Kathleen Collins was a groundbreaking artist: a playwright, filmmaker, educator, and activist as well as a writer. She died young in 1988 and her work was at risk of fading into obscurity until the publication of this collection in 2016. Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?, named for one of the standouts of the collection–a bittersweet, sly story about how the politics of the Civil Rights Movement played out on a personal level–is absolutely wonderful. It’s made up of 16 intimate stories that are so short that they border on flash fiction; each one feels simultaneously like an overheard scrap of someone’s life and like a whole, rich meal. This is easily one of my new favorite short story collections. Collins was an extraordinary talent and I wish she had been with us longer.
You can read my full review below.
Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? by Kathleen Collins
I had an uncle who cried himself to sleep. Yes, it’s quite a true story and it ended badly. That is to say, one night he cried himself to death.
–from “The Uncle” in Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? by Kathleen Collins
How do you get a reader to care about a short story? There’s so much less time to get a short story off the ground than a novel, so much more pressure to find just the right hook to pull us in.
But in Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?, Kathleen Collins seemed to trust that dialogue was enough, her characters were enough, their problems were enough. This is a short story collection that is bold in its unassumption and I was riveted to every page.
It starts with “Exteriors,” in which a conflict between a couple is set up like a shot for a movie, followed immediately by “Interiors,” made up of two stream-of-consciousness monologues from husband and wife. In “The Uncle,” a woman’s wonderful childhood memories of her aunt and uncle are disrupted by the adult truths of their lives. In “Documentary Style,” a combative Black cameraman resents the woman who will edit his work. And in “Of Poets, Galleries, New York Passages,” two New York artists host a friend from the country, each projecting their fantasies of city and suburban life onto the others.
The title story is as provocative as its name suggests, both mischievously and seriously examining what happens when the personal becomes too political, when the politics of the Civil Rights Movement embedded themselves in romance and sex as well as protests and policy.
Every story in the collection is so good that it’s hard to choose standouts. Collins had one of the best ears for dialogue I’ve ever encountered–right up there with Zora Neale Hurston in Their Eyes Were Watching God–and a knack for imagery that symbolizes without feeling symbolic. Not a thing about Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? is artificial or forced.
Collins wrote as fluidly as most people think, or talk, or breathe. I’m sure it was hard work, but her work is so skillfully hidden from the reader that it’s hard to picture it happening at all, as if it sprung fully formed from her mind onto the pages of the book in my hands.
Sadness lingers around the edges of every story, both because of the heartrending subject matter (most of the stories are about disintegrating relationships, especially romantic ones) and because you know from the lovely foreword by poet and professor Elizabeth Alexander that Collins died at the age of only 46, in 1988, before her work could gain the full acclaim in her lifetime that it deserved.
Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? works as both a terrific book on its own merits and a fierce rebuttal to the way Black women artists are systematically marginalized and deliberately forgotten. It’s a treasure trove of great writing and fascinating politics. It’s an essential manifesto of Black and female art;it’s also purely delightful, unforgettable, compulsively readable fiction. It’s given me a new vision for what a short story can be, and what a short story collection can be.
What an excellent way to spend an hour or two. Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? doesn’t ask much of your time, but in its own quiet way it does command–demand, in fact–your full attention. You will be happy to oblige. ★★★★★
Originally published in a limited run by Artistically Declined Press well before Roxane Gay was a household name, Ayiti was recently republished by Grove Press. It’s a short story collection about Haiti and the Haitian diaspora; just as she did in her bestselling 2017 short story collection, Difficult Women, Gay excels at breaking apart a big theme into digestible pieces that are at once acrid and vulnerable, bitter and sweet. I didn’t like Ayiti quite as much as Difficult Women–I think Gay has sharpened her craft significantly since Ayiti was first published in 2011–but it’s still a beautiful collection of stories and I’m glad it’s gotten the chance to reach a wider audience this time around.
publication date: first published in 2011; Grove Press edition published in 2018
length: 320 pages
On the first day of school, as he and his classmates introduce themselves, Gérard stands, says his name, quickly sits back down, and stares at his desk, which he hates. “You have such an interesting accent,” the teacher coos. “Where are you from?” He looks up. He is irritated. “Haiti,” he says. The teacher smiles widely. “Say something in French.” Gérard complies. “Je te déteste,” he says. The teacher claps excitedly. She doesn’t speak French.
