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Life Is Messy, Writing Is Messy: An Interview with Danielle Evans

Danielle Evans is the co-winner of the 2011 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for her debut short story collection Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self. She joined me in the PEN office this winter for gluten-free brownies and a discussion about the discipline of writing a novel, the first line of book reviews, and the unfortunate inevitability of teaching American History in her African American literature classes. 

PEN America: You had a meteoric rise as a writer. Many young accomplished writers knew from a very early age what they wanted to do. Was this the case with you?

Danielle Evans: One of the things about becoming a writer is that you have to decide to do it over and over again. When I went to college, it didn’t occur to me that writing was something you could do as a career. It seemed like something you did after you had a career. Or it seemed that people stumbled into writing; it wasn’t something you could plan. So I didn’t. I majored in anthropology and African-American studies and took a lot of history classes. I planned to be an anthropologist. It didn’t even know college had creative writing classes until I got there.

As I got closer to graduation, I was writing these essays for Ph.D. applications, trying to convince admissions departments that I really wanted to be an anthropologist, but I couldn’t even convince myself. By that time I had taken creative writing classes and had been working on these short stories—three of which ended up in my collection—and I was really excited about writing.

One part of not knowing how to become a writer was that I didn’t know how to translate my writing into a career. The other part was that the only books I had read about African-American characters were all historical, and I thought that if you want to write about African Americans, and have them taken seriously, you had to write historical fiction. There are many beautiful historical novels, but at that point, I wasn’t drawn to write about slavery or the Civil Rights movement. In my creative writing classes, I started reading contemporary fiction, and that helped me realize there was this whole other world of fiction out there.

PEN: Your stories have an anthropologist’s feel to them. Do you get the sense that your writing is a little steeped in your early interest in anthropology?

DE: The title of my book is actually borrowed from “The Bridge Poem” by Donna Kate Ruskin. There is this great stanza in the middle that is all about the endless act of translation the woman in the poem goes through:

I explain my mother to my father my father to my little sister
My little sister to my brother my brother to the white feminists
The white feminists to the Black church folks the Black church folks
To the ex-hippies the ex-hippies to the Black separatists the
Black separatists to the artists the artists to the my friends’ parents.

It speaks a lot about what the characters in my book go through and also about what the writer goes through. Writers are always translating one person’s life to others. That’s what anthropologists do. They try to make someone else’s world feel immediate through empathy by translating that life into a context somebody else can understand. That is still very much my project, but I’m able to do it with language; I can do it with structure. That comes a lot more naturally to me than footnotes.

PEN: Your characters occupy a very realistic and contemporary world. They are the children of the Civil Rights Movement, and it seems like they maybe grew up taking for granted the liberties their parents fought for. Is that something you were going after with your stories? Were you trying to bridge the gap between generations?

DE: I wrote them over five years, so it wasn’t until after the fact that I could think of the stories as a collection. What’s really interesting to me is how often the question of adulthood comes up and what it means to define yourself as an adult, a question that would have very different meanings for previous generations. I was just reading a Times article that said forty percent of women in Generation X have no children. As a society, we used to define ourselves as women and men when we left our parent’s house, got married, had children, and started a household. If that’s no longer the trajectory, then when are you an adult and how do you know? That’s a starting point for many of my characters.

In terms of the legacies of the Civil Rights and the Feminist movement, I think that the African-American community has undergone an internal immigration experience. Children of the Civil Rights Movement are living out realities and have expectations and possibilities that their parents couldn’t have prepared them for because that wasn’t the context in which they were raised—which is not to say there is no historical continuity. The ways that race and racism work have permutated more, have become a part of our lives in a way that introduces different negotiations and gaps of understanding. One of the tragic things about “Jellyfish” is that the father tried to raise his daughter with everything he didn’t have, and she’s still a stranger to him.

Obviously a lot of these characters are female and there is this live question of sexual agency, of what does it mean to grow up when you’re told that you have it but you actually don’t. Some of these broader structural concerns became more intimate or veiled in a way they weren’t for previous generations.

PEN: Take “Harvest.” The women in that story are dealing with a completely different social context and social hierarchy than their mothers. You have women at an Ivy League school, and they’re involved in something that is fraught with tension on so many levels.

DE: I went to Columbia, and there were always these ads in the back of the school paper about egg donors. Many were so specific in terms of appropriate height and weight and test scores—and the idea that people believed they could predict the future with such precise numbers was fascinating and strange. My senior year, there were several demonstrations revolving around issues of race. There was a lot of tension, or conversation I should say—some of it tense, some of it less so. I was thinking about what it meant to be in that space but not of that space, and I wrote the story in a panic as I was putting together my applications. It was one of those gifts from the universe—I wrote it in three days. A lot of coffee was involved.

