Immigration, gang violence, sexuality and racism are among the issues Roxbury Community College professor and author Ken Tangvik confronts the reality of urban youth and young adulthood head on in his new collection of short stories “Don’t Mess with Tanya: Stories Emerging from Boston’s Barrios.”
One of the stories in the book, “Mission Hill Neighbors,” tells the tale of a lonely coke-addicted graduate student befriending a prostitute he hired—an undocumented single mother from the Domincican Republic—after he realizes she lives downstairs from him.
Other stories hinge on more everyday plotlines—like teenagers mourning the death of loved ones in gang violence and young adults navigating the balance between work and romance.
Some, Tangvik told the Gazette, were inspired by events that took place in different Boston neighborhoods. One story about a young man dealing with potentially deadly harassment from neighborhood youths was based on a story Tangvik said he heard from a youth’s uncle about fights the youth was getting into at the Forest Hills T Station in Jamaica Plain.
Other stories tell of an African-American woman teaching an old-school Italian shop-owner a lesson and two immigrant Latina women frankly discuss the morality of gold-digging and investing money the get from their lovers in real estate in their home countries.
Tangvik said his goal in publishing the stories is both to write stories that minority youths and young adults could relate to and to reach out to white people moving into Boston neighborhoods.
“Worlds that have been separate are coming together,” he said.
Tangvik himself is a ”white, Irish person whose mother’s name was Mulligan and who grew up in Dorchester,” he said. Still, he told the Gazette, he feels confident that he captured the voices of minority youth and young adults in the stories he wrote.
He co-founded of the Hyde Square Task Force—a Jamaica Plain nonprofit focused on supporting urban youths—20 years ago, and he has taught literature at Roxbury Community College for the last 25 years. Working with minority youths and young adults for a quarter-century means Tangvik is familiar with his subjects’ voices, he said.
And he has gotten plenty of feedback from them.
He has long favored using short stories in his class, he said. “You can read them in class and have a discussion or do a writing assignment. I have always been looking for good short stories.”
A few years ago, he said, he decided to write his own story and, without telling them that he wrote it, see how his class received it. That story, the title story of the book, “went over well,” he said.
Since then, all of the stories that appear in the collection have been read by “hundreds of students.”
“If they had told me the stories were [inauthentic], there is no way I would have had the confidence to go out to a publisher,” he said.
Some of the stories are based on Tangvik’s own experiences, he said. In one story, a young, white substitute teacher is subjected to a dangerous prank when his students turn the lights off in the classroom and simultaneously hurl their textbooks at him. He survives the assault hiding under his desk.
“With the book-throwing incident, that is exactly the way it happened,” Tangvik told the Gazette. He was teaching at the former Jamaica Plain High School—now English High.
In the story, the teacher ends up counseling the youth who organized the prank. Tangvik said that part of the story was made up, but, he said, “He became every other young man I counseled at the Hyde Square Task Force and RCC.”
He said one critique he has gotten about his stories is that the vast majority have, if not happy, at least up-beat endings. He is unapologetic, though.
“I am basically an optimist. I did not want to make them too happy, but it is in my nature to seek solutions—to offer hope.”
“Don’t Mess with Tanya: Stories Emerging from Boston’s Barrios” was published by Aberdeen Bay this month. The book is available online at www.aberdeenbay.com.