Earlier this year, I read several great books on migration, borders, and identity-making in the United States: Valeria Luiselli’s powerful and riveting Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions, which follows Central American refugee children as their cases are heard in federal immigration court in New York; Francisco Cantú’s quiet and disturbing The Line Becomes A River, a memoir of the four years he spent as a Border Patrol agent in the Southwest; and Gloria Anzaldúa’s classic Borderlands/La Frontera, which brilliantly blends memoir, poetry, and critical analysis and offers an original view of hybrid culture at the border. These books deepened my understanding of the border experience—an experience I share with millions of others—and gave me valuable context for interpreting the current administration’s disastrous immigration policies.
Much of my energy in the spring was consumed with line edits for my new novel. I’ve always found this to be a very delicate time, when I’m finally finished with the writing, yet not quite ready to let go of the book yet. So whenever I needed a break, I picked up trusty old favorites like William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying or Toni Morrison’s Jazz or Thornton Wilder’s A Bridge of San Luis Rey and read a few pages at a time.
Later in the year, I read and greatly admired Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, which explores how war is lived and remembered—or misremembered—by Vietnamese and American people. I read Terese Marie Mailhot’s gut-wrenching memoir Heart Berries in one sitting and thought about it for days afterward. I also loved Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, a deeply affecting book that I wanted to read again immediately after I finished it.
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The Puerto Rican drag queen is a recognizable personification of New York in the 1980s, the neighbor (and opposite) of the white, Gordon Gekko-style master of the universe with his slicked-back hair. In The House of Impossible Beauties, debut novelist Joseph Cassara brings this stock character into the foreground in order to recognize her humanity and her history. Based on the figures associated with the real-life House of Xtravaganza, the first Latinx house in New York’s 1980s ballroom scene, the novel follows a family of queer characters of various ethnic backgrounds and sexual identities through the tumult and crises of that time and place. Cassara immerses us in a New York that we may think we know from countless other novels and films, but which is, in fact, significantly more complex (and more urgently relevant to us today) than previously imagined.
I met Cassara last winter at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, where he was editing the final draft of the novel. He was kind enough to talk to me via email about the book’s origins, its political dimensions, and its composition process.
The Millions: What first drew you to this milieu? How does Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning fit into the development of the novel?
Joseph Cassara: I love the milieu of New York City in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. There was this perfect combination of grit and fabulousness. Like someone could spit in your face and you’d still be like, “Oh yeah baby, I’m in New Fucking York.” I love that as an aesthetic.
So I grew up in New Jersey—not far outside of the city—but most of what I know about NYC was, by proxy, through my family who all hail from the Bronx and Brooklyn. I’m Puerto Rican and Sicilian, and I was always a quiet kid, so for years, I was totally into the music, the sounds, the rich linguistic rhythms of New York and the stories I heard them tell about the ‘70s and ‘80s.
Then of course there’s the queer history aspect. I’m gay and I always feel sad when I realize how much of queer history is lost because it hasn’t been documented properly. Or it’s been purposefully erased. Now I realize that my modus operandi when writing is to try and resurrect queer stories and turn them into narratives that people can experience in a linear fashion, but when I first started writing this story, I didn’t realize it was going to be a novel. I had always loved Paris Is Burning and I thought I would write a short story that drew inspiration from the people we meet in the film. I was in my first semester of grad school at the time and I submitted the story for workshop. It was about 43 pages and my peers kept saying, much to my chagrin: no no no, this isn’t a story, it’s a novel, it clearly wants to be a novel.
The documentary served as a launching off point. Angel, Hector, and Dorian are based on real people. Paris Dupree and Pepper LaBeija were also real people who have minor appearances in the book. The artist Keith Haring is mentioned very briefly. On the other hand, Juanito and Daniel are completely fictionalized. Towards the beginning of Paris Is Burning there are two boys—one has his arm around the other’s shoulder. One has a purple spot on his neck, probably a hickey. They look so young to me now. When I was 18 and watching the movie for the first time, their youth didn’t startle me as much as it does now. I always imagined their faces when I was writing Juanito and Daniel.
TM: This is both a historical novel and a novel that takes a very specific subculture as its topic. What sort of research did you have to do to tap into the ball culture of 1980s New York?
JC: I watched the documentary about a million times. It felt like the ultimate treasure trove—not only do the subjects talk to the camera, but we also see them in scene. Sometimes they contradicted themselves, which is so beautiful and human. I was fascinated by how many levels of performance were taking place. My goal was to study these moments in the film as closely as possible so that I could render something similar on the page with precision. One of the novel’s main concerns is how queer people of color navigate the spaces around them, so it was important for me to see their bodies on screen, moving around the world.
Then there were the smaller things that came together to create the milieu. I curated an informal archive of photos. Some images had people from the documentary, while others showed the subway or the streets of NYC. For a while, I saturated myself in these images, sometimes as a way of justifying why I didn’t have to write that day. Like I could say, “Oh I’m technically not writing, but I’m being productive by looking at photos of telephone booths and people walking down the street in shoulder pads and this is research.” It sounds a little silly to say it that way, but I really think it helped allow my subconscious to run wild, which eventually helped my writing process. I’d also add small details to this collection, like what the Boy Bar matchbooks looked like, or the posters used to advertise parties at the Saint, or the comments people made about their experiences dancing at Paradise Garage. It was like a collection of primary sources that I used to inform my descriptions of the place and time.
I interviewed some people when I could. For example, one of the characters in the book has dreams of becoming a dancer. I know very little about dance. I took Ballet 101 in college to fulfill a physical education requirement, and I learned many things about myself in that class, none of which are related to grace or flexibility. So I have a friend who is a very talented dancer. He was trained in the Martha Graham method and was one of the cats in Cats: The Musical. I took him out for lunch one day and said, “Tell me everything you know about Martha Graham. Obsess about her. Just gush. Talk to me with dance jargon I won’t understand. Just talk.” And so he talked and I stored it all to memory so that I could tap into it later when writing.
TM: Did you have any reservations about writing transgender characters? It’s a community that has dealt with a lot of misrepresentation and misunderstanding, and we’re at a moment in the culture where there is an active discussion over who can tell whose stories.
JC: I think that the role of the novelist is to deeply inhabit the lives of characters who are different than ourselves, to practice a radical empathy and honestly represent that on the page for readers. (Unless, of course, the writer practices autofiction, then it’s a different set of rules, but that’s not your question here…) I’m not trans, so I knew that when I was writing a trans character, I would need to make sure I was being precise and truthful, and not exploitative. My hope is that by approaching it this way, clichés and stereotypes wouldn’t even become an issue, because my intent was to take each character and treat them as the beautiful, nuanced, complex human beings that they are. Within the larger context of the novel, I wanted to represent various shades of gender and sexual identity, so there are various queer characters whose expressions range from fem to butch. I thought it was important to show that there are many ways to be a person, and they are all beautiful and worthy of love.
