Novelist, short story writer, poet, editor, educator. Everett was born at Fort Gordon, Georgia, on December 22, 1956, the son of Percival Leonard, a dentist, and his wife, Dorothy Stinson. He was raised in Columbia, South Carolina, where he graduated from A.C. Flora High School before earning a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of Miami in 1977 and—after two years of postgraduate study at the University of Oregon—a master’s degree in creative writing from Brown University in 1982.
Everett drew on his experiences as a young African American growing up in Columbia in his first novel, Suder (1983), which received laudatory reviews across the United States. Though the novel’s black protagonist is a professional baseball player in the Pacific Northwest, much of the narrative is given over to memories of his Carolina childhood. The critical success of Suder helped gain Everett the position of professor of English and director of the creative writing program at the University of Kentucky (1985–1989). He then taught at the University of Notre Dame before moving to California in 1992, where he served as a faculty member first at the University of California at Riverside and then at the University of Southern California. In addition to his writing and teaching, Everett has long served as an editor of the distinguished literary journal Callaloo, which publishes critical studies of and original works by black writers from around the world.
Despite his long absence from South Carolina, he involved himself in state politics when he unexpectedly spoke out against the presence of the Confederate flag atop the State House while participating in both the Elizabeth O’Neill Verner Awards ceremonies and the Spoleto Festival in 1989. The state resurfaced once again—this time in Everett’s imaginary landscape—when he and fellow University of Southern California professor James Kincaid wrote a humor-charged epistolary novel based on their fantasy request to ghost write an account of the accomplishments of the African American people for Senator Strom Thurmond. Pursued by the senator’s fictional aide, Barton Wilkes, the two authors, using their real names as pseudonyms in the narrative, are charged with crafting their history, ironically enough, by keeping in mind Thurmond’s unique perspective on the subject. A History of the African-American people (proposed) by Strom Thurmond, as told to Percival Everett and James Kincaid (2004) is a tour-de-force satire on the politics of race.
Though some of his fiction since Suder draws at least partly on southern origins and themes, much of Everett’s creative work has more generally focused on his adopted home, the American West—he and his wife, the novelist Danzy Senna, and their two sons live on a ranch in southern California. Nevertheless, these works, such as a parody of the Old West entitled God’s Country (1994) and contemporary westerns like Watershed (1996) and Wounded (2005), still offer telling commentary on the problematic status of minority groups in this country. As a black southern writer in exile, Everett might be favorably compared with Oklahoma’s Ralph Ellison, with whom he also shares an abiding interest in European and African myth as well as a staunch refusal to limit African American fiction to mere “protest writing.” While Suder, for example, contains satirical indictments of southern racism, Erasure (2002)—favorably reviewed across the United States and abroad— ultimately condemns a publishing industry that favors grim portraits of black ghetto life over stories told by African American authors who try to transcend or ignore racial boundaries. The frustrated writer-protagonist of this novel, a man who has intellectually escaped from the confining notions of race but still finds he must peddle stereotypical images of black life in order to sell his books, clearly bears a close resemblance to Everett.
The protean nature of Everett’s career—his dabbling in a host of genres in both fiction and poetry—has made his personal canon difficult to categorize, but he has, especially in recent years, earned his fair share of recognition, including the PEN Center USA Award in Fiction in 2006, the Dos Passos Prize in Literature in 2010, and induction into the South Carolina Academy of Authors in 2011.
“An Interview with Percival Everett.” Callaloo 28 (spring, 2005): 377–381. Mack, Tom. “Percival Everett.” In Contemporary Southern Writers. Edited by Roger Matuz.
Detroit: St.. James, 1999. Starr, William W. “Artists Make Statements at Spoleto.” Columbia State, June 4, 1989, F1. ———. “Author Everett Prizes Privacy.” Columbia State, May 29, 1994, F1.