THE DEBUT story collection by Danielle Evans, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, was published in 2010, when the author was just twenty-six years old. Rightly heralded as a significant new voice in American short fiction, Evans was selected a year later as a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree. Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self won the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. And although her work has regularly appeared in a number of publications during the intervening years—her credits include the Paris Review and A Public Space, and her writing has been anthologized in the Best American Short Stories series no less than four times—readers have waited a decade for a new book by Evans, a recent National Endowment for the Arts fellow.The wait is over. In November, Riverhead Books will publish her new collection of stories and a novella, The Office of Historical Corrections. Not that Evans, who teaches in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University, is overly concerned with the decadelong gap. “If we’re chasing potentially impossible goals anyway,” she told me, “you chase a book you hope will be read for a long time, not a book that will be finished quickly.”
Evans’s new, gorgeously crafted stories are at once timely and timeless. Roxane Gay writes that with this collection, “Danielle Evans demonstrates, once again, that she is the finest short story writer working today.” The story “Happily Ever After” follows a young woman who finds her life petrified in the wake of her mother’s death. In a moving sequence that will resonate with many Black women in America, Evans describes a character dressing carefully for her mother’s doctor’s appointment because “she had to look like a real person to them, like a person whose mother deserved to live, like someone who loved somebody.” In another story that conjures the #MeToo movement, women respond to the overtures of a seemingly reformed “genius artist” who has wronged them, delivering the ultimate comeuppance. Evans has a wicked sense of humor and is a keen observer of her characters’ exterior and interior lives. When a woman in the book imagines her own mother asking, “Are you a young lady or a cow?” readers are reminded that they are in Evans’s capable hands.
The novella from which the book takes its title is a moving, surprising tale that addresses rivalry and friendship among Black women, the struggle for meaningful work, the long shadow of racialized violence and white supremacy, and the problems inherent in correcting the historical record. Like the rest of the book, “The Office of Historical Corrections” takes as its subject the gnarly work of coming of age and “adulting” for women in their twenties and thirties; these writings crown Evans as the fictional bard of messy, complicated Black girls and women. Two young Black women find themselves thrown back into each other’s orbit after a lifetime of mostly friendly competition, including attending the same PhD program. Now, under the guise of their new jobs as federal civil servants in an agency charged with correcting factual errors in the American historical record, these frenemies undertake an investigation in Wisconsin that will change them both forever. This intricately plotted novella ends explosively, echoing the ways that racial terror and conversations about racial justice have dominated the American public sphere in the recent past.
Evans and I corresponded via e-mail at the close of summer, discussing the publication of The Office of Historical Corrections, what she calls the current “golden age for Black short story writers,” the ways race functions in the Midwest, and the complexity of reckoning with both historical and contemporary injustices.
I love how gracefully you tackled the novella form, which is underappreciated in American letters, though there are notable exceptions, such as Paule Marshall’s “Merle.” Can you talk about what attracted you to the form and what you learned in the process of writing it? Are there any novellas you recommend?
I confess I came to the novella form accidentally. It is a form I enjoy as a reader—Nella Larsen’s “Quicksand” is an all-time favorite, and there’s a wonderful, structurally inventive novella called “Special Topics in Loneliness Studies” in Rion Amilcar Scott’s latest collection. But I didn’t set out to write a novella. I’d been working on a novel for a long time, and after working on what I thought was a final pass of it, with minor revisions, I realized it still had what I thought were two unsolvable problems. One was about timing—it was set in an alternate past that increasingly felt like a trap that made it hard to say anything about the present—and the other was that the central plot was about a progressive historian who couldn’t finish a history book. It took me years to realize why other people didn’t find a writer who couldn’t finish a book to be quite as compelling a crisis as I did. In the meantime I had written and published a number of short stories, all of them the kind of work that got written because it announced itself urgently and demanded to be done. I also had an idea for what I thought was a totally unrelated novel project, about a former historian who worked for an agency that corrected the record of the past and got pulled into a mystery. I know it seems ridiculous that I thought this was a wholly unrelated project, but I often say being a writer is like being the world’s worst therapist and having yourself as a patient— constantly being astounded by your own predictable motivations.
So I told my editor I would go write for a bit and bring her back whatever felt finished first—the collection, with whatever last story it would need to be completed, or this new novel. When I started writing the “new” novel, I quickly realized three things: (1) It was in many ways the same project I’d been working on, with the core problem of the active plot solved, (2) my original outline had more twists and turns than the story actually required, some of which seemed to be slowing the narrative down just for the sake of making it slower, and my story writer instincts wanted to compress it, and (3) the novella was, though more literal in its consideration of history and records than most of the work in the book, very much in conversation with the stories I’d already written. Knowing this project could fit in the collection as a novella gave me the confidence to just give the story as much room as I thought it needed and no more than that.
The protagonist in your eponymous novella, “The Office of Historical Corrections,” works as a civil servant for a fictional government agency whose staff is tasked with the difficult and occasionally dangerous task of correcting the U.S. historical record. Were you trying to say anything in particular about America’s reckoning with its history of racialized violence?
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November - December 2020