The Lucille Clifton citation that opens Danielle Evans’s new short story collection—“this past was waiting for me / when i came,”—bespeaks a world in which characters are saddled with burdens that precede them. Contending with the past, with problems beyond the scope of their own lives, shapes this nuanced cast of protagonists—and often spurs them to resist that legacy. Evans’s characters struggle with grief and loss, but always keep “the composure in a crisis that comes from being in a heightened state of panic all the time,” Evans tells ELLE.com. They “know what it costs to not be composed in public as a Black woman, and so are cautious.”
The title of both the book and the novella nestled within it, The Office of Historical Corrections, is the snide nickname for a fictional agency called the Institute for Public History. It’s described as a “national network of fact-checkers and historians, a friendly citizen army devoted to making the truth so accessible and appealing it could not be ignored… We were the solution for decades of bad information and bad faith use of it.” According to Evans, it “gestures toward the messiness, and at times, impossibility, of this task of correcting the record.”
Her first short story collection, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, was published in 2011 to great acclaim, and she has since been lauded by Roxanne Gay as “sly and prescient.” ELLE.com spoke to Evans via email about world-building, catastrophizing, and how short story collections partake in more of a quarrel than a dialogue.
This book includes several short stories and a novella. What creates a collection for you?
I love a story collection because it’s a chance to see a writer ask the same question and give different answers, or circle their obsessions from different angles. Ideally, all of the stories should share some space with another story or two, but also have something that’s just their own. I finished the novella last, and I finished it after writing “Why Won’t Women Just Say What They Want,” which was the story that helped me see what the center of the book was. All of the stories do circle that question of history, or apology, or correction, whether of a wrong or simply of the record. The stories are still in conversation, but some of them are maybe yelling at the others.
That story, “Why Won’t Women Just Say What They Want,“ reads more like a wry parable than the others. In it, the arrogance of the male ego is expressed perfectly: “He had counted on absolution… He had never expected anyone to be as careless with him as he’d been with other people.” Can you elaborate on skewering this kind of masculinity?
Part of what I wanted in that story was to put some pressure on what feels like a cliché narrative of apology. Usually, those narratives center the person apologizing and ask, Is the apology sincere? Is he a different person now? I hope in the shape of the story, as the artist recedes from the center, the women emerge less as archetype and more as individual characters, marked by their interactions with him in ways that changed and shaped them, regardless of whether or not we believe he’s truly sorry. It’s not so much a feel-good revenge fantasy as a chance to ask what happens if we imagine that this kind of man is not, inevitably, the protagonist of not just his own, but everyone else’s life.
How do you know when a narrative is suited to being a compact short story versus a more expansive novella?
By the time I was working on the novella, I knew it belonged to this book, and was in some way the thematic anchor of this book, so I wasn’t worried about how long it was in any practical way—I didn’t need it to be short enough for a journal or long enough to be a novel on its own. I gave it just the room I thought it needed. I knew the novella needed more space than the others in part because of the amount of world-building I needed to do and in part because as the narrative voice developed, I knew it had to have a slow build, and an almost noir feel—that this was not a narrator who was going to, or could, get to the point right away. The unwinding and uncovering were part of the story too.
These stories cumulatively journey through different regions of the U.S. How does this localization feed the emotional narrative?
I tend now to think of the geography of a story in terms of time and memory. You have a city or a landmark in front of you. You also have a memory of what it used to be like, or what you thought it would be like before you saw it. You have an expectation. That echoes what it feels like to be in the center of any emotionally intense experience—drawn to memory or previous understanding, confronted with the concrete reality of the present, trying to recalibrate the future. I like to think about where to bring that echo into a story. Because so many of my characters tend to stay in motion, there’s a lot of possibility for making use of the space between how they remembered a place and how they encounter it when they see it again.
I also think a lot about physical space in terms of our embodied experience of it. So much of what feels like it could be intended as neutral information—what assumptions are made about transit options, what considerations of safety (and of whose safety) are being made—is revealing of the calibrations people learn to make based on living in the world in their own particular bodies or identities.
