Young publishers from Howard County explore 1960s racism in self-published novel

Young publishers from Howard County explore 1960s racism in self-published novel

As small waves crashed along a beach shore in Stratton, N.H. in August 2015, the mind of 23-year-old Erik Parshall was elsewhere. Seashells hidden in the sand scratched his feet after almost every step, but Parshall's focus wasn't disrupted as he listened to his grandmother recall a time of racial tension in 1966 Petersburg, Va.

Minutes later, Parshall was on the phone with two friends from high school, Chikodili Agwuna and Hannah Korangkool, planning to turn one particularly traumatic story into their first novel, "Black Cat on a White Porch."

Withint four months, the three Howard County high school graduates founded Chormeri Books publishing company, writing, designing and releasing grandmother Muriel Rubin story in November.

"It was a very revealing conversation," said Parshall, a 2011 Howard High graduate. "[My grandmother] says different things all the time, but nothing that has struck me so much as this. That afternoon, I just started drafting a chapter."

Parshall said he wanted originally to write a short story, no more than 50 pages, and send it to another publication, such as the New Yorker. But as he began exploring each character, Parshall said the story grew.

"Black Cat on a White Porch" follows Rubin as a 34-year-old pursuing a master's degree in education in 1966 Petersburg, Va., in a class of both white and black women, in hopes of becoming a schoolteacher. When their professor requires study groups to work together outside the school, Rubin, who is white, opens her home to her group, comprised of three white women and two black women.

"That's when everything bad happened," Rubin said. "The black women said to us, 'You can't come into our neighborhood because it will be evening and we can't vouch for your safety.' I said they could come to my house because I didn't care."

Every main character is a woman, and each chapter focuses on a different character, exploring racism and reactions within and outside the group.

"After I had written the first chapter, I started to ask her more questions about life in the '60s and other times or experiences witnessing prejudice," Parshall said.

While Parshall put his fingers to the keyboard, Agwuna, who graduated from Atholton High in 2011, set her eyes on the previously completed chapter, questioning and editing areas for clarity and improvement.

"Not until we got to chapter four did it really become a big deal, sitting down and thinking about arches and how to craft some of these characters that might not be characters you know or have the same background as you," Agwuna said. "When we wrote chapter seven, that's when he finally told me what happened."

Meanwhile, Parshall shared his ideas for the book's cover with Korangkool, a fellow 2011 Howard High graduate. Now a graphic designer for Bambeco retail, Korangkool said the cover was simple, yet defining for the novel.

She also created the icon – a liquid drop – for Chormeri Books, using self-publishing platform Blurb, as well as Adobe's InDesign software.

"I would work 10 to 12 hours and then I came home and we all met and worked until midnight on the book," she said. "The brand standards involved our four colors, so we have black, blue, yellow and red for the drop. The black represents ink, the blue represents tears and sweat, the red represents blood and the yellow is the golden rain."

Korangkool said the icon and its representations display the effort and dedication placed into the novel. The company name, "Chormeri," also conveys a hidden meaning, combining the Greek words "meraki" meaning "love, passion and soul" and and "ichor," which means "golden fluid that flowed in the veins of the gods."

"We really like the word 'ichor' because we think that creativity is what fuels a lot of people and they don't really get to express that to its fullest potential all the time," Parshall said. "If the 'meraki' part is what you put into it, we added a physical image of creative gold and blood."

Rubin said she has read the novel twice since its publication, also bringing the novel to her book club. Although the characters' backgrounds were Parshall's creation, she said the book truly captured the time period and tensions she experienced.

For example, she said, her white classmates often made excuses to avoid opening their home to the black students. While some said their homes were "too messy," others claimed that their husbands didn't like having people over.

"I was happy because it proves a point. It talks about how horrible racism was in the '60s and I'm from the North, so I didn't know things were that bad," Rubin said. "It was very just a huge awakening. I'm very, very proud of them. I thought they did an absolutely wonderful job."

After completing their own mission, Parshall said the team wants to guide others who share that creative spark to find ways to publish their works. Writers at the college and post-grad levels need support when they don't have the resources, he said.

Plans also include a second publication of short works, essays, poetry and photography, Parshall said. Submissions will be gladly accepted as the team prepares for writers' workshops at local high schools, like Howard High, as well as Howard Community College.

"Black Cat on a White Porch" is currently sold online at https://squareup.com/store/chormeribooks, with a new wesbite under construction. Parshall, Agwuna and Korangkool held a reading at Red Emma's Bookstore Coffeehouse in Baltimore will plan more readings to come.

"One of our main goals is to create a network because part of the English education is learning about all the writers who knew each other," Parshall said. "These elements aren't just for other people; they're for us, too. We're all creatively fueled."

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