A master of the short story that is all voice, Grace Paley was famous for having come down against the fiction of plot and character development because, as she once said, “Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life.” In Paley’s stories the narrating voice—urban, ethnic, rooted in lived experience—is most often speaking directly to the consequences of that open destiny, which, once pursued, never fails to take its toll. In one story the narrator runs into her ex-husband whom she cheerfully addresses as “Hello, my life,” but then has an exchange with him that reminds her that “he had had a habit throughout the twenty-seven years of making a narrow remark which, like a plumber’s snake, could work its way through the ear down the throat, halfway to my heart. He would then disappear, leaving me choking with equipment.”
The voice that speaks those sentences becomes the story being told. Its every inflection deepens and enriches the Paley persona that incarnates the wisdom of Paley the writer: namely, that women and men remain longing, passive creatures most of their lives, always being acted upon, only rarely acting themselves. At its most distilled, this wisdom achieves the lucidity of the poet, or even that of the visual artist. I’ve often thought of Paley’s sentences as the equivalent of color in a Rothko painting. In Rothko, color is the painting; in Paley voice is the story.
Kathleen Collins, an American writer who died in 1988 at the age of forty-six, leaving behind a trunkful of unpublished manuscripts—stories, plays, a journal, an unfinished novel—was a natural at this kind of writing. Now, nearly thirty years after her death, sixteen of the stories found in that trunk have been published as a collection called Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? In all of them we hear a voice—black, urban, unmistakably rooted in lived experience—speaking not only to let us know what it felt like to be living inside that complex identity, but to make large, imaginative use of it, the way Paley used her New York Jewishness to explore the astonishment of human existence.
Collins was born in 1942 in Jersey City, New Jersey, into a middle-class black family—her father was a state legislator—as conscious of class as it was of race. She was educated at Skidmore College where she majored in philosophy and religion. In 1961 she joined a summer project to help build a youth center in a village in the Congo, and the following year went south with SNCC to help register black voters. However, she proved not an activist. In 1963 she went to Paris where she received an MA in French literature and cinema studies at the Sorbonne; when she came back to New York it was to join the faculty at City College of New York as a teacher of film history and screenwriting.
Very soon she began making films of her own, as well as writing plays and stories. A number of these plays were produced to a fair amount of acclaim, and the most distinctive of her films, Losing Ground (1982), was only just this past year restored and reissued. Somewhere in the middle of all this she married, had two children, and by the mid-1970s had endured a painful divorce that became the inspiration for some of her most evocative pieces of prose. A week after her second marriage in 1987 she was diagnosed with breast cancer and within a year she was dead. None of her stories was published in her lifetime.
The writer upon whom Collins consciously modeled herself was the playwright Lorraine Hansberry, who wanted to use her blackness to make the women and men in her audience feel as trapped as did her various characters in the existential free fall of ordinary everyday despair—poverty, loneliness, ill health—compounded by the despair of having been born into the wrong sex or race or class.
Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? is, deliberately I presume, so arranged that it is not until the fourth story that the reader realizes the writer is both black and a woman. This arrangement—made, no doubt, by a clever editor—reflects a developing perspective that not only binds the pieces together into a book, it tells us how to read the book. Sometimes the narrating voice is that of a woman, sometimes a man; sometimes it speaks in the first person, sometimes in the third. And quite often it adopts the convention of poetic repetition. No matter: at all times it is distinguished by a similarity of tone and temperament—calm, measured, above all unsurprised—and an unwavering interest in looking as long and as hard as it can at what is, and what is not. Taken all in all, this voice develops into a persona that is striking for the sheer richness of its human presence.
