On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
In her latest short story collection, writer Danielle Evans tackles race, grief and belonging — all with the not-so-distant past present and looming.
In one story, “Boys Go to Jupiter,” a white college student attempts to rebrand herself after a photo of her in a confederate flag bikini goes viral. In “Alcatraz,” a daughter gathers her mother and estranged extended family for a tour of the prison where her great-grandfather was wrongly incarcerated years earlier. And, finally, in the title novella, a Black professor leaves her career in academics for a bureaucratic role, correcting mistakes in the historical record for the fictional “Institute for Public History.”
Evans joins us to talk about the story collection, her insight into U.S. history — and what it means to set the record straight in 2020.
Produced by Julie Depenbrock
- Danielle Evans Professor, Johns Hopkins University, Author, "The Office of Historical Corrections"; @daniellevalore
When Lyssa was seven, her mother took her to see the movie where the mermaid wants legs and when it ended Lyssa shook her head and squinted at the prince and said, Why would she leave her family for that? which for years contributed to the prevailing belief that she was sentimental or softhearted, when in fact she just knew a bad trade when she saw one. The whole ocean for one man. Not that she knew much about the ocean; Lyssa had been born in a landlocked state, and at thirty it seemed the closest she might get to the sea was her job working the gift shop in the lobby of the Titanic. It was not a metaphor: it was an actual replica of the Titanic, with a mini museum on the lower level, though most of their business came from weddings and children’s birthday parties hosted on the upper decks.
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. In her latest short story collection, writer Danielle Evans tackles race, grief and belonging all with the not-so-distant and cruel history of our country looming in the backdrop. The book, it's called "The Office of Historical Corrections." And joining us to discuss it is the author herself. Danielle Evans is the author of story collections, including "Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self," and, as I said, most recently, "The Office of Historical Corrections." She currently teaches creative writing at Johns Hopkins University. Danielle Evans, thank you for joining us.
DANIELLE EVANSThank you so much for having me.
NNAMDIWe'd love to have you join the conversation, too. Have you read "The Office of Historical Corrections" or "Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self"? We'd like to hear from you about what you thought of them. 800-433-8850 is the number to call. Or if you'd like to shoot us a tweet @kojoshow or email to Kojo@wamu.org. Danielle Evans, this story collection, which confronts race and U.S. history, feels especially resonant this year, in 2020. You average about 10 years to write a book. Did you anticipate that events were going to reach a boiling point this year? What do you know that we didn't?
EVANS(laugh) No. I was saying, you know, if the writing thing doesn't work out, if it takes me another 10 years, maybe I'll just switch to telling fortunes, because this book was not intended to be topical. Some of these stories were published right after my first book came out. The most recent work in the book is the novella. But even that, because a book takes, you know, years once you've finished it to sort of go through production and be available to readers. So, I finished that in 2018.
EVANSAnd then I was sitting here, you know, in the summer of 2020, there's a joke in the novella at the beginning about kind of gentrified Juneteenth and somebody trying to celebrate Juneteenth, but not actually understanding what its history is. And that ended up being almost the conversation we were having in the present, sort of right when the book came out. So, there are a couple of things like that that are just unintentionally topical and end up feeling like they're in conversation with the news.
EVANSThere are other things that I think feel constantly topical. You know, I mean, the first story in the collection is about grief, is about a woman who's lost her mother. But it's also about medical racism or about experiencing kind of hostility in public places. And that has been, you know, in the news in various ways over the last couple of years. But it's also been, you know, the ongoing experience of people in this country for many years longer than that. So, it's just a question of whether it happens to be in the news at the same time that the story is being talked about.
EVANSAnd there's a lot of stuff like that that is just kind of constant questions about race, about history, about who this country belongs to, whose stories it belongs to that feel topical if they happen to be the topic that are always kind of topical in our experience of the world and how we understand ourselves in relation to other people.
NNAMDIIf you have questions or comments for Danielle Evans, give us a call at 800-433-8850. The last time you were on this show -- that's how I know for sure it takes 10 years for you to do this -- the last time you were on this show was 2011, and it was to discuss your first collection of short stories, "Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self." How is "The Office of Historical Corrections" different?