In terms of the active discussion that’s taking place, I think it’s great that the dominant culture, which is generally composed of straight, white people, is starting to have this conversation. And acknowledge their, to be frank, lack of imagination. Because for too long, they have portrayed people of color and queer people as archetypes, or props, or servants, or non-existent. We were never really seen as human beings with the potential for complex and complete character arcs, so my goal with this novel was to actively combat that. Of course, I had to utilize certain tropes because I’m writing in a certain medium and in conversation with a specific literary tradition, but that didn’t stop me from trying to inhabit and represent my characters’ humanity. Each of the characters in this novel is a complex human being with hopes, dreams, desires, a sense of humor, and we see them struggle to survive in a white, straight world that simply refuses to welcome them.
TM: I was interested in how you handled gender in the novel. With characters like Angel and Venus, the narrator moves back and forth between male and female pronouns, depending on the circumstances. What was that decision process like?
JC: In regular day-to-day speech, queer people will code switch their pronouns, usually for comedic purposes. It’s like a form of irony because everyone in on the joke knows who uses what pronoun and that the shift is taking place. Like when a bossy gay guy walks into the room and people are like, “Who does she think she is?” or, “Oh boy, there she goes again.” For example, whenever I criticize Mike Pence, I use “she” as an ironic way to subvert power because he’s very homophobic and would never approve of the pronoun shift. So my point here is that when pronouns shift, there’s a lot of implicit work that is being communicated on a linguistic level.
In terms of craft, the pronomial shifts take place, for the most part, in the earlier sections of the novel, when Angel and Venus are respectively growing into their own. There’s a scene early on where Angel gets into a fight with her homophobic mother. Her mother demands that Angel take off the dress she’s wearing. When she complies, the pronoun shifts to “he.” I always thought of it as a moment where the form represents the content in a literal way. There’s an emotional shift that is also a shift in the language and it comes at a really distressing and heartbreaking scene. So much is contained in that pronoun shift. Later in the chapter, she’s talking to her brother, who she loves and feels comfortable around, and the pronoun shifts back. I think it’s a subtle and unspoken way of showing the reader what’s going on in her psyche in the moment.
TM: I was struck by the sort of grim pragmatism of the people in this world. There’s a lot of prostitution, for example. Dorian, who is a role model figure for Angel, actively encourages would-be queens to sell sexual favors in order to support themselves. You don’t shy away from depicting these scenes, which can be pretty upsetting. Did that give you pause, in the writing process?
JC: It didn’t give me any pause because I felt like those scenes were really important. So much of the book is concerned with the violence that is perpetrated against queer people of color. Those scenes were a chance for me to slow down and document it, to present the harsh reality of those situations for readers. There is no sugarcoating, just honesty about how these characters are treated in the world. For queer people of color, the statistics surrounding poverty, unemployment, HIV infection, drug use, murder, and suicide are so shockingly high. That enrages me because it’s not fair. But a statistic is a number, which feels distant, whereas a novel is a narrative that feels completely immersive. It’s much more upsetting to become attached to a character and then watch them deal with this shit because it feels more personal.
TM: I thought the narrative voice was really wonderfully done. It’s generally a close third for whatever character is the subject of the chapter, and adopts a lot of the slang and speech patterns of the characters, as well as their logic and decision-making processes. It’s so perfect for this project that I’m wondering what your prose would be like in a book about different people, in a different world. Was this a voice that took time to find, in the writing process? Is it a hard one to get out of your head, now that the book is done?
JC: I love voice on the page and I think a lot can be done on a craft level to inform our understanding of setting and characters by representing the cadences, musicality, and patterns of speech in the narratorial voice. What comes to mind are Toni Morrison’s Jazz, where the prose taps into the rhythms of jazz to evoke the sounds of Harlem in the early 20thcentury. Also, Junot Díaz’s Oscar Wao, whose narration has an energy that sizzles off the page and feels rooted in the speech patterns of the Dominican diaspora in New Jersey. I also love Annie Proulx’s Wyoming stories, because, my gosh, the voice in those stories feels so utterly of a specific place, it tears my heart into pieces. I’m always really excited when I come across narration that is very much borne out of the story’s setting and characters. It makes a book feel like everything is tied together in a way that feels integral. Everything is working in tandem to create the fictional world for the reader.
It didn’t take me long to find the voice for this novel. It was actually one of the first things I discovered while writing. There was this explosive energy to it. It captivated me, but there were also moments where I needed to calm it down a bit because it was too much. I think I would eventually like to return to this voice in the future, maybe for a collection of stories, but right now I’m working on a novel that is set in a different time and place. It requires a completely different voice and tempo. I’m trying to challenge myself as a writer to see what I can do next, how I can grow.
TM: Even though it’s set primarily in the 1980s, this novel feels pretty relevant to today’s gender identity politics. I’m sure that was something you had on your mind during the composition. Do you think a historical novel has any didactic advantages that a novel set today does not?
JC: I didn’t really think about politics at all. When I was composing the book, I really was in a bubble. I was in graduate school in Iowa City, and anyone who has ever experienced winter in the Midwest can tell you that it’s frigid. There isn’t a whole lot to do there except write, so I was holed up inside my apartment or the library, in a literal and figurative bubble. I was very focused on the book and the characters and I felt like I had such a singular focus that I wasn’t exactly tuned into the regular world. As I describe that now, I realize that may not have been the healthiest approach, but that’s just how it happened. I tried not to let the outside world influence what I was writing. I say that about politics, but I also wasn’t thinking about the publishing world either. That would have stressed me out too much.
I will also say that I’m not really interested in books that feel didactic. Maybe this is a generality, but didactic books don’t strike me as sufficiently complex because they already have a pre-set goal or point they want to get across. For me, the most interesting stories are the ones that don’t have any goals or points, they just show readers what a particular kind of life is like. As if the book is saying to the reader, “Well would you look at that? Ain’t that a sight?” So I didn’t have a didactic goal. I just wanted to have living, breathing, complex human beings on the page. And I wanted those characters to break the reader’s heart because their stories were tragic and unfair.
Given our present political moment, with the new administration’s policies, which seem guided by Pence’s virulent homophobia and transmisogyny, I see our attitude towards, and relationship with, LGBT issues shifting. I also think that there’s been a progressive wave over the past decade to welcome our LGBT brothers and sisters into the mainstream and to acknowledge their humanity and stories. We’re at an interesting, if not anxious, point in time.
TM: I’m interested in the social novel as a genre. They kind of go in and out of fashion. Do you consider this a social novel?
JC: I kind of see this novel as fusion of two literary traditions: that of the American Family Novel, plus the lineage of 20th- and 21st-century queer narratives. This question about the social novel is a bit tricky to answer. It reminds me of a question I was once asked on a panel about politics and queer writing. The question was, “Are all queer stories inherently political? Is it possible to write a queer narrative that isn’t political?” Wow, goodness, I don’t know. I feel like—and forgive me for some of these academic terms—sometimes living life truthfully as a queer person of color in this predominantly white hetero-patriarchy feels like a radical political act in and of itself. Can any artistic work produced by queer people of color be apolitical, or is it by nature of its producer, infused with social critique? These are fascinating questions that I think about often, but I don’t think I have an answer for you.
