WHATEVER HAPPENED TO INTERRACIAL LOVE?, by Kathleen Collins. Ecco, 175 pp, $15.99 paper.
“Now let’s have a nice soft gel on the young man composing his poems or reading at his worktable. And another soft one for the young woman standing by the stove killing roaches. Okay, now backlight the two of them asleep in the big double bed with that blue-and-white comforter over them. Nice touch.”
That’s from “Exteriors,” the first story in Kathleen Collins’ collection, “Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?” “Exteriors” is a monologue by a film director specifying the lighting, blocking and angles for a relationship falling apart in a sixth-floor walk-up, ending with a fade to black “while she looks for the feelings that lit up the room.”
The next story, “Interiors,” alternates the soliloquies of an unnamed husband and wife who have also fallen out of love, while the third, “The Uncle,” is a traditional first-person story. “I had an uncle who cried himself to sleep. Yes, it’s quite a true story and it ended badly. . . . He was quite handsome. Negro. But a real double for Marlon Brando.”
The tale of this Olympic track star uncle, who made an impression on the narrator when “I was still young enough to be attracted to sorrow,” is the first to introduce the subject of race, a major theme of the book. But it is race in a time capsule, for the collection was completed in the 1970s. The author originally called it “Losing Ground,” then stole the title for her 1982 debut film — the first feature by an African-American woman director. Then, at 46, she died.
The stories were not published nor was the film released during Collins’ lifetime. In fact, the first significant coverage that Collins received in The New York Times was her obituary in 1988, the year she died of breast cancer. It is thanks to her daughter, Nina Lorez Collins, that both works have now come to light — recalling the recent story of writer Lucia Berlin, whose terrific “A Manual for Cleaning Women” was put together by her son and other fans years after her death.
As Elizabeth Alexander puts it in her introduction, one encounters Collins’ “singular, sophisticated black and white bohemians talking their way through complicated lives” with “a start.” They are so vivid and sharply drawn, but they are also so 40 years ago.
The title story is a prime example. The setting is an “apartment on the Upper West Side shared by two interracial roommates. It’s the year of ‘the human being.’ The year of race-creed-color blindness. It’s 1963.” The young women count among their friends and lovers several poets, Freedom Riders, “a young, vital heroin addict,” “another nubile Sarah Lawrence girl,” with their races always parenthetical and in quotation marks — (“white”) and (“negro”) — to show just how provisional such things are.
While various forms of ironic self-consciousness and formal experiment are found in many of the 16 stories, two of the standouts are more traditional. “The Happy Family,” with its Tolstoyan echo, is told by a narrator so in love with the family of the title he is moved to exclaim “I tell you it was marvelous” four times within the story. Only at the end does he confess that perhaps, as a white man, he cannot divine the role that race played in their downfall.
The last story, “Dead Memories . . . Dead Dreams” has a delicious Southern Gothic feel reminiscent of the stories of Ellen Gilchrist, full of chicken salad and jonquils, funeral arrangements and intergenerational crankiness, and a seven letter Scrabble word: REVIVAL. It stands as a tantalizing hint of what this writer could have done if she’d had more time.