Renowned author and essayist Jerald Walker grew up in a white supremacist doomsday cult with his two blind parents on the south side of Chicago.
Quoting James Baldwin when he was asked whether he thought being black, gay and poor was a disadvantage to being a writer, Walker said, “Disadvantage? I think I’ve hit the jackpot.”
On Thursday, Feb. 2 at 5 p.m., Walker read from his work, held a Q&A session and a book signing in the Memorial Union Building’s (MUB) Theater I. The UNH Department of English brought Walker to be the first speaker of this semester’s Writers Series. The audience of 40 people consisted of mainly undergraduate and graduate students, faculty and residents of Durham, as the event was open to the public.
Walker is the author of two memoirs, “The World on Fire: A Black Boyhood in a White Supremacist Doomsday Cult” and “Street Shadows: A Memoir of Race, Rebellion, and Redemption.” He is also the recipient of the 2011 PEN/New England Award for Nonfiction and has published essays in many notable journals, including the Harvard Review and the Oxford American. He also teaches creative writing at Emerson College in Boston.
Throughout the event, Walker used humor as a way to engage with listeners, as his writing that he read from provoked some laughs from the audience.
“His humor not only engaged the audience, but it also made the topics he read about more accessible,” junior Kate Springer said.
Springer also said that hearing about his life sounded “almost unreal.”
During the Q&A portion of the event, Walker shared a story about how his creative writing professor inspired him to go into writing.
“When you’re lost and someone tells you which direction to go in, you ought to listen,” Walker said.
Walker went into further detail of how that same professor paid for his college tuition. The two still keep in touch and years ago Walker sent his professor his first published memoir to read. Before losing his sight, the professor managed to read Walker’s memoir and told him that it would be “the last book” he would ever read.
With this story, Walker illustrated the importance of memoirs that often goes unrecognized.
“The role of memoirs isn’t just to shine the spotlight on yourself, but to shine it on the people in your life who deserve it,” Walker said.
Some of the advice Walker gave to young writers who are interested in writing nonfiction was to “read a lot of fiction,” and to “write good prose regularly.”
Many audience members responded well to the event, with a group of students agreeing that his reading was “riveting.”
A master’s student in nonfiction writing, Kristen Melamed called Walker “motivating” and “inspirational.” She especially found his insight on how to recreate dialogue from memory in nonfiction writing to be helpful.
“He gave such valuable insight and great advice to young writers out there,” Melamed said. “I think he’s the best speaker we’ve had in the UNH Writers Series so far.”