It’s like when a cereal company, or fashion brand, or department store, or what have you, airs a television ad with a same-sex or interracial couple—which is just representative of actual people and relationships in our society—they are treated like bold, transgressive political statements. Like, it’s a Cheerios commercial that is finally acknowledging the presence of people who aren’t white and straight. Are these ads inherently political, or does it only feel that way because of the environment that it’s created and received within?
TM: Who were your influences on this project? What author, what novels?
JC: I really love the Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar. He writes and directs all of his films and his aesthetic is very queer, very extra, very vulgar, kind of gritty, usually dark, and sometimes absurd. He’s a master. His best films taught me a lot about how to deploy humor and tragedy, sometimes in close proximity to each other.
Then there were the writers whose work I fell in love with. In no particular order: Virginia Woolf, Michael Cunningham, Miranda July, Junot Díaz, Colm Tóibín, Justin Torres, Edward P. Jones, Toni Morrison, Marilynne Robinson, Ann Beattie, Adam Haslett, Nicole Krauss, Joan Didion, Rivka Galchen, Jhumpa Lahiri, James Baldwin, Frank O’Hara.
Finally, the teachers who influenced the way I approach craft, and whose work I also return to in awe: Karen Russell, Stacey D’Erasmo, Ethan Canin, Lan Samantha Chang, Paul Harding, Margot Livesey, and Yiyun Li.
If any of those links were missing from the chain, I wouldn’t be the type of writer that I am today. And I look forward to a lifetime of discovering new voices and listening to the stories that I hear out in the world, when people open up and share their innermost secrets. I think that being a writer is so wonderful because we open ourselves up to the mysteries and wonders of the world. We can sit, observe, listen, and bring all of that into our fiction. It’s a beautiful way to live a life.
I had the pleasure of starting this essay when my life was falling apart, which is the best time, I think, to return to the author who taught you who you are. My first experience with Toni Morrison was by accident: My sisters and I played the DVD of Beloved at our aunt’s house, thinking it to be something different from what it was because Oprah Winfrey was in it. Back then, I was busy searching for normal in the likes of Junie B. Jones or Abby Hayes; only now do I see that the lives of these white girls fashioned a fantasia, when really my world was our world was Toni’s world: sick, sad, and keeping on regardless.
One of the first grown-up novels I read was The Bluest Eye. It was the summer before university, and I found an old copy at a thrift store and stayed up until 4 a.m. chugging through Pecola Breedlove’s heartbreaking elegy. Four years later—a few weeks ago—I bought Jazz, Love, and Song of Solomon, after checking out God Help the Child at the local library. I’ve since finished Song of Solomon and God Help the Child; Jazz is proving to be a labor of love.
Toni Morrison writes prose the way Dizzy Gillespie carried a tune or Ernie Barnes paints a life. They create art that imbues with heat those who let it in. Still, Barnes’s heat emanates from the hot and heavy space between lovers; Gillespie’s within the boiling blood of dancers in Village Vanguard. Morrison derives hers from tension.
Morrison’s new book of essays, The Origin of Others, shows that the sick, sad world in which her novels are set is an old one—one that she yearns to lean out of, one we’re falling right back into instead.
The Origin of Others is, at once, a critique, memoir, and writer’s notebook; the Nobel Prize-winning author explicates the observations and inspirations behind some of her most prized novels. The book draws from her Norton Lectures, in which she discusses race, borders, history, and other literary heavyweights such as Flannery O’Connor and Ernest Hemingway. Readers could consider this book a companion to her Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, if they want a pellucid look at the racial minefield throughout American literature. Morrison spans the essays asking what it is to Other others, to mark the color line between them and us. What I found in this discourse was a generational rift between Morrison and us.
Who is “us”? Ta-Nehisi Coates opens Origin with a foreword that claims it “impossible to read [Morrison’s] thoughts on belonging, on who fits under the umbrella of society and who does not, without considering our current moment.” He is correct in that the book envokes our collective, Trump-era anguish with almost clairvoyant clarity, but he seems to overlook how zeitgeist is geared towards winning the right to exist as Others in peace.
Miles Davis once said that “sometimes it takes you a long time to sound like yourself.” In that vein, Chloe Ardelia Wofford, born February 18, 1931, became Toni Morrison with time. While the name itself was a gradual invention—she was nicknamed “Toni” in college and picked up “Morrison” when she married—the Morrison we read today was conceived in the lifelong Othering either described or hinted at in The Origin of Others; her first essay, “Romancing Slavery,” opens with a representative scene. In the early 1930s, when Morrison and her sister “still played on the floor,” her great-grandmother Millicent MacTeer visited the family and provided her with a brief lesson about race and power:
Her visit to Ohio had been long anticipated because she was regarded as the wise, unquestionable, majestic head of our family. The majesty was clear when something I had never witnessed before happened as she entered a room: without urging, all the males stood up.
Finally, after a round of visits with other relatives, she entered our living room, tall, straight-backed, leaning on a cane she obviously did not need, and greeted my mother. Then, staring at my sister and me, playing or simply sitting on the floor, she frowned, pointed her cane at us, and said, “These children have been tampered with.”…My great-grandmother was tar black, and my mother knew precisely what she meant: we, her children, and therefore our immediate family, were sullied, not pure.
This scene sets the tone for the rest of the book. She remarks on how she first considered the phrase “tampered with” exotic, until her mother rejected the assertion. “[I]t became clear that ‘tampered with’ meant lesser,” she writes, “if not completely Other.” And thus, lit the spark of apprehension that grew as I continued the book.
The second essay, “Being or Becoming the Stranger,” provides us with an astute analysis as of the ways we draw the boundaries between one another. “Culture, physical traits, religion were and are among all precursors of strategies for ascendance and power,” Morrison explains. She opens the argument by analyzing Flannery O’Connor’s “Artificial Nigger,” in which a poor white man with delusions of grandeur teaches his nephew how to view black folk as lesser. She recounts the characters’ journey to Atlanta, and how Mr. Head teaches his nephew to read color. There’s one scene that stuck out, while on the train, where the two spot a large well-to-do light-skinned man who prompts the nephew to say, “You said they were black…You never said they were tan…”
Morrison highlights this scene to illustrate the fluidity of racial identity, how loosely we define blackness. This scenario either posits that race always trumped class or that race cannot be confined by color or, likely, both, an argument that can lend itself to colorblindness had one taken it at face value. Today, race and class have become entangled like a ratking: dozens of outcomes fighting for recognition but none quite standing out on its own. It is true that you can be an NBA superstar who’s still likened to a gorilla, or a footballer still manhandled by the police, but it also remains true that wealth provides enough mobility within the American social stratosphere to feed one’s delusions that they don’t have to care about blackness or, at the very least, are no longer affected by the racism us working folk are. Wealthy black folks don’t have to put up with Mr. Head’s chauvinism on the train when they can book a private plane for themselves, their non-black partners, and their pretty mixed children in the achromatic utopias often afforded to them. Simply put, they don’t have to care about our problems, and they know it.
