Earlier this month I made a statement to my virtual bookclub that I do not enjoy short story collections. I often feel a little bit let down that a story always ends right when I am getting into it. I made this broad statement and then a week later I read Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? by Kathleen Collins in less than a day and a half. This collection blew my mind.
I had never heard of Kathleen Collins, but I had seen Simon of Savidge Reads talk about this book on his booktube channel. He raved about the collection, and I saw it and picked it up on a whim. Kathleen Collins is best known for her film Losing Ground, which is one of the first films directed by an African American woman about a black female intellectual. I have not seen the film - but it is certainly on my radar.
I always find it hard to write about short story collections. This is not one of those collections that connects throughout every story. Every story had a message that I bought into, and the style was diverse enough that I always felt challenged. Most of the stories are set in the 1960's during the civil rights movement, or just after portions of it. And even though the time is important, I did not feel that any of the stories were dated. Especially in today's atmosphere, they all packed a punch.
The title story really stands out for its meditation on the idea of an apartment as a microcosm of the world as it becomes interracial. The characters start the story with an idea that integration is going to be simple, and if they just approach the world with this ideal before them it will come into being. However, as the world around them challenges their ideas with violence and anger they struggle to maintain the relationships that they have built in the household. This is most telling in the relationship of Alan, a white man, and Cheryl, a black female, who are engaged to get married. Alan is deeply involved in the civil rights movement and the effort to get more black voters registered in Alabama. However, there comes a time when the world knocks Alan down one too many times - and in the end he gives up on changing the world and his life with Cheryl. This realization is one of the major themes of the book. As Cheryl dealt with this rejection, I sat with the book on my lap truly saddend.
The final story focuses on the internal racism that Kathleen Collins felt was built within the African American community. The story of a girl who's mother is from a community that marries within itself to maintain the light colored skin that they feel gives them an advantage over the darker skinned African Americans. Her mother marries outside this group, and her community never really forgives or stops judging her daughter for the features she gets from her father. As a gay man, I am aware of internalized homophobia. There is a lot of it in my community, so I felt very connected the the feelings of the character as she dealt with racism from her own people. And this is what I loved about this collection - the stories made me consider my life in 2016. That is a powerful writer.
If you are looking for a collection of stories that will challenge you on a number of levels, I highly recommend this book. I am sad to find that I don't think that Collins has any more writing published at this time. However, I am excited to see what she did in her film and how that continues to challenge people, ideas and art.