The opening stories are two sets of monologues on the exquisite pain of failed love, the first being given by an unidentified film director ostensibly instructing a cameraman (or woman) on how to light a movie being made about a breakup; the second is shared by a husband and wife, each reporting separately on their long estrangement. Here are the director’s words in abbreviated form:
“Okay, it’s a sixth-floor walk-up, three rooms in the front, bathtub in the kitchen, roaches on the walls…. Okay, let’s light it for night. I want a spot on that big double bed that takes up most of the room… Good. Now let’s have a nice soft gel on the young man composing his poems or reading at his worktable. And another soft one for the young woman standing by the stove killing roaches…. Now backlight the young woman as she lifts that enamel counter covering the bathtub and put a little light on him undressing her and a nice soft arc on the two of them nude in the doorway. Nice touch.
Now dim the light… No, take it way down. She looks too anxious and sad. Keep it down. He looks too restless and angry. Down some more…. She’s just waiting at the window. No, on second thought, kill it, he won’t come in before morning…. Now find a nice low level while they’re lying without speaking. No, kill it, there’s too much silence and pain.
Now fog it slightly when he comes back…and keep it dim while they sit on the bed. Now, how about a nice blue gel when he tells her it’s over. Good. Now go for a little fog while she tries not to cry. Good. Now take it up on him a little while he watches her coldly, then up on her when she asks him to stay. Nice. Now down a bit while it settles between them and keep it down while he watches her, just watches her, then fade him to black and leave her in the shadow while she looks for the feelings that lit up the room.”
Here are the husband and wife:
…It’s a long improvisation, my life…. I was never a pleasure to have around…. I’m moody, damn it, and restless…and life has so many tuneless days…I can’t apologize for loving you so little…. I love everything too little, except the journey, the way the wheels turn…you accommodated yourself instantly to all my whims…fancying them into significant escapades of the soul…while…I won’t apologize for loving you so little…no woman living has ever been part of my dreams…life has so many tuneless days.
…The first time my husband left me, I took a small cabin in the woods…. I was going to stay the whole summer. I stayed three days…. I came back home…it was very hot and lonely…I took to crossing the Brooklyn Bridge in the evenings at the time the sun was setting…. I took to the reading of memoirs…it was one of my finer moments when I discovered that no human life escapes the tribulation of solitude….the summer grew hotter and lonelier…I began to feel I was drying out inside…it encouraged me to consider a little light fucking…he turned out to be tall, fervently sincere behind thick bifocals…and with a penis about the size of a pea…I took it as an omen that I was not designed for light fucking….Winter came…I rode the subway to Coney Island. The cold, lonely stretch of beach, the abandoned amusement park…
And that was just the first time he left her.
In the third story the word “negro” appears for the first time, and then almost casually:
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. He was close to forty…. He was quite handsome. Negro. But a real double for Marlon Brando…. It is difficult to separate this story from the slight props of race necessary to bolster it up. I have said he was Negro…. In the middle of the night he woke me up, shook me awake with his violent crying and sobbing…. How he could cry! Give in to his crying, allow it full possession of his being as if life were a vast well of tears and one must cry to be at the center of it!… It was surely perverse, surely bound to the color of his skin…. He utterly honored his sorrow, gave in to it with such deep and boundless weeping that it seemed as I stood there that he was the bravest man I had ever known.
The slight props of race, indeed.
When it comes to women and men together, Collins is often at her most playful, making the hunger for sexual experience seem as comical as, at other times, it is painful. In one story a college student riffs on the beautiful black activist whom she has settled on as the appropriate person to rid her of her virginity. Something, it turns out, easier said than done. Charlie Jones is light-skinned, green-eyed, and a freedom rider. Our narrator knows, she just knows, that he is the right person to initiate her. But then, to her amazement, Charlie seems unable to get the job done. Push, the narrator tells him, push hard. He’s got to be the right person, he’s just got to be. Push, Charlie Jones, push. Yes, ma’am, says Charlie. But at last:
“It won’t go in…”
“Not even with your green eyes…”
“And your extra-light skin…”
“And your freedom riding…”
“I guess you’re not the right person….”