EVANSYeah. I think it's a different book partly because I'm a little older and partly because I was writing these stories very conscious of the kinds of narrative questions, the kinds of questions about agency that you ask in a crisis, in a personal crisis, in a national crisis. I think I was writing these stories as I was losing my mother. I was writing these stories being acutely aware of a kind of sense of looming potential disaster in the country, in the climate, and really asking different kinds of questions about the future than I was in the first book.
EVANSI think my first book is largely coming-of-age stories, and they often follow the kinds of arcs we expect from coming of age stories, where somebody is facing a major decision that they think is going to affect their future. And because it's a story, it usually doesn't play out exactly like they anticipate, but there's some kind of decision being made or there's some kind of event that's happening for the first time and disrupting what someone thought their life was going to be.
EVANSAnd I think one of the things about getting older is that sometimes it's not so much that everything is hinging on a particular choice, but that the choices you've already made accumulate and foreclose other choices or other possibilities. And, at a certain point, you're living a life that feels like it has fewer dramatic choices, or where maybe the major thing that's actually affecting you is not something that you made a decision about or something that was within your control, and instead is something that people are trying to sort of evade or distract themselves from.
EVANSSo, a lot of the stories in this collection are stories about people who are dealing with some kind of gravitational force that's under the story, like grief, like a sense of alarm about something that is not up to them, and the sort of action of the story is crisis action, right. It's the action we take to put one foot in front of the other day by day in the face of something that's always going to be there. And the most interesting parts of the story are where those things intersect, because you sort of can't evade the actual gravity of the story, anymore. And I think that's a slightly different shape and a slightly different set of questions than my first book was asking.
EVANS(overlapping) And I also think this book -- oh, sorry.
EVANSI was going to say, I think this book is a little bit stranger and more disparate in its work than my first collection. But it's also probably more unified in the way that the stories are all asking some question about correction or apology or what we can do to either make the past right or at least make the record of it correct.
NNAMDIIndeed, they are. You mentioned your mother. You dedicated this book to her, Dawn Valore Martin . What can you tell us about her?
EVANSMy mother died in 2017 and was, and probably always will be, one of the major influences in my life. I think, you know, one of the things about being a writer is that sometimes you don't know what you've written until after you wrote it. So, I think looking at this book together, you certainly do see those questions about grief haunting the collection. That I was, in some way, writing about grief and writing about loss and writing about what it is to, like, live through the kind of crisis of a long-term illness.
EVANSBut I was also writing about what it means to want to believe the best of this country, what it means to be a person who believes that justice is attainable, that justice can be achieved. My mother was a civil rights leader. She worked for many years for the EOC, before that, for the Justice Department.
EVANSShe was a person who believed that, somehow, we could be accountable for the past and then build a better future. And I don't always, myself, have that kind of faith, but I am interested in thinking about what it means to not only want this country to be better, but to believe that it can be. And I'm interested, also, in the toll that it takes on people, especially on black women, to try to do that work.
NNAMDIYou said in an interview with NPR's Noel King: "I didn't set out to write a book about my mother dying, but I wrote a book about my mother dying." How did your own grief shape this collection?
EVANSI think, in intentional and unintentional ways, and then obvious and less obvious ways. I mean, there are several stories where characters in the collection are dealing with grief. There is that kind of structural pattern of the stories that I talked about. And there's also, I think, a way that one of the things I really love about the story form in general is that because it's so compressed, you often have moments in a short story where you're in all of the kinds of time planes at one, right, where something is happening in the present, but you're also getting some bit of the past and some knowledge of the future. Because the entire reason we're stopping to look at this moment the story's asking us to consider is because it's going to reverberate in some way.
EVANSAnd I think that moments like that often feel the way grief feels, right. Like, grief is an intense feeling in the presence of whatever we're experiencing, but it's also a feeling that asks us to examine our narrative of the past, to construct a version of the story that we can live with or to sort of confront the version of the story that we feel like we can't live with, and also to imagine what the future's going to be like without somebody.
EVANSAnd it's not just grief that has that kind of compression of time, but I do think it is one of those feelings that lends itself to those moments in the story where everything kind of comes together and you see all of the layers of the story existing at once. So, in that way, I think it is a book that is trying to think about how grief feels, how you get it on the page. Like, most of our language for grief feels inadequate to the task, because grief is, in some fundamental way, a basic feeling, right. It doesn't necessarily pretty-up well.
