I sit in Holy Apostles and The Mediator Episcopal Church in Philadelphia where Leslie Esdaile Banks’ memorial is about to be held, the church she grew up in. When I walk in an hour early the front of the church is filled with women in white, ringed around the altar, singing to her memory, like a choir of angels. There are photos all around the room, revealing a Leslie I didn’t know -- Leslie the college student, the coquettish vamp, the wife, the mother, the sister, the woman with a full and rich life outside of her writing.
I met Leslie at Medgar Evers College, the year my first novel was turned in to our mutual editor at St. Martin’s. It was on one of the college’s famed literary weekends, and I had arrived too late to see my friend Tananarive Due and her husband Steven on the panel they were on. I got there as the panel with Leslie was starting and found a seat, sat back to see what she was like. My editor had told me she was giving “L.A. Banks” my book to read to see if she would do a blurb for the cover. I’d heard of her, knew of her work, but hadn’t had time to read any of her books yet. She soared high above me in the literary world, with dozens of books published to my modest one, though she was five years younger.
She was typical Leslie on the panel -- smart, funny, and most of all encouraging to the young writers who came up to the microphone to ask questions afterwards. One young black woman in particular broke into tears as she described how her professor had refused to let her use a work of vampire fiction as a class assignment, though the material was near and dear to her heart. Leslie’s response was to write it -- whether she could use it in class, whether she could get it published or not, she had to let it out and into the world. She went on to point out a growing market for vampire literature and black writers, and by the time she was done, the young woman had stopped crying and was nodding, revived, inspired, touched by what I can only call The Leslie Effect.
I got a taste of it later that day when I went to the post event reception across the street to find Tananarive and Steven. Before I found them I saw Leslie talking to some people at a table and hovered nearby, waited for a chance to jump in and politely introduce myself. When the moment came, I stepped forward and smiled.
“Hi, my name is Terence, and we share an editor...”
“Monique? Isn’t she great?” and we launched into a discussion of why. By the time we ran out of steam and other topics, I felt like I’d known her forever. She assured me that she would make sure she got my book, and that she couldn’t wait to read it.
The next day Monique sent me a message that Leslie had sent an e-mail about me -- fortunately not “Keep that lunatic away!” -- and that she was looking forward to reading my manuscript. A few weeks later I was sent perhaps the kindest words I had ever heard about my work, a compliment that would be plastered across the front of my first published novel for the world to see, so she had to mean it. I sent her a profuse thank you in e-mail, and promised her a copy of the book when it came out. Her reply was that my writing was “fierce and passionate” and reading it had been a pleasure. I floated on that for weeks. It meant even more to me than the Publisher’s Weekly starred review that followed.
I stayed in touch with Leslie. We corresponded by e-mail, met at readings she did in New York at Hue-Man and for the New York Review of Science Fiction. It was there that Jim Freund, the host, pointed out that we had not one, but four black writers in the room who wrote vampire fiction, and the idea of having a black vamp night at NYRSF was born. My friend Linda Addison, who I’d met when we both were included in the Dark Dreams anthologies, was willing, as was Alaya Dawn Johnson, whose first published novel was the start of a fantasy trilogy, but whose second was a vampire novel. I insisted that without Leslie, there was no point. What contemporary black writer had a larger body of vampire fiction? She had opened the door and paved the way for us all. To my delight, she loved the idea, added her name to the roster and the event was on.
It took months for it to come to pass, conflicts with the performers’ schedules, the venue, my collaborator, Sheree Renee Thomas’ mother fell ill...one minute Alaya was going to be at a convention the day we settled on, the next day the venue had to reschedule us -- by the time everything was settled and I got to the Soho Gallery for Digital Art for the fateful night, loaded down with video equipment, I was frazzled and ready to collapse. At the last minute Sheree Renee Thomas, my co-curator, had to cancel coming up to stay home and care for her mom, so I was suddenly both a reader and the host for the evening. I had been nervous enough about attendance -- it was a second event that month for NYRSF, most regular attendees were either on their way to a convention or working. Despite my fears, Adrienne, the president of Leslie’s fan club and head of the Street Team that got out word about her appearances, had done her usual job, and the room was full of old familiar faces from NYRSF and a wonderful new crop of readers who were Leslie’s fans.
It ended up being exactly the right room for the evening, a mixed bag of races, writers and readers who enjoyed the night for everything we put into it. The night ended with Leslie’s reading from the first book in her vampire series, after she shared the wonder that was Leslie. As much as I always enjoyed listening to her read her work, what I loved most was Leslie talking about her work, and what she put into it. She always shared the joy of the writing experience itself, but also the fun she had in working reality into her fantasy, creating a full-bodied fictional world that let her make psychological, political and social points about ours.
