D.C. author Danielle Evans’ literary career took off at 23, when her short story ‘Virgins’ was published in The Paris Review. The characters in her first book — “Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self” — navigate complex relationships in worlds where race and class collide. We talk with Evans about writing, teaching and what comes next.

Guests

  • Danielle Evans author, "Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self" (Riverhead Books); professor, American University

Transcript

  • 12:27:03

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. Countless writers twirl in obscurity for decades before their work gets noticed, and for many, acclaim never comes. But writer Danielle Evans has always been ahead of the game. She started first grade at the age of 4, had a short story published in the Paris Review at 23, and last year, still a few years shy of 30, her first collection of short stories was published, prompting a flood of praise from established authors and critics for creating realistic, flawed characters who struggled to find their way in worlds that they're both a part of and set apart from.

  • 12:27:38

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIDanielle Evans joins us in studio. She's a writer and a literature professor at American University. Her first book, "Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self," is a collection of short stories. Danielle Evans, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:27:51

    PROF. DANIELLE EVANSThank you so much for having me.

  • 12:27:52

    NNAMDIYou moved around a lot as a kid. And even though most of those moves were within the Washington area, you've said that you're a little jealous of writers whose works is grounded in one place. What is it about this area that's hard to pin down?

  • 12:28:05

    EVANSI think, you know, the book that I'm working on now is very much a D.C. book. I've been doing a lot of kind of D.C. history research, but there are so many different D.C.s, you know, currently, historically. They all kind of co-exist. And sometimes, they get written about as if they exist in these really separate spheres, but the truth is most people are kind of moving between them constantly.

  • 12:28:24

    EVANSAnd so, I mean, to live in area where there is such transience, in terms of geographic transience, in terms of cultural transience, there's just a lot going on for a lot people. So I think that it can be hard to pin down. I mean, grew largely up in Northern Virginia. And I used to joke that I'd never met anybody from Northern Virginia. 'Cause you'd ask somebody where they're from, they live there. And my mother's lived in Northern Virginia since before I was born, which was almost 30 years ago.

  • 12:28:49

    EVANSAnd you ask her where she's from, and she's from the Bronx, you know? And she'll be from the Bronx until forever. So -- and I think that that's a fairly common reaction, and so it's interesting to think you can live in a place 30 years and still not quite be of it.

  • 12:29:02

    NNAMDIHow do you identify yourself as where you're from?

  • 12:29:05

    EVANSYou know, it's grown on me. I moved back to D.C. about three years ago when I started at AU, and I think I stopped being in denial about the fact that this is the place where I'm from. I mean, there's a way that you think that you're not necessarily shaped by a place. And even things -- like, I've been talking recently in a couple of different venues about, you know, writing and politics.

  • 12:29:27

    EVANSAnd, you know, when I lived in other parts of the country, I understood for the first time what people meant when they talked about, you know, inside the Beltway or Washington being a kind of far away place because it never felt that way when I was growing up. I knew so many people who, I mean, even if they weren't, you know, working in policy, who worked somehow for the federal government, whether they were, you know, security guards or secretaries or officials, that there is always that sense that it was right there.

  • 12:29:53

    NNAMDIAlways connected.

  • 12:29:53

    EVANSAnd the idea that it was kind of irrelevant or faraway or, you know, something that was not real or not done by real people, like, I didn't grow up with that. And I lived in parts of the country where I think that that's not people sense of Washington that I don't think it's a real place.

  • 12:30:05

    NNAMDIIf you'd like to join this conversation, call us at 800-433-8850. Are you a writer who has drawn inspiration from this area, the Washington area? Or do you find it hard to characterize? Call us at 800-433-8850 or send email to kojo@wamu.org. Moving around as a kid is hard. When your friend showed up for your fifth birthday party, your mom was a little taken aback. Turns out that all of your friends where about twice your age. Why is that?

