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Rediscovering the stories of Kathleen Collins

FICTION

Whatever Happened To Interracial Love?: Stories

By Kathleen Collins

Ecco paperback original

175 pages, $15.95

“Posthumously published” takes on a whole new meaning with the reading of the late Kathleen Collins’ raw, electric and nuanced story collection, “Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?”
From its provocative title to its 16 spare but percipient narratives, it is a showstopper. What’s more, each of its tales was honed in the ’70s or ’80s but seems even more relevant today as the nation realizes that the band-aids of the Civil Rights era only covered what are still untreated and festering wounds.

“It’s the year of ‘the human being.’ The year of race-creed-color blindness. It’s 1963,” Collins  recalls in her title story. “Idealism came back in style. People got along for a while. Inside the melting pot. Inside the melting pot …”

This is the mantra of “Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?,” the repetition here a theatrical device used naturally by Collins, first recognized as a playwright – but only to a small coterie. In fact, if not for her daughter, Nina Lorez Collins, a 19-year-old college student when her mother died in 1988, Collins may have been forgotten, the 16 stories in this now-precious collection never read.

“Aside from a single story in a now-defunct literary journal and a play in an eighties anthology, my mother’s writing was never published in her lifetime,” Nina Collins writes in a recent Vogue magazine piece. “She was known as a playwright, and as one of the first black women to make a feature film, but only within the small world of black artists and academics.”
When she died at 46, of breast cancer, Nina thought to fill “an old steamer trunk with every scrap of paper I could find among my mother’s things: copies of her many plays, short stories, screenplays, journals, letters; and VHS tapes of her two films, ‘The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy’ and ‘Losing Ground’…”

Decades passed before Nina Collins assessed this treasure trove, first having the films restored and finding a distributor. In 2014, she learned that “Losing Ground” was chosen to open a film festival at Lincoln Center about black independent movies in New York. The critics raved, a New York Times reviewer calling Collins’ film “highly cerebral, thick with abstract and erudite dialogue and also full of charm and sensuality …”Soon after, the literary journal “A Public Space” asked Nina Collins about any unpublished short stories, choosing “Interiors” for 2015 publication. This is the only previously published piece in “Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?” (which is, in turn, part of Ecco’s “The Art of the Story” series featuring “short fiction from some of the world’s most beloved and acclaimed authors, including those who are known for such work and those who typically write in other forms”).

Sadly, there is no mention in the book itself of Nina Collins’ preservation of her mother’s work – and the serendipity by which we are blessed to read it. There is instead a foreword by Elizabeth Alexander, a Thomas E. Donnelley Professor of African American Studies at Yale University, who says in part, “The very existence of this book feels to me like an assurance that while we may think we have done our archival work and unearthed all the treasures of black thinking women, there is always something more to find.”

As for the stories, they are almost all timeless, even when they are assigned an era – as in the title piece set in 1963 and in which activist black youth and (often privileged) white youth come together as one, accepting jail time for protests or simply attending “a rent strike meeting in Harlem, or a fundraising benefit for SNCC, or a voter registration meeting in Newark, New Jersey…”

Collins never proselytizes in this or the other stories, preferring – often with tongue-in-cheek – to ruminate: “The ‘First Coloreds’ in medicine, law, politics, baseball, education, engineering, basketball, biochemical research, the armed services, tennis, and film production will all be asked to come forward and speak about their success. Ralph Bunche will become a household name. Everyone who is anyone will find at least one ‘negro’ to bring along home for dinner. It’s the year of the human being. It’s 1963. Whatever happened to interracial love?”

Only once in her title tale does she approach the political, observing with eloquence, “It is a time that calls forth the most picturesque of metaphors, for we are swimming along in the mythical underbelly of America … there where it is soft and prickly, where you may rub your nose against the grainy sands of illusion and come up bleeding.”

“Interiors,” the story Nina Collins tells us is based on her parents’ breakup, is a brilliant rendering of diverging expectations delivered, with bald candor, in just ten pages. Here the male tells us he is leaving because “I’m moody, damn it, and restless…and life has so many tuneless days…I can’t apologize for loving you so little…” The female (Collins, one of those “black thinking women”) takes to “the reading of memoirs…it was one of my finer moments when I discovered that no human life escapes the tribulation of solitude…other souls had suffered such extremes of separation and abandon, and in their wit and irony and quaint homiletic posturing I momentarily  lifted myself out of myself and onto a plane of spiritual lamentation…”

Collins’ use of ellipsis emphasizes the import of what isn’t said here – another theatrical tack that serves her written work well, particularly in “Of Poets, Galleries, New York Passages,” a story so like a play, it is nearly all dialogue, with all that is not a form of stage direction, as in:

“They were sitting around the dinner table in a huge Soho loft. One of those former machine shops now stripped, windows thrown open to the sun, ingenious rooms carved out of cavernous space, a cozy kitchen with clever cupboards. Something rough, still, in the walls…”

Other stories here include the opening piece, “Exteriors,” a two-page tale told completely in dialogue that is as strong as a sucker punch. My own two favorites are “The Uncle” – about a man so sad that one night “he cried himself to death” – and “Stepping Back” – about a black woman irresistible to a certain man because she had “the kind of savoir faire he believed in so devoutly.”

Class plays a role in several of these stories – as does gender and, of course, race. But it is the depth and humanness of the collection that, despite its paucity of words, pulls the reader in.
“Only Once,” a story of young love, is a prime example: “He rode home with her to New Jersey and she took him into the backyard to look at her father’s roses…to look at her childhood, to look at what pricked and stung and was difficult to forgive. He looked at the house and the yard and her family…and it seemed to her that everything changed. Was forgiven.”

One reads these stories and hears a strong, clear voice that might have stayed in a steamer trunk. For this privilege, we must thank Collins’ daughter, Nina – an accomplished author herself who is currently writing a memoir about her mother.

Karen Brady is a former News columnist and reporter.

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