Sean Reynolds

IN SEAN’S OWN WORDS…Born (1950) and raised on the southside of Chicago. My family, particularly, mother and my Aunt Agnes, had great influences on my life. I have one sister Karen, living in Atlanta and one brother Kenneth Reynolds (Public Relations Plus) living in Los Angeles. My grandmother’s name was Lula Hightower…powerful is an understatement.

Give a brief description of your novel, Dying for A Change.
Dying For A Change (pub. Suspect Thoughts Press, San Francisco, CA) is a set in Chicago in 1965. There are three primary characters: Chan Parker, lesbian, tall, dark and easy on the eye. She loves clothes, Chicago, and life in general. Henrietta Wild Cherry (Chan’s best friend) is tall, living large in size, attitude, and money. Henrietta is a drag queen and everybody in the know, knows. Together, Chan and Henrietta set out to find who killed Miss Dove, a white drag queen from the north side of the city. Chicago is the third character. It is and always has been a vibrant place, full of different neighborhoods (many off limits to African Americans), and cultures; the Irish, the Poles, the African Americans, Lithuanians, Italians.
Chicago is one of the cities “colored” people who fled Jim Crow in the South came to in massive numbers as part of the largest migration in the history of the world. I am of the first generations of African Americans born in the North. I write about the struggles in Dying For A Change. Chicago is really my home although I live in San Francisco where {they} describe San Francisco as a large city. I shake my head.

How long have you been writing and how did this passion start?
I started writing as a teenager riding the Jackson Park “El” train from the south side, north to Evanston, the home of Northwestern Univ. I sat on the rickety train and watched people living their lives by looking through their windows as the train passed. I watched what they ate for breakfast or dinner, I listened to the music they liked, I watched children growing up. I was joyous to discover the tableau of urban African American life.
Being the youngest one in the family, my older sister and older brother didn’t have much time for me, so I explored the City alone with a writing pad.
Some people said I was curious. I say I’m nosy.

Describe the main character, Chan Parker.
Chan, in looks, is based on a woman I knew years ago. She was tall, black, looked good in her clothes and had a smile that wouldn’t wait. I knew a lot of “Chans” growing up; women who looked like men on a daily basis in a time when it was illegal for women to wear pants with a zipper and men to wear bobby pins in their hair. It was called “impersonating the opposite sex” – actually on the books and against the law. Chan also has a calm similar to many lesbians I knew “back in the day” and the honesty and decency of many people I knew then and now.
Back in the mid-sixty’s, there was an annual event, the “Sissy’s Ball” …when African American gay men and lesbians dressed in their finest to attend. The event, unlike no other, then or now, was when you wore your finest; couture gowns for the gay men and tuxedoes for the women. What a time.
You didn’t ask about Henrietta, Chan’s alter ego, who has my wit, which I got from my aunt Agnes and my mother’s sharp tongue and flamboyance. In another life my mother, Hattie would have made a great actor.

I wanted Chan to have a love interest, yet romance wasn’t in key in Chan’s plans. Was that deliberate?
A woman named Hank was introduced and you’ll learn more about her in the sequel. Chan needs time to include a relationship in her life. Remember Dying For A Change is set in 1965. Women didn’t just bed hop in ’65. However the novel is about change and Chan is making changes in her life as we speak.

What part of Sean is in Chan?
Like Chan, I am not impulsive. I like to think about things before I act. Chan has good friends, but not too many. Same as me. Most of the time, she likes who she is and what she does and doesn’t give a damn what others think, however, she has the ability to scrutinize her life and make decisions she believes are best for her. Henrietta Wild Cherry is the only person who influences Chan’s decisions. We’re both Virgos. We have a lot in common.

Have you always been a fan of the crime genre?
Chester Himes, Chester Himes, Chester Himes! I’m a fan of True Crime, a riveting mystery, and crime drama, and have always been.

Dying could have received 5 stars alone for the authentic expressions and harsh atmosphere of mid-1960s Chicago. What was it like growing up in Chicago during that time being a black gay female?
I had a good street education and a good “schoolin” education as well, but that started in college after I dropped out of high school where I wasn’t learning nothin’. The only subjects I liked in high school were writing and Latin. In my high school, I was put into remedial English and math classes the first day I arrived. My sister, five years older, taught me to read and do math when I was five. Well you know those remedial classes didn’t set too well. I finally tested out and got into regular classes, and this was a “good” high school.
Streetwise, I had uncles, that was the term we used for the assortment of boyfriends my aunts enjoyed, {who} were numbers runners and part-time gangsters.  They (along with my “real uncles”) played Bid Whist with a vengeance and were always full of stories and lies.
I grew up with women, mostly aunts, Agnes, Nettie, Lucille, Mattie, cousins, Amelia, Betty Ann and Barbara and my sister, Karen. With the exception of Nettie, I don’t remember any of my aunts being married. Whereas most of my friends talked on Monday morning at school and described going to the zoo, the park, the beach over the weekend, I made a bee line to Agnes’ house on Friday after school and hated going to school on Monday.
There was ALWAYS fun at Agnes’ house and everybody would be there. Agnes would come home from work and start frying chicken (one of the only things she could cook) and the fun would begin. I would sit looking in “grown” folks mouths and telling the stories to this day. What an education! Chicago is a hard city; by that I mean, if have any sense, you learn from the people in the City and the “way it is.”
My aunt Agnes taught me two things when I was about eleven years old; “Don’t let anybody in your house if they’re carrying a gun. Folks be drinkin’ and tellin’ lies. You don’t what a person is liable to do.” And the most priceless bit of information she gave me, “Don’t nothin’ live off of love and it jumps from ass to ass.” I didn’t know what that one meant until I was about twenty. I grew up laughing to the point of nausea, and if I had it to do all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing. Priceless!

