An Open Book

Elk Grove author mesmerizes with poetry and prose

By Jessica Laskey
January 2022

Terry a O’Neal is the consummate storyteller. During our nearly two-hour interview, she regales me with stories about young motherhood, awakening her writer’s voice, going through a traumatic divorce, advocating for youth and more.

She talks about her mother, a Southern Creole poet who inspired her daughter’s creative career. She tells of the complex characters that populate her poetry and prose. By the end of the call, it feels like we’ve only scratched the surface of the artist and human being that is Terry a O’Neal.

“I credit my mother for everything,” says O’Neal, raised in Stockton by her mother, Barbara Ann Tillman-Williams, a native of Louisiana who moved to California in the 1970s but reared O’Neal and her three siblings as if they were still in the south.

“My mother was a seamstress, a chef, a poet, she could draw—she was an all-encompassing creative person, so how could I not be? She was always encouraging, always inspiring me to be a better me. The great I am is because of her.”

Though a love of writing was always at O’Neal’s core, she intended to major in criminal justice as a more “sensible” career when she enrolled at CSU Sacramento at age 18. But as a young mother of two and pregnant with her third child, O’Neal decided to leave Sac State to work part-time and attend Cosumnes River College at night.

In one of her evening English classes, O’Neal wrote an essay where she incorporated an original poem. Her professor made a note that if she was going to use the work of another author she needed to cite it. This touched off something in O’Neal.

“It was a defining moment in my life,” she says. “I decided I can do this—I’m going to write my own book.”
O’Neal published her first book of poetry, “Motion Sickness,” in 2000. Though the book was well received, it took awhile for O’Neal to embrace her new role as published author. “I only wrote when I was inspired, since I was also doing everything else—being a wife, a mother, working for the state,” she says. “I just knew that I’d always wanted to see my book on a shelf in a library.”

Gradually, O’Neal published two more books of poetry, “The Poet Speaks in Black” and “Good Mornin’ Glory.” In 2002, she published her first novel, “Sweet Lavender,” which gained international notice and awards, and inspired a feature film that O’Neal is in the process of writing and producing.

She has written two children’s books, “Ev’ry Little Soul” and “My Jazz Shoes,” and in 2014, she released “The Sparrow’s Plight: Woes of a 21st Century Black Poet” with an introduction by poet and academic Rudolph Lewis.

“Though my work is rooted in Black culture and told from the Black female experience, my poetry has crossover appeal,” says O’Neal, who’s relocating from her home in Elk Grove to Virginia. Her works are recognized across the U.S. and in South Africa, Iran, Jamaica, Australia, Canada and Bermuda. Young people are a key audience.

Youth advocacy has been a cornerstone of O’Neal’s career. She does regular school speaking engagements and founded the nonprofit Lend Your Hand: Educating the World’s Children, which helps students achieve academic success through programs such as the Black History Bee, a trivia competition she created. She is president of the literacy nonprofit Living Better Lives and edits and publishes “Make Some Noise! A Youth Poetry Anthology” for people ages 12–18.

“Kids want their voices heard,” O’Neal says. “It’s so empowering to give them that courage by showing them they’re not alone.”

Even with her hectic schedule, O’Neal finds time to work on other creative endeavors, including a daytime docu-series, an upcoming documentary about Maurice “Red” Jefferson, an updated edition of “Sweet Lavender,” and adaptations of the novel for both stage and screen.

No matter how busy she gets, O’Neal is always willing to stop and share a story.

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Jessica Laskey can be reached at Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.

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