Remembering Floyd Salas, novelist, boxing coach, social activist

Floyd Salas served as PEN Oakland’s president and famously confronted Saul Bellow at a reading at SF State.

Floyd Salas at the Oakland Book Festival. Courtesy of Claire Ortalda

Floyd Salas, whose first two novels were published by Grove Press during the Barney Rosset years, died at his Berkeley home Sunday after a long illness. He was 90 years old.

His first novel, Tattoo the Wicked Cross, was published by Grove and won the Joseph Henry Jackson Award. Groundbreaking for its honest depiction of prison rape. The New American Review wrote that the book “renews our faith in the human spirit.”  His second novel, What Now My Love, about a Haight Ashbury drug bust and a flight to Mexico, continued a tradition of tackling tough subject matter. “Miles is an ex-con turned college teacher, who lives the credo of Henley’s ‘Invictus.’ Sam is a dope jobber running on a mixture of Zen and methedrine. Carole is a beautiful nut with no apparent Weltanschaung at all, but with very long legs,” wrote the New York Times Book Review.

In 1978, Ishmael Reed and Al Young, through their Y’Bird Press, published his third novel, Lay My Body on the Line, about the San Francisco State strike of which Salas, who’d been a social protest leader on behalf of campus peace and ethnic study movements, was a participant. It “thrust[s] the reader into the hectic politics of the time, and it rings true all the way,” wrote Fred Cody in the Berkeley Monthly.

In 1968, Salas gained notoriety by calling out a ribald comment to Saul Bellow when Bellow was speaking on the San Francisco State campus. “Are you saying the university should offer writers a haven from the vulgarities of the contemporary world?” Salas asked the 1976 Nobel Prize winner. A shocked Bellow later fictionalized the event in Mr. Sammler’s Planet and the incident was chronicled in several biographies and articles. However, Salas, a published author and an instructor at the college at the time, told one biographer that he had the greatest respect for Bellow and had read every one of his books. The comment was elicited, Salas said, by Bellow’s haughty manner and refusal to answer respectful questions from the audience. Bellow admitted in a 1983 interview by Leah Garchik in the San Francisco Chronicle, “I don’t think I handled myself very well. But I don’t think that anyone behaved well.”

Continuing his history of activism for liberal causes, in 1989, Salas enthusiastically endorsed Ishmael Reed’s idea to establish a multicultural branch of PEN chapter to “promote works of excellence by writers of all cultural and racial backgrounds.”  The group was later dubbed “the blue collar PEN” by Norman Mailer. Salas served as PEN Oakland’s president from its inception until his death.

Salas’ memoir, Buffalo Nickel, was published in 1992 by Arte Publico Press and the work, along with Tattoo, was listed in the book Masterpieces of Latino Literature. He went on to publish three books of poetry and a sequel to Body entitled State of Emergency.

A popular creative writing teacher at various California colleges for 45 years, Salas also taught at San Quentin and Folsom prisons. He was an assistant boxing coach at UC Berkeley, earning the sobriquet “fighter-writer,” a staff writer for a short-lived NBC drama Kingpin, and a Regent’s Lecturer at UC Berkeley, where his papers are archived. The Berkeley City Council proclaimed Sept. 28, 2010, Floyd Salas Day. In 2013, he won a lifetime achievement American Book Award.

Salas was born in Walsenburg, Colorado, to parents of Spanish and Navajo ancestry. The family, including four siblings, moved to California during the Depression when his father, Ed, found work on the Shasta Dam.

Salas made the San Francisco Bay Area his home for more than 80 years. He is survived by his third wife, writer Claire Ortalda, and his son, Gregory Salas.

Salas and his wife, Claire, in the early 2000s. Courtesy of Claire Ortalda
Salas and his son, Gregory. Courtesy of Claire Ortalda