  • 12:30:37

    EVANSWell, I went to -- at that time I was in first grade in Fairfax County. And there was a child in the first grade who would -- he was a little bit older than the other children in the first grade and so had some sway (unintelligible) being, you know, eight and in a class of 5-year-olds.

  • 12:30:51

    NNAMDISure.

  • 12:30:52

    EVANSAnd he decided that black people couldn't sit at the first grade lunch table. So I said, OK, I'll sit with my friends from the bus stop, who happened to be, you know, fourth and fifth graders. And so I was eating lunch with the fourth graders every day, and I didn't mention this to anybody until all these kids show up for my birthday party.

  • 12:31:09

    NNAMDIHe called you the N word, didn't he?

  • 12:31:11

    EVANSIt was actually a different kid. It was a lovely year.

  • 12:31:14

    NNAMDIThere was the bully who said you couldn't eat at the table, and then there was the guy who called you the N word.

  • 12:31:20

    EVANSMm hmm.

  • 12:31:21

    NNAMDIBut it's my understanding that you dealt with that in quite an adult manner. Your mother seemed to be more upset about it than you were.

  • 12:31:27

    EVANSWell, you know, I mean, I think there's always a degree of absurdity to racism that, I mean, I think before you even get to the anger and the hurt, you have to reconcile with the fact that there's this kind of almost surreal feeling, like, wait, is this really happening? And, I think, dealing with that -- there was a moment of almost humor before you get to the hurt and the fear and the anger.

  • 12:31:53

    EVANSBut, I mean, I think as -- looking back on that moment, what was really interesting to me is my parents were divorced at the time, but my father was in town when that happened. I think it was my birthday or something. He was visiting. And so when I got home, 'cause my mother was at work, and my father, since he was in from out of town, was not -- had the day off. And so I told him first, and he said, and what else happened today and just kept asking me questions like he wasn't going to let me go.

  • 12:32:19

    EVANSAnd my mother came home, and she, you know, called out the cavalry. And, you know, a series of beatings ensued. And I think, I mean, both of those reactions make sense to me, and both of them, I feel like, come from a place of love and intelligence. But I think, like, that to me, in retrospect, seems like it must be incredibly hard to be a black parent. I mean, I was just reading that article that written in the Times yesterday about the sort of frequency of racial profiling, the stop and frisk.

  • 12:32:44

    EVANSI'm like, how do you prepare your child for a world like that when it's your job to kind of protect them from things, to let them know that there is something out there that you can't stop? I mean, in retrospect that seems to me (unintelligible).

  • 12:32:53

    NNAMDII don't know how introspective you are. But this happened to you when you were very, very young. Yet, even then, you seemed to be observing it in a way from the outside. And, I guess, that's one of the things that makes you a great storyteller. You can be both inside and outside at the same time. You can be a part of an activity, yet observe it, it seems, from a distance, in a way. Because it seems to me that both of your parents were much more emotionally involved with this, which is how you can come to the conclusion that it must be difficult to be a black parent, than you were.

  • 12:33:26

    EVANSNo. I mean, I think that there is something about being a writer that requires you to, on the one hand, care very deeply about things because otherwise you wouldn't bother writing about them or thinking about them or spending time with them, but on the other hand, to be able to detach yourself from them at sometime. And I think, I mean, maybe that can make writers be able to know.

  • 12:33:44

    NNAMDIYou started doing it at a fairly early age, it would appear. You're a literature professor at American University. You also work with high school students through something called 826DC and the PEN/Faulkner Writers-in-Schools program. Do you wish you had had a chance to meet and to talk with published authors when you were young, when you were in junior or high school?

  • 12:34:04

    EVANSYou know, I was kind of a weird kid. And I think that I've remained a little bit weird in my relationship to the idea of reading in that part of me really hates readings. Like, for me, that relationship with a book is almost sacred. And I don't want a person in the middle of it. Like, I don't really care about the author's process. I care about the book in front of me. And so I think as a high school student, I probably wouldn't have appreciated the opportunity as much as I should have.