Looking at the story now, it amazes me that in all the ways women have advanced in terms of possibilities and expectations, being female is still, and will always be, inextricably linked to the body. What are you doing with your body? How is your female body treated differently than someone else’s? These questions become the threads that tie the characters in the story together; they also separate them. The narrator is acutely aware that she’s not quite something enough. And what I found really interesting about her is that, in her mind, she’s followed all of the steps expected of her, she’s doing everything right, and she wants that to pay off, but there’s this subtle difference between her and everyone else, and that difference isn’t something she can get rid of.

It reminds me of all these tragically stupid articles coming out exploring the question: “Why aren’t black women getting married at the same rate as white women?” Nobody ever asks that question in the right way, so we get a lot of stupid answers. I think it’s a matter of measuring achievement in different ways.

PEN: As a young woman and a writer, have you thought at all about the different paths your career would take if you were also a mother?

DE: I was actually just on a panel about mothers and daughters at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop Conference. The other writers on the panel were mothers, and they were talking about how motherhood changed the way they see the world. I had recently read that article in the Times, and I was thinking that if our sense of communal womanhood comes from this idea of motherhood, then what does it mean if a lot of women never become mothers or have no intention to? A big part of ”Harvest” is wrestling with this tension of what it means to be a mother. The narrator is not prepared to know what it means. There is a longing, a wondering about what she could do and what she could have done with her life. There are two divergent paths. She could follow one or the other, but not both. It’s a compressed version of that tension—what does it mean to be a mother?

PEN: And what does it mean to be an adult? These younger generations are stuck in a purgatory of poorly defined adulthood. The career paths are not clearly defined or simply don’t exist anymore. Sexuality. Relationships. Marriage. The family. So much is up for grabs.

DE: It used to be that you got married and had kids and became an adult, certainly not necessarily in that order. Sometimes the kid came first, then marriage, but becoming an adult always came last. People our age now wait to become adults before they can get married, before they have kids. We are waiting to clear some kind of level, like you need X, Y, and Z to happen before you call yourself an adult, and really you’re this fully developed individual used to being alone. And at a certain point, it’s hard to go backward from that. When you have built the life that you want, do you want to break it down for somebody else? For a family?

PEN: I read that Junot Diaz and Victor LaValle have been major influences. You also like Alice Munro and Toni Morrison. Is there one writer you go back to for inspiration if you get stuck?

DE: There are so many writers who have been instructive in some way. But when I just want to go back to something that makes me feel like literature matters, I read Baldwin.

Toni Morrison was the first writer who made me read as a writer. My first instincts were to approach a book as a reader. I wanted to fall in love with it; I wanted to get sucked into its world and not think about it. I just wanted to be mesmerized. There are some writers who create that dream world, but also reveal to the discerning reader how it all comes together. Toni Morrison is one of those writers. She was the first writer who made me appreciate structure and how it becomes part of the story. You know she knew everything about the story: who is speaking and why, where you are in the story, and what is happening. Knowing that she knew all of that, that she knew everything about how her narrative came together, that opened up a whole world of possibilities for me as a writer.

Victor was one of my creative writing instructors and to this day I aspire to be Victor in the classroom. He is very generous and smart and funny, as you can see from his own writing. The first conversation we had, he said, “You’re really talented, so now I’m just going to tell you what you’re doing wrong.”

PEN: How do you teach your own classes? What do you have your students read?

DE: For my African-American lit class, many of the students come to class with the idea that African-American literature is something that they should read because a) it is good for them; and b) it is supposed to make them feel bad because bad things happened and now they don’t. That’s not true, and it would be a lousy class if it were. So the first day of class, I give them a series of essays that go against those ideas. It also scares off the ones who won’t, “like, read a hundred pages by the next class!” Works every time and gets rid of at least ten students.

The essays start us off from this place where people can see that African-American literature is a contested field, where there are all these arguments about aesthetics and politics with people coming at it from different places and at different points in time. We read Zora Neale Hurston’s “American Museum of Unnatural History,” The Paris Review interview with Toni Morrison, and the Richard Wright’s “Blueprint for Negro Writing.” I also give them Ellison saying in the ’60s, “There hasn’t been a good African American book yet” and ask how these writers contest what it means to be African-American. I try to open everything up so that they feel empowered to interpret literature and to make their own arguments.

After the essays, we cover Baldwin—The Fire Next Time and usually “Sonny’s Blues”—Iola Leroy, 18th- and 19th-century poetry, the Harlem Renaissance, and The Living is Easy, which is set in Boston among very upper class African-American families at the turn of the 20th century. Students find it uncomfortable because they aren’t used to reading books from a time period where African Americans are not the nice, long-suffering, know-all figures. Then I do a Black Arts Movement reader. We watch a documentary on Malcolm X. Then read Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Suzan-Lori Parks’s play, Venus, then usually I end with Colson Whitehead’s John Henry Days and Edward P. Jones’s The Known World to circle back to questions of the slave narrative when writing from the present.