–from “Motherfuckers” in Ayiti by Roxane Gay
One of my favorite themes in Roxane Gay’s fiction is righteous vengeance. Her characters accumulate tiny humiliations like dust, eventually snapping in fits of satisfying pettiness and rage. When I read one of her stories, I know I will have catharsis; even when I don’t love one of her stories, I’m always entertained and I never regret making the time to read it.
Ayiti, Gay’s 2011 short story collection about Haiti and its diaspora that was republished for a wider audience in 2018, is full of moments like these. In “Motherfucker,” a sullen, bullied immigrant teenager fights insults with cologne, in “Voodoo Child,” a Haitian college student manipulates her ignorant roommate who believes she practices voodoo, in “Gracias, Nicaragua y Lo Sentimos,” a personified Haiti bittersweetly passes the dubious torch of being the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere to Nicaragua, knowing the title will eventually return.
Even when certain stories in the collection falter–the longest story, “Sweet on the Tongue,” is powerful but hard to follow and has at least two too many subplots–Ayiti as a reading experience never loses its momentum.
After reading both Ayiti and Gay’s later collection, Difficult Women, I’m convinced that Gay and her editors are the best in the business when it come to theming short story collections and ordering the stories within them. The stories in Ayiti don’t hammer us over the head with their themes of home and diaspora, but they keep a steady enough rhythm to keep us fully engaged to the last page. (I finished this book in a sitting.)
Gay is my favorite short story writer working today, and the fact that this feels like a slightly lesser work in her catalog speaks to just how terrific her catalog is. Ayiti is wonderful, both on its own merits and as a peek into the ascendancy of such a marvelous writer. ★★★★☆
Rutting Season is a collection of nine stories that are as earthy, animal, and at times brutal as the title would imply. My favorite stories included “Mercy,” about a widow keeping vigil over her favorite horse after her carelessness puts the horse’s life in danger, and “The Someday Cat,” about a mother who begins selling her children for cash, and the toddler daughter who fears that she’s next to be sold. Mandeliene Smith writes ferociously and vulnerably; this is short fiction, not personal writing, and yet each story is imbued with personal, vital urgency. I didn’t always love this collection while I was reading it–I think Smith writes awkwardly about race, and I think the quality of the stories included here varies–but now that I’m a few days removed from it, I admire Smith’s style and choice of subjects more and more. This book is brave.
You can read my full review of Rutting Season below.
publisher: Scribner (an imprint of Simon & Schuster)
publication date: February 12, 2019
length: 240 pages
Randall wasn’t their father, or even their stepfather, and they couldn’t have given a rat’s ass about his problems with the police or anyone else, but it just so happened that Danny and Amber were both at the house when the SUV from the sheriff’s office drove up, and by the time they realized there was going to be trouble, Randall had already bolted the door and taken out a gun.
–from “Siege” in Rutting Season by Mandeliene Smith
Do you ever catch yourself being way too hard on something or someone, just because it (or they) remind you too much of yourself? I cannot tell a lie: I was initially going to eviscerate this book, because at times, it irritated me like an insult.
Rutting Season is Mandeliene Smith’s debut short story collection, and in it, she explores raw pain with obsessive intensity. Much of it is pain that’s incredibly familiar to me: abusive homes, the messy and literally visceral experience of living on a farm, mental illness, violence.
Because it felt so familiar, Rutting Season cut me to the bone, and it scrambled my ability to comprehend or evaluate it. I think my conclusion is that it’s mostly an excellent book. But I hope you’ll forgive me if this review takes a roundabout path to that destination.
First, the things about Rutting Season that genuinely grated me, that I wasn’t necessarily oversensitized to:
The way Smith writes about race, especially her physical descriptions of Black characters,
And I think that advice applies very much to Rutting Season, where Smith is making clear choices to write outside what she knows.
Unfortunately, I think some of those choices undercut her otherwise interesting Black characters. In my least favorite story of the collection, “What It Takes,” Black high school students menace white high school students, including the white protagonist, a teenage pot dealer. I think the point of the story is that the white students’ perception is wrong–that what they perceive as “menace” is justifiable racial tension. But it’s so close to the line that I think you could read it either way. Subtle fiction is important, but I get nervous when white people write about race so subtly that it becomes a game of Schrödinger’s racism.
In a later story that I otherwise loved very much, “The Someday Cat,” a Black character is literally described as “chocolate.” Which, almost more than it is annoyingly fetishizing and racist, is simply a tired description of dark skin.
