Authors: Trey Ellis

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist

Identity: African American

Author Works

Long Fiction:

Platitudes, 1988

Home Repairs, 1993

Right Here, Right Now, 1999

Short Fiction:

“Guess Who’s Coming to Seder?,” 1989

Screenplay:

The Inkwell, 1994 (as Tom Ricostranza)

Teleplays:

Cosmic Slop, 1994

The Tuskegee Airmen, 1996

Good Fences, 2003 (adaptation of Erika Ellis’s novel)

Nonfiction:

“The New Black Aesthetic,” 1989

Biography

One of the most noteworthy of a generation of middle-class African American authors who gained prominence in the late twentieth century, Trey Ellis mixes disparate ideas in his writing, crossing the borders of race and class. The characters in his fiction move comfortably between the black world of their families and friends, white mass culture, and the mixed-race environment of urban America. Ellis grew up in the predominantly white suburbs outside Ann Arbor, Michigan, and New Haven, Connecticut, while his parents were completing their professional degrees at the University of Michigan and Yale University. When he was in elementary school in Hamden, Connecticut, Ellis and his sister were the only black children at the school who were not bused in from New Haven. Later he attended private junior high and high schools in New Haven until the eleventh grade, when he transferred to Phillips Academy, Andover. From there, Ellis went to Stanford University in California, where he majored in creative writing.{$I[AN]9810001897}{$I[A]Ellis, Trey}{$S[A]Ricostranza, Tom;Ellis, Trey}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Ellis, Trey}{$I[geo]AFRICAN AMERICAN/AFRICAN DESCENT;Ellis, Trey}{$I[tim]1962;Ellis, Trey}

In his artistic statement “The New Black Aesthetic,” Ellis heralds a movement of second-generation middle-class blacks who have the economic security to pursue artistic experiments. The essay, a mélange of references ranging from authors James Baldwin and Gertrude Stein to singer James Brown and comedian Pee-Wee Herman, is a manifesto for a new black art and a new black artist. The artist of the New Black Aesthetic is “a cultural mulatto” who borrows from “a multi-racial mix of cultures” and moves freely across racial, social, and class boundaries. The artists and the audience for this new black art are alienated intellectuals who feel misunderstood by both the white and the black worlds and who “admit liking both Jim and Toni Morrison.” Ellis singles out the film directors Spike Lee and Robert Townsend, the author Terry McMillan, and the playwright George C. Wolfe as artists who embody the spirit of this new aesthetic.

Ellis’s first novel, Platitudes, uses innovative postmodern techniques to create a novel of the New Black Aesthetic. The work includes fragments of computer programs, college entrance examinations, menus, love poems, popular songs, photographs, and a sex survey as part of the satire on the cultural milieu of contemporary urban America. The story, which parodies the conflict in black literary culture between male experimental writers such as Ishmael Reed and female realist writers such as Alice Walker, draws attention to the complex processes of representation through its novel-within-a-novel structure.

At the beginning of the story Dewayne Wellington, a frustrated young author, writes a letter to ask the public for assistance in completing his novel, Platitudes, the story of two teenagers in New York City. In Dewayne’s novel, Earle Tyner, an awkward computer nerd, is trying to win the affection of Dorothy LaMont, a waitress at her mother’s Harlem soul food restaurant, who shuns Earle in favor of her wealthy friends. Isshee Ayam, a renowned black feminist writer, responds to Dewayne’s query and attacks his story. Not only is his story sexist drivel, Isshee tells him, it is unconscious of its roots in black folk culture. She rewrites Dewayne’s novel, moving Earle and Dorothy to a community of strong black women in a rural Southern setting. Dewayne objects to Isshee’s version, but the two authors continue to correspond about their novels. At the same time that Earle begins to develop a romantic relationship with Dorothy in Dewayne’s novel, Dewayne and Isshee agree to meet at a writer’s conference in New York City. Isshee misses her date with Dewayne, however, and in his anger he writes a scene in which Earle discovers Dorothy in bed with a male model. When Isshee reads these pages she realizes how much she had hurt Dewayne and makes a special trip to visit him. Ultimately both authors write happy endings to Platitudes.

Home Repairs, Ellis’s second novel, is not as successful as Platitudes. The novel is a journal chronicling the obsessive passions of Austin McMillan, a smart, privileged sixteen-year-old boy who becomes the host of a cable television home repair show. Like Ellis, Austin had grown up in Hamden and attended preparatory school and Stanford. Austin’s journal records his struggle to discover his identity against a backdrop of adolescent angst. Home Repairs was less well-received than Platitudes, in part, because the young man’s search for identity and the novel’s social satire are overshadowed by accounts of Austin’s sexual pursuits.

In 1994, Ellis wrote a screenplay, The Inkwell, a tender, semiautobiographical coming-of-age tale set in Martha’s Vineyard in 1976. He was so disappointed by the film, however, that he used the pseudonym Tom Ricostranza on the screen credits to express his disapproval. He continued to produce scripts, however, this time for television: Cosmic Slop in 1994, The Tuskegee Airmen in 1996, and Good Fences in 2003. The latter was an adaptation of a 1998 novel by his wife, Erika Ellis, whom he had married in 1994.

Trey Ellis’s third novel, Right Here, Right Now, is a satire that follows the rise and fall of Ashton Robinson, an African American graduate of Yale who becomes a self-help guru making millions through seminars, infomercials, and tapes. After taking too much cough syrup, however, Robinson has a mystical vision and turns to religion, preaching “revolutionary spiritualism.” As he gains followers to his New Age cult and begins to lose touch with reality, his family members ask the television series 60 Minutes to produce an exposé. The narrative device here is experimental, as the story is “reconstructed” from Robinson’s own tape recordings. Reactions to the book were mixed.

BibliographyEllis, Trey. “The New Black Aesthetic.” Callaloo 12, no. 1 (Winter, 1989). This essay and the insightful responses to it by Eric Lott and Tera Hunter in the same periodical are indispensable sources that outline the principles of Ellis’s artistic vision.Favor, J. Martin. “‘Ain’t Nothin’ Like the Real Thing, Baby’: Trey Ellis’ Search for New Black Voices.” Callaloo 16, no. 3 (Summer, 1993). Martin reviews both Platitudes and Ellis’s essay “The New Black Aesthetic.” He focuses on the artistic impressions of African Americans, sexism, and notions of racial pride.Hunter, Tera. “‘It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s Man’s World’: Specters of the Old Re-newed in Afro-American Culture and Criticism.” Callaloo 12, no. 1 (Winter, 1989). Hunter perceives Ellis’s criteria for the New Black Aesthetic as male-dominated and misogynist. She claims that Ellis’s Callaloo essay disregards most class and gender differences among black artists, but she nevertheless praises him for opening “a discourse with far-ranging implications.”Lott, Eric. “Hip Hop Fiction.” The Nation, December 19, 1988, 691-692. Lott addresses the dialogue between literary styles in Platitudes, calling it Ellis’s “call for a truce in the black literary world.” He concludes, however, that the debate between Dewayne and Isshee is unbalanced.Lott, Eric. “Response to Trey Ellis’s ‘The New Black Aesthetic.’” Callaloo 12, no. 1 (Winter, 1989). Lott chides Ellis for oversimplifying complex literary movements and discussing authors with significant differences as if they were in complete agreement. Lott also states that Ellis’s Callaloo article largely ignores class differences among black artists and intellectuals.
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