by Diana Davis
Toriano Porter met his readers, friends, and a whole lot of family on Wednesday, July 18th at the Carpenter Branch of the St. Louis City Library. He introduced his first novel, James Cool and read excerpts from the book. The book is written in first person and is a fictionalized version of what life was like through the eyes of an eleven-year-old black boy who has just moved with his mother and brother out of his granny’s house on the South side of St. Louis and into the Jeff-Vander-Lou Housing Projects on the North side.
The narrative is closely tied to Porter’s real life and outlines hardships his family faced when his gainfully-employed father was drafted to train at the Cardinal’s farm club in Louisville, Kentucky. After years of trying and failing to get called up to the major leagues, his father sought solace for his frustration and loneliness with other women and street drugs. Frittering his salary away, he failed to support his wife and children. This left his wife to work to feed and clothe her children and herself. They lived in government-subsidized housing amidst street gangs. His mother, also lonely, became enamored with a wealthy man in the neighborhood. She turned to him as a release from the drudgery of everyday life. Unfortunately, they guy turned out to be a gangster. When Whitey Herzog took over as general manager he had zero tolerance for players who used drugs, so he released his father from the Cardinal’s organization at about the same time that his mother realized that she was pregnant with a baby fathered by one of the neighborhood thugs. All of these sad events left the family in crisis.
The book is the story of the interactions of a family as it deals with moving into the projects, unplanned motherhood, and having a brother who was a child of a different father. The children used their bravado and cunning to survive in the neighborhood where North Side kids did not favor South Side kids, where youngsters fought with stick-knives and two-by-fours. It’s a story not only of survival, but of triumph as the small boy matures to become a successful author and father. Let’s meet Toriano Porter:
You had a lot of relatives at your reading on Wednesday night, and they were all very proud of you. I felt lots of love at the reading. Your Uncle Amos had come all the way down from Minneapolis for the occasion.
Yes, it was a night for my family, praising their success in getting me raised and my success in completing the task of finishing this book. We had a great time.
How long did it take you to write this novel?
Seven years. I started it in 2004 using my auntie’s old computer. I had 13 chapters done, but I had not made a back-up disc on the second half of the book. Then her computer crashed. I lost seven chapters. This so devastating for me that I didn’t write for a year.
Who were the people who most inspired you to finish your novel and why:
Two cousins actually: one was Terrance. He was an entrepreneur, a jack-of-all-trades; he and his wife have a custom jewelry business. He taught me to dream big and go after your dreams. And my cousin: Curtis Elliott. He convinced me to enroll at Central Missouri University. He made a documentary called Hairkutt. I worked with him as his publicist. He taught the dangers of drug use, and I witnessed the many hours of dedication and hard work that went into completing that project which inspired me to finish my book.
You talked about getting to meet James “Cool PaPa” Bell, the Negro all-star baseball player. What was that like for you?
It was an experience that I’ll never forget. He was in his eighties, but he sat in his rocking chair and obliged every story that my friend and I requested, telling tales of playing baseball in Mexico, Santo Domingo and Cuba. He signed our baseballs. Mrs. Bell gave us cookies and milk. What a thrill.
Regarding your writing style, you speak of tragedy without revealing much emotion. Do you see yourself as a reporter?
No, I see myself as a storyteller. I told the story of what it was like for a small boy to be placed in the projects. My mom made a terrific decision in my favor when she sent my brother and me to school in Eureka. That got us out of the stress of dealing with street kids on a daily basis. They had better facilities and libraries. Those teachers encouraged us to be the best we could be.
What do you hope to do for the youngsters who read your book?
I plan to take my book to every school in the St. Louis area. I want kids to know that life should be lived with hope. Take your dreams. Act on them. Work hard and do the very best you can do. You too can come away as a success. I’ve got a five year old son named Chyace. He lives with his mom in St. Louis while I live and work in Kansas City. I want him to know that he can succeed. Every child has the ability to become a success. That’s what I want for my child and for all the others. With positive talk and hard work, we can make it happen for the next generation. That’s my goal.