The night ended as they always did, with dinner nearby, and me getting too little time to talk to Leslie as much as I wanted to, as much as everyone wanted to...as I put her in a cab to get back to her train on time, she promised as always that the conversation would continue, that one day we’d have time to trade literary war stories over red wine.
The last time I talked to her at length was over Christmas. I was out in Montauk during the worst blizzard in recent New York history, working on a new novel that scared the hell out of me (and still does) as she offered solace and seasonal cheer, despite my dark mood. I did my best to do the same for her. It had been the best of times and the worst of times for her that year as it had been for me, and we commiserated by e-mail and phone through the snow.
It seemed all too soon after that I heard the news that she was sick, an abrupt missive that swept through the community like a mystery -- what was wrong, was she okay, would she get better? But more important, what could we do, how could we help? Benefits to offset the costs of her medical care were mounted, e-mails flew across the country; by the time we all knew what was wrong, it was almost over. I spoke at a fundraiser at Hue-Man that was more of a rally, raising money but also energy for Leslie. We all left on a high, after sharing stories and laughter, the joy of Leslie. That Tuesday as I sat in an edit room at work and checked e-mail, I found out Leslie was gone.
I excused myself, went down the hall to a supply room and wept as much as I could allow myself to without losing it for the rest of the day. I locked that mental door for the rest of the week to get through the job, and booked my train tickets to Philly for the funeral Saturday as soon as a time and place were announced. The ceremony is as beautiful and heartfelt as the lady herself, a full house of love and sorrow, paying homage to her in a way only Leslie could have inspired. There were stories and songs from family and friends, and the most wonderful photos of her from childhood, high school and college, as bride, wife and mother, all the way through her meeting with President Barack Obama, when she introduced him at Arcadia University.
It was a life well lived, in all ways. I have yet to meet or talk to anyone who met Leslie and didn’t fall in love with her immediately. She was one of the most honest and loving people I’ve met on this planet, and to say she will be missed is a gross understatement. Her absence from this planet leaves a hole that can never be filled, only built around to define its length and breadth, like the Twin Towers memorial. We will remember her, not just for what she did in a remarkable life, but for all that she inspired. Her work will live on in various forms as her writing partner works on a film of the vampire books, as the comics continue, but it will also live on in the work of all of us she inspired with her generosity, her wit, her talent and most of all, her sheer energy. How can so much power be gone from the world? It’s not. It can’t be. It has only changed form, and we all have to do as Adrienne said in her ending comments from the podium at the service -- a call to all the writers touched by Leslie’s life and work. Share your talent and your love of your art. Be open and generous to those coming up behind you, and let those ahead know they are enjoyed and appreciated. Don’t wait until it’s too late -- if I have anything to be grateful for, it’s that I always made clear to Leslie how valued she was to me.
I now see Leslie as a guardian angel to us all, a new muse, floating free like Obi-Wan Kenobi after death, where she can spread her good will even wider. I sense her beside me from time to time, as I’m sure many of those who love her have, a soft hand on my shoulder like that of an angel from “Wings of Desire”. It comes when I feel most like I’ve lost her, and a gentle thought whispers, “Would I ever leave you?” with a laugh. She’s not gone, will never be forgotten, and more than that, lives on forever in all the lives she touched, changed and improved.
I remember that when I thanked her for her comments on my book, I told her she was the “Patti LaBelle of Horror”, every bit as beautiful, talented and generous, which made her laugh, that rich full laugh that infected everyone around her. It was only today that I found out that, like Patti, she LOVED to cook and have people over to eat, and that no one who came to her house ever left hungry or empty handed.
I wish I could have been to one of those house dinners or back yard barbecues people talked about so much today, though the post ceremony gathering in the rectory was pretty much how I would picture them. If there is anything I’m sure of, it’s that Jesus is chowing down like never before, and that all the angels have hot sauce staining their wings and a ziplock bag of BBQ leftovers under their arms. I miss Leslie, yes, but also know she is with us in a way she could never be before, and that it’s up to all of us to keep that part of her, the pure love expressed in the singular miracle of Leslie’s life, alive.
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I am editing video of an interview with Leslie on the launch of her comic series at BEA last year, and her appearance at the “Beyond Blacula” event. The DVD will be made available as part of a continuing fundraising effort to offset the family’s bills for her medical care. Go to http://www.leslieesdailefund.info/index.html for information and/or to donate to the fund.