On Thursday, Feb. 13, Rachel Howzell, an African American novelist, came to UCR to share her journey as a writer as part of Black Writers Week at UCR, hosted by the Department of Creative Writing. Various students, especially creative writing majors, were eager to hear what Howzell had to share.
Howzell attended the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) and graduated with a degree in English and American literature. She humorously commented on the UCSC nudity scene: “There are people that are not wearing clothes. And those people are the ones you don’t want to see naked.”
Howzell faced conflicts as a writer other than naked pedestrians. In one of her English courses, she read a text where Shakespeare described a character as “dark-skinned.” Howzell suggested to her professor that the character could be black, which the professor dismissed as ridiculous. “Why can’t the character be black?” Howzell questioned.
Howzell came from a religious background, specifically Adventist (a Protestant Christian denomination). “Even though I enjoyed going to church there were some things that I didn’t understand. We couldn’t go to the movie theater or ‘your guardian angel would leave,’” she stated. Despite not being able to understand the rules of the church, she held onto her religion and used her experience within formal education and religious upbringing in her writing.
Howzell started working at PEN Center USA West. “That’s where I finally got to meet writers who were black. I had a chance to meet writers that looked like me,” Howzell said. They were a group of writers that wrote mystery, crime and stories of everyday people; however, Howzell doubted that she could write for these genres because of the sparseness of black novelists back in the 1990s.
Howzell shared how she published “A Quiet Storm,” her first book. “It was published on the first anniversary of 9/11 and nobody cared about this story of a black person struggling with mental health,” she stated. The timing for Howzell’s potential success was ill-fated. “I found it difficult to get another book deal. But when I started (publishers) weren’t interested in the type of voice I had.” This was the time when Sister Souljah, another black novelist, was publishing urban fiction and the letters Howzell received from her agency would say Howzell’s voice wasn’t “black enough” or “urban enough.”
“It was a shock to me because all my life I’ve been nothing but black and I grew up in urban places all my life,” continued Howzell.
During this troubling time of her life, Howzell was diagnosed with breast cancer while pregnant with her daughter. “In addition to turning to faith and my family, I turned to writing. It was something I could return to and I could control. I couldn’t control my body and I couldn’t control what God was saying to me.” Cancer gave Howzell clarity and the opportunity to start doing what she wanted. She was not contracted with an agency, so she was free from restrictions on what she wanted to write about.
“My mortality was a question because I kept getting tumors that wanted to kill me. This is when Amazon helped me publish my books.” Howzell published two e-books on Amazon; one of them is “No One Knows You’re Here,” where Syeeda McKay, a driven crime reporter, is introduced as a character who, three weeks after cancer surgery, is in pursuit of Los Angeles’ most active serial killer.
Howzell continued the lecture with an excerpt from her latest novel “They All Fall Down.” In it, seven sinners are invited onto a private island along the coast of Mexico, but later on discover they were sent under false pretenses. The attendees listened attentively to her story. After Howzell’s lecture the attendees were welcome to talk to Howzell and purchase any of her breathtaking thriller novels.
ASP is hosting events all throughout February for Black History Month. The next ASP event, “ASP Leadership Series: SPECIAL EDITION: Poster Presentation Workshop,” will take place on Tuesday, Feb. 18 from 2 p.m to 4 p.m at HUB 260.