What I learned from a Baltimorean published novelist

By DIVA PAREKH | September 19, 2019

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Courtesy of Diva Parekh

Leaving my apartment in Nine East to go to India for part of this summer, I had to wait 15 minutes for my very slow Uber to make its way to pick me up and take me to the airport. The security guard sitting at the front desk was someone I recognized — she always sees me at my sleep-deprived best. Yet, waiting for the Uber was the first time I had the chance to have a real conversation with her.

She asked me about the writing programs at Hopkins, and I told her about our esteemed Writing Seminars department. It prompted a conversation about why it wasn’t just called Creative Writing, but that’s beside the point.

Anyway, she told me that she’d written and published a book, and that she was working toward publishing another. 

She handed me her business card inscribed with her name — Shaquana Gaskins — and the title of her book — Brown and Blue. Of course, me being part of the The News-Letter, I immediately asked if I could interview her.

It took about a month to find a time that worked for both of us, but I finally sat down to interview her last Thursday. She had just gotten off a night shift, but her energy seemed boundless. 

I asked her what her day-to-day life looked like, because I honestly could not figure out how she managed to keep up that level of energy.

“I'm a single parent, and I do security for Johns Hopkins through Allied Universal, Monday through Thursday, when my kids are at school, that's my time to write, and then when the kids come in it's complete chaos,” Gaskins said. “Then I go to work after, so it's busy but not too busy to the point where I can't juggle everything. I do get a sufficient amount of sleep as well. It's not as hectic as a lot of people think it is.”

So for those of you trying to balance a million different things here at Hopkins, it is possible to sleep (Yeah, I didn’t know that either)!

Gaskins started writing when she was 15, as a way to escape into her own mind. She sees writing, especially fiction, as a vacation where you make up your own rules — you are only limited by your imagination and creativity. 

Growing up in Baltimore, a lot of Gaskins’ writing was inspired by the city. She explained how she was inspired by the talent and positivity she sees in the city.

“I want to show the world that despite all the negativity you hear on the news, there's so much talent in Baltimore, and it's being ignored and it's not being given a chance,” she said. “I've lived in Baltimore all my life. Even with everything that's going on, I still love my city. This is where I was born, this is where I was raised. My history is here.”

Gaskins emphasizes that publishing her first book, Brown and Blue, took not only a lot of effort and rejection, but also a fairly large sum of money. 

“The way I look at it is: In order to be successful, you have to be willing to invest in yourself,” she said. “Even if you have to do a payment plan, at the end of the day, you're investing in yourself, and you reap the benefits later.”

Though she’s aiming to publish two more books in the near future, she also plans on spending time promoting Brown and Blue

The novel focuses on the relationship between people of color — represented by brown — and law enforcement — blue. Not wanting to give away too much, Gaskins told me only a little about the plot.

In her story, a young black man is framed for a murder he did not commit. He is imprisoned awaiting his court date, and is assigned a court-appointed lawyer who can’t remember his name. The lawyer tries to convince him to accept a plea deal and confess to the murder to get a shorter sentence. 

So he fires his lawyer, and while he’s in jail, he finds another one. And together they navigate the challenges of a judicial system that seems to be geared against young men of color to find the real killer and set the innocent man free.

“You’ll have to read the book to find out what happens next,” Gaskins says with a chuckle. “It’s available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.”

I did buy the book, although I haven’t found time to read it yet. But if Shaquana Gaskins can write novels, work night shifts at Nine East and be a single parent, then I can find the time to crack open her book sooner rather than later despite the fact that I have homework.

“Don't let other people's opinions put you down,” Gaskins said. “If you have a talent, go with it. You're going to have haters who are going to try to break your spirit and make you not want to do what you're passionate about. But you've got to fight through that.”

As for me, if there was anything that I took from all of this, it’s that you never know who might be hiding around the corner. 

There are people you pass by every day. Maybe you smile, maybe you say the occasional good morning. But try to stop and have a conversation with them. You never know what you might learn.

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