  • 12:34:31

    EVANSBut I think it is really great to me, as an author, to be able to talk to high school kids, first of all, 'cause when you talk to high school students, they're not speaking that kind of super polished, super thought-out language. They're genuinely reacting to your book most of the time or to your presence. They're unfiltered in a way that's really refreshing.

  • 12:34:49

    EVANSAnd it's also -- I mean, the programs that I've been able to work with, I mean, couple of weeks ago I was talking to a group of kids at 826DC, who come in on a Saturday morning, you know, whole class of freshmen and sophomores to talk about reading and to work on their own writing project that they're doing. And to see them, you know, up on a Saturday and that excited about writing, it was great for me.

  • 12:35:08

    EVANSIt was also, I think, exciting for them because I -- you know, when I was leaving, one of the girls stopped me. And she was very excited, and she says, everyone keeps saying that I look like you, that we could be sisters. And, I mean, I think that kind of thing, to see somebody who does kind of look like you, even in the -- it's a small thing, but I think that it matters in the way that you're able to envision yourself in the world.

  • 12:35:29

    EVANSI mean, I think -- and I know it's going to sound silly for me to say anything. It took me a long time to as a writer because I realized that, you know, there was a lot of both work and serendipity that, you know, things happened fairly quickly.

  • 12:35:38

    NNAMDISure.

  • 12:35:39

    EVANSBut it did take me a relatively long time to learn to kind of own my own material, to not think -- I used to think that if you were writing a book about people of color, it had to be historical to be serious. I hadn't read a lot of contemporary literary fiction that was about a world that felt immediate to me. And when I finally realized that it exists...

  • 12:36:00

    NNAMDIYour fiction does.

  • 12:36:02

    EVANS...it would -- it kind of opened that up for me. So I mean, I think you should be reading all kinds of things. You should be reading outside of yourself. Like, part of the job of reading is to make us more empathetic by dropping us into worlds that are unfamiliar. But if you never see anything in literature that's familiar to you or that is about you, it can make you feel excluded. So I'm glad that the work exists in the way that the students can connect to it and get excited with it.

  • 12:36:22

    NNAMDIYeah. I've read some critic who said that your work should be -- that high school student should be reading your work, I guess, because they can connect with -- by the way, 826DC is a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting students who are ages 6 through 18 with their creative and expository writing skills and to helping teachers inspire their students to write. You have said that you don't particularly necessarily look forward to meeting the authors that you have come to adore because, what, why?

  • 12:36:52

    EVANSNo. I like reading -- I like meeting authors. I think I like meeting authors as an author. I love getting to talk to people. I find them really interesting. I mean, a lot of my friends, probably too many of my friends, are writers. But I think there's this idea that we have that the writer should somehow explain the book. And there's a part of me, I think, that feels like the book requires that much explanation, it's probably not worth talking about, or you just need to read it better. Like, I feel the reader should be explaining the book to me 'cause I've already done my job.

  • 12:37:20

    NNAMDIThat's true.

  • 12:37:21

    EVANSI mean, I teach a class at AU, which is actually -- it's a really fun class to teach. It's called Writers and Print in Person. And so we have -- it's a contemporary fiction course. So you teach books by living authors, who then, you know, come to class at some point during semester. But I'm constantly -- I have to sort of frame the class at the beginning to remind the students, like, it's not your job to kind of tie the author to the chair and make them explain the book to you.

  • 12:37:43

    EVANSThat's not the function of the conversation. And I think it's not so much the idea of meeting authors. It's the idea that the author adds to the book. I think the author is a separate entity from the book, and that one's relationship with the text is usually separate from one's relationship to the author as should be.

  • 12:37:58

    NNAMDIYour career might have taken a very different path if you didn't hate footnotes so much. What made you decide to pursue writing, and what do footnotes have to do with this conversation?

