Thursday, October 14, 2010

#45: Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self

Danielle Evans is the kind of author that gives one pause. And this is before one even reads a word she's written. At the age of twenty-three, Evans' work had already seen the glorious light of publication in The Paris Review. Now, three years and a critically acclaimed short-story collection later, Evans teaches literature at American University in Washington, D.C. And, presumably, ends world hunger.

The above-mentioned short-story collection is Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, a title borrowed from "The Bridge Poem," by Donna Kate Rushin. Shortly after the phrase that gives Evans' book its title, Rushin's poem ends with a declaration: "I must be the bridge to nowhere / But my true self / And then / I will be useful."

Having just finished reading Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, I think "The Bridge Poem" is key to understanding the undercurrent of displacement among African-Americans that permeates Evans' stories. In "Virgins," the collection's first story and the one that landed its young author in the vaunted pages of The Paris Review, a teenage girl vacillates between instinct and adolescent curiosity as she timorously embraces her budding sexuality. It should be noted that, refreshingly, this and the other short stories are remarkably unpretentious, no small feat in this genre. The main character in "Virgins" displays the fledgling snark that marks a phase suffered through by all urban youth, with which readers' near-universal familiarity makes it hard not to grin when she consoles her friend, "The only difference between that girl and the that everybody in the world hasn't ridden the subway."

Underneath such faux-witticisms lies a deep-seated unease with concurrently, and contrarily, demanding social pressures. For Erica, the first-person narrator of "Virgins," this conflict pits the assertion befitting her ascendancy into adulthood against familially-bred perceptions of danger. Crystal struggles to reconcile her fraying ties to her high school best friend with a desire to escape the quiet desperation of a ghetto, in the ironically-titled "Robert E. Lee Is Dead." And in the poignant voice of a military veteran in "Someone Ought to Tell Her There's Nowhere to Go," a small lie takes on new shape when the soldier's daughter becomes a pawn in his grasping plea for recognition and acceptance.

These, and all the stories, are framed delicately on the fringes of white America, as the characters are forced by circumstance into engagement with the Other and yet remain substantively disenfranchised from the majority's perceived benefits. At one point, betraying a worldly cynicism that belies her youth, a high school student reminds her pal that "white kids do senior pranks. When we try it, they're called felonies."

This comment, joined by Evans' other, far subtler nods to the plight of African-Americans, painfully casts even the banal aspects of Stateside dhimmitude into sharp relief. When, in "Harvest," an inadvertent pregnancy spawns a tragic debt that cuts across racial lines, the burden of social exclusion is harshly exposed; elsewhere, implication is preferred. Regardless of methodology, however, the subtext of alienation -- from country as from family -- is a troubling constant. And I expect that its vivid rendering by Danielle Evans will take the author one step closer to something resembling inclusion.

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