When Yolanda Joe reads from her new novel, He Say, She Say, she raises her fingers to her ears and listens for a moment. Then she begins speaking in the sophisticated, serious voice of her protagonist, an attractive 25-year-old radio station executive named Sandy.
"Last week I turned on the television and one channel told me that most of the men in prison are African-American," she reads. "I switched channels and the talk show's subject was: 'My Man Is Cheating on Me With a White Woman.'
"I cut the television off and called my mama, who was happily married to my father until the day he died, and she said, 'Times have changed. There just aren't any good men out there like your father anymore, baby.'
"Is that pressure or what?"
Joe finishes the passage, raises her hands, and pauses again before speaking in the twangy-slangy voice of Sandy's best friend, Bebe.
"I'm on a sex sabbatical," she reads. "I've been on it now for three months and it's been OK. I promised I'd give myself a year away from those crazy Negroes. Let me tell you about the last one. Don't run for the No-Doz, the story ain't that long."
Sandy and Bebe are two of the four characters who narrate Joe's breezy, fast-paced novel. In alternating chapters, the four single, African-American Chicagoans give a play-by-play of an affair between Sandy and T.J., a commitment-phobic musician she meets at a radio station party. Their tone is confessional, and the characters ring true.
"I think there's a little bit of myself in both Sandy and Bebe," says Joe. "Like Sandy I am serious at times and hopeful about having important and enriching friendships and romantic relationships in my life. Bebe is joking and energetic and says what she thinks, and that's a part of my personality too."
Joe, who lives in Chatham, grew up in Park Manor and attended Hyde Park Career Academy before earning a bachelor's in English literature from Yale and a master's in journalism from Columbia University. "I never believed that adage about being a starving writer," she says. She wrote the book--her second novel--in the mornings before working the two-to-ten shift as a newswriter at WBBM TV.
"None of the things that happen in the book are factual," says Joe. "But every character in that book is a bit of an experience of myself, of you, of everyone. You see the character and you say, 'Yeah, I have a friend like that,' or 'That's what my uncle would say.'
"I wanted to give the male characters in my book a voice," she says. "I'm sure some men will say, 'How do you think you know how we think?' That's the beauty of being a writer. You listen, you create, and you perceive. And this is not the type of story where you think these men represent all men.
They are these two men and these two particular characters. There are other men out there who act differently."
Joe is working on a sequel but won't give away the plot, suggesting only that it picks up with Bebe and Isaac, the man she meets at the end of He Say, She Say. Joe won't let on whether Isaac convinces Bebe to cut her sex sabbatical short. "You'll have to read the book to find out." --Cara Jepsen
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Randy Tunnell.