PEN's nonfiction award goes to Walker

Bridgit Brown
March 28, 2011

Jerald Walker received the PEN nonfiction award

Jerald Walker is the author of Street Shadows, a memoir about his turbulent transition from youth to adulthood. 

Jerald Walker, associate professor in the Department of Writing, Literature and Publishing, was awarded the L.L. Winship/PEN New England Award on March 27. Named for Laurence L. Winship, a former Boston Globe editor, this prestigious award honors the work of an author living in New England.

Walker’s memoir, Street Shadows: A Memoir of Race, Rebellion and Redemption, received the award in the nonfiction category. The book chronicles Walker’s life, from being a 14-year-old juvenile delinquent to a college faculty member.

Prior to receiving the award, Walker spoke about his book and his experience thus far at Emerson:

You’ve been at Emerson for two semesters. What has it been like for you so far?

I always wanted to be at this school. From the moment I saw the ad until the time I got the call about the job, I did not sleep [laughs]. It was exactly what I was looking for in a position. The classes have been phenomenal. I am so impressed by the writing undergrads - they are very talented. 

Are you able to get a lot of writing done?

I have published four pieces in the two semesters I have been here. That’s one of the joys of being at a place that really values faculty as teachers but also as writers. Emerson recognizes that the best teachers are the best practitioners; we are encouraged to get our work done and bring that experience of being a writer into the classroom.

How did you feel when you heard that you had won the PEN award?

It was a tricky day when I found out, because PEN sent an email to all of its members announcing the event, and I thought, “Awww! I probably didn’t win this because they’re announcing it and I haven’t been notified.” About two hours later, I got a phone call from someone from PEN saying that they wanted to tell me that I had won their award. I was blown away by it. I am grateful to have the recognition of such a prestigious literary entity.

James Baldwin was reading a tribute once and someone asked him, “What makes you think you have what it takes to be a writer—because you were born black, gay, and poor, and that’s not the traditional background of someone who becomes a writer. Are you prepared to do this?” And he said, “Are you kidding? I feel like I hit the jackpot because I have this really interesting background.”

I feel the same way. My parents were both blind. We were raised in a religious doomsday cult. We lived in the South Side of Chicago, in the heart of the hardcore ghetto. From the ages of 16 to 22, I was a mess, and that’s what the book chronicles. But because there are so many “up-from-the-ghetto” kinds of memoirs in the market, I wanted to go beyond that, and that’s why it’s called Street Shadows…because the book goes from me coming out of all of that, to starting college when I was 24 years old, and then getting a master’s degree, a PhD, starting to teach, and then writing.

What is the significance of the title?

Having moved away from the South Side of Chicago, I will always have that experience of being born and raised in the ghetto—it sort of follows me, so the chapters alternate between me being in a straight life and then every other chapter is a chapter from my youth, where I’m being arrested for doing something I never should have done or being involved in gangs or with drugs and alcohol. The chapters move back and forth in time like that, with the past shadowing the present moments.

Walker's nonfiction has appeared in Best American Essays (2007, 2009), Best African American Essays (2009, 2010), Mother JonesThe Oxford AmericanThe North American ReviewThe Missouri Review,The Chronicle of Higher EducationThe Barcelona ReviewThe Iowa Review, and Brothers: 26 Stories of Love and Rivalry.