Morrison then wraps up Mr. Head’s racial anxiety, that way she does so well: “Without the glue of racial superiority there seems to be no possibility of forgiveness or re-union. When, finally, they enter an all-white neighborhood, their fear of not belonging, of becoming, themselves, the stranger, destabilizes them.” This latter portion seems not to have aged at all, especially following a read of Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah’s profile of Dylann Roof; as blackness expands, white resentment remains static, transfixed in its original state until catalyzed by violence.
The book continues like this, wherein there are prescient analyses of the cultural moment followed by claims bordering on diminutive, as though Morrison has grown tired of discussing race—which would be reasonable—and yearns for the Obama-era headway that we millennials have grown accustomed to. This is especially apparent in “The Color Fetish,” the third essay, where Morrison briefly touches upon how dark skin is utilized as imagery for anything from menace to hopelessness to sexual depravity. She highlights a few popular examples, such as how in To Have and Have Not (The Tradesman’s Return), Hemingway must point out that an otherwise-named black character, Wesley, is constantly referred to as “the nigger” to “pinpoint the narrator’s compassion for a black man” and render the white protagonist sympathetic. Any keen cultural consumer will recall a similar trope used in Deadpool (2016) and Baby Driver (2017). We haven’t changed that much.
However, while she references “color-ism” once or twice, she entirely defangs and de-genders the issue, glossing over the preference for light-skinned characters—especially women—throughout American literary history, as well as the way this colorism has also been used by ostensibly black texts to alienate light-skinned protagonists from their dark-skinned antagonists, furthering Charles Chesnutt’s tradition of writing blacks with proximity to whiteness as more human. (Ann Petry’s The Street, Justin Simien’s Dear White People and—while I hesitate to list this as such—Jean Rhys’s polemical Wide Sargasso Sea come to mind.)
It is entirely possible that after 40-odd years of ruminating on blackness, racism, and womanhood, Morrison has become fatigued. We’re sitting in an era where 20-something bloggers need monastic practices of self-care just to keep up with the news. A philosophy major I know recently posted a diatribe against critical theory on Facebook, noting that he’d read 50 books a year for four years only to find that the Black conundrum, the why, only expanded the deeper you went, as if he were searching for the center of the universe. Oppression is exhausting and Morrison ends The Bluest Eye’s prologue by admitting this: “There is really nothing more to say—except why. But since why is difficult to handle, one must take refuge in how.” Every day, black folks are forced to parse how we’re seen, how we’re not, and how we’re to rectify these regular affronts in hopes to, one day, untie the Gordian knot that is our existence in a world designed away from us.
The world Toni Morrison grew up in and immortalized in her fiction was diseased. It’s a world of fathers drunk on hate, seeking love in innocence and turning it to rot; a world of little colored girls trapped in mahogany palaces, sewing roses out of red velvet for parties they’ll never go to. It’s a world rife with ghosts of bygone traumas manifesting in cruelty. Throughout her career, she took that world and turned it into doleful prose to try to make the pain a little more beautiful. This was likely why I returned to her like a ghost back to her grave: She presented us with Negresses who were mobilizing forces in their own lives. But it wasn’t empowering; in fact, it could be incapacitating, seeing your suffering in the mirror.
There was a part in “Being or Becoming the Stranger” that shed a little light on my experience with Beloved. Morrison recalls the time she met an “outrageously dressed fisherwoman” outside of her home. They chat for a few minutes and decide to chat again at some indistinct point in the future. But once the fisherwoman is gone, she never returns, and nary a soul knew she even existed, prompting minor heartache for Morrison:
I immediately sentimentalized and appropriated her. Fantasized her as my personal shaman. I owned her or wanted to (and I suspect she glimpsed it). I had forgotten the power of embedded images and stylish language to seduce, reveal, control. Forgot too their capacity to help us pursue the human project—which is to remain human and to block the dehumanization and estrangement of others.
I recall now why we ever thought Beloved was a family-friendly film: We had projected onto Oprah a benignity she’d likely wanted to escape from. Oprah, a woman whose success was often extrapolated from the Mammy archetype. We had fallen victim to the way the world perceived her: supplement to whiteness.
Black American history has been unforgiving. From chattel slavery to Reconstruction to Jim Crow to our current neoliberal dystopia—black art has always been produced as ripostes to the black condition of a given era. For poor black folk, those who can’t cull hundreds of dollars for passports that’d go largely unused anyway, their horizons extend to what’s right before them. Hopeful blacktivists open bookstores to shrink that sea of dissonance between poor folk and the diaspora, but America’s anti-intellectualism too often prevails.
Morrison resists. Her prose is poetic in its simplicity and as lush with imagery as a hilltop forest. She makes a conscious effort to keep her books accessible to help black booksellers push cachet literature to the masses. “I thought to myself,” she writes, “what if I published a book good enough, attractive enough to demand black people’s attention?” She’s since reached that goal and then some, I think, but the fatigue still wins sometimes. She explains how, for example, Paradise was written as “a reverse dystopia—a deepening of the definition of ‘black’ and a search for its purity as defiance against the eugenics of ‘white’ purity…” In “The Color Fetish,” she also details how God Help the Child displayed color as “both a curse and a blessing, a hammer and a golden ring,” how the beauty in Bride’s sable skin and silky hair was not enough to make her “a sympathetic human being.” And her acclaimed short story, “Recititaf,” could be declared a colorblind masterwork—in fact, it was. This time last year, a white classmate construed the story’s meaning to be that the race of the characters didn’t matter. The real meaning? It may have gotten lost in the process of writing it:
I first tried this technique of racial erasure in a short story…It began as a screenplay that I was asked to write for two actresses—one black, one white. But since in the writing I didn’t know which actress would play which part, I eliminated color altogether, using social class as the marker…Later I converted the material into a short story—which, by the way, does exactly the opposite of my plan (the characters are divided by race, but all racial codes have been deliberately removed). Instead of relating to plot and character development, most readers insist on searching for what I have refused them.
At the end of the day, Morrison loves her people, as discussed in that famous New York Times Magazine interview with Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah back in 2015:
What I’m interested in is writing without the gaze, without the white gaze…In so many earlier books by African-American writers, particularly the men, I felt that they were not writing to me. But what interested me was the African-American experience throughout whichever time I spoke of. It was always about African-American culture and people—good, bad, indifferent, whatever—but that was, for me, the universe.
And yet she appears resistant to carry on this discourse, likely because for a moment there it did feel like we were out of the woods. Imagine spending 40 years writing the brutal mores of race hatred only for it to make a comeback—immediately following the first black presidency, at that. Toni Morrison’s world—the world of Beloved and Song of Solomon, Jazz and The Bluest Eye—is an old world she yearns to abandon forever. The Origin of Others glosses over so many things that at this point should be non-factors. But alas, here we are on the bend of time’s spiral, mirroring the same shit in new clothes, all in the twilight of her life. It is not Morrison’s job to bear new burdens like colorism or misogynoir or, ironically, Nazism; it’s up to us to pick them up and smash them against the concrete, just to let her breathe.