But for that story, too, there’s a Racism Loophole™: it’s told from the perspective of a white toddler whom we already know loves chocolate and who probably has never seen a Black person in her life, who might genuinely describe a Black person as “chocolate.” Schrödinger’s racism.
The third story that is significantly about race, “You the Animal,” is the most successful at being about race, I think. Where “The Someday Cat” is told from the perspective of a neglected toddler being removed from her home by two Black social workers, “You the Animal” is the same story told from the perspective of one of the social workers. It’s an interesting exploration of what happens when people who were abused as children encounter abuse as adults, and while I didn’t think it was the strongest in the collection, it was still thought-provoking.
The unevenness question is so closely tied to the race question that I think it’s hard to separate them. When Smith is writing about white people–as in “Mercy,” where a new widow struggles to hold her farm together in the face of her own exhaustion and grief, as in the title story “Rutting Season,” where a potential act of workplace violence is dissected from three angles, as in “Siege,” when three siblings separated by their mother’s death come together during a terrifying threat of gun violence–the collection is extraordinary. When she’s not, the stories falter a bit.
But extraordinary is still a word I’m comfortable applying to much of Rutting Season.
What moved me most about Smith’s writing is its vulnerability, almost fragility, underneath a hard, ferocious surface. It’s a literary crème brûlée. She makes messy, risky choices and sticks to her guns. (Perhaps a poor choice of words given how much this book condemns gun violence.)
I was struck by how reminiscent the first story, “Mercy,” is of Alice Munro. Like so many Munro stories, “Mercy” is domestic and terrible all at once. It’s at its Munro-iest when its protagonist, Pam, hesitates for a split second before calling the vet for her sick horse because the vet constantly patronizes her and she doesn’t want to deal with it. You’re frustrated with her and understand her deeply all at once.
But Rutting Season is not knockoff Munro. Smith demonstrates that most in “The Someday Cat,” which felt wholly unique in its execution. A story about a woman who literally begins selling her children in order to appease her terrible boyfriend and afford groceries could easily tip into a melodramatic pantomime of extreme abuse and poverty rather than feel like something real that crackles with electric terror. But it does crackle. I had a white knuckle grip on my copy of the book while I read. It reminded me so vividly of some of the things I saw growing up in a desperately poor area that I had to take a breather after finishing.
Rutting Season feels a little like staring at the sun. The premises of Smith’s stories are so bright and ambitious that it’s hard to get a handle on why they work (or even if they work). But there’s no denying their power.
It feels strange to write this about a literary short story collection rather than a horror novel, but it feels right anyway: only read Rutting Season if you dare. ★★★★☆
Friday Bookbag is a weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or received during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.
I’ve felt pretty out of it this month. I was sick for most of last week, but even if I hadn’t been, I suspect I would still feel groggy. August seems to do that to everyone. I’m sad that summer is winding down, but I’m already looking forward to cooler September reading weather. Are you? (If you’re in the Southern Hemisphere, I’m sure the prospect of spring sounds pretty nice, as well.)
This week I’ve got a fiery YA fantasy novel, a quirky short story collection, a novel about the 2011 uprising in Tahrir Square, and a novel about an ecologically anxious commune experiment gone wrong in my bookbag. I’m hoping they’ll snap me out of my summer slump. Let’s dive in!
“Each year, eight beautiful girls are chosen as Paper Girls to serve the king. It’s the highest honor they could hope for…and the most demeaning. This year, there’s a ninth. And instead of paper, she’s made of fire.
In this richly developed fantasy, Lei is a member of the Paper caste, the lowest and most persecuted class of people in Ikhara. She lives in a remote village with her father, where the decade-old trauma of watching her mother snatched by royal guards for an unknown fate still haunts her. Now, the guards are back and this time it’s Lei they’re after — the girl with the golden eyes whose rumored beauty has piqued the king’s interest.
Over weeks of training in the opulent but oppressive palace, Lei and eight other girls learns the skills and charm that befit a king’s consort. There, she does the unthinkable — she falls in love. Her forbidden romance becomes enmeshed with an explosive plot that threatens her world’s entire way of life. Lei, still the wide-eyed country girl at heart, must decide how far she’s willing to go for justice and revenge.”
why I’m excited: The “James Patterson presents” label is kind of a turn-off for me–I’m not really a fan of the guy’s business practices or work. However, this story looks incredible in every way. It reminds me of a more grown-up version of The Princess Academy by Shannon Hale with a dash of Silver Phoenix by Cindy Pon. I guess I’m impressed that Patterson seems to be using his considerable influence to lift up authors of color, especially for a book that I’ve heard has a queer romance, too. I can’t wait to read this. (Also, that cover is G-O-R-G-E-O-U-S.)
