hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


Arts & Culture November 2020


In taut stories, women explore race, grief

The Mount to host writer Danielle Evans in virtual discussion


The writer Danielle Evans will hold a virtual discussion of her new fiction collection on Nov. 15 at The Mount in Lenox, Mass.The writer Danielle Evans will hold a virtual discussion of her new fiction collection on Nov. 15 at The Mount in Lenox, Mass.


Contributing writer

LENOX, Mass.

On a fall evening in the early dark, a woman is reading her stories aloud.

She looks at broad currents in contemporary society with a clear analytical eye. With compassion, she lifts up the people caught in those currents. She writes in a confident language blending humor and deep sadness.

At 4 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 15, award-winning fiction writer Danielle Evans will hold a virtual conversation at Edith Wharton’s home at The Mount. She’ll talk with Heidi Pitlor, editor of yearly anthology “The Best American Short Stories,” about Evans’ newest collection, “The Office of Historical Corrections.”

In the title novella, two women are looking for the truth behind a memorial in Cherry Mill, Wis. Cassie, the narrator, meets Genevieve, a woman she has known from childhood, over a bronze historical marker.

In 1937, Josiah Wynslow had left Milwaukee to buy a print shop in Cherry Mill. A few months later, Cassie says in a tone of irony over steel, “A group of concerned citizens came in the night and set the place on fire.”

Wynslow had been the only black man living in town.
More than 80 years later, telling the truth about the past, and about the present, has become a life-or-death issue in the parking lot of a red brick candy store selling brandy fudge.

Cassie has come as a government researcher for the Institute for Public History. The name “Office of Historical Corrections” is a kind of in-joke, “the imaginary shadow entity on which we blamed all missteps and bad publicity.”

In her story, Evans explores the complex lives and the courage of the women who face the choice and the danger.

“A lot of the book wrestling with a shadow self, a version of you that’s messed up,” Evans said. “How do you fix something that’s already happened? What do you do with an apology or a desire for a more empathetic world?”

These are stories of women surviving day to day, enveloped in grief. And like Lyssa, the main character in her opening story, Evans has faced a deep and recent loss in her own life: Her mother died in 2017.

“It shapes the structure of the stories,” she said, “and the movement of day-to-day things you can control when there’s something you can’t. It’s the emotional core of the story, and there’s nothing to be done about it, so everything happens above and around it. It’s the crisis, and it’s only understood later.”


Trauma and hope
Evans sees her first book, “Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self,” as a gathering of coming-of-age stories.

“They have a clear before and after and an active core and emotional core,” she said.
“In this collection, the stories are not about a character making a dramatic choice. Sometimes they are creating drama to distract from trauma.”

So here, in “Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain,” Rena, a photojournalist, comes to the wedding of a man she met long ago returning from a freelance assignment in the African nation of Burkina Faso. And in the course of that weekend, the story reveals that she has lost her sister to violence.

“The story is not really about the wedding,” Evans said. “It’s about this grief she’s carrying, and her real grief intersects the rest of the story.”

Rena has gotten through the years since her sister’s death with a kind of intentional mobility.
“She had built the kind of life that belonged to her and her alone,” Evans explains in the story, “one she could pick up and take with her as needed.”

“To some it feels like freedom, and to some like trauma,” Evans said.
Rena has negotiated her own kind of independence, feeling a tension between what it would mean to have space to be a full person, as a black woman, to center her desires, and what it would mean to have the freedom to build relationships that ground her.

She chooses mobile independence because too often the people around her don’t think it’s reasonable for her to have pleasure.

“The alternative feels so reductive that it isn’t a choice,” Evans said.
Rena cannot imagine a loving romantic relationship in which she’s fully valued.
“She has a lot of control,” Evans said, “but not a lot of community. Dori has made different choices, and they are also fraught. … They are both more complicated than the choices they’ve made allow them to be.”

They come together almost by chance in a weekend that begins with Noah’s Ark and ends in a water slide. And they find, at least for one taut afternoon, a moment of shared honesty and a kind of release, a kind of elation.

“When they’re at the water park,” Evans said, “there’s a lot of joy.”