In May, I graduated with my B.A. in English. This feels very strange to write in the past tense, but it’s true.
In the course of my studies, I was assigned more than 150 books, from novels to plays to biology textbooks. Perhaps it’s no surprise then that my college experience naturally breaks itself down into books read and unread, loved and hated. I remember reading The Secret History on the campus quad, sitting under a massive oak tree and thinking that this is what college should be like — all shade, dusty books, and lofty conversation, though I certainly didn’t intend to kill any of my new friends. I read selections from my Intro to Philosophy textbook in the basement of my dorm in between loads of laundry, which I had to wring out over a drain in the floor before tossing them in the dryer. I remember rushing through my assigned chapters of Moby-Dick every Sunday night before class, when I would meet with three other students and a professor to discuss symbolism. And I remember my horror when I realized exactly how long “Song of Myself” was at two in the morning. But somehow that horror is gone now, and all that’s left is the quiet joy that came from spending so much time interacting with books I otherwise might never have opened.
In these first few months after graduation, I can already feel myself pulled toward nostalgia, these stories, stresses, and loves. I am not quite ready to let them go. Although I learned from and appreciate all 150, some stand out as particularly defining. Here, in loose chronological order, are some of the most important. My degree in books, if you will.
Don Quixote – My first college assignment was to read five chapters of Don Quixote. I hurried through the chapters and immediately forgot them — the antiquated language escaping me as I read. At the end of my first week of class, I attended a lecture on Cervantes in which a brilliant professor gave a stirring speech about the value of studying the humanities and of the profound life questions Don Quixote addresses. I left feeling that studying English was a noble calling: something I could feel good about, something that would challenge and grow me. I resolved to read more slowly and carefully in the future, so that I, too, could pick out all the profound life questions present in great works and, if I were careful enough, perhaps even some of the answers. But I never finished Don Quixote. It turned out that good intentions and high callings weren’t nearly enough to get me through tangles of plot and language. I later felt grateful that I learned this early—that my first formal reading experience was a failure—because it was only by letting go of some of my grandiose expectations that I was eventually able to force myself through the grunt work of reading difficult books.
Jazz – In my second semester humanities course, I was assigned Jazz by Toni Morrison. I read it, slowly at first and then more and more quickly, until I was sitting in a tiny coffee shop on campus for three hours rushing through the last third of the novel. Jazz has a very particular kind of energy and assumes an agency of its own, and it was this agency that I felt myself responding to and trying to mimic. The narration of the novel seems to be coming from the book itself, a sense that culminates in the stirring final lines: “If I were able I’d say it. Say make me, remake me. You are free to do it and I am free to let you because look, look. Look where your hands are. Now.” They address the reader directly and invite him or her to play with narration, structure, and meaning—to make and remake again and again. Reading Jazz left me feeling hollow and yet full, seeing or imagining that I saw connections between everything, past, present, and future all at once. Jazz is the first book that I truly fell in love with in college, and yet I never reread it, worried that doing so would ruin my connection with the novel and shatter the illusion of perfect storytelling. My classmates thought that I was crazy; none of them liked the novel very much at all, and several didn’t bother to finish it. Asked to identify those last few lines of the book on an exam, one friend misattributed them to The Waste Land. I teased him about this for years.
Looking back, I see that this fast-and-furious method wasn’t a very good way to read, for pleasure or for study. I swallowed all of Jazz in a gulp, rushed through with some growing sense of awe, and then put it down for good. I don’t remember it very well now, just the intense reaction it inspired. Is that enough?
I don’t think so. I wish I had quickly gone back through it, read more closely while that first emotion still lingered, and tried to better understand how the novel was working. I could have learned so much. Funny enough, I feel the same way about that first year of college. I wish I had tried better to understand what was happening, whom I was getting to know, and who I was becoming. I can’t remember what my friends and I discussed until dawn when we were first getting to know one another, or why we drew bad portraits of each other or where they went. I don’t know who lived down the hall from me or remember the name of my history professor. What did we talk about in class when we talked about Jazz? And how was it that, when I went back to Texas, life with my family felt foreign, distant from reality? Now all I have are bits of emotion with little context or cause, which is all I have left of Jazz, too.
Wide Sargasso Sea – In the spring semester of my freshman year, I was allowed to register for my first proper English class. As part of the course, I was assigned both Jane Eyre and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, a postcolonial prequel to Charlotte Bronte’s novel that tells the story of Rochester’s first wife, Antoinette. I had read Jane Eyre before, twice, and wasn’t looking forward to having to go through it again; I wanted to read new books and fresh authors, not the same novels I’d been assigned in high school. But reading Wide Sargasso Sea was a turning point in my English career—a moment that I can point to and say, “There. That’s it. That changed it all.” This book taught me that it was possible to critique the classics; I didn’t have to agree with them or accept their versions of their stories. I realized that every book was leaving something out—that there was almost always some other story to explore, some angle that wasn’t at first obvious—and that looking for these would open books wider than I thought possible. I realized that reading is a political act, as is writing. I talked about the book nonstop. Although I never mentioned Wide Sargasso Sea in any major written assignment and was never graded on my understanding of the novel, its influence underwrote all my studies for the next three years.
As I Lay Dying – I was intimidated by Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying when it was first assigned, and this turned out to be an appropriate response, though I found myself swept up in the story in spite of myself. I loved and was confused by the novel in equal measure. I liked this story of a family who seemed incapable of understanding each other—driven by a common goal but also by individual desires, hopes, and despairs. I flinched when they tried to set a broken leg in concrete, and again when Dewey Dell was scammed by an unscrupulous doctor’s assistant. I squirmed when I read Addie’s dark chapter and her final words: “People to whom sin is just a matter of words, to them salvation is just words too.” I thought about how everything was words to me and worried that maybe words weren’t enough—no matter how badly I wanted them to be. I saw the book as a kind of puzzle that surely I could put together into a complete masterpiece if only I read closely enough, paid enough attention, was sensitive to subtleties, but then again, wasn’t it just words, too? How could I get beyond that?
For all of this thinking and rethinking, my class only spent a total of three hours discussing the novel. I was left with more questions than I knew how to ask and an unsettling sense that I was not even close to understanding what I had read. I asked questions of this text: How was it that Addie could speak? What happened to Dale’s mind? Why was Vardaman’s mother a fish? Why was all of this speaking and thinking and fish-ing happening together? Then, I tried to answer them on my own. I realized that maybe I wouldn’t be able to put all of the pieces and words of the story into perfect alignment ever, and maybe it was better that way. I began to learn how to accept unknowns and how to live with an imperfect knowledge of things, even as I tried to fill in the gaps of my understanding, that space behind the language.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner – I was confused by this poem as much as I was by As I Lay Dying, though in a different way. Although the density and ambiguity of As I Lay Dying felt essential to the work, the Rime seemed to be almost careless—something that was meant to be understood and yet couldn’t be. It’s not that I couldn’t follow the storyline, but that it was impossible for me to interpret it: to fit the images and events of the poem together into something meaningful and satisfying, into a whole. I was assigned to read a collection of scholarly essays on the poem and hoped that these perspectives, which came with names like “reader response theory” and “new criticism,” would help clarify Coleridge. Maybe I didn’t have to live with ambiguity after all. But the criticism only intensified my confusion, and the jumbled arguments of the scholars added a layer of irritation to my interactions with the poem. They didn’t agree with each other, and when I could follow their arguments, I didn’t agree with them either. I began to wonder exactly what purpose literary criticism served—academics writing articles to argue with other academics while readers like me remained confused and overwhelmed. Then I learned that the poem can be sung to the tune of Gilligan’s Island. This was too much; this made no sense. I could not sing Gilligan’s Island and study psychoanalytic theory at the same time. I gave up, but I was humming the song for days.
