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Walker reads story of redemption

BY ERIC HAWKINSON | APRIL 14, 2011 7:20 AM

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Born and raised in Chicago’s tough South Side, Jerald Walker spent his formative years following the same troubled path as many others in his neighborhood. By the age of 17, Walker was a dropout, a druggie, and a gang member.

One blast of gunfire changed everything.

His coke dealer and close friend Greg was shot to death, less than an hour after Walker was with him to buy a gram. The moment marked Walker’s rebirth. It led him back to school and eventually to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He tells his tale in a memoir, Street Shadows: A Memoir of Race, Rebellion, and Redemption.

“After being immersed in the inner city for so long, I kind of feel as if I never stopped reliving those experiences,” Walker said. “Putting them down on paper was simply another way for me to grapple with these subjects that are always feeding my psyche. Those stories have always been with me. Putting it on paper was as natural to me as breath.”

The author will read from Street Shadows at 7 p.m. Friday at Prairie Lights, 15 S. Dubuque St. Admission is free.

Street Shadows earned the L.L. Winship/PEN New England Award in the category of nonfiction. Chairman of PEN New England Richard Hoffman praises Walker’s writing ability and said he was overjoyed when the judge announced Walker was the recipient for the 2011 award.

“Street Shadows is cinematic, psychologically astute, lyrical, and made to last,” Hoffman said. “He’s a writer who knows what he’s doing — how to create a character, frame a scene, keep us turning the pages. That’s years of study and determination, years that pay off not only for him but for us as readers.”

Walker was 24 when he decided he wanted to go back to school. He enrolled at a community college, where he took a creative-writing course by chance. When one of the instructors read his work, he said Walker belonged at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. For two years, this teacher continued to work with Walker, preparing him for the next step.

“It’s pretty neat because when that professor brought me out to Iowa City, one of the first places he took me was Prairie Lights,” Walker said. “He said, ‘There’s a very famous bookstore that you must see.’ And so he took me.”

Walker praised his creative-writing teachers for mentoring him, and he believes their work is a testament to where he is today. As a writing teacher himself now at Bridgewater State in Massachusettes, he said it’s his responsibility to give back the valuable things he’s learned. It’s not simply a job that pays the bills, he said, it’s invigorating to have an exchange with the students.

“I know to make it as a writer, you have to be thick-skinned. When students come to my class, they can expect a great deal of truth from me,” Walker said. “So if they are to survive as writers, they need to start practicing having thick skin right now or they won’t survive.”

Much of what Walker learned as a writer came from his years studying in the Writers’ Workshop. He learned the value of having a community of writers and how to behave like a writer, and he was also taught the importance of viewing writing as a profession.

“I rise every day at 6, I go to my computer, and I write until 9,” he said. “I do that seven days a week. Christmas Day, that’s where I’ll be.”

Living in Bridgewater, Mass., Walker wishes it were more like the small, college town of Iowa City.

His affinity for the city doesn’t lie just with the Writers’ Workshop — it’s also where he met his wife and where they spent 10 years together after graduation.

“We loved every minute of it,” he said. “I think Iowa City is the best city in the world, and if I could move back there tomorrow, I probably would.”


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