  • 12:38:09

    EVANSI -- when I was into graduate, I was as anthropology major. And up until senior year of college, my plan was to apply to PhD programs in anthropology. In fact, I have the applications. I was half done with them. And I think it was one of those things where you realize you're about to commit to your second love, and you haven't taken a shot at your first yet or something. It was something I love. It was not the thing that I loved the most.

  • 12:38:34

    EVANSAnd I -- footnotes are kind of a joke, but not entirely. I thought -- you know, I think part of it was -- and it was around that time when there were all those people who kept -- you know, they get caught lying in the news articles, like Jason Blair and there was some other (unintelligible).

  • 12:38:47

    NNAMDIOh, yeah. Yeah.

  • 12:38:48

    EVANSAnd I was thinking to myself, sometimes I'd rather tell a better story than stick to the facts. Like, I found myself even in the sort of ethnographies that I was doing at the time, having to resist that impulse to kind of make it a better story. You're to say, you know what, this is what the person said, but this is what I think that they really meant. Or it would have been so much better if they'd said X, Y, Z. And it's, like, you can't put words in real people's mouth.

  • 12:39:12

    EVANSI mean, I have a tremendous amount of respect for journalism and the truth and journalists' commitment to the truth. But because I respect it, I felt like I, as a compulsive liar, needed to stay away from it.

  • 12:39:21

    NNAMDIBut I was reading something yesterday, and it could have been in research I was doing about you and your writing or something else. But somebody was saying, that's why we become writers because we want to make stuff up. We don't simply want to report on what's already taken place or reflect what's already taking place. Part of the inspiration for being a writer is because we like the idea of making stuff up.

  • 12:39:43

    EVANSYeah, I know. I mean, you want to -- you want to think through problems. And, in fact, I was just joking with a friend the other day 'cause she was saying how much she loves the Carolyn Hax column in The Post. And I said, in high school, I used to write fake letters to Carolyn Hax. And they weren't, like, so absurd that they couldn't be real. They weren't, like, meant to joke or upset her, but I used to --- it was interesting to me to kind of think through 'cause -- and she never answered any of them, to my knowledge.

  • 12:40:04

    EVANSBut I really wanted to know, and so I'd create these fake, like, crises that people were having with their families or relationships. I just really -- just wanted to see what she would say, but I guess, in some sense, that wasn't really (word?) into fiction in retrospect. I mean, I think -- I think as a writer, you have to learn to manage that impulse to lie, or it will mess you up.

  • 12:40:17

    NNAMDII read that column every day, too, and I've convinced myself that it's because of the artwork that accompanies the column. This is the cartoon or something. For some reason, I'm drawn to it just about every single day.

  • 12:40:26

    EVANSYes. They are pretty great cartoons.

  • 12:40:28

    NNAMDIWe are going to take a short break. When we come back, we will return to our conversation with Danielle Evans. She is a writer and literature professor at American University. Her first book, "Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self," is a collection of short stories. If you have already called, stay on the line. We will get to your call. The number is 800-433-8850, or you can simply go to our website, kojoshow.org. If you have read Danielle's stories, give us a call, 800-433-8850, or send us a tweet, @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:42:47

    NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with Danielle Evans. Her first book, "Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self," is a collection of short stories. Danielle Evans is a writer and literature professor at American University. I'm going to get to the phones in one second, but just a couple more questions first. Praise for your work has come from well respected writers like Salman Rushdie, Robert Stone, and you were named a top attention getter in a city full of top attention getters. What has getting all of these acclaims so early in your career have been like for you? What influence has it had on you?

  • 12:43:18

    EVANSI mean, in one hand, it's amazing and gratifying. I mean, you always work with the idea that you're having a conversation that you're working toward a dialogue. And the unfortunate truth is that, for a lot of writers, nobody ever talks back, either because the work doesn't find an audience or it just doesn't get the attention that it should when it comes out. I mean, there's a lot of beautiful books that don't get that kind of acclaim even though they deserve it.

