January 31, 2020
STRANGER: Monika Pickett
LOCATION: Neramitra Thai Cuisine, 2200 Crystal Drive, Arlington, Virginia
THEME: An erotic fiction author and LGBTQ advocate shares her life story
“I found you through one of my heroes,” Monika Pickett tells me.
We’ve just met for dinner in Arlington. She reached out wanting to share her life story of coming out in her teens and trying to chart an independent path that includes serving in the Army during Desert Storm, a stroke, a marriage and divorce, and most recently self-publishing two erotic fiction novels about a lesbian finding her way in life.
During her early years in the Washington, DC, area as a young out lesbian, Monika would frequent Dupont Circle, which at the time was a major hub for the gay community with bookstores, bars, restaurants and more. It’s there and then that she met the person who would ultimately transition to LGBTQ advocate Rayceen Pendarvis.
And Rayceen late last year became the 127th stranger featured on this site.
“I’ve been wanting to tell you that that I found you because you interviewed Rayceen,” Monika, 52, tells me with a dazzling broad smile. Back in the 1980s, Monika made friends with the proud out gay and lesbian people in Dupont Circle, including a man called Raymond that later became self-described “gender-bending” Rayceen. “I remember how vibrant their spirits were and how much they loved and laughed, and they taught me about courage and resilience after being kicked out of their homes.”
Years later, Monika would use those experiences to help in writing her two novels. And one day she was online and saw Rayceen’s social media profile, which promoted a monthly arts show Rayceen hosts. “I wondered, is this my Raymond? I reached out and we reconnected, and I did one of my first book signings at one of his shows.”
She smiles again. “I thought, wow, look at us.” And then she waves an outstretched hand in my direction in a friendly gesture. “And now, look at us.”
We’re dining at Neramitra Thia, a brightly lit restaurant in the office building-heavy Crystal City part of Arlington, Virginia. It’s been a busy day for Monika as she juggled issues both personal (helping her mother get to a doctor’s appointment) and professional (a deadline for printing the second edition of her first book.”
But, in a phrase she’ll use several times during dinner, Monika sees each development in her life as “a blessing,” and tries to find the positive in her experiences, writing her own stories both literally as an author and figuratively by charting an independent path in life.
It’s that attitude which gave her the confidence to try writing, starting with her first novel Pretty Boy Blue that she thought up while recovering from a stroke.
Across the dinner table, she confides that the book is not entirely fictional and that many segments are based on her exploring life as an out lesbian.
Here’s the description of the book from Monika’s website: “From playing house as a child to her first kiss as a teenager, Nikki Blue knew that she was different from other girls. One day her slice of the American dream would include a white picket fence and a wife. While her family life is in upheaval and her loved ones battle around her, Nikki’s struggles escalate as her childhood innocence is stolen and she is uprooted over and over again. Despite her father’s abandonment and her mother’s denial, Nikki is determined to discover her truest self. She stumbles through adolescence with the visage of a debutante and the attitude of a cocksure college boy. To escape being bullied in school, Nikki finds solace in the Washington, D.C., gay and lesbian club scene.”
Monika suffered her stroke in 2011 when she was living in Chicago with her son and then-wife. The incident left her largely housebound and unable to work, and so one day she started to experiment with writing. The idea of using the character of Nikki Blue as a way to share some of Monika’s experiences, combined with a heavy dose of fiction for many scenes, quickly came to here as something she wanted to do. “I thought maybe it could help someone else who was struggling with coming out,” she tells me.
Eager to share her novel with the world, Monika opted for self-publishing and launched a GoFundMe campaign to help pay for the costs. Her friends and others who donated were rewarded with what she calls “the juiciest” excerpts from the book ahead of its release. “And they wanted more and more, even my straight friends,” she says, laughing as she recalls one female friend who was rather excited by an excerpt and was glad her husband was home to, well, share the excitement after. “And it didn’t matter that the protagonist was a lesbian, people were getting into the story and the characters.”
