Thursday, December 29, 2016

Book Review - Whatever Happened to Interracial Love by Kathleen Collins

Born in 1942, Kathleen Collins was a groundbreaking filmmaker, artist, and writer - part of the generation of African Americans, many of whom were "the first" in their respective fields.  Her 1982 film Losing Ground was the first feature-length film directed by an African American woman.  When she died from cancer in 1988, she left most of her documents and other paraphernalia to her daughter Nina.  After years of reconciling and eventually pouring over this cache, Nina began working to get her mother's works reissued, published, or otherwise sent out into the world.  One example of this effort is the short story collection Whatever Happened to Interracial Love.

The collection is composed of 16 stories of varying lengths, from as short as 4 pages to as long as 26 pages.  In the story "When All Love Withers All of Life Cries", the narrator of the story comments that, "the words are only icing; you keep going past the words you got nothing but surprises" (pg. 98), and this quote neatly sums up my feelings.  No matter the length of the story, I was equally engaged, moved, and satisfied.  This is quite a feat, considering that about half of the stories were 10 pages long or less.  The ways that the author illustrates her characters and her scenes had a lot to do with this.  Because of her background in film, she is able to masterfully "show" a scene without doing too much "telling".  The writing is clear and vivid, but without a trace of extraneous language.  This collection is constructed with an economy of words, and a wealth of emotion.

There are many themes in Whatever Happened to Interracial Love, and many of them reappear in multiple stories, but in different ways.  Some of the more prominent themes are gender roles, racial identity, socioeconomic class, beauty standards, romantic/family relationships, artistic endeavors, friendships, and social justice.  I was reminded of John Lewis' graphic memoir trilogy March, because some of Collins' characters travel from their relatively comfortable homes in the North (often  the metro New Jersey/New York area) to help with voter registration efforts for African Americans in the South; these characters often suffering or bearing witness to the violence against such efforts.

One of the most important points to take away from this collection is the lack of white gaze.  The narrators of the stories are all non-white, most being African American.  Even in modern literature, it's difficult to find examples of works that don't contain some degree of white gaze.  Kathleen Collins stares down this white gaze, thereby giving African Americans and others the agency and authority to tell their own stories.

Containing a range of setting, characters, stories, lengths, and themes - I found Whatever Happened to Interracial Love to be a completely satisfying reading experience.  I was wholly engaged throughout each and every story, which is a difficult feat in and of itself.  Considering the stories were written decades ago, the themes are just as relevant in today's society as they were at the time of their inception.  Overall, I was thoroughly impressed with Whatever Happened to Interracial Love, and hope that there are many more works from Kathleen Collins to come.  I will read anything that she has written.

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