“Death Is Not an Option is a bold, dazzling debut collection about girls and women in a world where sexuality and self-delusion collide. In these stories, a teacher obsesses over a student who comes to class with scratch marks on his face; a Catholic girl graduating high school finds a warped kind of redemption in her school’s contrived class rituals; and a woman looking to rent a house is sucked into a strangely inappropriate correspondence with one of the landlords. These are just a few of the powerful plotlines in Suzanne Rivecca’s gorgeously wrought collection. From a college student who adopts a false hippie persona to find love, to a young memoirist who bumps up against a sexually obsessed fan, the characters in these fiercely original tales grapple with what it means to be honest with themselves and the world.”
The City Always Wins is a novel from the front line of a revolution. Deeply enmeshed in the 2011 uprising in Tahrir Square, Mariam and Khalil move through Cairo’s surging streets and roiling political underground, their lives burning with purpose, their city alive in open revolt, the world watching, listening, as they chart a course into an unknown future. They are―they believe―fighting a new kind of revolution; they are players in a new epic in the making.
From the communal highs of night battles against the police to the solitary lows of postrevolutionary exile, Omar Robert Hamilton’s bold debut cuts to the psychological heart of one the key chapters in the twenty-first century. Arrestingly visual, intensely lyrical, uncompromisingly political, and brutal in its poetry, The City Always Wins is a novel not just about Egypt’s revolution, but about a global generation that tried to change the world.
why I’m excited: This book’s title made it jump off the shelf for me. It’s pessimistic but hopeful, too, which is about how I feel about the Arab Spring in general and the Egyptian revolution in particular. This is outside the wheelhouse of what I normally read, but it sounds terrific. I can’t wait to read it.
Certain that society is on the verge of economic and environmental collapse, five disillusioned twenty-somethings make a bold decision: They gather in upstate New York to transform an abandoned farm, once the site of a turn-of-the-century socialist commune, into an idyllic self-sustaining compound called the Homestead.
Louisa spearheads the project, as her wealthy family owns the plot of land. Beau is the second to commit; as mysterious and sexy as he is charismatic, he torments Louisa with his nightly disappearances and his other relationships. Chloe, a dreamy musician, is naturally able to attract anyone to her–which inevitably results in conflict. Jack, the most sensible and cerebral of the group, is the only one with any practical farm experience. Mack, the last to join, believes it’s her calling to write their story–but she is not the most objective narrator, and inevitably complicates their increasingly tangled narrative. Initially exhilarated by restoring the rustic dwellings, planting a garden, and learning the secrets of fermentation, the group is soon divided by slights, intense romantic and sexual relationships, jealousies, and suspicions. And as winter settles in, their experiment begins to feel not only misguided, but deeply isolating and dangerous.
Friday Bookbag is a weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or received during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.
It was all libraries, all the time for me this week. I’ve got six great library finds I’m really excited about, and apparently I’m on a short story kick, since short story collections made up over half of my haul. I’ve also got two very different Chinese American novels, one a modernist classic from the 1960s and the other a more recent wicked satire about a model young Chinese American woman who just might be a serial killer. Let’s dive in!
“In these lucid, sharply observant stories, Mandeliene Smith traces the lives of people in moments of crisis. In “What it Takes,” a teenage girl navigates race and class as the school’s pot dealer. “The Someday Cat” follows a small girl terrified of being given away by her neglectful mother. “Three Views of a Pond” is a meditation on the healing that time brings for a college student considering suicide. And in “Animals,” a child wrestles with the contradictions inherent in her family’s relationship with the farm animals they both care for and kill.
