Sometimes when I read short story collections I try to figure out what the author’s thing is. By thing I mean the big issue they address in their writing. While it’s easy to extrapolate from there that it’s the big issue the author him or herself is dealing with in his/her own life, I try not to make that assumptive leap.
For instance, I always think of Mary Gaitskill’s thing as trying to reconcile sexuality with intelligence; Raymond Carver is sensitive men who cope with their sensitivity by drinking; George Saunders – things that will make a reader’s brain melt; and Amy Bloom is love is fucked up but we’re gonna do it anyway.
Whee. I could do that all day. But I won’t, because I’ve come to talk about Danielle Evans’ short story collection Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self. If I were to guess Evans’ “thing” it would be smart black girl copes with being smart black girl. Which sounds kind of dismissive, but it’s not at all.
In fact, I would argue we don’t hear a lot of smart black girl voices in fiction these days. And it’s really nice to hear it. The young women — mostly late teens and early twentysomethings — who populate Evans’ stories are struggling to find their places in the world, realizing they don’t always fit in the families, neighborhoods, and schools they’ve grown up in.
The collection opens with “Virgins” a sad coming of age story about a teenager named Erica who realizes the club scene in Manhattan might be a little over hear head, and just when you think she escapes intact you realize the danger is all around. Her sense of loss is palpable.
There’s a lot of loss in these stories both emotional and physical. In “Harvest” where pretty Columbia co-eds sell their eggs to infertile couples for thousands of dollars, our narrator, Angel, realizes nobody wants the brown babies, and she’s not even so sure herself about keeping a brown baby.
But it’s not all sadness and doom. Evans can be pretty funny when you least expect it, and it’s these glimpses of humor even in dismal situations that really brings her characters to life. One of my favorite bits came in the story “Wherever You Go, There You Are” about a couple of cousins who go on a road trip.
She’s dropped the diet stuff, at least, but if you’ve ever seen anything more disturbing than a kid eating Reese’s Pieces Happy Face Sundae after you’ve explained to her how to give a proper blow job, I don’t want to hear about it.
A few stories here are told from the male point of view, and they’re just as strong. In “Someone Ought to Tell Her There’s Nowhere to Go,” Georgie comes home from war to find his girlfriend shacked up with another friend. Georgie starts babysitting the ex-gf’s four-year-old daughter and in an attempt to please the little girl ends up creating a media circus.
I could go on and on telling you about how good each of the stories in this collection are, because there’s nary a dud. Do you know how amazing that is? A short story collection without a dud is like a record with no song you skip over. It’s a rare and beautiful thing.
There’s a few stories that have the whiff of twentysomething B.S. drama about them — the I love him/her but we just can’t make it work sort of stuff, the “I’m too damaged to be loved or understood” junk — but with Evans’ capable prose even those stories don’t feel cliche or trite.
This is a strong, strong collection and it makes me really excited to read what Danielle Evans writes next. I honestly cannot wait for her next book.