“I ran. I ran as fast as the skirt of that stupid dress would let me. Then I hiked up the skirt, so that I could run even faster. But Cora’s shoes weren’t really designed for running. The heel broke and I fell straight into the mud puddle that I had skirted just moments ago.
The laughter had gotten so loud back at Farrell Manor that I could still hear it, even though I was halfway up the road.
“Come back, Monkey Night! I heard some boy yell behind me. “You look so nice in your pretty dress!”
I pushed myself up out the mud, kicked off the shoes, and started running again.” -32 Candles
For Davidia Jones – a mahogany-skinned, selective mute with a defiant afro bouffant – coming of age in pastoral Glass, Miss., was a far more bitter experience than sweet. The first 15 years of her life are a vicious introduction to the world’s vices and evils, as her contemptuous classmates — and doubly coldhearted mother — force her into a fantasy world where she is no longer Monkey Night, (“…I was ugly like a monkey and black as night”), a crude nickname doled out by her peers.
Life for the protagonist of 32 Candles, the first book released by self-proclaimed “fierce nerd” Ernessa T. Carter, appears to be a tragic Black-girl-gone-awry tale in its first moments. But the author creates a heroine that is multifaceted, quirky, humorous and above all, enduring.
Davidia (Davie as she is later called) responds to her detractors’ antics with a caustic, often ironic humor of her own, making 32 Candles a laugh-out-loud read that’s never disheartening or too depressing.
Carter said Davie and the books’ other characters evolved into entities of their own as she crafted the plot.
“Davie feels very much like her own person. It almost feels like I have a child,” said Carter, a St. Louis, Mo., native with family roots in Mississippi. “It’s like she’s from me, I gave birth to her, but she’s completely her own person.”
And while much of Davidia’s childhood is a nightmarish sequence of disappointments and rejection, Carter said her own life did not inspire the tome, which touches on weighty issues such as discrimination within the Black community (colorism), classism and sexuality.
“I dealt with colorism, also dealt with colorism but on an even bigger level than I did,” said Carter. “I didn’t really set out to tackle certain issues so to speak. I just really felt like this is her story, this is what happened.”
Unlike her idol Molly Ringwald’s fate in the timeless 1984 classic 16 Candles, Davie doesn’t snag the high school jock of her dreams, James Farrell. The Farrell family is the crown jewel of Glass with their bevy of sports car, model-perfect looks, wealth and prestige.
Even when James and Davie reunite decades later in Los Angeles, their union is far from idyllic. Carter admitted feeling “bummed for days” after penning their split and even more emotionally charged with writing one of the book’s pivotal scenes.
After receiving a bogus invitation to a party at the Farrell home, Davie is humiliated in front her peers.
“I was sobbing when she went up to the Farrell Manor and she found out that it was all a trick. It reminded me of every time I’d gotten rejected from something I really wanted. I think that scene for me is just a very universal experience,” said Carter.
This watershed moment would be equally stirring in a film adaptation, and when asked which entertainers she’d like to portray James and Davie, Carter’s response was immediate.
“If Janelle Monáe could act—I have no idea if she can—it’s to the point where I’m like, ‘Send her the script.’ I think she’s just amazing and I love that she’s kind of nerdy but really brings it all and seems to have her own thing going on,” said the author. “I really haven’t thought about anyone for James. I really love the half Black doctor on ‘Grey’s Anatomy,’ he might be good for it.”
And Janelle Monáe — a petite powerhouse vocalist with a whimsical fashion style — may be the ideal starlet to portray Davie, who metamorphoses into a jazz singer. She arrives in fast-paced Los Angeles with a southern drawl and disheveled afro, a far cry from the stereotypical glamorous Californian. But Davie’s transformation is more of an emotional undertaking than a physical adaptation.
“One of the things you’ll see in Hollywood movies is that a character like Davie, getting a makeover, they will perm her hair and give her Beyoncé-level weave,” said Carter, who sports a chocolate-hued afro of her own. “She got this kind of chanteuse makeover, but at the same time she was still herself.”
Just as Davie’s journey toward self-discovery seems complete, the past and present converge—at times violently—in Los Angeles. The book follows the singer as she encounters a rollercoaster of lovers, haters and a shocking revelation about her own family’s splintered past.
Hang on for the ride.
“32 Candles” is in stores now. For more information visit 32candles.com or follow Ernessa T. Carter on Twitter at twitter.com/ErnessaTCarter.