December 30: “Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?” by Kathleen Collins

Feeling penultimate, Story366? I sure am. I’d like to intro with the sub-mission of Story366: literary citizenship. The main mission has been, is, and always will be me reading for me. I started this blog to become a better reader, professor, critic, and friend, improving myself, I’ve hoped, with every entry, with every story I read, every point I make. I wanted to get to the books that I’d been collecting for twenty years. As the person in front of the classroom, I wanted to be the person who read a collection first, heard of an author first, had insight—professing. I wanted to be able to discern trends, styles, and themes in short stories and collections, understand what people did, what they do, what the difference is. I wanted to improve my writing by being a more well informed reader. I wanted to be a part of the literary community in a way I’d never been, in a way perhaps nobody else had been, either.

Coming in close second to my own needs is literary citizenship, me giving something to authors for what they’ve given me. Some of the collections I read this year were brand-new releases  from large presses, authors who boasted a team of marketing and public relations people to promote their book, score reviews, make sure the right people read it at the right time. Other writers, from smaller presses, face a DIY approach and could use all the help they could get. Some books were new, other books older, some even forgotten. Many of the authors I’ve written about embraced the entry, shared my post on social media, even put a link to the entry up on their website. Other writers either didn’t respond at all or weren’t on social media—I’m glad I did their books, anyway, as I value them for their writing, not their electronic viability. I’ve made some friends. I’ve confounded a few people, too. Some of these writers, weeks or even months later, said they came across the post and got a hold of me later—those people for some reason seemed especially grateful.

What’s great about this project is that the whole thing will live on as an artifact, that someone’s post might do some student, some writer some good, years down the road, whether it’s writing a paper or trying to figure out a technique. Some entries have only garnered a handful of clicks this year—a couple of them less than five—and I can’t say that it doesn’t break my heart a bit. Perhaps, one day in the future, someone will be writing about those authors, about that collection, and Story366 will become a valuable resource to them. Or maybe not. People will visit the site every day, click on what they want. It’ll be what it is and I’m good with that because I’m proud of what I’ve done here.

For today, I read from Kathleen Collins‘ recently released collection, What Ever Happened to Interracial Love? out from Ecco. A week ago, I had never heard of Collins or this book, but then I saw a couple of people post about it on FB and then heard a story about it on NPR. Sadly, Collins passed away in 1988, this book and her fiction mostly lost to the ages. Like with Lucia Berlin, who I reviewed way back on January 4, Collins had the fortune of having someone remember her work, someone believe in it, want to see it in print years after her death. For Collins, that was A Public Space‘s Brigid Hughes, the Walker Percy to her John Kennedy Toole (sort of). You can read the story of how Hughes came across Collins’ work in this NYT article, but in short, Hughes had seen Collins’ film, Losing Ground (the first film ever written, directed, and produced by an African-American woman, by the way) and contacted her daughter to see if she had any unpublished writing. Many steps later, here we are, this new collection, a whole new generation of readers and writers discovering Collins’ writings.

I read several stories from Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? today, but will write about the title story, which is the longest piece in the book and also one that seems to capture the spirit of Collins’ stories the best. “Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?” is about a pair of roommates living in Harlem in 1963, as well as their boyfriends, who also play prominent roles. For the first half of the story, at least, these four characters are referred to not by their names, but by their races, their roles, and general descriptions. One woman is a Harlem community organizer (“white”), while the other (“negro”) has just been released from prison in Georgia. The white community organizer is dating an Umbra poet (“negro”), while her black roommate is dating a freedom rider (“white”), who just got back from getting his jaw broken in prison after being arrested for protesting in the South. These characters, under these monikers, interact with each other, or alone, in New York City at the height of the Civil Rights movement, which presents quite a few plots points and conflicts, as you might imagine. Collins’ story isn’t only about all of these characters’ places in Civil Rights history, however, as each person faces their own unique dilemmas caused by their choices, including how they deal with their families, who don’t always agree with the paths their lives have taken.

As we move through the story, Collins adds to her story’s complexity even more, as the story also becomes about sexual identity. The white girl, who came from money and went to Sarah Lawrence, is well versed in lovemaking, while the black girl from Georgia starts out the story as a virgin, confined by her strict father and her personal fears. Collins challenges us in the passages to move beyond the roles she’s outlined by naming these women by their race. Soon, we discover that the white girl’s name is Charlotte and the black girl’s Cheryl, who date Henry and Alan, respectively. The more we find out about these characters, the more we see them in scenes, interacting, becoming real, the more we lose the sense of trope and move toward fully formed, unique people. In so many ways, “Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?” is about transition, about growth (which is kind of what all stories are about, right?).

As much as anything, “Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?” is about New York City, the setting in this story and all of Collins’ work as much of a character as any of the people. Collins is careful to describe the streets, the subway stops, the buildings and the sounds and smells, making this place the most fully realized element of the story. Collins makes the city vital, as crucial to these stories as Wyoming is to Annie Proulx or the suburbs are to John Cheever. By the time I finished reading, I wanted one of those spicy Times Square cart sausages real, real bad.

The stories in Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? are unlike any stories I’ve read this year, depicting African American women in a commanding light, during a particularly crucial juncture in American history. If it’s anything, it’s a perspective, a witness to the world and its events that we don’t often hear from. I’m glad to have found Kathleen Collins’ work, via the hard work of others, that these stories did not end up lost. Earlier I mentioned literary citizenship, and wow, what an example this is, willing this book into existence. Maybe Collins’ work find new life, stay with us forever.

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