Which is a bigger struggle today as you see it: combating racism or equality for gays?
Each is as important as the next; however, for African Americans who are LGBT, we cannot escape racism in general or the racism in the LGBT community. Chicago during the ‘50s and ‘60s was one of the most segregated cities in the North. Now it’s 2010 and living in San Francisco, what is called the Gay Mecca, racism is alive and well, regardless of whether or not you are African American. In San Francisco, the “ism” is preceded by class, which I believe, is coming into its own vogue. In SF, if you don’t have money, it’s hard to appreciate the beauty of this City.  If you do have the money, regardless of race, you have the ability to intermingle across race and sexuality lines…but if you ain’t got the money, honey…it’s hard as hell.
Still, I find when in SF or while traveling, here I am, a sixty year old, short, African American woman, can cause white women to grab their children and their purses when I approach them while minding my business, walking down the street…and some of them are LGBT. Like I want your children and you little money. Child, please! The fact is that we (African American women) have raised a nation of people (White) at our breasts and most of them were hostile. Race(ism) continues to be the minds of most white Americans and not in a way that provides us with any succor.
I’ve stopped going to parties where I know I’ll be the only Black person. Despite its segregation, I never had that experience in Chicago. In SF, it is frequent. There’s also something about being able to hide, which we cannot do. LGBT can and do. Most of my white friends who bought Dying For A Change, have yet to read it. I know, because I ask. Whereas, all of my African American friends have read it. I know because they give me feedback.

You say you “like your day job” as a social worker. Does your profession influence your writing?
I work with people who have been categorized as the “permanent underclass”…to hell as “raising yourself up by your bootstraps”…permanent underclass. African American, welfare, most women, homeless, drug abuse, ex convicts, whores i.e. disenfranchised and alienated. And I can’t forget about the mentally ill. This is what I do in my spare time. In my paid work, I work primarily with gay men who have AIDS and homeless people. Yes, they influence my writing. Even as we speak, one of the characters in my upcoming sequel to Dying For A Change is a composite of many of the women with whom I’ve worked. But I’m not giving her away yet. To say that I like the work is complicated. I do like it but I am always dismayed that things have gotten as bad as they are with regard to African Americans.

What is a typical day like for you?
No such thing. I have a girlfriend, Victoria, three dogs, a Standard Poodle named Baldwin (after James). White people ask me, “Did you name him after Alec Baldwin?” I ask them, “What would I look like naming a dog after Alec Baldwin?” Jesus Christ! We have Harry (Belafonte), a French Bulldog, and Sparkle (after the movie and the song by Aretha.) There’s no use explaining that name to white people. I have a full life; at home, at work, trying to write and not be a recluse, as I’d like to be in my old age. I write everyday, taking notes, writing ideas, conjuring, dreaming. Words might not make it to the computer everyday, but I am writing.

What are your favorite books? Favorite authors?
James Baldwin. If you haven’t read Baldwin, you don’t have a clue.

What piece of advice can you share with aspiring writers?
Write every day and don’t think about publishing. Learn to dwell and to dream. Do your best and make it tight. Personally, I don’t talk about what I’m writing in detail until the work is almost completed. Too many ideas coming from other people make me crazy. Write your own book. Tell your own story and by all means READ. You can’t write, if you don’t read! And do read books outside your comfort zone. Venture out into the world of information…there’s plenty of it, you know. I am reading non-fiction right now. Buy a copy of The Warmth Of Other Suns and read it. You’ll be amazed from whence you came. Fact check. If you don’t do it, someone will and point it out. Know what you’re writing about…it will be more interesting.

Why do you feel it’s important for black lesbians to tell their own stories, as you did with Dying for a Change?
If you don’t, someone else will tell your story and get it assed backwards. Walk and speak in truth. How many of our stories have been lost? Put it in writing, and if it doesn’t get published, put it in a drawer and some day, somebody will read it. Don’t let anybody co-opt you or your imagination.

Interviewed February 2011

Sean Reynolds’ Reviews

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