Next week, teacher and author Torrey Maldonado will be speaking on the Amherst campus. Born and raised in the Red Hook projects section of Brooklyn, Torrey used literature to help him overcome his neighborhood’s poverty and violence. His book Secret Saturdays is inspired by his experiences with youth, city schools (where he taught and trained teachers and administration about conflict resolution), fatherlessness, and poverty. We caught up with him to learn more about how literature inspired him at a young age and the power of storytelling.
GBSP: What role did literature play in your childhood?
TM: As a boy, literature distracted my mind from the rough realities of my neighborhood and schools. In 1988, Life magazine did a nine-page photo spread calling Red Hook—where I was born and raised—the “crack capital” of the U.S.A. and one of the ten worst neighborhoods in NY. Literature helped me with my problems but it also brought new problems. There was great pressure for me to follow the crowd and where I’m from young female writers and readers are called the “g” word—geeks. Literacy-loving boys get called the other “g” word and it’s not “genius”, which stems from people mislabeling school as a girl’s thing. I never stopped writing and being in love with words paid off. I was bullied so severely at one elementary school that my mom transferred me into another school. During that time, I almost gave up on books and my mom said, “Stick with it. You’ll have the last word.” One year ago, the school I left was shutting down and guess who they wanted as their last keynote graduation speaker. Me. I got the “last word”. People around me mistook writing as “soft” but literacy turned out to be hard enough to smash my chains of poverty and helped me avoid ending up dead, in jail, on drugs, or living below my full potential. Now, I teach and write to help young people discover the same transformative power of words.
GBSP: Did any parent, teacher, program foster a love of books and literature?
TM: Is it true that we absorb what our mothers do while we’re in their bellies? If yes, my writer-journey began in my Mom’s stomach because she read books out loud to me while rubbing her belly. She set me on my writing-journey then fostered my love of words. As long as I can remember, she’s treated books, writers, and orators as special. I worshiped her and wanted to be special to her; thus, it makes sense I became a writer, yes? No. A lot of relatives and people in my housing projects pressured me not to be “hooked to books”; however, my mom had me on a book-diet that kept me on my writing-journey while factors and people around me tried to knock me off-track. She let me read as many comic books as I wanted and I got hooked on comics in the third grade. Years after, I told myself, “I want to write stuff like this someday”. Now, I see that my Mom and her comic book-program fostered my love of literature.
GBSP: What was your favorite book as a teenager? Which writers inspired you?
TM: When I was a teen, I needed real thrills so a book had to do a few things to be “my favorite”. First, it needed to give me the rush I got from doing flips as a kid all day into Recreation Center pools. Next, the book had to pump me up the way sports, video games, shows, and movies did. Reading some of the awesome teen-favorites of the Great Books Summer Program could have helped me. What did? Mainly comics because teens reading print-novels wasn’t cool in my community and my classmates and I weren’t exposed at home or in school to the novels that competed with some teen-favorites. By age fourteen, I had almost two hundred comics. So I didn’t have a favorite book; I had a favorite type of book. After my teen years, my college professors weren’t forced to assign boring books so they introduced me to chapter-books with GBSP swagger. A writer who most inspired a “teen me” was Marianne Williamson (who was quoted by Nelson Mandela in his inaugural speech when he echoed, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. . .”).
GBSP: Did you always want to be a writer?
TM: Since the third grade, I knew I wanted to artistically capture and re-present life. Initially, I did that with drawings and I got good enough to draw photo-like sketches of people. Then my muse—my grandmother Milagros—died. Her name in Spanish means miracle and she was a miracle in how she inspired me to be my true self. When she passed on, I withdrew into a cocoon. My Mom kept celebrating books, writers, and orators then a metamorphosis in me happened. I came out of my cocoon and started artistically trying to capture and re-present life with words. By my sixth grade, I told myself, “I want to write books someday”. I look back and see that the sixth grade “me” made a promise that the adult “me” is keeping.
GBSP: If you could give one piece of advice to young writers, what would it be?
TM: Write lines people don’t want to skip. Write what people feel. Eighty percent of the voices in Secret Saturdays is how I spoke with my friends during my pre-teen and teen years. What makes up the other 20 percent? The 2012 language of youth. Years before I wrote Secret Saturdays, I visited a Literacy (English/ Language Arts) teacher-friend for lunch. I kept grabbing urban fiction titles from her shelves and I was shocked at how many sounded fake. I picked up a famous writer’s novel and told her, “Listen to this. This sound real to you?” I read the book out loud and my friend laughed, “No! You know kids don’t even talk like that!” So, being playful, I reread those lines how our students or real-life urban-adults sound. The Literacy teacher said, “Torrey. I’m not kidding. You should write a book?” So, I wrote did and kids and adults say they were “moved” by it and they “felt” it. My advice to writers is do what I did: read the stiff dialogue that’s on shelves, practice loosening it up, then write in that real voice.