In barnyards, office buildings, and dilapidated houses, Smith’s characters fight for happiness and survival, and the choices they make reveal the power of instinct to save or destroy. Whether she’s writing about wives struggling with love, teenage girls resisting authority, or men and women reeling from loss, Smith illuminates her characters with pointed, gorgeous language and searing insight. Rutting Season is an unforgettable, unmissable collection from an exciting new voice in fiction.”
why I’m excited: Like I said in my preamble to this week’s post, I’m really digging short story collections right now. (Carrianne Leung’s collection That Time I Loved You,a previous Friday Bookbag entry, inspired me. I’m really loving that one.) And as much as I love sci-fi and magical short stories, I have a real soft spot for realistic ones like these. Rutting Season is a provocative title for what I hope is a thought-provoking book.
Mars: Stories by Asja Bakić (translated by Jennifer Zoble)
“Mars showcases a series of twisted universes where every character is tasked with making sense of their strange reality. One woman will be freed from purgatory once she writes the perfect book; another abides in a world devoid of physical contact. With wry prose and skewed humor, this debut collection from the Balkans explores twenty-first-century promises of knowledge, freedom, and power.”
why I’m excited: I like works in translation and I’m not sure that I’ve ever read one from the Balkans region. (This short story collection was originally published in 2015 in Croatia before being translated by Jennifer Zoble and published here by Feminist Press in 2019.) That description is tantalizingly short, but the stories it does tease sound fascinating. It was blurbed by Jeff VanderMeer, an author I really enjoy and admire. And on top of all that, this book is really short–only 144 pages. I’m looking forward to it!
“The End of Youth is a collection of 13 linked stories, essays and rants, about carrying on after youth’s hope is gone. In “Afraid of the Dark,” a child learns that there is good reason to be afraid. The adolescent narrator of “Description of a Struggle” finds that love can be brutal. “The Smokers” -examines an adult’s realization that longevity means seeing loved ones die. Written with the same spare and vivid beauty as her earlier award-winning works, The End of Youth is certain to win even wider acclaim.”
why I’m excited: This is another itty-bitty-tiny small press book, even shorter than Mars at only 123 pages. It’s from 2003 and I think it might even be out of print, but it looked so much like my thing that I couldn’t leave it on the library shelf. It’s yet another short story collection (and from what I can read online, I think it might blend in some personal essays, too). It looks great, and I don’t think it’ll even take me as much as an afternoon to devour it.
Foreign Soil and Other Stories by Maxine Beneba Clarke
“In this collection of acclaimed stories, the reader is transported around the globe and back. In “David,” two women from Sudan randomly meet in the streets of Melbourne. The younger one feels like she’s being judged by the older woman, a refugee from the Sudanese civil war, for discarding the ways of her country, until she realizes the woman is more interested in her bicycle–a powerful symbol of all that she’s left behind in her native country. Harlem Jones, in the eponymous story, takes an index finger and “carefully wipes specks of London grime” from his light gray Adidas stripes before he joins a crowd of angry rioters protesting police brutality, simultaneously swatting away the feeling–and the resulting anger–that he just might be the next casualty of the authorities.
In the tradition of storytellers Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Marlon James, and Helen Oyeyemi, this urgent, poetic, and essential work announces the arrival of a fresh and talented voice in international fiction.”
why I’m excited: The final short story collection in my haul, this is another international title (though unlike Mars, it was originally written in English). Maxine Beneba Clarke lives in Melbourne, Australia. I like the authors she’s compared to in that description and most of all I like the quote that opens the book (I peeked into the inside and saw it):
“Let no one be fooled by the fact that we may write in English, for we intend to do unheard-of things with it.” –Chinua Achebe.
I’ll be delighted to read those unheard-of things.
“Crossings, Chuang Hua’s erotic semi-autobiographical novel, is widely recognized as the first modernist novel to address the Asian American experience. It’s deeply imagistic prose, as haunting as the dreamlike visions of Jane Bowles, centers around the character of Fourth Jane, the fourth of seven children of a Chinese immigrant family, who becomes caught in an intense love affair with a married Parisian journalist. Jane’s intimate encounters with her lover are collaged with recollections of her family, her homeland, and her constant migrations between four continents. What emerges is a deeply stirring story of one woman’s chronological, geographical, and emotional crossings. Spare, lyrical, Taoist in form and elusiveness, visually cinematic, tender and sensual, Chuang Hua’s powerful novel endures as a moving and original work of American literature.”
“On the outside, twenty-eight-year-old Fiona Yu appears to be just another Hello Kitty–an educated, well-mannered Asian-American woman. Secretly, she feels torn between the traditional Chinese values of her family and the social mores of being an American girl.
