One of my favorite interviews with the late, great Mavis Gallant is enlivened by a generational paradox—the interviewee, a fine writer, seems to believe in very narrow limits of external identity (in whatever form) to define characters and who they are and what they’ll do: characters are individuals. The tension of the interview is that Gallant doesn’t appear to believe that the force of the individual can push back quite so hard. In a story like ‘Grippes and Poche’ Gallant makes people and story out of facts and doesn’t rate consciousness as highly as we’ve come to expect in short fiction. We like our characters as more acting than acted upon—and ultimately that determines more than it should who is allowed to be a character in contemporary fiction.
Line-by-line, I’d compare the rediscovered posthumous collection of Kathleen Collins’ stories more to someone like Leonard Michaels, but in her understanding of character, she is more like Gallant than not, and her stories are full of intractable fact warping experience. The last story in her posthumous collection, ‘Dead Memories… Dead Dreams’ is a clockwork nightmare of colorism within the African-American bourgeoisie… butthe people are not automatons butneither do they escape but neither do they stop being individuals butthat individuality is neither vantage nor panacea.
This is a story of people who don’t jump the tracks. A daughter of a dark-skinned, poor father and a well-off, light-skinned mother, the narrator must watch all of these relatives as stars in their courses. That their certainty is itself a kind of armor against the unspoken, larger prejudices only makes this story (told without a single white character) all the larger.
As writers enamored of consciousness on the page, we too often let our characters think their way to a perspective that sometimes even saves them from their situation, but at least offers them the grace of understanding. We become their deus ex machina by so constantly shortcutting to the moment when they become their own.
So that as the narrator’s father grinds on in his groove, committed to the understanding that he has always had that has never benefitted him, Collins gets at something about how rare the rational actor actually is in the world.
In Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? Ecco, 2016