In the story “Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain,” this passage feels very powerful: “All of her adult life people have asked Rena why she goes to such dangerous places, and she has always wanted to ask them where the safe place is. The danger is in chemicals and airports and refugee camps and war zones and regions known for sex tourism. The danger also sometimes took their trash out for them. The danger came over for movie night and bought them a popcorn maker for Christmas. The danger hugged her mother and shook her father’s hand.” Can you talk about exploring this more subtle, encoded peril? How do you imbue this?
A lot of that sense of peril is in the structure. Often there is something fixed or looming at the emotional core of the story, and the more active plot is about all the things a person is doing to ignore or distract from the gravity of the thing that really matters. So, when the action pauses long enough to remind you that the grief or haunting at the core is still there, hopefully, you feel it.
I do think of this book as coming out of a particularly long stretch of anxiety, personal and national, that was kind of self-affirming. When you say, my mother is very sick, people want to say, she’ll be fine. When you say, I am afraid this country is trending back toward a white supremacist fascism, people want to say, you’re overreacting. For years I felt like I was being told to resist my most catastrophizing impulses, only to have many of them turn out to be right. That personal experience feels in many ways like part of a collective experience—many of us learning to trust our anxiety brain more than we trust anyone telling us to calm down. A millennial generational experience, maybe, and certainly the experience of many generations of Black Americans, and also an experience related to the way women are often taught to navigate the world, one that came to the forefront with the #MeToo conversation. There is something about living through the last decade that shaped the structure and tone of this book.
Then again, years ago I was with a group of writers and someone asked what movies we obsessively re-watched as kids. I said I had watched How to Raise a Street Smart Child—an ‘80s instructional video intended to teach parents how to teach their kids to avoid kidnappers and child predators—every day for months until my mother said we had to stop watching it because it was too upsetting. I was an anxious child but I found something about the video comforting because it seemed to affirm that the world was terrifying, but you could learn to make it less so by anticipating it. So, maybe some of the anxiety and sense of looming disaster is just me.
Throughout the stories, many of the characters express a weariness about attempts at racial justice. Can you talk about how this attitude engages with the present conversations around racial inequality?
One of the recurring themes of the conversations this year is that a lot of Black people are exhausted. That doesn’t mean people aren’t doing the work, or willing to do the work, because what other options are there? But it takes a toll on people’s mental and physical health and ability to be present for the joy as much as the struggle, and that toll has taken many people from us much too early, which only adds to the structural inequalities people are already grieving.
A lot of the advice being given over the summer was to pick your battles, to avoid arguing with people acting in bad faith, to avoid being pulled into symbolic work that would require a lot of effort but wasn’t backed by real resources. So, in this particular case, the character is letting go of some particular channels that don’t seem likely to provide the kind of justice her family has been looking for. But it’s also more broadly a story about the difference between adulthood and coming of age. Characters in different stories take different approaches to what is, in any incarnation, an exhausting demand to perform your humanity to an often hostile audience. I never mean that weariness as a rebuke to the work—just as an account of its human cost.
In “The Office of Historical Corrections,” a government entity whose purpose is to make the truth—“truth”?—available to the public dispatches a group of roving historians to revise misinformation. As a writer, what are your thoughts about the potential of straightening out fact from fiction, under the present administration or otherwise?
On the one hand, I think as a culture, this is a necessary project, especially if we ever really want to reckon with racial injustice in this country. On the other hand, I don’t know that any of our existing institutions are presently equipped to do this kind of work. In the world of the story, the agency is trying to correct misinformation, and in the world the book is emerging in, some segments of the U.S government are so angered by the attempt to put slavery at the center of our conversation about how this country became what it is that they’re proposing what feels like the nightmare version of the agency in my book, to ensure that we’re all receiving a “patriotic” education. So, it is, in the novella and in real life, a fraught project.
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