EVANSBut I think that in the sort of structure of how we confront it and evade it, you can get some complicated exploration of what it is to live with a kind of long-term grief. And I also think that some of the questions that I'm asking about the nature of joy, the nature of hope, about how you find either of those things in a crisis are questions about grief.
EVANSThey're also questions about, you know, how we live through any kind of national trauma, how we prepare for something like the climate emergency that we're living through. I think those questions exist at a very personal level in a lot of those stories, but they also kind of echo out into larger versions of the same questions you ask yourself when you're going through a long term illness with somebody.
NNAMDIOur guest is Danielle Evans, author of the story collections "Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self" and most recently "The Office of Historical Corrections." She currently teaches creative writing at Johns Hopkins University. And we're interested in taking your calls at 800-433-8850. What do you think of Danielle Evans' most recent collection, "The Office of Historical Corrections"? 800-433-8850. You can send us a tweet @kojoshow or email to Kojo@wamu.org. Danielle Evans, it's the longest story in the collection, really a novella, and it gives the book its title. So, tell us, what is "The Office of Historical Corrections"?
EVANSYeah, the way that I describe it in the novella is that it's a public works project for historians. So, it's an imaginary government agency where people with some kind of background or training in history effectively serves as kind of public, real time fact-checkers. It starts with a grand vision for being this sort of large project and ends up being a kind of smaller and less well-funded office. So, it's just these 20 people who, in real time, either correct kind of historical sites or correct people's actual conversations about history as they're happening in public.
NNAMDIAs a matter of fact, it was partially inspired, it's my understanding, by a conversation you heard -- while, I think, riding on the Metro -- about the Haitian revolution.
EVANSIndeed. I wish I could remember now exactly what they were saying, but this must've been years ago, like not that long after my first book came out, when I lived in D.C. And I remember just getting off the train and being on the phone with somebody and saying, you know, I just wish that there was -- I would pay 10 extra tax dollars a year to have an agency just be able to give people the actual historical record when they say things that are just wildly wrong.
EVANSAnd, of course, I was joking, and I'm still joking. I wouldn't imagine such an agency could or should exist. And I think, you know, we can sort of see, obviously, the sinister potential of that, alongside with the way in which it could contribute something of value. And I wanted to explore both aspects of that, in writing about it.
NNAMDII can tell you, when I hear people or overhear people talk about experiences that I lived through in the 1960s and early 1970s, sometimes I want to scream at them: "That's absolutely wrong. You've got it all wrong." (laugh)
EVANS(laugh) We can deputize you. You can be an honorary (unintelligible).
NNAMDII think so. A bureaucratic office dedicated to enforcing historical accuracy and truth, the opposite of the government mission set out in George Orwell's classic "1984," yet still, somehow, a deeply flawed premise. Can you explain the complications that ensue?
EVANSYeah. Well, I think, you know, the main characters that work at the agency that the novella focuses on are these two women who have taken somewhat different approaches to trying to make the institution work for them, and both kind of suffered for it, right. You don't want to be necessarily the reasonable person in an institution, because then you end up sort of echoing or replicating whatever problems that institution has. And you don't want to be the unreasonable person in the institution, because then you don't last very long. (laugh) And I think that's the situation that they're up against.
EVANSAnd part of what I wanted to think about was what it means to want to work for the public good. You know, I mean, I grew up in D.C. I was raised by civil servants and around civil servants, and I'm deeply moved by the way that people sometimes choose public sector work because they believe in the possibilities of government. Because they believe, you know -- beyond any particular administration -- in, like, the long term work of what it means to have an infrastructure.
EVANSI also understand that that relationship is often very fraught. That most of our institutions have, at various points, failed or turned on the people who need them the most. That especially, I think, for black people in this country, the desegregation of the public sector before the desegregation of the private sector have made those job sources of stability and pride and community and also sometimes made people the face or the agent of a force of power that was not necessarily doing good in their community or giving them the power they actually wanted to be helpful.
EVANSSo, I was interested in that sort of fraught relationship that public servants sometimes have with their institutions, especially the black public servants sometimes have with institutions.
NNAMDIDanielle, do you have a favorite story in this collection?
