There are some collections of short stories that read as if they’re all the same character, and they’re only called “short stories” to keep the author from having to tie the chapters together logically. There are other collections with one story that packs a punch and a bunch of others that miss the mark. And then there are collections in which every single story is new, fresh and self-contained.
BEFORE YOU SUFFOCATE YOUR OWN FOOL SELF is the third type. Each of the eight stories in Danielle Evans’s debut collection is completely unique. What’s more, each features characters and situations that are so real and true to life that I almost felt as if I was a part of them.
The first story, “Virgins,” features two teenagers discovering what it means to be women earlier than perhaps they should. Originally published in The Paris Review, it may appear to be the average story of a young girl getting into a tough scrape, but what’s different about it is the intelligent voice. Erica, the narrator, has a wisdom that she doesn’t know she possesses and begins to discover it throughout the story.
“Snakes” is a discussion of family, the biracial experience, and the process of growing up. There is some part of the story for any reader to identify with, regardless of what personal qualities he or she shares with the narrator. It takes shocking turns and plays with race perception; when we are first introduced to the narrator’s grandmother, knowing whether she is white or black requires a double-take. Evans’s ability to play with the nuances of race in “Snakes” and other stories is reminiscent of Toni Morrison’s treatment of the issue in “Recitatif.”
“Harvest” is unexpected, although it shouldn’t be. We’ve all seen those ads in college newspapers asking for egg donations in exchange for cash. But how many of us think about the screening process once the girls volunteer? What qualities in a young woman do people looking for eggs value? Is it race? Education level? Looks? Evans perfectly pits this issue against the problem of unwanted pregnancy in a way I’ve never seen before, and has written a story that is different and fresh.
Evans doesn’t write about girls only, though. She presents convincing portrayals of older brothers, confused fathers, and sincere but desperate war vets. She takes characters we’re all familiar with, such as tortured artists and prodigal daughters, and place them where we usually don’t read them: into stories about multifaceted, educated young black women.
That’s the thing about these stories, and something that Evans does well throughout the collection: presenting the intellectual black experience. She can show American readers that not all literary experience is white, and not all black experience is homogeneous or stereotypical. BEFORE YOU SUFFOCATE YOUR OWN FOOL SELF is a collection of stories with an incredible scope of setting, plot and character, and yet each tale is perfectly and precisely compact, with not a line of dialogue too many or a detail too much. This is necessary reading for creative writers wishing to know their peers and a must-read for young black women wanting characters to identify with. It should be mandatory for any intellectual looking for a book about the American experience, because it is at once the universal American experience and the untold one.
Reviewed by Sarah Hannah Gómez on December 22, 2010