Danielle Evans received the PEN American Robert W. Bingham Prize, the Hurston-Wright award for fiction, as well as the Paterson Prize for Fiction with the publication of her story collection, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self. Evans's work has appeared in numerous magazines including The Paris Review, American Short Fiction, and Callaloo, amongst others. After earning her MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers Workshop, Evans now teaches in The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University. Her newest collection, The Office of Historical Corrections, is forthcoming from Riverhead Books.
This interview was conducted via e-mail by Interview Editor Kendall Dawson. Of the process, she said, “The Office of Historical Corrections: A Novella and Stories is an intense journey through the amendable nature of truth and history, rights and wrongs, and keeping face as a human being. Danielle Evans writes with honesty and fervor that leaves each story in thought long after reading. I am grateful for her time and her voice.” In this interview, Danielle Evans talks about the meaningfulness of writing, the process of self-questioning, and Zora Neale Hurston.
Superstition Review: “Why Won’t Women Just Say What They Want” was a sharp, third-person journey through the implications of sexual aggression. I was stunned by the artist’s ignorance toward the women he abused. How did you approach crafting this story to honorably and powerfully represent survivors?
Danielle Evans: For me part of the work of this story was structural. There is a conventional narrative of apology, especially apology by a famous man, that we are all familiar with, and that I was in this case directly responding to. So, the work of the story was to reproduce aspects of that cliché, while gradually eroding it. My hope is that the women in the story, who start out as archetypes, and are then defined primarily by whatever the artist did to hurt them, gradually emerge as more distinct characters, who have narratives of their own that exist independent of the existence or authenticity of any apology. And, crucially, they have not all experienced the same things or responded emotionally to the same things in the same way, which hopefully creates some space for the reader in the story.
SR: This collection is full of palpable emotion. A failed wedding, tragic loss of life, and racial politics were very vividly presented. Where did you find the inspiration or creative spark for these emotional experiences?
DE: Every short story for me is its own process—sometimes a first draft comes very quickly, and sometimes I have to fight every page until I understand what the story is actually about. I think I know I have the makings of a story, and not just an idea or sentence to jot down for later use, when I start to see a connection between at least two things that don’t seem obviously connected, and want to write a story set in the place where they come together. So, a lot of the stories in this book are about grief, which I was encountering on a variety of levels over the ten years I was writing these stories. But, “Happily Ever After”, for example, is about the space where what should be private and painful enough grief related to an illness intersects with the everyday violence of racism and also this strange pseudo-historical reproduction of the Titanic. Bringing those threads together built the story for me.
SR: Roxane Gay, a previous Superstition Review contributor, commented that “these stories are wickedly smart and haunting in what they say about the human condition… “ and I wholeheartedly agree. What is your process of crafting authentically complex people and relationships?
DE: Thank you! (And Roxane!). Complex characters for me come from tension—the difference between our interior lives and our exterior performances is what makes it possible for characters to behave in surprising ways, and also creates an awareness of the structural world of the story, or the power dynamics between characters. Who can be honest and who can’t? Who has to put on a performance and who doesn’t? Complexity can also come from the difference between active choices a character is making and the emotional center of the story. Is this person making choices that control the major events of the story, or is this person making smaller choices to evade or distract from whatever event outside of their agency is at the story’s core? Both kinds of stories can be interesting, but part of structuring a story and understanding a character, for me, is knowing which is which.
SR: The title story is the last and longest in your collection. Why did you decide to end on such a compelling note? How would the tone of the book possibly shift if that story were located somewhere else?
DE: My hope is always that a story collection reads as greater than the sum of its parts. So, one reason to put the novella at the end of the book is that it’s longer than the rest of the work, and longer because it requires a lot of its own worldbuilding, so it also takes a little bit longer to exit that kind of world—it would be more disorienting, I think, for the reader to have to turn the page after finishing the novel and recalibrate to enter the world of a new story. I also think the novella is perhaps the most literal expression of the thematic link that ties the stories together. Putting it upfront, I think would detract from the subtlety of the way that some of the other stories are asking the same questions, about history and who it belongs to and what can be corrected and what it costs to try.
SR: In past interviews, you discuss how race, while inextricable from our individuality, is not the catch-all for minority writers when creating their stories. I’m not going to ask you about writing and race. Instead, could you explain what writing means to you?
DE: Wait, I think maybe writing and race would have been the easier question! I want to be clear that I’ve never meant to express any reluctance to be identified as a Black writer—obviously race is a theme of my work. I’m only frustrated when the work of Black writers is discussed in purely sociological terms, and not given credit for having craft or aesthetic intention. As far as what writing means in general, I think it’s a question I’m trying to answer—and maybe answering differently—with every story. Sometimes it’s a way of writing myself into clarity about something. Sometimes it’s a way of excavating a voice that feels silenced. Sometimes it’s a way of inviting a reader into a conversation, perhaps on terms that only reveal themselves at the end of the story. I used to say writing was an act of intelligent empathy, but I’ve grown increasingly suspicious of empathy as a framing device. I’m still writing my way into what sort of humane communication writing can be without that frame.
SR: As a literature and creative writing professor at Johns Hopkins University, has your time teaching helped shape your writing in any way? How do you use the knowledge of your students and fellow faculty to elevate your craft?