She laughed and then sobered.
“You can see the collection as bleak” at a personal and national level, Evans said.
She sees a relationship between hope and joy, she said. They’re inverse. But they are also connected. She thought of the experience of caring for someone in a long illness.

“There are a lot of hard days,” she said. “You try a new thing, and it may hurt. The possibility of a new treatment is wonderful and exhausting. There are days when there isn’t hope, when they’ve found there’s nothing they can do. But I have time with my mother, and we’ll do something together. … We’ve had a lot of hard years, can feel like we’ve already lost and we can’t save the world. And there are days when you’re exhausted but hopeful.”


Seeking truth in history
Evans’ characters can show a care and exertion in daily acts, as when Cassie, in “The Department of Historical Corrections,” chooses her costumes for teaching with intense awareness of her classes’ responses.

Lyssa, a character in “Happily Ever After,” the first story in the collection, prepares to come to the hospital with her mother, dressing like a person who won’t be treated badly, so the doctors will tell her what she needs to know about her mother’s mortal illness.

These characters move through the world with a consciousness of how the world will respond to them. It’s a double consciousness, Evans said, that recalls the phrase W.E.B. Du Bois used more than a century ago in “The Souls of Black Folk.” He described “this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”

Against those hostile eyes, Evans’ characters measure what it means to tell the truth, and how high the stakes can be.

In the title story, Cassie and Genevieve come together as part of a national network of fact-checkers. Its founders intended it as “a friendly citizen army making the truth so accessible and appealing it could not be ignored.”

They have known each other since childhood, and they converge in the story at a time when they have felt their lives shaken. They contrast with each other and with their younger selves, Evans said. And they are wrestling with the ways they live in or with an institution that is not adapted to them.

Cassie has come to work for the institute, for a new initiative to fund public historians, out of an urgent belief in the work -- “a belief that the truth was our last, best hope.”

Now she is caught between the agency’s directives and a truth it does not want investigated.
And Genevieve is fighting for a new job, a secure foundation for her career, and the custody of her daughter. She will have to decide how far she will go to make the truth public, knowing the danger Josiah Wynslow faced can reignite today.

The practice of historical correction becomes both a danger and a necessity.
It is also a challenge. Some histories have not been preserved, Evans said.


‘What we choose to remember’
In researching the novella, she found 20 years of microfiche in Milwaukee. And yet a town board might keep meticulous notes for one meeting and then nothing for some time afterward. The local black newspaper at the time could publish only sporadically. The archives are well kept now, she said, but they were not for a long time, so there are gaps in the record.

“Another writer might fill them in,” she said. “But I’m interested in what we fill in without knowing, what we choose to remember, and our external selves -- what story we choose to tell about our family and our country, because we don’t have the information or because we are ignoring it, and how we are revealing the version of ourselves that we want to be.

“Where there are gaps in the record,” she said, “sometimes history is there all along and people won’t engage with it.”

Evans considers the people who stand at the center of the story and the tools to amplify their voices.

She sees a power in confrontation, when it’s necessary to engage and tell someone they’re not telling the truth, and a power of silence when it’s necessary to disengage, to decide not to interact with a conversation.

Evans has become a strong voice in national conversations. She is a 2020 National Endowment for the Arts fellow, and her work has appeared in magazines including The Paris Review, A Public Space and American Short Fiction.

She has worked on her new book on and off for 10 years. Two of the pieces in the book – “Richard of York” and “Boys Go to Jupiter” -- have appeared in “The Best American Short Stories.” She has often read from them, and professors have taught them.

“I’ve thought about how people are responding to them,” she said.
Looking at the collection now, she turns to the story “Cecelia in Alcatraz,” another piece in which two women are trying to right a historical record. Evans said this story is, in part, closely based on family history.

Cecelia is trying to take care of her mother, who has made a lifelong cause of fighting to clear her grandfather’s name. In World War I, he had enlisted at 15 and been falsely blamed for a gun misfiring. His granddaughter has fought for years to set the record straight, and on a sweltering day on the Pacific Coast, Cecelia takes a step toward giving her closure.

“Hers is the closest to a narrative that’s sustainable but not a lie,” Evans said. “She separates her own cause from her mother’s. It’s a different battle and smaller victories, and it lets her continue to do the work.”