To escape the burden of carrying her family’s honor, Fiona decides to take her own virginity. In the process, she makes a surprising discovery that reunites her with a long-lost friend, Sean Killroy. Sean introduces her to a dark world of excitement, danger, cunning and cruelty, pushing her to the limits of her own morality. But Fiona’s father throws her new life into disarray when he dupes her into an overnight trip which results in a hasty engagement to Don Koo, the spoiled son of a wealthy chef. Determined to thwart her parents’ plan to marry her off into Asian suburbia, Fiona seeks her freedom at any price. How far will she go to bury the Hello Kitty stereotype forever? Fiona’s journey of self-discovery is biting and clever as she embraces her true nature and creates her own version of the American Dream, eliminating–without fear or remorse–anyone who stands in her way.”
why I’m excited: This sounds vaguely like American Psycho meets Crazy Rich Asians, which will either be amazing or just a little too weird for me. I love the cover and title and I’m curious just how wild this satire is going to get! I look forward to reporting back to all of you.
What’s in your bookbag this week? Do you have any exciting weekend reading plans? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!
In ten linked stories that function almost as a novel, Carrianne Leung writes with a simple directness that belies the depth and power of her themes. That Time I Loved You is entirely set in one suburban neighborhood in Scarborough, Canada. It has a recurring cast of characters, but its central character is a Chinese Canadian middle schooler, June. June is the narrator of three stories and appears as a watchful presence in the rest. The action kicks off with a series of suicides of parents in the neighborhood, which send the surviving adults (and especially their kids) into a tizzy of fear and gossip.
Suburbia is a common setting for literary fiction, but Leung really makes it something special here. Her writing reminded me of Celeste Ng’s, another writer who understands that suburbs are more complex–in race, class, gender, sexual, and family dynamics–than your stereotypical snooty WASPs and manicured lawns. At times I wished she had been a little more ambitious with her straight-ahead prose, but overall, I thought this quiet, lovely collection was well worth my time.
publisher: Liveright Publishing Corporation (an imprint of W. W. Norton & Company)
publication date: February 26, 2019
length: 224 pages
1979: This was the year the parents in my neighborhood began killing themselves. I was eleven years old and in Grade 6. Elsewhere in the world, big things were happening. McDonald’s introduced the Happy Meal, Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran and Michael Jackson released his album Off the Wall. But none of that was as significant to me as the suicides.
–from “Grass” in That Time I Loved You by Carrianne Leung
I recently tried to re-read The Virgin Suicides, a novel I read and failed to understand or connect with when I was about 14. Unfortunately I found it just as opaque and slippery the second time around, and set it aside without finishing.
That Time I Loved You, Carrianne Leung’s first short story collection, is worth comparing to The Virgin Suicides in more ways than one. First, it’s about a series of suicides; second, it’s about 1970s-1980s suburbia and how hard it is to grow up. But where Jeffrey Eugenides took a highly stylized, metaphorical approach to those themes–too stylized and too metaphorical, in my opinion–Leung’s style is so direct and realistic it almost reads like memoir. (Leung did in fact grow up in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough, where That Time I Loved You is set.)
Like Ng, Leung intimately understands suburbs, not as narrative devices or places to be derided by people who live in the city, but as real places. Her characters are not icy, repressed blondes; they’re a far more diverse group of mainly immigrants: Chinese, Jamaican, Portuguese, Italian. The sex these people have doesn’t feel like a defilement of the American Dream (not least because they’re Canadian); it feels like the sex that real people have. The growing up that June and her friends must do doesn’t happen in some single cathartic moment that’s a statement about the loss of innocence; instead, it happens in a series of tiny, dizzying forward shifts, the way growing up actually felt for me (and, I imagine, the way it felt for most people).
Leung’s suburbia, in other words, resembles the majority of suburbs in which my family and friends have lived. It’s set in 1979 and the very early 1980s, but it felt especially representative of what suburbs look like today, after gentrification and the reverse white flight that has pushed marginalized people back out to the suburbs.
That Time I Loved You‘s suicides feel equally real. They’re the catalyst for the book, but they’re also surprisingly quiet and small. In fact, the most notable thing about them is how un-notable they become to the surviving neighbors. I was concerned that this book would be difficult for me to read given my own history of mental health problems, but luckily Leung treats the subject with great respect and compassion.
