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Appreciation

Eric Jerome Dickey’s novels told our stories

His bestsellers gave Black readers connection and community

My siblings and I didn’t personally know Eric Jerome Dickey, the bestselling author known and beloved for his many novels about contemporary African American life.

But we knew his work.

The stories he told in the pages of Sister, Sister (1996), Friends and Lovers (1997), Cheaters (1999) and numerous other novels, gave life to characters who reminded us of our own family members and friends, and the situations in which they found themselves felt like mirror images of our lives.

Many of us know a “Gerri,” the best friend in Dickey’s fifth novel, Liar’s Game, who sells real estate by day and dances in a strip club at night. I knew several.

What young woman couldn’t identify with Valerie, Inda and Chiquita, the three heroines of Sister, Sister who are looking for love in the big city? The book came out three years before I got married, so its themes resonated in my own life. Would true love ever find me? Or would I have to change my dreams?

We all have sisters, cousins or friends like Valerie, who turned into Patty Perfect just to please her husband. Or Inda, whose boyfriend is two-timing her. Or Chiquita, who believes she has finally found the good man who was always right before her eyes – her best friend’s brother.

Please don’t get me started on Jordan Greene, the star of 1998’s Milk in My Coffee who – as the title suggests – strikes up a romance with a white girl. His family and friends are not happy, but he navigates the maze of family expectations, his own values and those of society. This is as real as it gets with Black folks.

And therein lies the reason Dickey connected so well with Black readers.

Dickey – who died of cancer on Jan. 3 at the age of 59 – made us feel seen, heard and understood. Reading his books made you feel like you belonged to a community.

Writer Eric Jerome Dickey at the 12th Annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books on the UCLA campus on April 29, 2007, in Los Angeles.

Charley Gallay/Getty Images

In his novels and characters, we saw something familiar: ourselves, our loved ones, our friends, our neighbors, our enemies. All flawed, imperfect, confused and in need of love, forgiveness and understanding.

Dickey talked about the importance of those characters in a 2012 interview with Black Enterprise magazine.

“When you start reading a book, hopefully you forget about me. In every good novel the writer disappears. You can no longer see the writer. It becomes about what’s in the book – the characters. You come back for Tyrel, Shelby … you’re not coming back to see what Eric wrote. That’s how it has to feel.”

And that’s how it did feel.

He was our male Terry McMillan, telling stories of love found, love lost, lies, lust, infidelity and greed. But he also told stories of friendship, trust, loyalty, forgiveness and restoration.

To see these emotions and situations – the same ones we experienced day in and day out in our real lives – play out in the pages of a book we could hold and pass on and share, was both cathartic and powerful in the Black community. Through his writing, we no longer felt ashamed or alone in our experiences and feelings. Dickey showed us that our stories mattered. Even though he enjoyed a broad and diverse audience, his books specifically gave the Black community connection and community with one another – and with him.

In an interview with BookPage.com in July 2000, shortly after his fifth novel was published, Dickey talked about creating characters that his readers could identify with.

“I don’t intentionally write a book with an idea of ‘the moral to this story is,’ because I’m more focused on letting the people in the book live,” he said. “I never know if I’ve hit the nail on the head, if it’s really worked, until I put it out there for people to read. But this is one of those books where I’d like people to walk away thinking, ‘I know these people. These are my friends.’ ”

In that same interview, he discussed issues of race and culture he encountered in the book industry.

“You get a lot of non-African American editors who don’t understand the culture or the style. I’ve gotten some secondary edits on things that made me think, ‘They just don’t get it.’ It can be language or dialogue or someone may say, ‘I don’t think that character should say that because I find that offensive.’ ”

It’s that realness that Dickey said his readers appreciated most and that he tried to convey.

“Someone emailed me that she would read mainstream writers who are either too politically correct or who just don’t write with that edge that you get when you’re being honest. Not that my stories are gritty or filthy, but they just seem more real to these readers.”

My sisters and I bonded over Sister, Sister. Of course, we loved the title, but what we really loved was the accurate portrayal of the often delicate relationships between sisters and those they love. The female characters were believable and the relationship between them was genuine and real. They were us.

With the publication of each new title, we made our way to the nearest bookstore and devoured it as quickly as possible so we could start grilling one another. “Girl, are you finished yet?” “What chapter are you on?” “Hurry up so we can talk about it.” “You see that fool Jordan, he gets on my nerves! He reminds me of Uncle Lawrence, you know he was just like him.”

The fact his books helped me bond with my sisters isn’t the only reason I mourn Dickey’s death. It’s also because, like me, he was a writer and the way he went about his craft inspired me.

We were close in age, I’ll be 55 in a couple of months, Lord willing, so we came up in the same era, no doubt experiencing some of the same injustices and roadblocks in life. But he pushed through. While writing novels wasn’t his first line of work, nor his second or third, (Dickey started his working life as a software developer), he finally found what he was no doubt put on Earth to do: uplift, encourage, inspire and entertain his community through his writing. I aspire to do the same.

We salute you, Eric Jerome Dickey, and hope you knew how much your books meant – and still mean to us. I hope you knew how much we appreciated your stories, woven with familiar faces and situations from our own lives. These were characters who looked like us, talked like us, felt like us and oftentimes were us.

Dorothy J. Gentry is a freelance writer and educator based in Dallas. She’s covered the WNBA, NBA, G-League and other professional sports leagues for several years. Her work has appeared in The Athletic, Slam and New York Times among others.