The Confounding Insistence on Innocence: A Q&A With Danielle Evans

Naomi Jackson
From the November/December 2020 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

The debut story collection by Danielle Evans, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, was published in 2010, when the author was just twenty-six years old. Rightly heralded as a significant new voice in American short fiction, Evans was selected a year later as a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree. Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self won the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. And although her work has regularly appeared in a number of publications during the intervening years—her credits include the Paris Review and A Public Space, and her writing has been anthologized in the Best American Short Stories series no less than four times—readers have waited a decade for a new book by Evans, a recent National Endowment for the Arts fellow. 

Danielle Evans, author of The Office of Historical Corrections, forthcoming from Riverhead Books in November.  (Credit: Glenford Nuńez)

The wait is over. In November, Riverhead Books will publish her new collection of stories and a novella, The Office of Historical Corrections. Not that Evans, who teaches in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University, is overly concerned with the decade-long gap. “If we’re chasing potentially impossible goals anyway,” she told me, “you chase a book you hope will be read for a long time, not a book that will be finished quickly.”

Evans’s new, gorgeously crafted stories are at once timely and timeless. Roxane Gay writes that with this collection, “Danielle Evans demonstrates, once again, that she is the finest short story writer working today.” The story “Happily Ever After” follows a young woman who finds her life petrified in the wake of her mother’s death. In a moving sequence that will resonate with many Black women in America, Evans describes a character dressing carefully for her mother’s doctor’s appointment because “she had to look like a real person to them, like a person whose mother deserved to live, like someone who loved somebody.” In another story that conjures the #MeToo movement, women respond to the overtures of a seemingly reformed “genius artist” who has wronged them, delivering the ultimate comeuppance. Evans has a wicked sense of humor and is a keen observer of her characters’ exterior and interior lives. When a woman in the book imagines her own mother asking, “Are you a young lady or a cow?” readers are reminded that they are in Evans’s capable hands. 

The novella from which the book takes its title is a moving, surprising tale that addresses rivalry and friendship among Black women, the struggle for meaningful work, the long shadow of racialized violence and white supremacy, and the problems inherent in correcting the historical record. Like the rest of the book, “The Office of Historical Corrections” takes as its subject the gnarly work of coming of age and “adulting” for women in their twenties and thirties; these writings crown Evans as the fictional bard of messy, complicated Black girls and women. Two young Black women find themselves thrown back into each other’s orbit after a lifetime of mostly friendly competition, including attending the same PhD program. Now, under the guise of their new jobs as federal civil servants in an agency charged with correcting factual errors in the American historical record, these frenemies undertake an investigation in Wisconsin that will change them both forever. This intricately plotted novella ends explosively, echoing the ways that racial terror and conversations about racial justice have dominated the American public sphere in the recent past.

Evans and I corresponded via e-mail at the close of summer, discussing the publication of The Office of Historical Corrections, what she calls the current “golden age for Black short story writers,” the ways race functions in the Midwest, and the complexity of reckoning with both historical and contemporary injustices.

I love how gracefully you tackled the novella form, which is underappreciated in American letters, though there are notable exceptions, such as Paule Marshall’s “Merle.” Can you talk about what attracted you to the form and what you learned in the process of writing it? Are there any novellas you recommend?
I confess I came to the novella form accidentally. It is a form I enjoy as a reader—Nella Larsen’s “Quicksand” is an all-time favorite, and there’s a wonderful, structurally inventive novella called “Special Topics in Loneliness Studies” in Rion Amilcar Scott’s latest collection. But I didn’t set out to write a novella. I’d been working on a novel for a long time, and after working on what I thought was a final pass of it, with minor revisions, I realized it still had what I thought were two unsolvable problems. One was about timing—it was set in an alternate past that increasingly felt like a trap that made it hard to say anything about the present—and the other was that the central plot was about a progressive historian who couldn’t finish a history book. It took me years to realize why other people didn’t find a writer who couldn’t finish a book to be quite as compelling a crisis as I did. In the meantime I had written and published a number of short stories, all of them the kind of work that got written because it announced itself urgently and demanded to be done. I also had an idea for what I thought was a totally unrelated novel project, about a former historian who worked for an agency that corrected the record of the past and got pulled into a mystery. I know it seems ridiculous that I thought this was a wholly unrelated project, but I often say being a writer is like being the world’s worst therapist and having yourself as a patient—constantly being astounded by your own predictable motivations.

