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In her debut book Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, Danielle Evans explores themes like youth, family, relationships, and—most prominently—race in her collection of eight short stories. The Northern Virginia native returned to the area last year after being away for the better part of ten years—first in New York City for college, then the Midwest for grad school and teaching gigs. After a year teaching at Missouri State University in Springfield, she decided she was ready to return to the land of her youth, and she’s been a faculty member at American University since 2009.
Most of Evans’ stories take place along the I-95 corridor, including a few in Northern Virginia. Her last story, “Robert E. Lee is Dead,” centers on a black girl attending a segregated high school named for Robert E. Lee in an indeterminate part of the South. I asked her about the troubling notion of public spaces like high schools taking their names for Confederate figures. “It’s problematic and strange,” she says. “Large Muslim and Ethiopian communities are situated on streets that are named after Confederate generals.”
She also has some personal experience with the phenomenon—she attended J.E.B. Stuart High School in Bailey’s Crossroads, named for a Confederate general. “J.E.B. Stuart IV came to speak while I was in school,” she says. “He was an accountant or something, but I remember think it was kind of surreal.” Ultimately, she thinks the country’s reverential attitude toward the past is damaging. “This fixation on the past has actual consequences about the way we talk about the present,” she says. “There’s this weird vitriolic brand of patriotism now about this mythological version of America that has nothing to do with the actual America.”
Evans’ exploration of race in her book is informed by the fact that her family moved every couple years while she was growing up. There were frequently times when she was the only black person in her environment, which made her more aware of being black. “I think what comes through in the collection is the way that racial identity can feel really varied,” she says. “I don’t think of there being a single identity. I’ve had lots of exposure to different kinds of blackness.” She notes that the differences of being black in the South and black in the North are primarily superficially: “I think there’s a way the vocabulary shifts, but the experience really doesn’t,” she says.
In her efforts to adapt to frequently changing environments as a child, Evans’ main tool for fitting in was listening. As a result, she has an incredible voice—it’s accessible and familiar but still fresh. “Every writer has different things they get lucky with,” she says. “I think I was fortunate to have a pretty decent ear for dialogue.” Most of her stories in Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self are first person, but she says that she also employs a more formal, third person voice. She didn’t think they meshed with this collection, in which she says she’s “letting characters who don’t often get to tell their own stories tell them.”
Despite her ease with dialogue, Evans says there are still aspects of her writing she struggles with. She says she that her short stories tend to be on the long side, and that she works to keep her writing from being repetitive. She’s a judicious editor of her own work: “You have to be prepared to throw out more work than you keep,” she says. “It doesn’t feel good, but you have to be able to view your work with a critical eye. Most writers I know usually don’t feel that great about their work. If you have so much ego that you think everything you do is great, you probably need a lot more life experience.”
Perhaps because of this critical attitude, Evans says the trepidation factor never really goes away as she’s about to embark on a story, no matter how well-outlined it is. “It’s always nerve-wracking, putting a pen to paper,” she says. “If you’re not afraid of something, you’re not risking anything, and if you’re not risking anything, it’s probably not very interesting.”
Danielle Evans appears tonight at Barnes & Noble Bethesda, 4801 N. Bethesda Ave. (301) 986-1761.
Photo: Nina Subin