Venita Blackburn, the Compton-raised and Fresno-based author, had just published her latest short story collection, “How to Fight a Girl” when we met her.
“I had so much love and appreciation on Twitter,” she said over the phone. The book had just come out one day, so Blackburn had yet to see a copy or attend any in-person events. “A lot of things happen in a vacuum and I only see pictures here and there of where the book is,” she says. “So it’s a bit detached. “
Still, “How to Wrestle a Girl” is the highly anticipated sequel to the award-winning writer’s first short story collection, “Black Jesus and Other Superheroes.” Four years ago, Blackburn’s first book was published by University of Nebraska Press without the kind of publicity or promotion before the release it would have with “How to Wrestle a Girl”.
It was good with Blackburn. “I was just excited to have a book because it seemed like so far, far back then – the big dream of having a book – but it happened,” she says.
“Black Jesus and Other Superheroes” opened the doors in Blackburn. She landed a place in the faculty of California State University, Fresno. She won a PEN America Los Angeles literary award, the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction and was a finalist for a PEN / Bingham Award.
“It worked on its own without any help, so I let it go,” she says. “I think it was also a really special place, as a writer, where no one expects anything from you. You can just do your art and say what you think and I was just lucky people responded well.
In the aftermath of the success of “Black Jesus and Other Superheroes”, Blackburn realized that she wanted to develop some of the characters in this collection. “I intended to write a novel because we’re under pressure to do it, but I’m such a short story writer that I kept turning to stories,” she says.
Meanwhile, Blackburn had returned to California, but to the city of Fresno, a place she had not previously lived. “I was really nostalgic for a California that existed in my mind, in my memory,” she says.
“I was thinking about it and how far it was from my current reality,” Blackburn continues. “So I felt a little nostalgic, but I also recognized that my memory isn’t even the truth. It’s just a memory. What kind of youth did I really have?
Blackburn juxtaposes some of the most idyllic references to youth, like bike rides and Now and Later candy, with the threats girls face, as in the story of a near kidnapping. “There are these threats, these vague and nebulous threats to girlhood in these places and I wanted to talk about that a little bit as well, while also talking about the fun parts,” she says. “Everything is happening, all the time, simultaneously. “
She is also experimenting with the formats that stories take. “I like to see how this text itself can reflect a story,” she says.
In “Journal of mourning”, the mourning of a parent takes place in the boxes of a table of exercises. “I had to think about the grids and the separation of time and events based on that kind of layout while still maintaining the escalation,” Blackburn explains of this particular piece. “The story must continue to build on itself towards an inevitable conclusion.”
As a teacher, Blackburn says she saw a different kind of nostalgia in students. “There’s this nostalgia among my students for things they’ve never experienced, like the ’80s and’ 90s in a way, and I think it’s really fun,” she says. “They’re trying to go to a place they thought was safer than where they are now. I think we all are.
Blackburn also looked to the past. Last year, she started roller skating for the first time in 25 years. “This is where I want my mind to be, to go in time, to travel through time to safer places,” she said. “I think there is a lot going on.”
As for the Californian nostalgia for Blackburn, she says: “The California I remember will never exist again.” In light of current issues, like the wildfires, which plagued Fresno and the surrounding area while Blackburn lived there, California’s future looks a bit uncertain. “This place is turning into something else and the adaptation is still ongoing. There’s no past for me right now, ”says Blackburn. “Where will we be? How is it going to happen? Our choices are so important right now. “