I am really trying to figure out a way to sneak in Mat Johnson’s book Pym, whichwould be a really fascinating end to an African-American lit course.

PEN: I heard you read on NPR during their Black History Month celebration. At PEN we’ve been trying to turn that into a year-long celebration with features like our Poetry Relay. Talking to writers about how we should approach the month, there’s always interest and reluctance. One writer lamented she wished she was as busy all year as she was during February.

DE: I appreciate a lot of the things that happen during Black History Month, so I would be hesitant to say, “Lets just do away with it.” The places where it gets celebrated the most tend to be college campuses. Having been an African-American student on a mostly white campus, a lot of things happened during Black History Month that otherwise might not have.

As a teacher, I wish I didn’t have to spend so much of my African-American literature course teaching what I think of as “American history,” and what other people think of as “black history.” It may be that college students are shaky on history all around. It may be that high schools are not doing a good job teaching any kind of history. The idea that black history is somehow segregated and separate from American history is actually a really damaging idea.

In Jake Adam York’s Persons Unknown he wrote from the perspective of people whose ancestors might have participated in lynchings. How does that not mean something about who we are and where we’ve been? Not that the civil rights movement and the historical violence of lynchings are the only ways race can reverberate for white Americans. Race is at the center of all cultural shifts that affect America. It can’t be isolated. And while I think inserting race in the context of African-American literature—or whatever art form—becomes problematic, I don’t know how you raise nuanced questions in college or high school classes without using race, or “African-American” as a framework. How do you raise awareness about the intersections of African-American and mainstream American art and culture and history without doing away with what I think is still a somewhat useful frame that separates them? It is a question I struggle with. I wrote an essay for PEN about the black literature section in bookstores, and I have similarly ambiguous feelings about Black History Month and African-American studies.

PEN: In the essay you wrote for PEN, you talked about finding your book in the African-American section of the bookstore. Have you noticed a similar compartmentalization of reviews?

DE: I sometimes wonder what critics would say if they couldn’t mention race until the second paragraph. It’s a shame, because the book is really about so many other things. You almost never read in the first paragraph of a review, “This is a book about white men” or even white women. I know that’s somewhat disingenuous because race is a live question in many of the stories and it is not unfair to point that out. But I also think that other issues raised in the book get brushed aside.

PEN: I understand you’re working on a novel now. Did you have any trouble switching forms?

DE: Switching to the novel, I had to discipline myself. Even on a day when I know that I can’t write, I have to reread what I’ve already written or it becomes murky. I have an analogy I like to use that involves the difference between marriages and one-night-stands, but it upsets my mother.

PEN: Are you comfortable talking about it?

DE: I knew I didn’t know how to write a novel. I thought I would just pretend to know and make up the structure and not deviate from it. I spent a lot of time doing that—trying to jam square pegs into round holes, driving myself completely crazy. I ended up throwing most of it out. There was no joy in it. And if there is no joy or excitement in it for me, there won’t be any for the readers. So I decided to write the bigger, messier book that I wanted to write. I wrote it in pieces—different portions are all over the place—and at some point, I hoped to see how they would come together. Eventually I was able make a working map from what I had written.

I have rewritten the first chapter more than anything else. There are so many things going on. How do you start that world? In a short story, at the point where you think you know what it’s about, the story ends. It’s often at that point in a character’s life when something has shifted or changed permanently. I think a novel starts when something is changing. It starts in motion, and it has to stay in motion, like a pinball game. Like a four-hundred-page pinball game. Part of writing a novel is keeping that ball moving. To me, the most successful novels are powered by the engine of constant surprise—it’s a part of their structure.

PEN: Do you have any advice for younger students—not necessarily MFA students, but kids in high school with different socio-economic backgrounds, where the writing life may not seem like a possibility?

DE: The first place you have to start writing, regardless of circumstances, is in your own head. You have a responsibility to yourself, and if you want to write, then find the time to do it.

The parts you can’t teach are how to see the world in an interesting way, how to be inquisitive, how to be interested in other human beings, how to develop a complicated sense of empathy. If all you ever do is sit in your room and read and write then you won’t develop fully as a writer. You have to be in the world. At the same time, you can’t put everything before writing, which tends to happen a lot. Writing is never going to feel urgent unless you make it so. I’m not talking writing the best-selling, world famous book. I’m talking about just sitting down and writing something.

Part of it is not trying to start with the idea that you have to follow some formula or be perfect. You start with the idea that life is messy, writing is messy. There is a lot of uncertainty in it. What it means is that I will constantly be engaged with whatever interests me as a writer. I will be reading things, I will be working on the stuff that interest me, and I will also be interacting with the universe in such a way that I am working towards my material even when I don’t know it.

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