  • 12:43:42

    EVANSAnd so, you know, on one hand, it's incredibly gratifying, and you feel lucky and connected to things and to even be in conversation with some of these people. It's amazing to me. On the other hand, when you're working on something new, you always have to work from a position that you can fail. Otherwise, you're not doing anything worth doing so...

  • 12:44:03

    NNAMDIYou're a keyboard on a blank page.

  • 12:44:04

    EVANSYeah. I mean, nothing makes the blank page any easier and, in some sense, feeling like you're not just going to let yourself down, but you're going to let down all of these people who've invested their time or money or some portion of their career. And you -- it becomes an even scarier thing. And so you have to filter it all out because if you're not writing from a place where you can feel you're not writing anything worth writing, that sort of risk has to be part of the project.

  • 12:44:29

    EVANSAnd so it's been interesting to, you know, be on tour for this book, which actually, you know, it came out in 2010. But we sold the book in 2007, and so it had been -- you know, there's some distance...

  • 12:44:44

    NNAMDIIn your life, an eternity, yes.

  • 12:44:46

    EVANSAnd so being into this new project and being on tour for the other book and being in both of the spaces at once where, in one hand, you're coming at it from this kind of detached, intellectual perspective on the work, and, in the other hand, you're in the sort of murky, terrifying project of creating this other new world and feeling (unintelligible) risk attached to it.

  • 12:45:04

    NNAMDIWould it have been less terrifying were it not for the success of the first book?

  • 12:45:12

    EVANSOh, I don't know. I mean, I think, the terror is what makes it works. A colleague told me about teaching once. If you ever stop being afraid, you're doing it wrong. Again, in most things worth doing, there has to be a little bit fear involved in...

  • 12:45:23

    NNAMDILike showing up here. Yeah.

  • 12:45:25

    EVANSYou're not so terrifying, but I'm...

  • 12:45:28

    NNAMDINo, I mean, for me.

  • 12:45:30

    EVANSBut, yeah, I do think that there is an element where, I think, sometimes as a writer, you wish to be working in solitude, and feeling watched can be a little bit unsettling.

  • 12:45:47

    NNAMDIYou'll work through it.

  • 12:45:48

    NNAMDIHere is -- I'm confident in you. Here is Terry in Gaithersburg, Md. Could you don the headphones, please?

  • 12:45:54

    EVANSAye.

  • 12:45:55

    NNAMDISo that we can hear Terry in Gaithersburg, Md. Terry, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:46:00

    TERRYFirst of all, let me say, I was tempted to turn it off once she said what you said -- not knowing the writer should read -- because it resonated so much with me, and I desperately want to read your book now that I've heard about it.

  • 12:46:14

    NNAMDIWell, that's a good thing.

  • 12:46:14

    TERRYWell, that for me...

  • 12:46:15

    EVANSThank you.

  • 12:46:15

    TERRY...was a truly key point because writers, I feel -- I've always -- I enjoy writing personally, and I encourage my children to write. And they do it a lot. And I always try and tell them that your best person comes out when you write. And the best person -- a writer's best voice is what they put on paper. And I use as example Malory, who wrote the "Green Knight," who was a rapist and murderer. And all the way -- so that's one extreme, but then you talk about Bill Watterson who wrote "Calvin and Hobbes" for all those years.

  • 12:46:44

    TERRYI mean, he's almost humorless if you listen to him live. And so I always encourage them not to know their writers. And this -- you saying that just so validated what I've been feeling for so long, and I really appreciate that. And I wanted to stress it more because we should read what the writers write, and that's their inner voice. And there's (unintelligible)...

  • 12:47:02

    NNAMDITerry, I like the phrase you used, and if you don't mind, I'll put it in the form of a question to Danielle Evans. Does your best self come out in your writing?

  • 12:47:11

    EVANSWell, Margaret Atwood has this quotation, wanting to meet a writer because you liked their book is like wanting to meet a goose because you like pate.