Medieval Literature in general – I enrolled in a class called Medieval Romance. I had no idea what this meant, and I wasn’t particularly enthused about having to admit that I was studying “Romances,” but it was the only class open by the time I registered. I read Chrétien de Troyes and wrote a harsh critique of the abusive gender dynamics in Erec and Enide, paying attention, for the first time, to specific word choices and the way patterns in action could reveal underlying obsessions in the text. I discovered a talent for reading Middle English. I was assigned a romance titled Richard Coeur de Lion, in which King Richard eats the heart of a lion. I read a long French poem called “Silence,” in which a woman dresses as a man, struggles with the allegorical figures of Nature and Nurture, and becomes a successful and valued knight until Merlin exposes her. I read the Gest of Robin Hood and wrote a long paper on social inequality and status inversions present in its short fyttes.
Through all of this reading, I gradually realized that these medieval writers were asking many of the same questions and struggling with many of the same social issues that I was encountering in my 21st century university. They wondered about the role of government and what made a good leader. They were curious about gender and identity, social structures, and economic inequality. And I, too, wondered about all of these things: how my world was broken and how it could be fixed. I felt more connected with history and recognized myself as part of a large and continuing stream of humanity and culture, but I also realized that I was not cut out to be a medievalist. There is no Middle English language setting in Microsoft Word, and I couldn’t stand the rows and rows of red underlining that appeared whenever I tried to type quotes from Chaucer.
Spring and All – The last semester of my junior year, I approached my Modern Literature professor about completing an additional research paper for Honors credit. She agreed and asked me what writer from our syllabus I wanted to study. I wrote her a long email requesting permission to write about Wallace Stevens because I loved what work of his I’d read and wanted to expand my formal understanding of poetry. Except that instead of typing Wallace Stevens, I got confused and typed William Carlos Williams. Too embarrassed to admit my mistake, I spent a semester studying imagist poetry and the crazed prose of Spring and All. My professor didn’t like Spring and All and couldn’t understand my supposed obsession with Williams, but she tried to be patient with me. When I cautiously offered my explanations of this text to her, she smiled. “Sometimes,” she said, “it really doesn’t mean anything, but nobody will admit it.” I agreed with her completely; no matter how many times I read it I couldn’t force the apocalyptic, manifesto-style prose and the poems about blooming flowers into any relationship that felt very convincing. This made my twelve pages much harder to write. I swore to always double-check author names before sending any more emails, and I learned about how important it is to sincerely love any work that takes more than week to complete. I also learned how to complete work and learn from research I didn’t love at all. I was told that this was good practice for life post-grad.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – I was assigned to read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight three separate times during college, each time in a slightly different translation. By the third reread, I began to wish that the Green Knight would just behead Gawain at the beginning of the story and let that be that. I wrote an email complaining to the dean about the sameness of the English curriculum that I never sent. My roommates bore the brunt of my wrath instead and could eventually recite the general plot of the poem without ever having picked up a copy. They loved me anyway. I decided that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was a true test of friendship, not chivalry, and at the end of my junior year, I sold all my translations of the poem for a total of $5.
The Book of Night Women – At the beginning of my senior year, I took a class in which my professor paired contemporary books with thematically similar works written before 1900. On the first day of class, she apologized for assigning so many troubling readings and warned us that The Book of Night Women by Marlon James, which she had paired with Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and which we weren’t scheduled to begin for another three months, was going to be traumatic. She was right.
The Book of Night Women tells the story of Lilith, a young slave girl on an 18th century Jamaican plantation, and it is unflinching in its portrayal of violence and suffering, of the incredible variety of possible pains, and of people desperate to escape misery. It is about destruction, redemption, and the horrors that good people are capable of, but on the first read, I could only see the horror. Thirty pages into the first reading, I was shaking and nauseated, so I put the novel down for a few hours, then read another thirty pages, and stopped again. In this way, I finished the book over a long and harrowing week. It was brutal but brilliant, and I found myself admiring what James was doing in this work even as I recoiled from its violence and darkness. I worried about these characters and about my extreme sensitivity to reading their stories. I was tempted to think James was being deliberately alarming, but I knew the novel was more than that. Was James challenging 20-something, middle-class white students like myself to understand our history and the suffering it had caused? Was I too thin-skinned, or was mine exactly the response he hoped for? Or was he just telling a story in as honest a way as possible? I was reminded of Wide Sargasso Sea. Reading is political. Stories have power. When I finished the book, I cried.
During the first class period spent discussing the book, my professor joked that she should find us a group therapist. I felt tempted to press her on this. Every student in the room looked shocked, freshly sensitive, all our nerves exposed and raw. I hoped to someday write something as affecting, if different in every other way. More than this, I hoped to stay thin-skinned.
Fun Home – During my last semester, I didn’t take a single English class but instead spent the spring writing my final thesis on the works of Virginia Woolf and Alison Bechdel, particularly on the ways in which they use houses to discuss both creativity and censorship. I kept (and continue to keep) writing personal essays about houses, and I wanted to see how these masters of essay and memoir handled rooms, hallways, facades, and interiors.
Studying graphic memoirs like Bechdel’s Fun Home and Are You My Mother? turned out to be surprisingly difficult because I didn’t know how to academically describe or explain the way an image works as part of a text. I read books like The Poetics of Space and Understanding Comics in an attempt to figure this out and ultimately did a passable job, but I realized that there are whole genres, entire fields of literature, writing, and study that my formal English degree hadn’t touched. Even so, I feel confident that I have learned enough to figure the rest out in time. This is cheesy, but I feel good about it anyway, though I can’t quite bring myself to reread my final thesis.
Now that I am free from the structures of school, class, and assignments, I feel a little directionless and slightly overwhelmed. I’m not sure where to pick up my life in books, what authors or works to begin, or in what order. My current reading list has contemporary poetry on it, mostly pulled from friends’ recommendations, and some essay collections I’ve been hoarding for a while, but it also has Middlemarch and The Brothers Karamazov. I’ve never read Alice Munro or Montaigne. A friend lent me Jesus’ Son four years ago, and I’ve never read it either. Those 150 books aren’t nearly as much as I once thought they were. There is so much writing that I am completely ignorant of, and I’m excited to keep reading.