That Time I Loved You functions well as a short story collection, but its structure is just close enough to a novel that I’d still recommend it to people who don’t usually like short story collections. That it’s anchored by one memorable character, June, makes it much easier to follow than a typical collection. It’s roughly chronological and takes place all in the same location; events that happen in one story affect the others.
That That Time I Loved You is so realistic helps, too. As much as I like current trends in reality-blurring short fiction,it’s nice to take a break and read a book that doesn’t feature extended dream sequences, hallucinations, or other long jaunts away from the recognizable world.
But as much as I liked having straightforward stories, I did wish that Leung had ventured beyond straightforward prose. Leung is exceptionally talented at developing characters and plot, but her writing style is very simple–which on one hand was kind of a welcome rest for my brain (I’ve done a lot of reading for work and pleasure recently), and on the other left me somewhat unsatisfied, like a meal that tasted good but came in too small a portion. Oh well.
There wasn’t a single story here that I didn’t like, but my favorites were “Fences,” about an Italian American woman struggling to conceive a child with a husband she doesn’t really love, “Sweets,” about June’s grandmother who becomes a surprising ally to one of June’s genderqueer friends, and the final, titular story, “That Time I Loved You,” which is a tour de force culmination of all the stories that came before.
That Time I Loved You is light on its feet despite its serious subject matter, but it never feels insubstantial. It’s a great example of how diverse in form and style short story collections can be–and it’s welcome that its characters are so diverse, too. This book will stay with me. ★★★★☆
Roxane Gay’s highly anticipated (and well-received) 2017 short story collection, Difficult Women, is, in short, worth every bit of that anticipating and receiving. Difficult Women is everything I want out of a short story collection and a lot more: the stories on their own are excellent; together, they’re transcendent. This is easily one of my favorite books I have ever read.
I’ve loved Roxane Gay’s short fiction for many years, even before she became as beloved and well-known as she is now. As a teenager, between writing my own short stories, I would pore over the “Writing” page on her website, tracking down and devouring every short story I could find that wasn’t behind a paywall.
Yet even that abiding love for Gay’s uncollected work did not prepare me for how much I would adore Difficult Women.
Difficult Women‘s parts are extraordinary, but as a whole it’s even more powerful. I don’t think I’ve ever read a collection so artfully assembled. Themes are established with exquisite care; one of my favorite runs of stories builds from metaphor to magical realism to straight-up science fiction about society and prejudice. Without that onramp, the sci-fi story (set in the near-future) would have felt jarring in an otherwise realistic collection. With the onramp, it only strengthens Gay’s real-world themes.
Another standout run of stories is about fertility and infertility, without ever feeling like it’s about fertility and infertility. A moral kills a short story; luckily, each story in Difficult Women has the desperate feeling of a message in a bottle sent from a place where morals have unraveled.
This is, unsurprisingly, a difficult book. It is not essential reading. It is not a crystallization of our times. It is not palatable, exactly. But it is gripping, sharp, indulgent, and pleasurable in the way of an excellent meal had at an expensive and unfamiliar restaurant.
“Difficult” does not have to mean unpleasant, distasteful, or uncomfortable. Difficult Women is a blueprint for how to write a difficult book that’s a delight to read.
I think much of that comes from how embodied Gay’s writing is. Gay is a top-notch sex writer who understands, and uses, sensation completely.
Difficult Women encompasses a wide variety of bodies: thin ones, muscled ones, fat ones, wounded ones, transparent glass ones, sadists, masochists, bad priests. Gay (presumably) only has one body, but she transports readers effortlessly into all of these different and contradictory bodies. Even when I didn’t totally love or understand a story’s plot, I was always so taken with its feel that it hardly mattered.
It’s difficult to choose favorite stories since this collection fits together so well, but with a gun to my head I might pick “Baby Arm,” about a fight club, “North Country,” about an isolated engineer in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, “Requiem for a Glass Heart,” about a woman made of glass and her careful careless husband, and “I Am a Knife,” about a woman (the knife) and her husband (a gun).
I can’t wait to re-read Difficult Women. Many reviews I’ve seen of this book describe it as a deeply relatable book, about women like “us.” I didn’t find it that way. I didn’t understand these characters at all. Sometimes a book is better for being unfathomable; I think Difficult Women is unfathomable in the best way, an endlessly fascinating Rorschach test kind of way.
If you missed Difficult Women during all its initial fanfare, please come back for it. I’m glad I did. This book is a treasure. ★★★★★