Monica West seeks redemption in an emotionally fraught faith-healing community
With her debut novel, Oakland writer Monica West recounts the coming-of-age of a girl grappling with issues of faith, doubt, feminism, power and patriarchy. Revival Season, published May 25 by Simon & Schuster, draws readers deeply into the world of faith healing as practiced by Black evangelical churches in the South.
Revival Season follows the Horton family as they traverse the South in their minivan and spread the good word through baptisms and healings. Patriarch Samuel regards himself as a literal miracle worker—the final authority for any matter that concerns his family—with son Caleb ready to step up and be the next apprentice.
The Horton women orbit the men—handling the domestic duties, careful not to upset Samuel in any way.
Fifteen-year-old Miriam is the novel’s protagonist, already questioning her father’s power after witnessing a beating he administered to a heckler the previous year. Younger sister Hannah is barely mobile with cerebral palsy, although no one in the family admits she won’t be cured someday. Their mother works hard to keep the family running smoothly—more suited, perhaps, to the ’50s than to the present day.
West grew up attending an old, established Black Baptist church and also a Catholic elementary school.
“Church was a really big part of my upbringing,” she said in a telephone interview. “But different than in the book, where that’s their livelihood.”
When they moved to a community just outside Cleveland, West’s family eventually went to “different, more integrated churches.”
From an early age, West’s favorite pastimes were reading and writing. After a stint with Teach for America in Phoenix, West worked in trade and educational publishing for Harper Collins and McGraw Hill. Of the two very different experiences, she said, “I think I got a really broad sense of how publishing works. [I] went from working on Jenna Jameson’s How to Make Love Like a Porn Star, to sixth grade assessment curriculum.”
Following her time in publishing, West landed a job teaching high school English in Baltimore, where she worked for five years before moving on.
“I loved my school in Baltimore,” she said. “I did not love Baltimore.”
Urged by a friend, West moved to Oakland in 2011, where she continued to teach English, this time at San Francisco’s Lick-Wilmerding School. West began Revival Season in 2012, and acknowledges that teaching helped her develop her novel’s protagonist.
“I’m so intrigued by that time of life, when kids are so completely porous and open to understanding the world in all the ways adults have shut themselves off to,” West said. “One of the gifts of teaching is I get to watch kids during some of the biggest changes of their lives.”
But it may have been her experience at the Iowa Writers Workshop that proved most enlightening for her work on Revival Season.
“I finished the book right before my workshop in October of 2015,” West said. “It was the first time I had a group of people read my entire 345-page book. There’s something intensely humbling about that process.”
West said she worked hard to make her characters complex in Revival Season.
“In the first draft of the book, Reverend Horton was a very one-dimensional kind of monster narcissist,” she said. Feedback from readers reminded her that “he can’t be all bad. The reader has to care about him.”
West said she always had compassion for Miriam and her mother, but the revision process involved giving Miriam some of the monstrosity she sees in her dad.
“I softened Reverend Horton,” West said. “He’s still not a good person, but I do try to make him less one-dimensional.”
Through revisions, West also made the novel’s ending more ambiguous.
“I don’t intend this book to be read by an audience of people from [one] particular religion,” she said. “To open the book up to people who don’t believe the way the [Hortons] believe, there has to be some room. I wanted to leave room for skepticism; I wanted to leave room for doubt.”
West currently lives in Uptown, and there is no doubt she loves Oakland, citing its diversity, weather, local small businesses and food.
“[That] you can get anything you could possibly want to eat from any possible region is so incredible to me,” she said. “The food here is amazing.”
Excellent food aside, West sees the dangers of gentrification in the East Bay.
“As Oakland becomes a little bit more trendy, it’s making it really hard for people like me, who are writers and teachers, to afford living here,” she said. “That, to me, is really problematic.”
West is already 40,000 words into a new writing project, one that involves a cult leader and his wives. She has kept religion in her life through attending a nondenominational East Oakland church, the Movement Church, and she recently accepted a new position to serve as a visiting assistant professor of fiction at USF in the Fall.
As for Revival Season, West hopes it attracts a diverse audience.
“You don’t have to be religious to take something from the book,” she said. “I hope that readers think about what it means to have doubt, what it means to have faith, what it means to have faith in something when it’s failing you.”