  • 12:47:19

    EVANSMaybe it's a duck. I don't remember. I'm a vegetarian. But I think that there is -- I don't know about your best self in terms of overall presentation. I mean, I think, there is this cultural mystique around writers that, you know, writers can be terrible people, which a lot of writers use as an excuse to be terrible people, like you don't have to be a terrible person to be a good writer. In fact, many writers I know are lovely people.

  • 12:47:42

    NNAMDIYou didn't have to be drug addicted to be a jazz musician either. Yes.

  • 12:47:45

    EVANSYeah, I mean, the best of them do manage to be functional and decent human beings as much of the time. But I think in terms of your best and most thought-out self, I mean, most writers do think best in text because that's why they do what they do. I mean, that's where the work has gone, and so there is a sense that you don't want to stand in between. And then I think, you know, in this culture of -- I mean, the era of kind of reality TV, there is this idea that the idea of any kind of fictional work is to get to the actual truth behind it.

  • 12:48:15

    EVANSAnd there's a tendency to read fiction as non-fiction no matter how much of it is imagined. And I think that sometimes the writer having a very public self can be -- can facilitate that in a way that a lot of writers are uncomfortable with that. I think, you know, there are things that are really interesting to me to talk to writers about, but it's not necessarily their own work. I'm actually much more interested in talking to writers about other writers' work or, you know, about other things in the world that are sort of going on.

  • 12:48:41

    EVANSAnd then, of course, you can make -- you often make a map of what's going on in the writer's head and kind of see that in their work. But the most interesting things about my writing that's been -- that have been said about my writing have not been said by me. They'd been said by people to me. I think, oh, that's completely true, and I may repeat it the next time someone asks me about my work because if I'd known that I was doing that, I wouldn't have to be able to do it in the first place.

  • 12:49:02

    NNAMDIHere is -- the title of the book, "Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self." That is a bit unusual. It's my understanding it's a line from a poem. What comes through in that poem that ties these stories together?

  • 12:49:16

    EVANSYeah, the poem is "The Bridge Poem" by a poet named Kate Rushin, who -- the -- it was published in an anthology called "The Bridge Called My" -- "This Bridge Called My Back," which was out of print. The press didn't exist. I had to track down Kate Rushin in Chicago and get her personal permission to use the poem, and she was very lovely. So thank you, Ms. Rushin. But the poem I first read when I was in college. And I'm not allowed to curse on air, so I'm going to make sure that I don't repeat the line.

  • 12:49:40

    NNAMDIThis is a family broadcast.

  • 12:49:42

    EVANSBut there's a line -- there's a section of the poem at the beginning that says, "I explain my mother to my father, my father to my little sister, little sister to my brother, my brother to the white feminists, the white feminists to the black church folks, the black church folks to the ex-hippies, the ex-hippies to the black separatists, the black separatists to the artists, the artists to my friends' parents.

  • 12:50:03

    EVANS"And then I explain myself to everybody. I do more translating than the blank U.N." And so there's a way in which reading that, it resonated with me about -- the project of writing in general, I think, is always a project of translation. It's always this idea -- it's not that far from anthropology in the sense that you're trying to get somebody else, somebody to live someone else's experience.

  • 12:50:24

    EVANSYou're trying to translate one person's life into something another person can understand, sometimes in the level of language, sometimes in the level of experience or consciousness. But I think that that act of translation becomes particularly loaded when you are writing about any kind of marginalized character because there are other layers that you have to filter through in terms of people's understanding and expectations of the characters.

  • 12:50:45

    EVANSAnd so it meant a lot to me to think about as a writer, period, and as a writer of color, as a female writer. And I kept coming back to that poem at various points in my career 'cause it wasn't the original title of the collection. But, you know, then there was that -- there's a line later in that poem that says, "I'm sick of having to remind you to breathe before you suffocate your own fool self."

