A short story is rather like a gymnastics routine at the Olympics. The best ones are brief, intense and stick the landing. A reader can only be in awe of those writers who get it just right, no matter if the story takes place in outer space or is so full of kitchen-sink realism you can imagine the rust ring around the drain. The three writers reviewed here have all just about conquered the genre that Junot Díaz justifiably called “unforgiving.” These women are writing mostly about women and their struggles with being women, or girls on the verge of becoming women, or the double-trouble of being a woman while black.
The tales in Clare Beams’ We Show What We Have Learned & Other Stories appear, at first, to be the most conventionally written. Many are set in indefinable eras that might be the present day or 70 years ago, and some have a lovely, sorrowful, Thornton Wilderesque clarity, but others have surreal twists. In the title story, a teacher literally and matter-of-factly falls to pieces in front of a class full of fifth graders. In another, a meek young girl goes to a girl’s boarding school run by a (male) headmaster whose concept of beauty is old-fashioned to say the least, and bizarre and frightening to say the worst. Then, there’s the old lady, revered by the townspeople she lives among, who owns buildings that mysteriously tidy themselves. When one building does not, in a most catastrophic way, she’s at a loss for what to say to the townspeople. Her ultimate solution is both shocking and weirdly compassionate. The collection is so adept, it is startling to learn that this is the author’s debut.
DISCOVERING A LOST GENIUS
The story of the author of Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?, Kathleen Collins, is the most puzzling and sad. These stories are being published for the first time, and posthumously; Collins died of breast cancer in 1988, at the age of only 46. In addition to writing short stories, Collins was the one of the first African American women to direct a feature film in America. That, too, premiered after the author’s death.
Collins’ stories are powerful yet crafted with a spareness and delicacy. Focused on the contortions of race in America, they remind one of James Baldwin’s 1960s fiction, even if some of them are set in the 1970s and 1980s. The first story is written like a movie treatment, with directions for a cinematographer as he or she follows the unravelling of a couple. A continuation of the story focuses on the husband, who is a cad, and the wife, who soothes her pain by keeping continuously busy. Many of Collins’ characters can pass for white, or are educated and cultured in a way the world does not expect them to be as “Negroes,” or “colored people.” But their struggles only result in alienation from white, black and even self. The beloved uncle of one narrator literally cries himself to death. In another story, a family who interbreeds to make sure they keep their light skin and “good“ hair don’t know what to do with the dark-skinned narrator. They’re loving people, but marrying cousins generation after generation says something tragic about them and something condemnatory about the society in which they try to live.
A HAUNTING COLLECTION
The most experimental of the stories are found in Alexandra Kleeman’s Intimations. The author of You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, Kleeman plunges her female protagonists into topsy-turvy, Escher-like worlds—psychologically if not physically—that have no exit. Indeed, they have no entrance; these anxious stories often begin with a young woman having no idea how she got to be in a particular place, like a baby whose brain is just beginning to lock down memories. As for real babies, they simply materialize, and the girls are expected to take care of them some kind of way, even though they have no idea how. Even a mother who came by her baby in the more conventional way has no problem handing her to a complete stranger while she goes searching for a busted stroller.
In another story, a family ruled by a tyrannical, wildly imaginative father literally controls, or tries to control, the weather. The owner/protector of a feral boy taught to be a ballet dancer learns too late that not all the wildness has been beaten out of him. Not quite science fiction, not quite fantasy and not even magical realism, these haunting stories belong in a category of their own.
Arlene McKanic writes and reads from South Carolina