ears ago on a whim Frederick Smith decided to take an evening writing class at UCLA. Little did he know at the time that one seemingly insignificant move would result in a longstanding career featuring three published novels.
His latest, “Play It Forward,” is a page-turning work of fiction exploring same sex romance and the need for cross-generational mentoring. Smith says the themes emerged after contemplating the state of black gay men and the responsibility of reaching back to provide guidance as one matures in age and wisdom.
“This idea of mentoring was in my head the whole time I was writing,” he says. “Right around the time I began, [the remake of] of Sparkle was being filmed. A lot of Whitney Houston’s last interviews were about how she felt like she was in this mentoring role with her costars. That furthered my interest in the idea. I started thinking about how one generation imparts or shares knowledge with another generation, and how sometimes that doesn’t always happen.”
Set in the backdrop of south Los Angeles, “Play It Forward” chronicles an explosive summer filled with scandal. Main character Malcolm Campbell finds himself in the midst of personal tragedy, and unexpectedly center of a TMZ-esque headline reminiscent of the recent Yusaf Mack controversy. Reeling from embarrassment and a sudden push into celebrity life, Campbell fights to save his nonprofit organization while also trying to steer his wayward nephew onto the right path.
“I’m a soap opera kid so there’s some dramatic moments,” Smith dishes about the plot.
Sandwiched between the drama are poignant insights about judgment and privacy. Smith reveals that though he wanted to avoid coming across as too preachy, he felt his thoughts were ripe for today’s audience. He decided a ‘spoonful of sugar’ approach was in order.
“We have a societal responsibility to look at how we can reduce shame and secrets,” he says. “If we can learn to take steps back from our sense of judgment on each other and on ourselves, it can really free us to be who we are and not feel like there’s anything wrong with us. We also have to examine our individual responsibility to think about the ways in which we might open ourselves up to having our privacy invaded (if that’s not what we want). For example, if we go to someone’s house [to have sex], they could possibly have cameras somewhere. Or if we decide to text someone [sexual] pictures, they could end up in front of another party’s eyes. We need to think about those things.”
A reservoir of life lessons, the book is making its way into classrooms around the country—a highlight for Smith since the release earlier this year.
“I’ve had faculty members at different universities teach the book and use it as an introduction to talk about black queer modern life,” he says. “That’s really what I wanted. I wanted it to be something that both commercial readers would enjoy, but also something that could go into a classroom as a springboard for conversation.”
One of the key messages Smith hopes to drive home with readers is an appreciation of self. In many ways, “Play It Forward” serves as a cautionary tale and timely reminder for individuals to nurture their personal identities.
“I think it’s important for everyone to really come to understand and know who they are,” he says. “Oftentimes we can grow up in communities where mainstream society says you’re supposed to be ashamed of being gay, or you’re supposed to be ashamed of being black, or ashamed of whoever you are. Developing a sense of pride in your identity and then using that pride to empower others is essential.”
Smith knows that for sure.
His writing career, while unplanned, has been a pointed means to affirm the communities to which he belongs. What started as just a Beginners Fiction writing class to a publishing deal landed by word of mouth is now a sacred platform to help others.
“I’ve gotten so many emails from people who have said one of my books is the very first that they have read all the way through. I’m always floored; not in a judgmental way because I know many people don’t read or haven’t been asked to read things that resonate with their lives. So when I get an email like that it says to me that they’ve finally found something that speaks to their existence.” — Deon Newsom
#GiveABook this holiday season
‘Play It Forward’ and other titles by Frederick Smith are available here
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