Image via [email protected]/Flickr
January of this year saw the release of Elliot Perlman’s The Street Sweeper, an excellent and epic novel that in dealing with the horrors of 20th-century prejudice ingeniously splices together its two main strains: anti-Semitism and anti-black racism. Adam, a historian, is called upon to research and corroborate the hushed-up fact that black U.S. soldiers fighting in segregated units helped liberate Dachau. Their achievement, deemed too heroic or too shameful, was whitewashed over and a more palatable history was written. After fighting Nazism, the soldiers returned home to a new front, their own civil rights battles. Adam amplifies protest voices that have lain muffled over the years, learning that “when black World War Two veterans came home to the Jim Crow South they weren’t going to take it anymore.” He documents their “small acts of resistance” born of a newfound courage instilled in them from the war. On the home front they were up against the same racism from the same oppressor, but one all the more hateful for being severely ungrateful.
Toni Morrison’s latest novel, Home, is concerned also with war, injustice, and homecoming. We are in the next decade of the 20th-century, with African-American Frank Money returning from the battlefields of Korea, but the racism is just as ingrained in the country he was fighting for. The ingratitude hasn’t changed either. “You all go fight, come back, they treat you like dogs,” Frank is told. Morrison starts her tale and Frank’s odyssey in a hospital: Frank wakes up, bound and sedated, but has no recollection of how he came to be there. He receives a mysterious letter urging him to hurry home to his sister. “She be dead if you tarry.” Frank, bitter and brimming with self-loathing, has been back in America for a year but has been unable to bring himself to head back to his native Georgia. The letter gives him the spur he needs. He breaks out of his “crazy ward” and starts his journey, first barefoot through snow, then shod and fed and with $17 in his pocket from a charitable minister. Soon he is weaving from state to state, plagued by post-traumatic stress disorder, but finally charged with both direction and purpose.
Morrison interlards Frank’s narrative with those of the other characters in his life. We meet Ycidra, or Cee, the sister in distress. After years of putting up with her grandmother’s malice (Cee, born in the street, was thus tormented with the tag “gutter child”), she ran away from home at 14 with a ne’er-do-well called Prince. When she is left “broken down, down into her separate parts,” she starts again by securing a job from a white doctor called Beauregard Scott. Morrison deftly showcases Cee’s naivety in a short scene where she peruses Scott’s books with titles such as The Passing of the Great Race and Heredity, Race and Society, and then mulls over the meaning of “eugenics.” The other woman in Frank’s life is, or rather was, Lily, his brief romantic interest, before both realize he is too damaged to be tender, too raw to love. Sex is “bed work,” a “duty,” and when he eventually walks out on her, the loneliness she feels gives way to a calming solitude, “a shiver of freedom.”
Frank travels in the present but on the way his troubled mind casts back, conjuring up scarred thoughts and memories from his time in Korea. He witnessed the deaths of his two childhood friends — the three of them joining the army to escape the hometown they loathed and the limited job prospects of work in cotton fields they didn’t own, just like their parents before them. Reliving their deaths goads him on. “No more people I didn’t save. No more watching people close to me die. No more.” Frank’s unswerving loyalty to his sister means he will stop at nothing to complete his quest. War has left plenty of residual cruelty sloshing around in him. He will kill anyone who has touched her. He fights a pimp and keeps punching him when he is unconscious, fuelled by a reawakened lust for blood — “The thrill that came with each blow was wonderfully familiar.” Morrison is sparing in detailing the carnage of war, but there is one neat twist that she withholds until the end, which suggests that Frank is so corroded by remorse that his sister-saving op will only grant him so much redemption.
Frank rescues a very mutilated Cee — whose job description of “medical assistant” should instead have read “guinea pig” — and spirits her home to Lotus, the town the pair did everything they could to flee from (presumably based, as in previous novels, on Lorain, Ohio, where Morrison grew up). This is home and hearth, but of the tough, hardscrabble variety. And yet, both seem to have come full circle. Frank finds it hard to believe he once hated the place; Cee goes one step further by declaring “This is where I belong.” Home and belonging have been salient themes throughout Morrison’s long career. Her first novel, The Bluest Eye, begins with a description of two homes, the MacTeers’ and the Breedloves’, both humble, but the former full of warmth and love. The latter is less so, and the youngest family member, Pecola Breedlove, craves a safer sanctuary and sense of community. This warped homely ideal is a typical Morrison trope. We see it again in Sula — Nel’s home is clean and orderly whereas Sula lives among chaos and disorder. Home, in Morrison’s fiction, is frequently a dwelling and seldom a haven. Milkman Dead in Song of Solomon comes from a home stuffed with material privilege but the Dead house lives up to its name – an empty shell devoid of life. In Jazz Joe and Violet Trace depart the South for the “City” and discover quickly it is no Promised Land. Morrison saves her most mordant variation on home for Beloved: the Kentucky plantation on which Sethe Suggs is enslaved is called Sweet Home.
The subverted home-sweet-home sentiment is utilized again in Home. Lotus, for Frank, is a town of dead-ends, “the worst place in the world, worse than any battlefields.” Navigating the town’s transportation system is also “rougher than confronting a battlefield.” Much as she yearns for her own house, poor Lily is thwarted, first because of the “restrictions” regarding race in the neighborhood she desires, and second because Frank isn’t able to share her house-hunting enthusiasm. (The two friends he loses in Korea are his “homeys,” but this is the closest he comes to being a homeboy.) A good home seems to be reserved for the lucky few. In one short section, Morrison makes patently (and poetically) clear who does the real living and who the house-tending:
It was 7:30 a.m. when he boarded a bus filled with silent day-workers, housekeepers, maids, and grown lawn boys. Once beyond the business part of the city, they dropped off the bus one by one like reluctant divers into inviting blue water high above the pollution below. Down there they would search out the debris, the waste, resupply the reefs, and duck the predators swimming through lacy fronds. They would clean, cook, serve, mind, launder, weed, and mow.
Morrison makes no mention of skin color here. The bus travel and the jobs do the work for her. She employed a different, more overt approach in Sula, spelling it out for us that Nel is “the color of wet sandpaper” and Sula “a heavy brown with large quiet eyes” (and both “wishbone thin and easy-assed”). In Home she prefers to leave us to infer, and rightly so, that a doctor is white or a minister is black, guiding us only by denoting a character’s vernacular and social standing.
But for all its strengths, Home still falls short. This is partly due to its length. Marilynne Robinson’s Home, of “real” novel length, was roomier, with more space for the characters to breathe (two of whom were also like Frank Money, turning up unexpectedly in their hometown after considerable time away). Morrison tries to pack just as much into her 140-something pages and the result is a busy cast bursting with potential, but characters who are so hamstrung in their tight confinement, so seldom on the page, that their tales are only half-told. Perspectives shift to give us another character’s insight and history, but ultimately we feel as if we hardly know them. A whole batch of them gestate but never hatch. Instead of honing in on a small, crucial ensemble, Morrison prefers to pan out and mint more secondary characters, even in the closing pages. James Wood has accused Morrison of loving her characters too much. Such mollycoddling “hotly hugs the life out of them” — a case in point being Frank himself, who is severely half-baked, all pent-up rage and muttered threats that never come to anything. He avenges his friend’s death in Korea by shooting an old one-legged civilian; he describes how picking cotton “broke the body but freed the mind for dreams of vengeance;” and, just prior to freeing Cee from the doctor’s clutches, he experiences “Thoughts of violence alternating with those of caution.” Unfortunately, and perhaps improbably, it is that caution that wins the day, despite Morrison’s grandiose build-up. In a dismal display of bathos, he rescues Cee calmly and wordlessly, all that bloodthirsty vengeance evaporating in the process. Nowhere do we witness Perlman’s “small acts of resistance.” Big angry Frank Money is all bluster.
