It was on a regular night more than three decades ago when Shonda Dilliehunt woke to several masked gunmen raiding her home. Life wasn’t perfect at their small apartment in the Kennedy Park housing complex, but she never imagined something like this.
All she heard was a distinctive boom, and men she didn’t know forced her and her family to the floor.
“That was the first SWAT raid,” she said. “I didn’t know what was going on.”
Memories of those troublesome decades are now part of Dilliehunt’s first novel, A Cold Piece. Although the novel captures both positive and negative aspects of living in Richmond, the work allows her to bear witness to a string of events she long believed were best forgotten.
Not only does Dilliehunt want to tell the story of how she survived one of the most tumultuous eras in Richmond, but she also wants to memorialize friends and family lost by the violence and by the crack epidemic.
Dilliehunt is remarkably youthful for a grandmother. It only takes a minute to figure out why she turned to writing. With a knack for turning short anecdotes into riveting yarns, she has a natural gift for storytelling.
While touring around Crescent Park with Dilliehunt, she recalled some of her youthful antics. As a teen, she sold firecrackers to the younger kids. At one point in high school, she unwittingly took a bag full of drug money and bought herself a dress for a party.
The title of the novel is inspired by a common jibe she received from many people during her upbringing (as in “a cold piece of work”). Meaning someone who is standoffish or stoic, the term may not seem positive, but it reveals much about the way Dilliehunt needed to act during the era.
“I’ve been called that a lot of times by different men for various reasons because I didn’t make the right decision right here right then or I decided to leave a situation,” she said.
It’s not surprising that Dilliehunt owns up to a particular role in her community. Like many authors, she has a way of engaging with the people around her and understanding their character and their intentions.
While this reporter was interviewing her near De Anza High School, she stopped some high school kids and simply asked them how they were doing and if they needed any help with school. She gave another student money for a belt. On both the page and on the street, Dilliehunt exemplifies an enduring optimism in the face of struggle.
Dilliehunt has worked as a cosmetologist and hairstylist for most of her life, working her way up to several high-profile gigs, including makeup and hairstyling credits on movies such as The Pursuit of Happyness. Before she took time off to complete her novel, she worked part-time in Las Vegas for Evander Holyfield.
Bay Area rapper E-40, who is an old friend of Dilliehunt’s, wrote the foreword to her novel. Even as E-40 is in the midst of a highly successful second act, he still found time to praise the book. He even gave her a shoutout in the song “Sideways” with the line “Baby got her hair done by Shonda.”
A Cold Piece focuses largely on Richmond’s transformation from a communal city to a city divided. As was the case with many other communities in California and abroad, the sudden rise of crack cocaine splintered the community.
“I wrote this to show the good side of that era before the dark side came,” she said. “What I can remember as a kid is that it was good.”
While life off of Richmond’s Cutting Blvd. was not perfect, she never imagined anything like this would ever happen. Only years before, the community was close-knit, bound together by baseball games and weekend trips to the Fresno Speedway.
But Dilliehunt, like many, faced a telling loss of innocence. Beginning in 1969, the story moves from her childhood to her tenure as girlfriend of notorious Richmond drug kingpin James “Sonny” Graves.
Graves was one of the many drug dealers who cashed in on the rise of crack cocaine during the 1980s and 90s, she said. Crack emerged as a viable innovation for cocaine dealers seeking to sell more product to a wider audience when the country experienced a cocaine glut at its peak.
Graves was a major figure in the drug trade, akin to other high-profile leaders like Nino Brown in New York City and Ricky Ross in Los Angeles. That is, until Graves was shot and killed on the corner of 19th Street and Virginia Avenue in Richmond.
One of the first people to see potential in her work was her publisher, James Farr. Himself a native of Richmond, not only did Farr identify with her story, but he realized many others might too.
“My number one priority is restoration and redemption, through my own faith, and telling a message, not to glorify it,” she said.
Portraying Dilliehunt’s story was particularly difficult because of the two-sided nature of the Richmond drug trade. On one hand, the heads of the trade gave back to the community and, for the most part, encouraged children to pursue an education if they could. But this image of benevolence, of helping children, often concealed the exploitation of the community itself.
“In a sadistic way,” Farr said, “[Graves] was taking care of his customers.”
All of the content from A Cold Piece derives from Dilliehunt’s experiences, and though she says that the work is all true, she insists that this is not a memoir.
“I imagine a lot of women have the same particular story,” she said. “But I didn’t want to do a memoir because I didn’t think it would have the same impact.”
“I was really blown away with what she had written in her first draft,” Farr said. But the book took a while to develop. For one, Dilliehunt needed the tact to accurately depict pivotal moments from her youth.
She also needed the courage.
“It can be therapeutic, writing your own story,” Farr said. “But if you’re not strong enough it can be very destructive.”
But Farr also recognizes the importance of Dilliehunt’s story as a testament to survival under harsh conditions.
“It’s a record I can share with my daughter, and so I’m not looking to glorify a ‘hood’ tale,” Farr said. “It’s more of, ‘This is where we’re from, these are some of the narratives that have shaped me.’”
Listen to an excerpt from Shonda Dilliehunt’s novel.
Farr used his own publishing venture, Tunnel Vision LLC, to release the story to a wider audience, but he first considered optioning the manuscript to other agencies. But when he realized that Dilliehunt’s story needed to remain authentic, he made sure they worked together to get the story right.
“We went through a process of about eight months of refining this story,” Farr said. He told her, “Do not write this to sell it, write this so you are able to record a legacy for your children.”
She also hopes it’s not her last work. Dilliehunt plans to eventually write a sequel, but the completion of this novel comes as a big relief.
“Before I thought I was going to be cocky about it, but it’s actually super soothing and super humbling,” she said.
She said finishing her story allowed her to bear witness to a past she did not necessarily want to face.