Trey’s Chic : Trey Ellis: He’s Hot, Controversial and Breaking New Ground in Black Literature

Times Staff Writer

Trey Ellis’ “Platitudes” is a Computer-Age novel critics are calling “delightfully rad.” Radical because the author’s first novel breaks with stereotypical images of blacks in both literature and popular culture. Fresh, because Ellis, stylistically, is to the novel what the hip-hop artist or rapper is to the tradition-bound sound of rhythm and blues.

And even a shade controversial: Is he really as “shrewd” a parodist as some are claiming?

The 26-year-old Stanford graduate, son of two professors, believes he is part of an artistic avant-garde. He’s delighted to talk about the “New Black Aesthetic”--”a Harlem Renaissance on floppy disk,” as one critic wrote--embodied in his work.


“This is my bug to bear,” he says eagerly in a phone interview from New York. “There is this New Age of black art where you don’t have to talk about cotton fields or rats exclusively anymore. Blacks, for the first time now, especially blacks my age, in their mid-20s, come from so many different backgrounds and situations that we need to reflect that in our work.”

Fictional Spike Lee

To that end, Ellis, who is being called the “fictional equivalent” of film maker Spike Lee, has created the character of Earle, a sex-starved, MIT-bound, black preppie living on New York’s Upper West Side. The elusive object of his desire is Dorothy, a soon-to-be buppie attending a private school downtown while living in Harlem with her mother, who owns a restaurant where Filet of Soul and biscuits with viscera are among the weekday specials.

The novel, published by Vintage Contemporary, is a love story within a love story, a seriously comic tale of competing versions of the romance of Dorothy and Earle. Enter Dewayne Wellington, a failing black experimental novelist, and Ishee Ayam, a celebrated, radical black feminist.

Wellington has serious writer’s block. He can’t decide which story line to follow and resorts to advertising for help: “. . . please write in and tell me which story you like better; and what are your favorite (and least favorite) characters, witticisms, grammatical devices, etc.” And send it to: “Which Ones Do I Kill?”

Ayam, author of the best-selling books, “Chillun o’ de Lawd,” “Hog Jowl Junction” and “My Big Ol’ Feets Gon’ Stomp Dat Evil Down,” responds. And the book takes off with their alternating tales of the teen-age affair.

An exponent of what Ellis calls the “Afro-baroque” style, Ishee Ayam writes:

The next morning’s sun woke the heavens with a friendly warmth and glow that told all the earth’s creatures that Sunday had finally and so gloriously arrived. Mama leaned over the makeshift stove, frying a spoonful of cornmeal mush and reboiling last week’s coffee for her and her grown daughters. But for Earle, their seed carrier, their hope, Mama squeezed the last drops of milk from the shriveled and near-spent teats of their wizened goat, Sojourner.

Like their real-life counterparts among the black literati, the feminist Ayam and misogynist Wellington are at war over the images of black men and women in their fiction. Many have assumed that Ayam is a thinly veiled Alice Walker and that Wellington is the novelist, poet and playwright, Ishmael Reed.

Reed’s 1986 novel, “Reckless Eyeballing,” is a parody about a conspiracy mounted by black and white feminists to destroy the career of a black male playwright who has been “sex-listed.”

Ellis, however, says he was unaware of the “blood-feud” between Walker and Reed when he wrote his book, completed while he was working as a translator in Italy in 1986.

“I had not read ‘The Color Purple.’ I came back and read ‘Reckless Eyeballing’ after I did this book.”

So “Platitudes,” he adds, is “not really about those two people or those two groups. It just turns out coincidentally that there was this big controversy that people assumed influenced the book.”

One highly acclaimed novelist, critic and teacher, Charles Johnson, author of “Faith and the Good Thing” and “Oxherding Tales,” is an Ellis fan.

Something of a Cheap Shot

But, he says: “It’s hard for me not to see the Ishee Ayam character as being Alice Walker. I felt a little uncomfortable with that--it was something of a cheap shot, even though at the end of the book Ellis redeems her.”

