Uncovering Frank Yerby
Journey to the Ph.D. leads one scholar to Madrid, Spain, to unravel the complexities of an expatriate best-selling novelist
By Robin V. Smiles
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. I 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 I 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. The scholar in me wanted to respect the author’s privacy and rely simply on his novels and other writings to make my assessment. The journalist in me wanted a scoop. If I could score an interview with Yerby’s wife, she would no doubt be able to provide insight into his racial ambiguity and literary motivations. For the few weeks before the trip, I focused on trying to find Yerby’s second wife. Señora Yerby, however, appeared as elusive as her husband. With the help of one of my professors, I secured Yerby’s last known address and wrote to Señora Yerby, requesting just a few minutes of her time.
Weeks passed, my trip grew nearer, and with just days until I was scheduled to leave, I had not received a response. I resolved just to wing it. Surely the well-to-do best-selling author left some trace in the city where he lived for almost 40 years. My task was to find it.
Room to Write
Upon arriving in Madrid, much of my earlier apprehensions were relieved. My Spanish was much better than I had anticipated. As well, English signs and speakers were prevalent. Madrid was familiar and welcoming. The city’s center revealed an arena of bustling activity: tourists, taxis, Madrilenos and the Metro all intermingled with ease. The Spanish capital’s architecture was most impressive — streets lined with massive official buildings that although they spanned several blocks, bore atop their roofs detailed sculptures that overlooked the city’s numerous squares and gardens.
And Spanish culture seems simply to enhance a writer’s lifestyle: a light breakfast is served late in the morning, around 10 a.m.; lunch somewhere between 2 to 4 p.m., compliments of the much admired European siesta; and dinner served no earlier than 9:30 or 10 p.m. The outdoor cafés provide the ideal setting to enjoy the perfect summer weather over café con leche, tapas, and churros con chocolate for dessert. There was room to write in Madrid. No wonder Frank Yerby made it his home.
The city’s familiarity set me on a familiar path. Just as I had searched the used bookstores in the States looking for Yerby, I set about the same routine in Madrid. In the States, I found much success talking to owners of independent bookstores. More often than not, they were avid readers of popular fiction, and whereas literary scholars found little reason to acknowledge Yerby’s popular canon, the bookstore owners knew him well.
“Usted conoce al autor Americano Frank Yerby?” I asked repeatedly. In all cases, unfortunately, the answer was “No.” In addition, none of Yerby’s 33 published novels, many of which were translated into several languages, were to be found. And yet, I did find works by other African American expatriate authors and Yerby contemporaries on the shelves, including Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940), and one of Chester Himes’ popular detective novels, The Big Gold Dream (1960).
With one day left in Madrid and still no trace of Yerby, I resolved to look at this trip as a chance to do the groundwork for a more extensive study in the future. The next time I would stay for several months, set up meetings with the literature professors at the university, spend hours in the local libraries, and perhaps locate someone who knew Yerby or his wife.
On my last day in Madrid, I decided as a last resort to go to the address where I had mailed the letter to Señora Yerby. At the very least, I could take a picture of the residence and speculate about what occurred inside. I took the Metro to the Avenida de America station and followed the street map to Edificio de Torres Blancas, the building where I had assumed Yerby last lived.
The building, though uniquely designed, appeared at first dilapidated and abandoned on the outside. (Later, I learned of the building’s historical significance having been designed by the famous Spanish architect Francisco Javier Saenz de Oiza who pioneered the Modern movement.) Yet, there were people entering and exiting the building. With a little encouragement from a colleague who was traveling with me, I followed someone inside the building.
The man at the front desk looked friendly, so I asked the familiar question. “Usted conoce al autor Americano Frank Yerby?” Once again, the answer was “No.” Ready to give up, my colleague suggested we write down Yerby’s name. As to be expected, the Spanish pronunciation of surnames can be quite different from the English. For instance, “Smiles” becomes “Smeee-less.” Once I presented him with Y-E-R-B-Y on paper, his face lit up. “Si. Señor Yerby. Lo escrito Americano.” Finally, here was a “Yes.”
Javier De Frutos, who worked at the apartment building for the past 30 years, did indeed know Yerby. He described the author as optimistic and pleasant. According to Javier, Yerby never lived in the building; he used it as an office only. He also indicated that the author was not well-known in Madrid, hence my inability to find him in the local bookstores. Finally, Javier had unpleasant news. Yerby’s second wife had died six or seven years after Yerby. My letter to her had most likely been thrown away. Still, I was excited to have found someone who actually knew Yerby in Madrid.
I’ve written before about the challenges and sacrifices that accompany graduate education. But, as with all serious pursuits, just when circumstances begin to overwhelm, something comes along to make it worthwhile. Without a doubt, traveling to Madrid to search for Frank Yerby and finding at least one person who knew him was a bright light on my journey to the Ph.D.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com