EVANSYou know, one of the joys of being a short story writer is that you get to be fickle. (laugh) So, there are stories that I appreciate because they came very quickly or -- but I also think you have a long relationship with a short story, most of the time. That even if you write a first draft very quickly that -- the reason it takes me 10 years between books, but then you put it aside and you sort of look at it and you ask new questions.
EVANSAnd so, I don't know. I feel like each of these stories in this book is something that I have a long-term relationship with. And it is both a mark of the writer I was when I wrote it the first time and the writer I was when I revised the story. Two of the stories are kind of slightly more public lives, because they were anthologized in "Best American Short Stories," so I've had a chance to talk to people about those for years.
EVANSAnd so those stories I didn't do much to revise when I put in the collection. The stories that I felt like I had more of a rethinking when I put them in the book were maybe "Happily Ever After," which is the first story in the book, which had started as an essay, and then I couldn't write the essay at the time that I had to write the story. And so, I moved into this completely fictional rendition of a woman who lost her mother. But I felt like when I went back to the story, it was missing some of the things that should've gone in that essay. It was missing some of the sort of honest reckoning with loss, with death that needed to get on the page. And so that revision was hard, but I'm proud of it.
EVANSI think -- there's another story in this collection called "Alcatraz," which is the only story I've ever written that I gave anyone veto power over. Usually, you know, part of being a writer is you tell your family, like, it's not about you. Nothing's about you. Don't ever ask me. (laugh) And that's sort of the negotiation you have to have a public life as a writer and a fiction writer, because you usually are making things up.
EVANSBut there was enough actual family history in that story -- although it's still, you know, very much a work of fiction -- that I did ask my mother if she was okay with it being published. And that was 10 years ago. And she was happy to have it published then. But 10 years ago, I was a different writer. And so, part of the work of this book was, how do I revise the story to feel like it's in conversation with the work I'm doing now, to feel like it's in the voice that I write with now, and also preserve that part of the story that I made a promise about.
EVANSAnd so, it was a kind of difficult revision because what I did was -- there was also a retrospective narration, and I tried to expand that retrospective and introspective voice around the sort of center of the stories, so that I could preserve what was there and also build out. So, I was proud of being able to accomplish that. But, you know, I think each of these stories is its own process for me.
NNAMDIIt's my understanding that you have chosen a passage to read for us.
EVANSYes. I'm going to read to you from in the first story in the book, "Happily Ever After." And I'm just going to read actually the very beginning, the first two paragraphs.
EVANSWhen Lissa was seven, her mother took her to see the movie where the mermaid wants legs. And when it ended, Lissa shook her head and squinted at the prince and said, "Why would she leave her family for that?" Which, for years, contributed to the prevailing belief that she was sentimental or softhearted, when, in fact, she just knew a bad trade when she saw one: the whole ocean for one man.
EVANSNot that she knew much about the ocean. Lissa had been born in a landlocked state, and at 30, it seemed the closest she might get to the sea was her job working the gift shop in the lobby of the Titanic. It was not a metaphor. It was an actual replica of the Titanic with a mini museum on the lower level. The most of their business came from weddings and children's birthday parties hosted on the upper decks.
EVANSThe ship-shaped building was a creation of the late '90s, the pet project of an enterprising educational capitalist who wanted to build an attraction both rigorous in his attention to historical detail and visually stunning. To preserve history, he said to the public, to capitalize off of renewed interest in a disaster, he said to his investors. He had planned to build to scale, but that plan hadn't survived initial cost estimates. They'd only ever had a quarter of the passenger rooms the actual Titanic had, and most of those rooms were now unfurnished and used as storage closets, their custom bed frames sold secondhand during the last recession.
NNAMDIThat was Danielle Evans reading from her collection "The Office of Historical Corrections," the specific story, "Happily Ever After." Why did you choose that particular passage?
EVANSYou know, I think -- well, I think it's always easier to start at beginnings. Sometimes if you start in the middle of a short story, it's hard to get your bearings. But I also think that the reason the book starts with this story is because it's the story that I think contains the most threads that come up again, that often I think of a short story collection as a kind of collection of recurring questions, where you get to see your writer answer those questions in different ways.