Morrison wraps up the proceedings with a saccharine bow-out, loving Frank and Cee so much as to endow them with peace of mind and even douse them in the soft-focus “glow of a fat cherry-red sun.” Mercifully, the impact from the bulk of the book lingers — the poignant depiction of a sundered family, the unflinching portrayal of war — for us to brusquely write the whole thing off. If only Morrison had concluded it otherwise: keeping Frank enraged, a victim of his own exaggerations (“home” still being akin to a Korean battlefield) not to mention his own worst enemy. When still with Lily, instead of sharing her passion to find a home, he tells her all he wants to do is “Stay alive.” Trudging through Atlanta he is mugged by five “sneaks” and then dusted down by a Samaritan who warns him to “Stay in the light.” We would prefer a compromise: we like Frank alive, but wish Morrison with her too-big heart had kept him in the shade. That, along with swapping her scattershot sketching for broader, splashier, and more daring brush strokes on a wider canvas, and Home would have been up there with Morrison’s best.
James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” is a story that always manages to surprise me because it just works. There is, of course, tremendous style and skill in the execution. But there is nothing ostentatious: no cheap jumps or surprises, no shifts in voice, no postmodern irruptions by the writer. “Sonny’s Blues” is simply an intense story with high stakes. Sonny will either manage to live in this world or, in his great desperation and pain, fall to heroin. This life or death conflict lies naked on the page, so that every word, spoken and narrated, must either point to it or pointedly talk around it, each word advancing the cause of one or the other outcome. Because there is no gimmick to it, because there is honesty and bluntness in the telling of the story, Baldwin is able to rest the world on Sonny’s shoulders. As the story goes on, Baldwin returns again and again to the pronoun “we” and to apocalyptic metaphor. A story about a man convincingly becomes a story about a nation, and a story about human beings. It is not only Sonny’s fate that remains undecided at the end of the story; the apocalyptic “cup of trembling” that sits at the top of Sonny’s piano in the final sentence is meant for all of us.
The stories in Danielle Evans’s short story collection, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self are built on the model of “Sonny’s Blues”. There is no trick to these stories, only brute intensity. These are stories about people, particularly women, who have suffered terribly, who stand on the precipice, and who implicate us in what has happened to them and in what they intend to do. These are women whose desperation to be heard and to be loved drives them to feel with a terrifying, violent intensity. They remind me of Dorcas, from Toni Morrison’s Jazz, a “girl with one of those deepdown, spooky loves that made [her lover] so sad and so happy that he shot her just to keep the feeling going.” They expect nothing and somehow get less; they know better than to get their hopes up about anything. Parents forget to pay the electric bill and the lights get cut. They abandon their children in the house, and there’s no guarantee that they’ll return: “Liddie and I sat in our pajamas, alone, staring at the tree that wouldn’t light up. When our parents returned hours later with pizza and Chinese food and flashlights and candles, we exhaled breath we didn’t even know we’d been holding and ate cold food in the dark silence.” When the protagonist of “Virgins” loses her virginity, her ambivalence speaks for every other character in the collection: “I did understand then that there was no such thing as safe, only safer; that this, if it didn’t happen now, would happen later but not better.”
Evans also shares Baldwin’s talent for dialogue: both writers know well what lies are hidden behind every word. A character in “Jellyfish,” upon receiving a self-serving offer from her father, slips up and says “That’s wonderful for you,” instead of “That’s wonderful of you.” Despite her best intentions, the mistaken preposition and the greeting-card formality of her response reveals exactly what she thinks about the matter. The same story features this expert piece of dialogue:
“You sound like me the week after you left me the first time,” said Cheese. “I thought every woman walking beneath the window was you.”
“Well,” said Eva. “Here I am.”
Eva responds, but doesn’t really respond; that might make her vulnerable. It is typical of most communication in the collection, sensitive negotiations conducted between two hostile parties rather than any sort of genuine exchange. Characters seize on key phrases, remember them exactly, and quote them ad nauseum, as if they were valuable bargaining chips: “Anyway, he told me once that love was not a real thing because it was comprised of too many subsidiary emotions.” Dialogue, for Evans’ characters, is war by other means.
Evans is smart enough to know that suffering only very rarely makes you a better person. These characters are capable of staggering cruelties. The protagonist of “Wherever You Go, There You Are,” meeting the fiance of her ex-boyfriend, Brian, for the first time, is responsible for this exchange:
“To death and divorce, then,” he says, “which are forever.”
“And marriage,” I say, clinking my drink to his and nodding at Brian, “Which is not.”
I let out a hushed oath when I read that passage for the first time, as if the characters were sitting right next to me in a crowded restaurant and I was afraid of being overheard. I honestly felt, to my own surprise, scandalized. You know these characters shouldn’t get a pass for their behavior, but you don’t quite blame them for it either. They know a certain pitiless brutality to be an immutable truth of life. Tara, of “Snakes,” puts it nicely: “I felt like somebody ought to stop me from walking out, like there was a rule that you couldn’t leave behind such palatable need.” But, as she well knows, there isn’t. So she does walk out.
Evans’ collection, however, is all about attending to that palatable need. Like Baldwin and Morrison, Evans belongs to the branch of black literary humanism that, simply by recognizing its characters as people, carries with it an implicit social mission. These stories are written with such detail and attention that it sometimes feels like a personal letter, written by one black woman for another, by one loving person for another. It feels necessary. Somebody should tell these women that they are not alone and that they matter.
What makes this collection great is that moral mission, the way that the collection serves as a testament to the value of the individuals whose stories it tells. Race is here, of course. Race cannot help but be here, in every tiny crack and crevice, tainting everything from sunscreen to school pranks. Race cuts and bruises and scars the characters of this collection. But beyond their intricate filigrees of defensiveness, beyond the ways that others insist on seeing them, the characters of Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self are people. They want those awfully basic things that can be expressed in simple, declarative thrusts: I want to be loved, I want your love, I want a real family. These primary human dramas are what ultimately drive the stories in the collection, and the need in these stories is so obvious and strong that it levels the heart. Such an insistent demand for love should be heard; it is worthy of being chronicled in books. There isn’t a rule that you can’t leave behind such palatable need, of course. We know this. But the gap between what we know and what we think should be is the place from which great literature often emerges. There isn’t such a rule, but as Danielle Evans persuasively argues, there ought to be.