Jamel Brinkley’s nuanced debut A Lucky Man collects nine short stories set in places the author knows very intimately: Brooklyn and the Bronx. The writer grew up in these diverse neighborhoods and years later immersed himself in the lives of men and women to create these powerful stories that have been featured in a variety of publications, including the forthcoming The Best American Short Stories 2018 collection edited by Roxane Gay.
The writer’s work explores many aspects of what it means to be person of color in America today, including masculinity and social class. I corresponded with the author about how the collection evolved, what New York City means to him, and what to expect from him in the future.
Jamel Brinkley: I’m guessing here, or trying to make sense of things retrospectively, but I think one thing that must have been in my mind as I worked on the stories in this collection was the violence of gentrification and the way it has been rapidly changing New York City and the lives of many of the people who have lived here. (I’m in New York as I respond to these questions.) The collection begins solidly in the 1990s, and by the end, with “Clifton’s Place,” we come closer to the contemporary moment and gentrification becomes more explicit as a subject, though there are traces of it elsewhere. Also, I’ve spent the vast majority of my years living in New York, so in many ways, this city is all I knew when I was writing the stories. Seven of the nine stories in the collection were written while I lived in the Midwest, in Iowa City, so I think that distance from New York made me long for it. For all these reasons, with respect to the city, I feel like the stories are a mix of paean and elegy.
TM: All of the stories have been previously published. Why did these make it into this debut collection?
JB: Well, at the time that the collection was sold to Graywolf, only two of the stories had been published, both in A Public Space. The rest of the stories were placed at the same time the book was being edited and prepared for publication. During that time, one story was added and another one removed. I think the resulting nine were the stories that spoke to each other in some way and could be arranged into a shape that made sense.
TM: What about the story “A Lucky Man” is special to you?
JB: I chose to use the title of that story as the title of the collection for a few reasons. “Man” just makes sense because every story features a male narrator or protagonist, though “Wolf and Rhonda” also has a female protagonist. “Lucky” resonates for me in a number of ways. I feel like each story in my collection is about an ordinary person, along the lines of what the writer Frank O’Connor called “the Little Man,” in contrast to the traditional hero of the novel. In the title story, the idea of being lucky is reflected upon and interrogated. We see that luck can vanish or be stripped away in an instant, and that taking the notion of luck seriously means realizing that it says absolutely nothing about the innate character or qualities of the person it happens to attach itself to. In that story, we also get the idea of luck as an empty, haunting presence. The word “luck” also makes me think of the idea of being exceptional or special. Whether we’re talking about kids in school or writers in the publishing world, institutions often regard black people and other people of color by using the scarcity model, which assumes that there can only be “a few.” Only an exceptional few will make it out of the hood and go on to live successful lives. Only a special few will be chosen by gatekeepers to become the representative voices of their people. Stuff like that, ideas that I obviously don’t agree with. So “Lucky” in terms of that story, and in terms of the collection overall, is tinged with irony, under scrutiny, or under erasure. At the same time, that word suggests some kind of happiness, and in that sense I want to embrace it without irony. My hope is that the moments of happiness and joy, however fleeting, feel authentic in the collection.
TM: Though this is your debut collection, your name and stories have been floating around for a while. What lessons or skills have you learned throughout the years that make your writing so special that you wish you knew right when you started?
JB: I wish I knew that experiencing resistance while writing, being stalled in the face of the unknown, is often a good sign, and that lots of easy fancy footwork with prose can often be a warning sign. I’ve always loved language, and I want my sentences to be solid and stylish, but language in the kind of fiction I want to write has to be responsible to character, first and foremost, and to the world that characters I write about inhabit. When I first started writing, I would get carried away with “lyrical” writing and stylistic flourishes and kind of forget about my obligations to the characters and the story. I would get impatient with difficulty. Who knows how many stories I missed out on writing because I couldn’t handle being uncomfortable in that way.
TM: What is it about the short story form as opposed to novels that pushes you to keep writing them?
JB: I like the density or layers of stories, relative to their length and perceived simplicity. I like that you can more or less hold an entire story in your mind and heart. I like that stories exert a constraint of gathering on you as a writer. One of my writing teachers says that stories, from their beginnings, are in the process of searching for their endings or shutting themselves down, and that feels true to me. Novels, by contrast, tend to feel like they are opening up and expanding. I also like that stories feel like they lean towards poetry.
TM: Now that this collection—which thematically explores race, masculinity, and social class—is out, what other parts of society would you like to explore?
JB: I think race, gender, and class, among other things, will always be present in my work because there’s no way of talking about society without reference to them. But my honest answer to your question is, I don’t know. I think I discover what I’m writing about only in the middle of the process of writing it. And that’s a best-case scenario. Sometimes it isn’t clear what I’m doing, or what I’ve done, until after I’ve done it. That’s actually the way I prefer to work. I don’t want to set the thematic cart before the sentence-writing horse.