Monday, January 17, 2011

Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self by Danielle Evans

On the front flap of Danielle Evans debut book of stories, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, it says that she “explores the nonwhite experience in contemporary America with honesty, wisdom, and humor.” She certainly does that, and she seems equally at ease whether speaking in the street dialect of a fifteen-year-old girl in New York, the polished academic English of a young biracial woman attending Columbia, or the agonized voice of an African-American soldier trying to live with the memories of his time spent in worn-torn Iraq. While I agree that her stories are honest and wise and sometimes funny, they are also chilling, precisely because she does tell the truth—about race, about class, about culture. What better day to celebrate telling the truth than Martin Luther King Junior Day; I’m certain he would be proud of Danielle Evans.

Often when talking about short fiction, it is difficult to find passages in a single story that somehow communicate the substance of the whole; not so with Evan’s remarkable book. I think simply quoting a few passages from the first story, “Virgins,” will both make most readers want more, and also warn that this is not a book meant simply to entertain. Erica and Jasmine are two fifteen year-old girls looking for a little excitement by sneaking off to go clubbing in Manhattan. Armed with phony IDs, they make it into a club, not really looking for men or sex or trouble, but just the thrill of getting in and saying afterwards that they had been there.
There were a whole lot of men we were supposed to stay away from according to my mother: rap stars, NBA players, white men. We didn’t really know any of those kinds of people. We only knew boys like Michael who freestyled a little but mostly not well, who played ball violently like someone’s life was at stake, or else too pretty, flexing for the girls every time they made a decent shot, because even they knew they would never make the NBA, and we were all they were gonna get out of a good game. The only white men we knew were teachers and cops, and no one had to tell us to try and stay away from them, when that was all we did in the first place, but my mother was always worried about something she didn’t need to be.
Of course, along with the phony IDs, they also had to make up phony stories about who they were and what they did—sometimes claiming to be college students, sometimes store clerks or waitresses or photographers. “It was easy to be somebody else when no one cared who you were in the first place.” Making the mistake of leaving the club with older men and going to an after party in the Bronx, she and Jasmine find themselves surrounded by much older guys in an elevator headed for an eighth floor apartment. “I kept waiting for the thing that would stop us, and then I thought, Nothing will stop this but me. So I ran, out of the elevator and down the stairs and out the front door and down to the bodega on the corner.” Saved for the moment, she calls a boy her age whom she can trust, begging for a ride home, and he manages to talk his brother into driving him into the city to pick her up. Unable to go home without being caught in the lie told to cover up her nightclub adventure, she talks her friend into letting her stay at his house. Alone finally on the couch offered and thinking of what might be happening to her friend Jasmine, the older brother reappears and puts an arm around her.
You know, you’re too pretty for me to leave you on the couch like that,” he said, pulling me toward him. I didn’t know that, but I did understand then that there was no such thing as safe, only safer; that this, if it didn’t happen now, would happen later but not better. I was safer than Jasmine right now, safer than I might have been. He kissed me, hard, like he was trying to get to the last drop of something, and I kissed him back, harder, like I wanted to get it all back. The noise in my head stopped and I didn’t have to think about anything but where to put all the pieces of my body next.
Afterwards I was embarrassed because he was embarrassed, and I knew I couldn’t stay there….
No such thing as safe, not for Erica, not for Jasmine, not for any of the girls in these stories. The matter-of-fact acceptance of their fates is as startling as the events that occur.

At least for this reader, Evans is equally convincing when speaking with the voice of an African-American man back from Iraq on some sort of medical leave and trying to sort out his life, to understand where he has been and where he might hope to go from here. Georgie, the young man, seeks out his old girlfriend, Lanae, who is now living with one of his old boyfriends; Lanae has a young daughter whose father is neither Georgie nor the current boyfriend, and a string of circumstances lead to Georgie’s taking on the role of baby-sitter for the girl, Esther. Nightmares, memories, flashbacks of his time in Iraq crowd in on him, and his mother worries that his babysitting Esther will bring back bad memories of dead children he had seen in Iraq. “The truth was Esther was the opposite of a reminder. In his old life, his job had been to knock on strangers’ doors in the middle of the night, hold them at gunpoint, and convince them to trust him….Two sisters were sitting in the dark, huddled on the floor with their parents, when Georgie’s unit pushed through the door. Pretty girls, big black eyes and sleepy baby-doll faces.”

Can you imagine what it would have been like to return to the house a few days later to discover the entire family, father, mother, and both girls dead—their throats slit. Perhaps the victims of fellow soldiers, but more likely killed precisely because they had been seen talking to the Americans, talking to Georgie and his cohorts? Any wonder that Georgie is having a hard time finding his way, a hard time understanding what he and his country are responsible for?

No wonder that in another story, “The King of a Vast Empire,” a young woman who is obsessed with the news, addicted to bad news, finds herself unable to keep quiet even when making love.
The worst of the news she thought was appropriate to share in the middle of sex, and when I say worst I mean: dismembered child soldiers, bomb victims burned beyond recognition, elderly women beaten and raped…
Without bothering to put her clothes on, she’d proceeded to explain to me, not for the first time, that really, all pleasure was perverse, that it was perverse to enjoy anything in such an awful world, that any moment of happiness was selfish when infinite horror was always happening somewhere else.
I hope I have not concentrated too much on the dark side of these stories. Many of them are also funny and sweet. I started them one day and finished them the next; the book was hard to put down. One commentator tells us that Evans is telling us “what it’s like to grow up fast in a slow changing country.” And if growing up fast sometimes evokes wonderful humor, it also can seize up the heart.

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