  • 12:51:04

    EVANSAnd I thought that the poem, for me, helped to tie together the collection both because a lot of what the collections are being about are people who are somehow mediating different worlds, who are in between, somehow have to go back and forth a lot. And so that idea of constant translation, a constant explanation seemed to tie the collection together. And also that idea of -- there are a lot of moments in the book where I feel like you're looking at a person who's about to do something very stupid.

  • 12:51:30

    EVANSAnd part of the project of the book is figuring out how they got there. And so I felt like there was a way in which it spoke to the characters, but it also is a bit confrontational as a title. There's a bit of it that's saying kind of, look over here, and I meant that to be both directed inward at the characters and also outward at the reader.

  • 12:51:50

    NNAMDIAnd having described it, we would now like you to read from the book itself, from the one story in the book that I did not actually read...

  • 12:51:58

    EVANSI'm sorry.

  • 12:51:59

    NNAMDI...is what you chose to read here today. But go ahead. I'm -- 'cause I'm looking forward to reading it, so...

  • 12:52:03

    EVANSThis is the beginning of the very last story in the book, which was actually one of the first stories that got written. I'm just going to read...

  • 12:52:11

    NNAMDIAnd it's called -- the story?

  • 12:52:12

    EVANSThe story is called "Robert E. Lee Is Dead"...

  • 12:52:14

    NNAMDIIs dead.

  • 12:52:14

    EVANS...and I'm just going to read about the first page-and-a-half. "For making honor roll, you got these stupid Mylar balloons. They were silver on the back and red or blue or pink on the front, with congratulations written in big clashing letters. The balloons were supplied by the Army recruiters who had an office across the street from our football field, and they always stuck a green-and-white U.S. Army sticker on the back.

  • 12:52:37

    EVANS"If you lived in Lakewood when -- then when you got a balloon your parents picked you up, or you drove yourself home with it in the backseats. Either way, when you got it home, you waited for your balloon to deflate slowly, and when it finally did, your mother smoothed out the wrinkles and put it on a wall or in an album or in a storage box somewhere, if you already had so many that another would be redundant.

  • 12:52:56

    EVANS"If you lived in Eastdale, then the stupid balloon got in your way the whole time you were walking home. Geena Johnson and I lived in Eastdale. I knew her name already -- everybody did -- but Geena was a girl like sunlight. If you were a girl like I was back then, you didn't look at her directly. Usually, there were girls following Geena's lead, often literally, wobbling behind her in platform boots they had just barely learned to walk in, but she was alone the first day she actually spoke to me.

  • 12:53:20

    EVANS"From the top of the hill where our high school began, I had seen her walking ahead of me, briskly and by herself. When she got to the chain-link fence encircling the water dam at the bottom of the hill, Geena threw her backpack over the top of the fence, balanced the heel of her boot against its wobbly surface and expertly hoisted herself over, barely breaking stride. When I hopped the fence a few moments later, I took my time.

  • 12:53:41

    EVANS"Even in sneakers, I was not as slick as Geena, and plus the balloon kept hitting the side of my face and trying to pop itself on the top of the fence. I was less awkward crossing the high, rickety bridge that was the reason the water dam shortcut was closed off to begin with. I took some perverse pleasure in knowing that a fall at the right angle could have killed me, one slip and no more Crystal.

  • 12:54:01

    EVANS"On the other side of the dam, home surprised me. I always took a minute to recognize my own neighborhood. It seemed like every day a new apartment building was being built or an older store or house torn down. Things changed quickly in those years. Eastdale pushed into the suburb of Lakewood from one side, while white flight created suburbs of the suburbs on the other.

  • 12:54:18

    EVANS"This was the new New South, same rules, new languages. The people who could afford to leave Lakewood left. The ones who couldn't put up better fences. The rest of us were left in Eastdale -- old houses, garden apartments, signs in Spanish and Vietnamese. We adapted well enough. We could all curse in Spanish, and we'd skip school for noodle soup as soon as we'd skip for McDonald's.

