'Fool Self' Offers Serious Stories Of Teen Girls
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
GUY RAZ, host:
And I'm Guy Raz.
Fiction writer Danielle Evans burst onto the literary scene in 2007 when her first short story was published in the Paris Review. At the time, she was just 23. Now, she's released her debut book. It's a collection of short stories called "Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self."
Evans grew up moving from city to city with her mother. She writes about some of those places - New York, Tallahassee, Northern Virginia - and about navigating those worlds from the perspectives of mixed race and African-American teenagers. The stories have a fly-on-the-wall quality, as if you're listening in on private conversations about race and gender and class. But when she stopped by our studios recently, Evans told me she doesn't want her characters to be defined by only those things.
Ms. DANIELLE EVANS (Author, "Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self"): Part of what I'm interested in is that we're in this weird moment, racially, where we're certainly not post anything, but that there are opportunities in the present that people could not have been prepared for by the past.
RAZ: Opportunities to talk about race in a straightforward way?
Ms. EVANS: That, but I'm thinking more on the level of the actual stories themselves - things like, the tensions that arise in interracial relationships aren't anymore that you have to kind of go to a different state because it's illegal, and hope nobody kills you most of the time. But then the fact that those aren't the pressures opens up an entire other range of possibilities, right? And so the more intricate, kind of messier personal stuff that people cannot have been prepared for by the past because it wasn't as plausible in the past.
Things like people being asked to go back and forth between two or three worlds in a way that, you know, those worlds would not have been open to them at all previously. And so I think a lot of what it comes down to is people having to go back and forth. And not just in a sense of being interracial, but also between different class settings, between different voices even.
RAZ: Growing up, you had to - and presumably you still; all of us - sort of shift from one world to the next world. Sometimes you were the only African-American kid in a school of white kids, for example.
Ms. EVANS: Often, yes. They moved me from the school that I started at to the magnet school for gifted children. And I think I was literally, the only kid in my class who didn't have blue eyes. I think I was the only black child in the gifted and talented program in all of Fairfax County that particular year.
RAZ: You write about a high school - fictional high school, Robert E. Lee High. Can you tell us about this story?
Ms. EVANS: Yeah. The framework for that story is that there is this school where there's this kind of tracking in place - which I think is true in a lot of parts of the country. For various reasons, it's true - and various parts of the South, that there were gifted programs devised partly as a matter of educational opportunity, but partly because people were terrified of their kids having to go to school with minorities. And that was a lot of the ways that they got around integration orders - was, OK, everyone will physically be in the same building, but there's no way they're going to be in the same classroom.
So that's the - sort of structural backdrop for the story. But part of what I was thinking about on the level of character is, you know, how these two teenage girls kind of navigate that.
RAZ: Crystal and Gina.
Ms. EVANS: Crystal and Gina.
RAZ: Crystal is the - sort of the talented, good student. She's going to become the valedictorian. Gina is her friend, who sort of gets into a lot of trouble. Both of them are African-American girls in a predominantly white school.
Ms. EVANS: I mean, I was thinking about two things with that story. One, I wanted to play with that narrative because we often do have this kind of simplistic good kid-bad kid narrative. And I think there's a way in which the people who get marked as the exceptions kind of need the people who are the rule to function.
And so I was thinking about that dynamic and that way in which - there's a point in the story in which Crystal says, Gina had already made me possible -and therefore, the implication is: I don't need her anymore.
RAZ: As it becomes clear that Crystal will become the valedictorian, and she's sort of on the up and up at this school, Gina stops talking to her. Can you read a passage from the book?
Ms. EVANS: Sure. I'm just going to read the - this is a paragraph at the end of a scene where Crystal has just gotten some news from the guidance counselor about what she's going to do that summer.
(Reading) I let the promise of summer comfort me while Gina avoided me. Violetta(ph) and April became Gina's new best girlfriends. I was somewhat consoled by the fact that it took two people to replace me. V made a point of telling everyone that she had gone to middle school with me, and I had been a bourgie bitch then too. I started to eat lunch in the library again.
If Gina thought she could make me lonely enough to change my mind about summer school, she'd vastly underestimated my capacity for loneliness. I'd perfected lonely in the third grade.
RAZ: How do you think about getting into the heads of high school girls, and sort of capturing that internal dialogue?
Ms. EVANS: I mean, sometimes teenagers are wonderful for fiction because - I had a teacher once, who said that the trick to fiction is to start with a scenario and have your characters say yes to everything a reasonable person would say no to. And I think teenagers say yes to a lot of things that reasonable people would say no to, because either they don't know any better or they're kind of testing
RAZ: Or they're reckless.
Ms. EVANS: Or they're deliberately saying yes to things as a way of sort of making some declaration about themselves to the world. But I also - I didn't want the decisions made that seemed questionable or bad to be decisions made in the absence of logic. And so I wanted to give the teenage characters enough credit for there being some internal logic at play. I mean, teenagers in general, and teenage girls in particular, I think, get culturally written off a lot - like, anything having to do with teenage girls is presumed to be silly or ephemeral.
And so I wanted to think about how to take them seriously, and how to have characters making mistakes - but making them in a way that didn't make them unintelligent.
RAZ: Do you, in some ways, have to identify with the narrator in order to tell the story from that perspective?
Ms. EVANS: Not always. I mean, I think to some degree you identify with almost every character you write because you created them. But - I mean, sometimes I think it's fun with the first person to actually tell the story of a person that you don't understand. I think, you know, the first person who's surprised by the story has to be me, or otherwise it just doesn't materialize on the page. And so sometimes there are narrators who, you know - what I'm really doing is trying to tell their story so I can figure out what their story is, or so I can figure out what they're thinking, or how they're thinking about it.
RAZ: Danielle Evans, thank you so much.
Ms. EVANS: Thank you.
RAZ: Danielle Evans' collection of short stories is called "Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self."
For our Best Books of 2010 series, Danielle Evans chose her favorite works of outsider fiction. You can find her selections at NPR.org.
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