It is in the title story that we get the clearest exposition of the life and times within which the guiding sensibility behind these stories is to be found. Here, the time is 1963, the place an Upper West Side apartment shared by two young women, one “negro,” as Collins has it, the other “white.” Both are just out of college, both deep into civil rights, and both determinedly in love with young men of the opposite race: the white woman with a black poet who seems never to leave the apartment, the black with a white freedom rider who keeps getting his jaw broken in Mississippi.
The narrating point of view, delivered in the third person, is that of the black roommate who is struggling to understand what she is living through, even as she sympathizes with the feelings of her dangerously disappointed parents, members of the black bourgeoisie who are watching everything they’ve worked for disintegrate before their eyes: “Their sons [and daughters] will go to jail for freedom (which in their parents’ minds is no different from going to jail for armed robbery, heroin addiction, or pimping, and other assorted ethnic hustles).” Nonetheless, the young woman is writing to her father,
Daddy you must see that I must lead my own life even if you don’t understand it and all this talk about color all the time I’m not the same anymore and I have to be what I am I’ve lived with all kinds of people…and now I’m trying to live with some white people and some “negro” people and find out who I am and I have to do it and…
But then, life being what it is, even in “the year of race-creed-color blindness,” as she sits writing this letter the doorbell rings, and there on the threshold stands her lover, the freedom rider who had wanted desperately to marry her, crying. “He had something to say: He had just come from his parents’ house. He knew now that he could not marry her. He knew now that he would never go back south. It was over…. He understood now that he could never be” the Negro he had wanted to be for her. “Never. Ever. And then he was gone.” The young woman closes the door thinking she must get another apartment, one where she will be able to “think and see clearly, about how integration came into style. And people getting along for a while. Inside the melting pot. Inside the melting pot.” The last line of the story is: “It’s 1963. Whatever happened to interracial love?”
Only rarely again in this book will the narrating point of view sound as young as it does in this story; and never again will it sound accommodating. The measured voice now complicates itself—there’s iron in it—as more and more it begins to record the slights and humiliations and knife thrusts that continually push the born outsider to the limits of endurance.
In “Only Once,” a short, incantatory tale, a woman remembers an affair with an irresistible daredevil. “He had to execute a faultless jump,” she tells us. The man is forever prancing about on the top of the Brooklyn Bridge or preparing to jump off a rock the size of a boulder or leap across the third rail, always calling out to the narrator, “Think I can make it?” And grinning.
Like he could open and close life. With his laughing eyes. Poised. And his golden body. Poised.
She didn’t want to watch. Not this time. Nor any of the other times….
Only once do you know that kind of man, they say. Only once.
Then one day,
He didn’t clear the rail. Or maybe he did. Maybe it was later. He mistimed a dive from a high cliff. Or maybe he didn’t. Maybe it was even later than that. He shot himself in the head. Thought the gun was empty. Or maybe he knew it wasn’t.
Only once do you know that kind of man, they say. Only once. But she would know them all her life. One after the other they would turn out to be that kind of man.
No surprises here. Shocks perhaps, but not surprises.
The narrator in this story is giving us a view of an inner reality that she and the daredevil are equally intimate with. It’s as if they had both grown up confined by the accident of skin color to a narrowness of experience that resembles living under house arrest. They both know every inch of their restricted territory by heart; and if content to keep their heads down and remain well within its bounds, never seeking to break out into the world beyond, they could perhaps get by as anonymous survivors of the raw deal into which they have been born. The woman, conceivably, is willing to do so; the man is not. He is compelled to risk self-destruction rather than forget that promise of an open destiny that imagined others seem to share. And she? What is she compelled to do? Stand witness.
What we have here, in Collins’s sixteen stories, is sensibility in service of a state of mind whose authenticity none, I think, can challenge. Written in the 1970s and 1980s, when African-American writing was ablaze with rage and righteousness, they might have seemed too nuanced to make an impression. Coming to us as they do now, when we are living once more through a period of flaring racism that has brought talented protest writing to a new level, they strike a note on the one hand oddly original, on the other painfully familiar. Either way it drags at the heart.