Danielle Evans really hits it out of the ballpark in her debut collection of short stories, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self (don’t you just love that title?). I first heard about the book a few months ago when it was listed on New York Magazine‘s 2010 “Most Anticipated Fall Fiction” list; the buzz that has steadily increased in the ensuing months is well-deserved.
These eight short stories mostly revolve around teenagers and young African American/mixed-race women. The writing is bold and honest, tackling themes like identity politics, culture, racism, sexuality, and peer pressure.
I lived up in Yonkers, NY while I attended grad school, working as a barista or in retail positions pretty much the entire time I was there. The complex characters Evans creates in this book remind me so much of my younger former co-workers, many of whom were still in high school or trying to save up for college. The first story, “Virgins”–which has been published in The Paris Review and The Best American Short Stories 2008–is set in Mount Vernon, NY and particularly reminded me of some of the younger friends I made at work who wanted so desperately to grow up already.
Two of my favorite stories in the collection were “Snakes” and “Robert E. Lee Is Dead.”
“Snakes” is told through the eyes of a mixed-race woman who had been adopted by white parents; in the story, she recounts a traumatic summer she spent living with her grandmother and cousin when she was a child. The unease she experiences is subtle at first–even moreso because it is processed through the mind of a little girl–but as an adult, I was cringing the entire time.
But it was the last story in the book, “Robert E. Lee Is Dead,” that really blew me away. The story is about a girl in high school named Crystal whose life changes when she’s befriended by one of the popular girls in school, Geena. The two become inseparable, even though the diverging paths of their lives test the limits of their friendship.
What I appreciate most about this book is that Evans, a self-described feminist, treats her characters with respect. A lot of these stories could be classified in the coming-of-age genre, but Evans takes away the rose-colored glasses that tint so many works in that genre. Instead, she acknowledges that young people are complex, multi-layered human beings who act they way they do for a reason, and treats them as such. In this excerpt from “Wherever You Go, There You Are,” she writes:
[I]t becomes clear to me that this kid has no idea what’s supposed to be happening, and neither does her boyfriend. I feel kind of sorry for her entire generation, because they’ve learned all the theatrical parts of sex so they can walk around pouting and posing like little baby porn stars, and all the clinical parts of sex so they know when to demand penicillin, but not the basic mechanical processes of actual pleasure, which everyone assumes someone else has covered. I didn’t know shit about sex when I was her age, but at least I was allowed to say so; no one expected us to be experts.
If Evans is able to do this much with her short stories, I can’t wait to see what she can do with a full-length novel (she’s currently working on a novel, The Empire Has No Clothes). I look forward to reading more of her work in the future.