DE: I think the biggest benefit of teaching is that it puts a quick stop to the thought that writing is frivolous or meaningless. Getting to introduce work to my students, and to be moved by their work, is a constant reminder of how much literature matters to people. It makes the lonelier writing time feel more worth it. Teaching, and being part of a faculty, is also a reminder that there is no one right way to do things—not writing, not pedagogy—as people have different goals and aesthetics and intentions and processes, and every student is ultimately there to get better at identifying their own, not to adopt anyone else’s. Seeing all the ways something can work makes it a little bit easier to imagine a way forward on the days when writing feels impossible. Craft, though, is a very valuable language for editing, but relatively useless for the blank page—craft can teach how to fix your mistakes, but the blank page is about being willing to make them in pursuit of creating something you haven’t seen made before.
SR: “Boys Go to Jupiter” reads like many high-profile Twitter moments we have seen this year. How do you go about infusing pop culture into your work?
DE: I’ve been thinking about confederate iconography for a long time— I grew up surrounded by it, and the last story in my first book, “Robert E. Lee is Dead” is set at a high school named after Robert E. Lee and is in part about the long legacy of the confederacy and the weight these symbols hold. I first wrote “Boys Go to Jupiter” in 2013, and it was first published in 2017. I was initially planning for this story to be a novel with multiple perspectives, and planning for it to have a second act based on a controversy around what several students were posting in their dorm windows on a college campus in the 1990s, which erupted into campuswide protests and arguments well before Twitter. So, I was not specifically trying to respond to pop culture, or current events—I was actually a little bit worried that the story would feel too topical, as current events brought the confederate flag discourse back into the media. Part of what I held on to it for so long between writing and publishing it was that I didn’t want it to just echo something that was already happening in the news. Ultimately I was happy with the story’s larger questions, which for me are about privilege, the “innocence” with which people conduct racism, the challenge of writing a story where I could give myself the agency to look at white privilege clearly without giving white readers an excuse to distance themselves completely from the racist acts. The question of social media is a newer one, but one I think we’ll have to grapple with as fiction writers for a long time—it’s a new form of communication, and it’s not going away anytime soon, so we have to figure out how to get it on the page. For me, thinking about social media is an extension of the central question of most of my work—what’s the difference between who we are and how we present ourselves?
SR: In your interview with Full Stop in 2012, you state, “It does seem odd to me sometimes how many characters in American fiction live in a world where history is real, but politics are not.” Eight years later, how does this collection respond to that? Where do you believe history and politics can coincide?
DE: Well, I suppose I think that history and politics have always coincided, and that’s what’s odd about stories where one exists without the other. Politics, broadly, is the way society enforces its values about who deserves to live and who deserves to die. History is the record of those choices; how we talk about history is an affirmation or rejection of those choices, a vow to continue doing the same, or a vow to change. I think my work is always coming from an awareness of that system of values, and from questions about how people learn to live in a society that doesn’t necessarily value their lives. This collection is more explicitly engaged with the question of how we document those choices, and what stakes are attached to correcting the record.
SR: 2020 has been a year of historical corrections. How are you making meaning of this as an author and educator? What hopes do you have for the continuation of this political and cultural movement in the literary sphere?
DE: I don’t know that I have a lot of hope, though I do try! This is one of those periods of time when I come back to Zora Neale Hurston’s words— “There are years that ask questions, and years that answer.” This is a year that asks questions. There has been some reckoning with the history of the U.S., down to monuments and what we commemorate, but there has also been pushback, including official government actions meant to restrict our ability to have these conversations. There have been uprisings against injustice and racism, but those uprisings have been so far mostly met with a combination of violence and symbolic gestures, rather than systemic or structural change, so they seem likely to continue happening cyclically, and to continue to be necessary. And of course, the pandemic also feels like it has trapped us all in a cycle, and in some ways frozen us when we’d like to be moving forward. There are some exciting possibilities for this cultural moment in art and publishing—I think already it’s a better landscape than it was a decade ago when my first book came out, just in terms of the number of writers of color getting serious attention and investment. But for this moment to be sustainable, it has to have resources behind it—resources to make it possible for more people from varied backgrounds to work in the industry as decision-makers, resources to make careers in the arts sustainable. Goodwill without resources doesn’t mean much, and some of our arts and culture and academic institutions were in big trouble even before this year’s financial crisis. So, the questions are there. We’ll see what the answers bring.
SR: You state that this collection is about “grief and loss, and about women unwilling to diminish their desires to live full and complex lives.” How do you hope your work will change the lives of those who read it?
DE: Writing, especially writing fiction, is fundamentally a conversational act, and as the writer you never get to have the whole conversation. So, I don’t think I could predict or instruct how people respond to the work—if I had suggestions for how to concretely change people’s lives for the better, I would write them down and share them more directly than in story form! I guess I hope one of the things I always hope about writing, that either someone will recognize some aspect of themselves or that they will experience something unfamiliar, and either way that encounter will be in some way meaningful or illuminating.
SR: As a Black woman, I’d like to thank you for the art you create and the impact you make for the world at large. What advice do you have for those working to find their place who are underrepresented in this world?
DE: Thank you. I think my advice to underrepresented writers, for writing and for life, is that you are allowed to be the protagonist. You are allowed that even when other people are surprised or confused or angry about it.