Skip to Navigation
University of Pittsburgh
Print This Page Print this pages

October 1, 1998

University staffer's days are spent writing for business school; at home, she spins tales for kids

Sharon Flake is in her early 40s, but as a writer, she feels 13. Somewhere she read that writers write about situations they've never dealt with completely in their own lives. "The seventh grade was very difficult for me. I stayed in the house, watched old movies, read books. I was very shy and insecure," Flake says. "To this day, I still fly blind. I jump in the water, and say, 'You mean you have to swim to do this?' I can do it, but it's a leap of faith. In that sense, I'm still 13." As director of public relations at the Katz business school, Flake keeps the Katz school's degree programs, academic centers and faculty expertise in the national spotlight, and writes copy for brochures and ads, press releases and announcements of special Katz school occasions.

But that's only her day job. What's closest to her heart is the writing she does when she's not at work. This month, Flake has published a novel with a message primarily for black adolescents, which she dedicated to daughter Brittney Banks, her 10-year-old "sweet brown beauty." The book, "The Skin I'm In," is a first-person account of 13-year-old Maleeka Madison, who sees middle school as a world of peer pressure, difficult choices and biting words.

"You Miss Saunders's pet, anyhow," Char says, sticking gum in her mouth. "She got you that job in the office just to keep you away from me, I bet." I start to tell Char that ain't so, but she don't want to listen. "We're hanging out in the bathroom next period. You coming?" she asks.

"I have to work," I say.

"That's what good little slaves do, obey their masters, right?" Flake says her own adolescent experiences remain common among girls today. "Girls are just as hungry today for some affirmation. We still see no role models on TV for black children. They have the same insecurities as I had. Even though I've always called Brittney my beauty and given her support, you can be told you're pretty, and unless you believe it yourself, it doesn't matter. "I think Brittney's much more solid than I was, with issues in the classroom and things like that. But her self-confidence is still not where I'd like it to be. It's a struggle." Her daughter's battle with self-confidence is all-too-familiar to Flake. "Some of my teachers would say about my writing, 'You're good,' but I wouldn't believe them. Eventually, I noticed I seemed to get good grades in writing. But I didn't really want to do it. It was very hard. I wasn't disciplined. I thought if God was calling me to do this, if God has given me a talent, why don't I like it?" "The Skin I'm In," Flake's first book-length manuscript, was accepted for publication on first submission, a rarity. "As a writer, I fell into a good category. For black kids to age 8, yes, there are some nurturing books that tell of deeds done by blacks, but there are no books for and about African Americans age 10 to 14. It's like they fell off the edge of the Earth. And I think that happens to be where my talent is," she says. The book took Flake two years to finish. "Three years ago, I said to myself, 'Now, Sharon, you can do 15 minutes a day. Because, you know, 15 minutes will become a half-hour. Or longer.' By the time I was finishing the book, I was writing for three and four hours some days." Describing her creative modus operandi, Flake says, "I just need to find that first sentence to get me going. Like my work at Katz, I need that first sentence. It sets the imagery, everything. I don't plan much. I don't do outlines. I know people who will say they know what their characters smell like. I never know what's going to happen till I get there." The book started as a short story but with different characters, she says. "The only thing that survived was that it's about a child and a teacher. By the end, it was a different child and a different teacher," she says. "Ten years ago, I couldn't have written this book. The talent would have been there, but not the writer comfortable with my talent, to not be afraid of it, to know how to handle it. I've come a long way since I wanted to give up writing." Flake's protagonist Maleeka finds her path partly through writing, too, something her teacher Miss Saunders encourages. In diary form, the girl creates a character, Akeelma, an anagram of her own name. Akeelma is undergoing a journey of tribulation crossing to America on a slave-ship, paralleling the internal pilgrimage that Maleeka embarks on. The teacher, who has a skin-discoloration condition, becomes the role-model the dark-skinned, image-conscious Maleeka can rely on, though it takes time and harsh lessons for her to realize it.

"The Skin I'm In" is published in an edition titled "Jump at the Sun," along with a second novel, "Marisol and Magdalena: The Sound of Our Sisterhood," by Veronica Chambers. The volume is the first in the "Jump at the Sun" series, which is a special children's fiction series celebrating black adolescence published by Hyperion Books for Children, New York. Flake hails from west Philadelphia and first came to Pittsburgh in summer 1973, entering Pitt's University Challenge for Excellence Program. After earning a B.A. in English in 1978, she spent 10 years as a communications representative in University Relations (now Office of Communications), before coming to Katz. Flake also has published in Essence and Black Elegance magazines and is a scholarship recipient from Highlights for Children magazine. She is a first-place winner of the August Wilson short story contest for multicultural enlightenment, sponsored by AIM magazine. Flake will appear at the Pitt Book Center Nov. 5 at noon to sign copies of her novel.

–Peter Hart

Filed under: Feature,Volume 31 Issue 3

Leave a Reply