It took several years — until June 2017 — before she released the novel, and it received positive reviews on Amazon and elsewhere. And Monika confides that writing the novel was a “cathartic” process. “Growing up I didn’t see too many African American lesbians represented in terms of media. I saw this quote by the late Toni Morrison and she said if there’s a book that you want to read that hasn’t been written then you have to write it. And so I decided I didn’t have to wait for anybody, I’ll just create it myself.”
Two years later Monika self-published a sequel novel, The Darkest Shade of Blue, with a plot that includes the character deployed to a war — again based in part on her own life and her time serving in the military both domestically and in the Gulf.
She’s got a third book idea in mind, but currently is heeding the advice of a producer and casting director friend who suggested Monika write a screenplay about Nikki Blue’s adventures. Portions of the outline of the third novel will make their way into the script, which she hopes to shop around to studios like Netflix and Hulu once complete.
We pause as our very attentive waiter — he refills my water and Diet Coke so much I’ll be hydrated for a week — delivers an appetizer of calamari. Four large battered rings sit atop shreds of carrot, with a tangy dipping sauce that has a pleasant kick.
As we divide the starter, we talk about other restaurants in the area and the fact Monika returned to Virginia to live a few years ago. Her life story is one that covers several states and overseas, with as many twists and turns as one of her novels.
She was born in New Jersey but for middle school moved to Richmond, Virginia, with her divorced father. But in the early 1980s, when Monika was 13, things changed when she came out to him. “That was difficult for my father so he sent me to live with my mother” whose home was also in the Old Dominion State city of Alexandria.
High school was tough because she was bullied by other kids for being lesbian. She found safety with two friends — one bisexual, the other “flamboyant” and proud about it. The latter friend told Monika that young gay people at the time would hang around Dupont Circle, and so she started cutting class and exploring the neighborhood.
“Oh my god, it was a whole new world,” she says. “There was a bookstore, Lambda Rising, and for the first time I saw books and magazines and posters about same sex couples. The first day I just stayed in the women’s section for hours.”
Spending time in Dupont Circle helped Monika cope with the bullying and develop a sense of belonging. “I realized, wow, there are people like me,” she says. “So I would window shop at the boutiques and daydream about one day a wife buying me Chanel shoes. Who knows they want to marry a woman when they’re a teenager? I did.”
Around the age of 17 she snuck into a gay club for the first time and that’s where she was exposed to drag — an interest she maintains and that helps inform her novels.
After high school Monika tried a year of university studying for a communications degree, but she didn’t enjoy it and dropped out. She did a few retail and server gigs in the District, but realized if she wanted a secure future she needed a longer-term plan. Her stepfather was a Vietnam veteran and suggested Monika join the Army, as they would pay for a degree if she decided to return to college in the future.
“So I decided to give the Army a try, and it was probably one of the best decisions I ever made,” she says. After enlisting in 1989 she did basic training in New Jersey and then was stationed at forts in several states with a focus on medical training. Eventually she came back to the DC area and was assigned to the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. But she only served there for about three months before she activated for Desert Storm, flying to the Gulf to serve as a medic in that conflict.
Another big life change happened while she was in the Middle East.
“For the six months I was over there I represented the B in LGBTQ and I got pregnant,” Monika says, then smiles. “I had always wanted to be a mother.”
Upon her return to the States she gave birth to her son Kyle at Walter Reed, received an honorable discharge, and then lived with her mother and stepfather while figuring out the future. She decided that getting a college education would be the best way to obtain a career that could provide financial security for herself and her son.
Despite not having an undergraduate degree, Monika was able to pursue a masters from Lincoln University, a historically black college and university, in Philadelphia by submitting a “life portfolio” that included the credits for the time at college she’d already spent, as well as her military and other experiences. “I thought it was a scam,” she said, but her mother had taken the same route and she realized it was legitimate. For two years she’d take the 4.30am train to Philadelphia to study then return to DC.
