I first heard of Danielle Evans (the author, not the next top model) when Thea Lim excerpted her blog post “Smart Conversations about MFA programs” for its critique of privilege on Racialicious. Alternately, Evans also wrote “Stupid conversations about MFA Programs as well,” saying,
A lot of complaints about MFA programs start with the assertion that writers should be “living,” instead of going to school….If going to graduate school was supposed to provide me with some kind of injunction against “real life,” against emergency phone calls from friends and family, physical and financial threats and challenges faced by people I love, money worries, racism, heartbreak, and the uncertainty of living in a world that seems constantly on the brink of large scale disaster, then the Iowa Writers' Workshop has some serious explaining to do, because I never got my exemption paperwork.
Evans doesn't spare the characters of her debut short story collection, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self (Riverhead), from these problems either. Burdened with racist grandmothers, social alienation, the social strife of academia, her characters—for the most part young people of color—triumph, falter, or simply surrender in the face of unrelenting change. (The title comes from Donna Kate Rushin's “The Bridge Poem,” an excerpt she features in the collection's epigraph along with an Audre Lorde line: “I do not believe/our wants have made all of our lies/holy.”)
Caught in between a familiar but no-longer feasible (or safe) past and an alienating and unknown future, the characters in Before Your Suffocate find themselves in places of transition. Georgie is on leave with a case of PTSD but finds newfound hope (that's ultimately too good to be true) in an old friend's young daughter (“Someone Ought to Tell Her There's Nowhere to Go”). William is annoyed his building's roof has come in, but quietly devastated when he realizes how even a new apartment isn't the stability his freewheeling daughter needs…or wants (“Jellyfish”). And Crystal, who has become valedictorian through sacrificing friendship and pride, tells her best friend her graduation speech is “about success and obstacles and respect and bullshit,” but knowing herself “I had no special insight into the human condition. I had only one thing to say, the thing I'd been swallowing every day since I had first been confronted with the entitled faces of my 'gifted' [white] classmates,” but still tragically unaware of how irreversibly their lives are about to fork (“Robert E. Lee is Dead”).
Evans' stories hold social commentary of intersecting race, class, gender, and generational issues, which sometimes lies bare in the thoughts of her characters (in “Harvest” undergrad Angel observes “It seemed wrong to me, that money should be the difference between a baby and not-a-baby” from a Planned Parenthood waiting room, musing on how abortion isn't very pro-choice when it isn't what you would want to choose at all) and at other times breathes quietly beneath the plot (in “Virgins,” first published by the Paris Review, the main character learns that the danger she'd been wary of her whole life wasn't as from home as she thought, realizing “There is no safe, only safer.”)
And yet Evans tells these stories with clarity and humor (in “The King of a Vast Empire” an apathetic victim of identity theft observes, “Fucker makes his payments on time more often than I do”), and occasionally with dark surprise (the simple but surprising twist at the end of “Snakes” left me reeling). Evans' website lists multiple places to order Before You Suffocate. You can look forward to seeing more of Evans' writing in the Best American Short Stories of 2010 and in a future novel delightfully titled The Empire Has No Clothes. Follow her on Twitter at @danielleevalore.