book Review, May 24, 1992, p. 21; October 31, 1993, pp. 9-10.
People, June 22, 1992, p. 66.
Sacramento Bee, November 10, 1993, p. SC-1.
San Francisco Chronicle, March 3, 1992, p. D-3; April 12, 1992, p. 3.
San Francisco Examiner, March 2, 1992, p. C-1.
—Anne Janette Johnson
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