When asked what contemporary, respected black writer’s work exemplifies the Afro-baroque, glory-story style of Ishee Ayam, Ellis responds: “In writing classes, you’d be surprised how many people you see writing like that. A lot of blacks still write that way, those who’d never been south of Washington, D.C., and suddenly, when they pick up a pen, they start writing regurgitated ‘Sounder.’ ”

Whatever fueled the multivoiced satire in “Platitudes,” Ellis is “young, talented and original,” says Johnson, director of creative writing at the University of Washington, fiction editor of the Seattle Review and author of “Being & Race,” a new book on black writing since 1970. “I am very excited by Trey.”

Ellis says his “absolute favorite writers are Toni Morrison and Gabriel Garcia Marquez,” and he also admires the work of Clarence Major, the black experimental writer and author of “Reflex and Bone Structure,” “No,” and “Emergency Exit.”

There is a similarity between the work of Ellis and Major, says Johnson: “Ellis is writing within a tradition that Major has made enormous contributions to in the last 20 years. They are very different in their sensibilities,” but their approach to literary art and language is similar.

It’s the “anti-novel,” he explains. “It’s satirical and primarily about language performance, which has its own delights, as opposed to traditional narrative.”

Overshadowed the Book

When Ellis applies this technique to the so-called black experience, he “shatters a lot of preconceptions and naive artistic assumptions about what is black,” Johnson says. “A lot of the book is a stylistic parody of traditional black fiction, slave stories, bad imitators of Walker and earlier black writers, who were political in a sort of mechanical, artificial way. It’s very shrewd, kind of the fictional equivalent of (film makers) Robert Townsend and Spike Lee.”

Says Ellis, soft-spoken and amiable: “I think black politics has overshadowed what the book was trying to be about, which is the human relationships behind two writers. I tried to show, in a funny way--because I’m basically a frustrated stand-up comedian--what would motivate writers to write in different ways.”

There is, he says, a lot of “misogynistic writing. And the reason these men hate women is usually not because they are bad people but because their hearts have been broken.”

“Heartache influences much of our lives--tells us what jobs to take, how much food to eat--at least it does for me. I’m a romantic,” Ellis says.

How often has his heart been broken?

“Too often,” he replies.

And is Earle, his youthful, libidinous protagonist, like him? “Earle is sort of a caricature of what I was in high school. And Dewayne is a caricature of what I was afraid I’d turn into if I hadn’t sold the book and I was still proofreading and I wasn’t screenwriting and doing all these other things.”

He is now at work on a screenplay about Staggerlee, a character out of Afro-American folklore, which he polished for a week at Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute. He is certain the screenplay will be made into a film soon. “We’re pretty far in the process with a studio, but I can’t say more.”

Ellis, like his character, Wellington, lives in an apartment on Riverside Drive. There, he cared for his father, a psychiatrist who died of kidney failure at age 49 a few years ago.

Typical Father Stuff

“Obviously, I wish he were here,” to see the success of the book, Ellis says. “He was always telling me ‘Get a job . . . go to grad school,’ typical father stuff. Then after he died, I sold the book.”

His mother, a psychologist, died of multiple sclerosis when she was 36 and Ellis was 16. She then “was going to Yale, studying to be a lawyer,” he says. He has a younger sister who is in medical school.

“When we were all alive, it was pretty much a Cosby show, happy-go-lucky family,” Ellis says.

Since both his parents were university professors, the family lived in different parts of the country, Ypsilanti, Mich., for a while, then Hamden, Conn. “We were always like the only black family in these working-class, non-black neighborhoods,” he recalls. “A lot of my growing up has spent running away from people shouting ‘nigger.’ ”

But reflecting, he says, “That was good for me because as an outsider it gives me a good eye on people.”

Ellis is at work on a second novel as well as screenplays. Disputing one magazine report that said screenwriting was his first love, the author says no. “I’ve wanted to be a novelist since I was 6. I heard that they only work four hours a day and sail around in boats.”

Not Paying the Rent

Unfortunately, “the kind of novels I do--comic literature--is not making me rich. It’s not like even paying the rent,” so he does a lot of free-lance magazine work.

There’s money to be made in films, he knows, and he likes the prospect of it, as well as the art of it.

“The problems in the movies comes from not having black writers, so you have all these stereotypes. Once blacks start writing big black movies with regular budgets the quality of the movies will be much higher because they will be much truer to the culture.

“The only thing we need more than more black books is more black movies.”