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Lecture review: Walter Mosley writes, reads with power

Tuesday, November 21, 2000

By Nate Guidry, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Tempest Landry speaks in an unadorned voice, like Cuba's rumba music. But his language is powerful, especially for those who view life from the bottom of the well.

But Landry was only part of what author Walter Mosley was talking about last night at the Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland where he introduced a new series of short stories based around the narrator, Landry

The lecture was part of the Drue Heinz Lecture Series. Next month, the series will feature Nina Totenberg, legal affairs correspondent for National Public Radio.

But last night it was Mosley.

Speaking on "Contemporary Black Literature on American Culture," Mosley talked about everything from publishers who tried to discourage him from writing mystery novels, to the War on Poverty and the institution of slavery.

"When I first started writing, I was one of only two black mystery writers," said Mosley, dressed comfortably in black standing at the podium. "When I first approached a publisher about 'Gone Fishin' I was told that, 'White people don't read about black people, black women don't like black men, and black men don't read.' "

In 1997, Mosley finally published "Gone Fishin,' " the first book he wrote and the prequel to the his Easy Rawlins series, which were published in the early 1990s.

Rawlins turned up first in "Devil in a Blue Dress," which was turned into a 1995 movie starring Denzel Washington.

Mosley also talked about being biracial, having a Jewish mother and a black father.

"We all have history ... all cultures have history," said Mosley. "As black people, we need to have a real investment in owning what's ours. We invented jazz, blues, R&B and the early forms of rock & roll, but we don't own it."

Mosley made his best impression of the night during reading of the "Life and Death" story featuring Landry.

Landry is mistakenly killed by the Harlem police. They thought he had robbed the Starbuck's coffee shop on 125th Street. Landry goes to heaven and is eventually sent back to Harlem. Before he returns, he engages St. Peter in street-wise dialogue about why he should be admitted into heaven.

For Mosley, Landry is an extension of Langston Hughes' most enduring fictional character, Jesse B. Semple, commonly known as "Simple."

Like Hughes, Mosley will convey these stories first in a series of magazine columns next year. When Hughes first wrote the "Simple" stories, they were serialized in the Chicago Defender, a black newspaper.

"Langston is the writer that shaped me the most," said Mosley "He really had something special going with Simple."

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