Uncovering Frank Yerby

Article excerpt

JOURNEY TO THE PH.D. LEADS ONE SCHOLAR TO MADRID, SPAIN, TO UNRAVEL THE COMPLEXITIES OF AN EXPATRIATE BEST-SELLING NOVELIST

I was working to finish the first chapter of my dissertation when the opportunity arose to travel overseas. The deal - to chaperone a group of college students to Athens, Greece. Once I had successfully accompanied the students to Athens and assisted with their orientation, I was on my own. The offer sounded too good to pass up. I had been contemplating doing some dissertation research in Madrid, Spain, at some point. Here was my chance.

My dissertation chapter centers on Frank Yerby, an African American writer who wrote a number of best-selling popular romance novels beginning in the 1940s. Yerby was born in Augusta, Ga., in 1916. He attended the historically Black colleges Paine Institute and Fisk University, and taught briefly at both Florida A&M and Southern universities. In the early 1950s, however, he left the United States, moving first to France and then to Madrid where he spent the rest of his life.

The expatriate best-selling novelist has dominated my research interest for the past few years and sent me scouring used bookstores for copies of his works, reading his 33 published novels, traveling to Boston to examine his archives, looking for mere mention of his name among the discussions of post-Cold War African American literary critics and scholars. While most people think of contemporary novelist Terry McMillan as the first best-selling African American author, Yerby had become just that several decades before.

In my search, it had become quite clear that Yerby was a complicated man, particularly in terms of race. He faced harsh criticism from African American intellectuals for his refusal to publicly acknowledge his racial identity. Yet, at the same time, he argued that he did not deny his race; he "simply" made no mention of it. As a result, many of his readers had no idea he was Black.

I had often tried to imagine the elusive Yerby in Madrid - the nouveau riche American writer living among the seasoned Spaniards. What was his life like abroad? With whom did he socialize? But most importantly, how did his expatriation influence his American and African American identities? My hope was that following in Yerby's footsteps would help me to understand some of his complexities.

GAINING INTERNATIONAL PERSPECTIVE

The idea of conducting research in a foreign country is both intriguing and challenging. As my particular field, the study of African American literature, has become more international, more African American scholars are engaged in overseas travel for their research. 1 have close friends in graduate school who have spent periods in Kenya, Ghana, London, Barcelona (Spain) and Brazil, enhancing their various U.S.-based projects with an international perspective. Their experiences were my motivation. I could very well write about Yerby and never visit Madrid; somehow 1 knew, however, that the opportunity to learn Yerby's history first hand would only enrich my scholarship.

With just 10 days in Madrid, and just a few weeks to prepare for the trip, time and resources were limited. Not to mention the fact that I knew no one in the city, or even the country. And although I can read and comprehend Spanish quite well, I am years away from being fluent.

My research topic also presented a set of challenges. The little-published criticism about Yerby spoke nothing of his life in Madrid, except to mention his second wife, who was Spanish. His letters in the archives spoke more about his relationship with his readers and literary agents in the United States, nothing about his literary reputation abroad. There was a sense that he enjoyed his life in Madrid, considering he chose not to return to the United States and remained in Madrid until his death in 1991. Yet, there was no information on the details of that life.

Earlier, I had been in contact with one of Yerby's living relatives who mentioned that his second wife might still be living and residing in Madrid. …