Ken Tangvik came of age running the streets of Dorchester and Charlestown in the 1970s, hanging out with many of the gangsters and ne’er-do-wells whose likenesses now appear regularly in gritty urban novels churned out by the likes of Dennis Lehane and turned into Hollywood thrillers.
But when Tangvik, a professor at Roxbury Community College and former Bay State Banner scribe, made his first foray into the literary world with a collection of short stories, he jettisoned the shamrocks and scully caps, writing instead about the struggles of the African American, Dominican, Puerto Rican and Brazilian Bostonians who now populate the Hub.
Much of that had to do with the audience he was writing for: his students.
“I wanted stories that talked about their day-to-day lives — issues of relationships, violence, immigration — stories that would engage them and get them thinking,” Tangvik says.
Failing to find stories, Tangvik began writing them under a pen name. Then, with the encouragement of fellow RCC professor David Updike, Tangvik collected his stories into a book, “Don’t Mess With Tanya,” released by Aberdeen Bay Publishers.
In the book, Tangvik draws on his experiences working in the Boston school system, at RCC and as a founder of the Hyde Square Task Force to assemble a cast of characters that provide a window on contemporary Boston.
“I’ve spent the last 25 years of my life immersed in black and Latino culture,” Tangvik says. “I understand white culture, but as a white person, I’ve had a glimpse into the lives of blacks and Latinos.”
Stories from the Latino youths at the Task Force, overheard conversations in RCC classrooms and his own experiences bridging cultural differences are woven into nine short stories set in Boston.
In the book’s title story, a feisty nursing home employee turns the tables on a store owner who engages in racial profiling.
“That issue comes up so often in my classroom,” Tangvik says. “Year after year after year. So many students tell me they just want to shop in peace and they just can’t do it.”
In “Manhood,” a young Latino man finds purpose in life while learning a trade from an elderly African American plumber. “Jealousy” depicts two Brazilian immigrants learning to make the most of a meager existence cleaning homes.
In the story “Substitute,” Tangvik drew on his own experiences working as a substitute teacher in the Boston schools in the mid 1980s to tell a tale of cross-cultural bridge building and redemption. The scenes in the story — a lunchroom fight, a coordinated book-throwing attack on a substitute teacher — were all drawn from Tangvik’s real-life experiences.
The description of frazzled, middle-aged teachers hiding the smell of whiskey with Tic Tacs paints a vivid picture of a city in the throes of social change.
The book has received a good reception in the local media. WGBH-FM news show host Callie Crossley aired a segment on the book and praised Tangvik’s use of authentic voices of Boston residents.
“The Census data comes alive in these stories and helps people understand the New Boston,” Crossley said.
At the end of the book, Tangvik includes a discussion guide with a set of questions on each story.
Tangvik is marketing the book to colleges and universities in the Boston area and is getting a good deal of interest.
Tangvik says he has another book in his mind and will likely use the same characters from “Don’t Mess With Tanya.”