The Love We Don’t Know

Sam Waymon
Kathleen Collins, upstate New York, circa 1983

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Kathleen Collins, an American writer who died in 1988 at the age of forty-six, leaving behind a trunkful of unpublished manuscripts—stories, plays, a journal, an unfinished novel—was a natural at this kind of writing.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…

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