The former St. Paulite’s debut novel is now a Penguin Classic – Twin Cities
Just in time for Black History Month comes news that a 30th anniversary edition of David Haynes’ debut novel, “Right By My Side,” will go on sale Tuesday as the Penguin Classic. This is an honor for Haynes, a former St. Paul Middle School teacher and emeritus professor of English at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Not many living authors are included in the Classics series, and Haynes now joins the ranks of writers like Alice Hoffman and Amy Tan.
“It’s very rare for a book to have a second life, so I’m excited to bring this one to a new generation,” Haynes said in a phone conversation from his St. Louis home, sounding as genius as he did when he did a Pioneer Press interview in 1993. “This novel has probably been out of print for 15 years. I have a few copies but it is hard to find. I spoke to a teacher in Minneapolis who said his copy was falling apart.
Haynes admits he’s “just starting to figure out” that it was released in the Classics series, all of which have the same binding colors. “I was so familiar with those orange plugs in libraries and classrooms. When my box of books arrives, that’s the main thing I’m going to look at — that spine — and realize it’s me now.
Haynes, 67, wrote “Right By My Side” when he was in his 30s and lived on West Seventh Street in St. Paul. He enjoyed teaching 6th and 7th graders at various schools: Longfellow, Galtier, Como and Saturn, where he was part of the leadership team at the experimental Saturn School of Tomorrow. But he had always wanted to be a writer and was ready to give it a try. He got a boost when his short story “Taking Miss Kezee to the Polls” won the first annual fiction contest sponsored by City Pages, an alternative newspaper. His years in the classroom gave him fodder for five middle school books in the West Seventh Street series.
“Right By My Side,” set in the 1980s, is an often humorous coming-of-age story about 15-year-old African-American Marshall Field Finney (named after the famous department store) who lives in a housing development outside of St. Louis and frequents a mostly white St. Louis high school. His mother ran away, leaving him with his alcoholic father who runs the local dump. Marshall doesn’t know where his life is headed until he discovers that storytelling is a way to ease his teenage angst and family tensions. Then, as Marshall struggles to make sense of his life, he receives letters from his mother reminding him how closely related they are. The young man’s friends, one black and one white, are his only allies as they navigate school and family life together.
“Marshall is a nice combination of students I knew, kids I grew up with and myself,” Haynes says amused. “There’s a lot of me in Marshall.”
But in the late 1980s, New York publishers didn’t want fiction about middle-class black children and their families. Hayne’s manuscript was repeatedly rejected because, she says, it did not include drugs or sex. These publishers, he felt, thought readers wanted an accepted story that validated their perceptions of young black men, “but that wasn’t my book.”
“Right By My Side” finally found a home at New River Press in Minneapolis, founded by the late CW “Bill” Truesdale, after the manuscript won the New Rivers Minnesota Voices Project. The book received critical acclaim as soon as it was published and went through three reprintings, a coup for a small literary press. The American Library Association named it one of the best books of 1994, and two years later Haynes was named one of America’s 20 Best Young Writers by Granta magazine.
Penguin selected “Right By My Side” for a special edition because the publisher considers it an overlooked classic in our literary canon that features black middle-class life in the American Midwest in the 1980s.
“With 2023 marking the 30th anniversary, it’s time Marshall Field Finney was introduced to modern readers and students to read alongside other memorable young protagonists of beloved classics known for their wit, humor and resilience,” wrote the vice president and publisher of Penguin Classics. at Pioneer Press.
Haynes is a graduate of Macalester College with a master’s degree from Hamline University. He grew up in the St. Louis suburb of Breckenridge Hills, where African Americans and whites were mostly in the same social class. His paternal grandfather was Chinese, and he recalls that the family would drive to Chinese restaurants on Sundays to eat what was considered exotic food in the 1950s.
After the publication of ‘Right by My Side’, Haynes and New Rivers stayed together for the publication of his novels ‘Heathens’ and ‘A Star in the Face of the Sky’, his most recent book. She also has ties to the Minneapolis-based literary publishing house Milkweed Editions, which has published her novels Somebody Else’s Mama, All American Dream Dolls, and Live at Five. And he served on the board of the Loft Literary Center.
Since Haynes gave his last class at SMU in 2019, he considers himself “sort of” retired because he spends a lot of time working with the Kimbilio Center for Black Fiction, a national organization he co-founded for writers of narrative of the African diaspora. It’s an ambitious non-profit that offers retreats, mentorship, a national fiction award, a reading venue, and a program that brings together fellows from across the diaspora. “I’m very proud of what we do,” she says.
Travel is also in Haynes’ plans, including readings to young people of “Right By My Side” in the spring. He hopes to stop in the Twin Cities but nothing is finalized. For now, he says, “I’m quietly celebrating my Penguin Classic book on Tuesday, and my joy is reaching new readers.”