  • 12:54:37

    EVANS"The handful of white kids who still lived in Eastdale adopted linguistic affectations with varying degrees of success and would have nothing to do with the Lakewood kids. Eastdale kids and Lakewood kids walked on opposite sides of the hallway and ate on opposite sides of the cafeteria and probably would have worn opposite colored clothes if they could have coordinated it without communicating.

  • 12:54:55

    EVANS"The neighborhood in the immediate vicinity of our high school was called The Crossroads. Don't ever let anyone tell you that the South is big on subtlety. Geena and I weren't subtlety -- big on subtlety then either, not then. We were 14. She was flashy. I was brave the way you are when you don't know what you have to lose."

  • 12:55:12

    NNAMDIThat's Danielle Evans reading from her collection, which is called "Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self." She was reading from the short story "Robert E. Lee Is Dead." You said that was the first one you finished that you really were satisfied with. What was gratifying about writing "Robert E. Lee Is Dead"?

  • 12:55:29

    EVANSYou know, I wrote the first draft of that for one of my earliest college fiction workshops, actually taught by Victor LaValle, who's a wonderful writer and a great teacher. But I was in that class, and, you know, they talk about the story. And there's a break and everybody goes out usually to go get water and have a cigarette break or what have you. And when I -- I had gone out to get water.

  • 12:55:53

    EVANSWhen I came back from the hallway, there were people still in the classroom who are having this argument about the story and which of the characters was wrong and which of the characters had betrayed their friendship. And it was this very involved, heated argument, and I thought if I created this world that feels real enough that people can react that passionately to it and that -- there is the complexity.

  • 12:56:10

    EVANSThat was the first draft of the story. It was not the version that got published. It was, you know -- there was a lot that changed between then, but that basic dynamic of there being this kind of complex situation in which two people, who do really care about each other, fail each other completely and are also both navigating these kind of structural forces that are sweeping them, in some way.

  • 12:56:28

    EVANSThe idea that that complexity could somehow resonate with people to the point that it was enough for there to be an argument about, it made me -- it was the first time I felt like I had achieved something as a writer.

  • 12:56:36

    NNAMDIWe got this email from Amy in Washington. "It's very exciting to find out that Danielle Evans lives in D.C. I tutor a teenage girl, and I'm planning to introduce her to Ms. Evans' books when she gets a little older. I don't know what her parents will think of "Virgins," so I'm holding off of it a bit. But I just wanted to say how" -- "Virgins" is the first story in this collection. "But I just wanted to say how important it is to be able to turn to literature like Ms. Evans' when working with young people in D.C.

  • 12:57:00

    NNAMDI"You can only read inspirational books about Martin Luther King or Harriet Tubman so often. Young people need to have access to story that address their lives." I guess you've heard that before.

  • 12:57:10

    EVANSYeah. No. I mean, I think part of why I wrote "Virgins" was it did feel like there was an absence of that. Well, it's not even an absence of -- I felt like characters like the characters of the story do appear in fiction, but they rarely appear in their own voices. Or they're rarely given any kind of credit for their own thought processes because people look at it and say, well, the outcome of that thought process was stupid, so, clearly, no thought went into it. But, actually, I mean, I find it that teenage girls think a lot.

  • 12:57:36

    NNAMDII have raised only sons, and that "Virgins" gave me some insight into the thought process of teenage girls that has mystified me my entire life. So thank you.

  • 12:57:45

    EVANSI'm glad that I can help.

  • 12:57:46

    NNAMDIYou certainly did. I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Danielle Evans teaches -- she's a literature professor at American University. Her first book is called "Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self." It's a collection of short stories. What are you working on now?

  • 12:57:59

    EVANSI'm working on a novel that is tentatively titled "The Empire Has No Clothes." It actually takes place at a charter school in D.C.

  • 12:58:06

    NNAMDIWe look forward to it. Thank you so much for joining us. Good luck to you.

  • 12:58:09

    EVANSThank you very much for having me.

  • 12:58:10

    NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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