EVANSAnd I think sometimes because the first story has to introduce the book, it's useful to have as many of the questions that you circle back to, even though every story doesn't ask the exact same set of questions. I think all the questions that come again in the book come up somewhere in the story. So, we have this sort of strange historical object, which actually does really exist. There are two different large replicas of the Titanic where you can have weddings or children's birthday parties, which is sort of terrifying and also endearing.
EVANSSo, partly, we have this sort of strange relationship to history and how we fantasize it and tell stories about it. We have this question of grief with her mother being introduced early on. We haven't quite gotten to the parts of the stories that are about experiencing both personal and structural racism, but they come up. And this sort of general question about, what does it mean to try to believe in the future in the face of all of these personal and larger scale losses? And so that story always feels like the right place to start for me to introduce the book to people.
NNAMDIHere now is Susan in Vienna, Virginia. Susan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SUSANHi. I can't wait to read your writing. I've been trying to get into the Johns Hopkins program for a long, long time. And I'm glad to know that you're there. I'm going to read what you've got. The reason I'm calling is, I'm wondering how to write about these types of traumas. We lost our only child. I've had a lot of marginalization in my life, but I'm a white, upper-class -- upper-middle-class woman.
SUSANAnd I'm just wondering if there's a way for me to write about these things without sounding like a whiny, wealthy woman. Do you know what I'm saying? Like, is there a space for me to be able to write about the traumas that have happened and continue to happen as a woman, even though I've got a lot of privilege in my life?
EVANSYeah, I'm so sorry for your loss. And, yes, I mean, I don't think that there's any monopoly on trauma or any kind of point at which will have, you know, say, well, these are all the stories that we can tell about the way that people are harmed. I do think, you know, there's a complicated -- I have a complicated relationship to the question of empathy in fiction these days. But I do think one of the benefits of fiction is to let us into people's lives and let us into the things we ordinarily wouldn't see or assume about people. And so, I think there's certainly room for storytelling.
EVANSI think one of the things that's happening right now in the industry of publishing and the larger conversations about publishing is that we are getting better about locating people in their particular cultural situation or background. It doesn't mean that they can't tell stories. It means that maybe we're starting to read the work of white writers the way that we've always read the work of writers of color, right, where we sort of attach an identity to them and say, oh, this is a person who's coming from this particular experience.
EVANSAnd I don't think that's a problem, right. I think we're all coming from a particular experience. And it doesn't mean that we don't have something valuable to contribute. It just means that it's useful to pay attention to what community's actually being represented on the page and to discuss something in its actual cultural context.
EVANSAnd so, I think there's still certainly plenty of room for writers who might feel like they have privileged backgrounds to tell stories. And certainly, I mean, you can see, sort of, in the world of publishing, that that's obviously the case just in the books being published. And I don't think that there's any reason that anyone ever has to pretend that they're not suffering. I mean, we're all suffering and, I think, being able to be honest about the actual traumatic experience that is personal to you is something that you always have access to. It's, I think, a more fraught question of whether you have access to other people's traumas.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Susan. You got to sit at that keyboard and start tapping away. That's how it all starts. But thank you very much for your call, and good luck to you. Danielle Evans, thank you so much for joining us.
EVANSThank you so much for having me. It's a pleasure to talk to you again. Hopefully it won't be 10 years before the next one.
NNAMDII hope not either. Danielle is the author of the story collections "Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self," and most recently, "The Office of Historical Corrections." She currently teaches creative writing at Johns Hopkins University. This segment with author Danielle Evans was produced by Julie Depenbrock. And our conversation about the transformation of the former Walter Reed site was produced by Lauren Markoe.
NNAMDITomorrow, The Kojo Nnamdi Show is taking a Thanksgiving break, and you'll be treated to an annual public radio tradition, Turkey Confidential. Friday, we revisit some of our favorite recent Kojo Shows, including a conversation with local filmmaker Merawi Gerima, whose movie "Residue" explores gentrification in D.C. Plus, so many of us have welcomed new members into our families this year. We'll take a look at the pandemic pet adoption craze.
NNAMDIComing up Monday, we'll discuss the challenges international students are facing from dealing with tougher visa regulations with the pandemic. Plus, you may remember the WAMU show Animal House. Veterinarian Gary Weisman is back, joining Kojo for Kids to advise us on caring for our furry, feathered and scaly friends. That all starts at noon, on Monday. Until then, have a safe and restful holiday. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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