She graduated with honors with a Master of Human Services in 2001, and then enrolled at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland to study for an MBA. After her MBA she did various sales executive jobs in the DC area for a few years, including at the Washington Times newspaper and the National Society of Black Engineers.
“Then I met my now ex-wife,” who lived in Chicago, says Monika, adding that she and Kyle “just picked up and moved there.”
She lived in Chicago for about 15 years and working in various jobs before she had her stroke, an affliction that sidelined her from employment for at least five years. “My ex-wife took very good care of our family when I could not and I will never take that away from her. She was a good mother and a good wife at the time.”
But eventually the couple divorced, and Monika moved back to Virginia with the “support system” of her mother and close friends. And from that home base she’s been able to focus on developing her writing career.
Another pause as our waiter delivers our entrees; for Monika a salad of artichoke hearts tossed with fried tofu and vegetables in a spicy lime dressing with grilled shrimp. “It’s very good,” she says, but such a large portion she takes most of it home.
I’m having the Siamese Beef, which is slices of beef marinated in sesame oil and spices, stir-fried at a very high heat, sprinkled with fresh ginger. The beef is plentiful and well-cooked, but the spice and ginger are barely noticeable so it’s an underwhelming dish.
Dining with Monika is a wonderful experience; she’ll joke like a naughty schoolgirl about racy topics, give thoughtful answers to my questions, ask me insightful queries of her own, and throughout maintain an upbeat, warm and welcoming presence. Turns out she’s just as receptive to having conversations with people across the world.
“I hope my books let people know that they are enough as they are,” she says. One of her first interviews when doing publicity for Pretty Boy Blue was with Sirius Radio in New York on The Karen Hunter Show where she was asked about God and sexuality. “I said I don’t have to answer to anyone but God — and maybe my grandmother — but the church is one of the most judgmental, biased institutions in the world. We want to talk about the Catholic Church, about the black church? They sweep things under the rug. You might be embarrassed about your transgender or gay or lesbian son or daughter but you’re not embarrassed or ashamed about the uncle who’s been molesting children for generations. Don’t do me, I’m not the one,” she tells me forcefully.
Still, Monika does seek guidance from God at times on whether she should be pursuing her writing. In response she sees signs like letters of praise from readers in Zimbabwe who talk about the stress of being in the closet and how the books are a relief for them, or a letter from a mother in the States wanting to help her lesbian daughter who’s struggling with their sexuality. “Those are the people who I write for.”
I ask how her son has reacted to the books, and she starts by sharing an anecdote of talking to him about her sexuality when he was about eight years old. Two kids had gotten into a fight at school after one called the other a faggot. Kyle asked his mother why that was a bad word. Monika told Kyle that the word is offensive and he never call anyone it. “Then he told me two women can’t love each other, and I thought, ‘Here we go,’” she tells me, chuckling. She explained what being gay and lesbian was, and about her own life, and this made him cry and kick and say he didn’t want a gay mother. We talked, and I told him I am a good mother and this is just who I am. And then he folds his arms and pouts and says, ‘Well I like girls.’ And I said, ‘So we have something in common.’ And then he couldn’t help it, he burst out laughing and so did I.”
Although they were able to reach a place of understanding on Monika’s sexuality, she believes the book is a bit too racy and detailed for Kyle to read cover-to-cover. But he still offers support for her work, for example stocking them in the back seat of his car when he was driving for Uber so that passengers would ask about them and learn more about Monika’s writing.
As dinner nears its end, I ask Monika about her busy schedule and she lists of an exhausting number of to-do items including filing deadlines for her publisher and an initial deadline for the script she’s writing. But she is unflappable about the hectic pace, and reiterates that every development in her life should be seen as a blessing.
“I’m ready whenever the doors of opportunity open,” she says with another warm smile. “God keeps putting in people in my life, like you, that I couldn’t reach on my own.”