African-American and mixed-race youth characters aren’t necessarily commonplace in literary fiction, but Danielle Evans’ debut short story collection significantly fills that void. Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self has all of the elements of good literary fiction one would expect from an Iowa Writers Workshop graduate. What really makes these eight stories stand out, however, is Evans’ ability to capture weighty issues like race and class with a mix of subtlety and humor.
Most of the stories’ plots present familiar conflicts: a father and daughter are unable to emotionally connect; teenagers grapple with their burgeoning sexuality; a college student faces an unplanned pregnancy. Yet because Evans creates characters with such compelling viewpoints, each of the stories feels like authentic and new takes on contemporary society.
In “Wherever You Go, There You Are” a 20-something narrator takes a road trip from Delaware to Raleigh to visit her friend, Brian. She has unresolved feelings for Brian, but he’s recently engaged, and she will be meeting his fiancé. Complicating matters further is her 14-year old cousin, Chrissie, who comes with her at the last minute. Their car ride consists of a series of conversations about boys and sex that are both funny and sad. Chrissie is described as “the wrong kind of pretty, the kind that’s soft but not fragile, the kind that inspires the impulse to touch.” This is just one of several examples in the collection where Evans captures the confusion and vulnerability that young women face as they grow into adulthood.
“Virgins” continues to explore this theme with a plot centered on two teenage girls, Jasmine and Erica, who decide to go clubbing in New York City. Evans writes such realistic dialogue that it’s easy to get caught up in these teenagers’ lives, where seemingly small decisions end up having lasting impacts.
Evans also shows that she isn’t limited to telling stories from only a female perspective. In “Someone Ought to Tell Her There’s Nowhere to Go”, Georgie is an Iraq war veteran with PTSD who tries reconnecting with his ex-girlfriend by babysitting for her young daughter, Esther. Georgie and Esther end up spending so much time together that Esther begins to call him “Daddy” and Georgie doesn’t correct her. Eventually this little white lie spins out of control. Evans weaves into the story anecdotes about Georgie’s time in Iraq, but it never feels like a cliché because of the authentic voices she has created.
Another common theme throughout is the often strained and complicated relationships in families. In “Snakes” Tara is a mixed race woman who recounts the summer she spent with her grandmother and her white cousin Allison in Tallahassee. Tara’s mother and grandmother never got along, namely because her mom married a black man, and Tara is the obvious reminder of it all. There is a vivid sense of place and time in the story as Tara remembers the strangeness of that summer, and it’s a moving portrait of the often long lasting wounds of childhood.
Evans has already received several glowing reviews for this collection, and the book lives up to the hype. Unlike many debut short story collections, none of the stories seem as if they are fresh out of a writing workshop—they’ve got more maturity than that. Evans’ wry humor contributes to the honesty in these stories, as the working class characters resemble real. So while the stories themselves are firmly rooted in contemporary America, the meaning they carry is artfully timeless.