So I told my editor I would go write for a bit and bring her back whatever felt finished first—the collection, with whatever last story it would need to be completed, or this new novel. When I started writing the “new” novel, I quickly realized three things: (1) It was in many ways the same project I’d been working on, with the core problem of the active plot solved, (2) my original outline had more twists and turns than the story actually required, some of which seemed to be slowing the narrative down just for the sake of making it slower, and my story writer instincts wanted to compress it, and (3) the novella was, though more literal in its consideration of history and records than most of the work in the book, very much in conversation with the stories I’d already written. Knowing this project could fit in the collection as a novella gave me the confidence to just give the story as much room as I thought it needed and no more than that.

The protagonist in your eponymous novella, “The Office of Historical Corrections,” works as a civil servant for a fictional government agency whose staff is tasked with the difficult and occasionally dangerous task of correcting the U.S. historical record. Were you trying to say anything in particular about America’s reckoning with its history of racialized violence?
One of the book’s epigraphs is from James Baldwin, and though it’s not this quotation, a lot of the recurring questions in the collection come from my obsessive return to his line from The Fire Next Time: “It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.” That confounding insistence on innocence from the very people who have done harm is at the core of a lot of the stories in the book, and so one of the foundational questions of the novella is “What would it look like to really try to reckon with that in the U.S.?” And, of course, the answer, as in many of the stories, is “probably incomplete and messy and susceptible to sabotage.”

In 2012 I saw you on a conference panel where you mentioned how refreshing it was to read about Black middle-class experiences in novels by authors like Martha Southgate. Can you talk about how your own work takes up this charge?
I believe you that I said this, but I can’t recall in what context, and I maybe disagree with myself? Not about Martha’s work, which is indeed amazing, but the way that the industry has typically worked, given who does the gatekeeping, means Black writers whose work or characters have greater proximity to whiteness—and, of course, I include myself in this—tend to be more likely to get mainstream success, because they are presenting a version of the world that is recognizable to people making most of the decisions. So I think there’s a lot of writing—much of it beloved to me; my point is not about the writing itself—about upwardly mobile Black characters who are the first ones, or the only ones, in a mostly white setting. One of the anxieties of this book is exactly that—at what point does success mean a level of white endorsement that makes you nervous as a Black person? At what point does the community where you understand yourself as an outsider become your community and what used to feel like home feel like outside? That said, I do find it fascinating to pay attention to what writers of color do with class. I think for Black people in the United States, class boundaries are pretty porous—few of us have enough capital to not have people we’re close to who are struggling; it’s not uncommon to shift class statuses several times in a lifetime, or to be “making it” but one crisis away from poverty. That dynamic comes into the work in interesting ways. I do think some books about upper- or middle-class Black families can be interestingly disorienting for readers whose approach to Black literature—mostly because it’s been taught to them that way—is a kind of “eat your vegetables” idea that Black stories are for learning about the suffering of the downtrodden. I used to teach an African American literature survey course, and when I taught a book like Dorothy West’s The Living Is Easy, which is deeply aware of race and racism but presents a problematic main character and an unflattering picture of Black high society, it was sometimes a much-needed moment of “Oh! There’s a way to read about Black women that isn’t just about being sorry for them!”

The most recent season of the HBO series Insecure sparked a lively debate online and elsewhere about intimacy between Black women and toxicity and detours in long-term friendships. Can you talk about how you thought about this in conceptualizing and writing “The Office of Historical Corrections”?
I confess I don’t watch Insecure, so I don’t know the specifics of the debate. But I do think Black women are often raised in a community where we come to understand we are our own best support and defense, and then enter a world where that still sometimes operates with the sensibility that “there can only be one.” So I wanted to capture both the profound relief of entering a space and finding another Black woman there and also the discomfort of knowing there are times when you’ll be forced into competition, or knowing that when you make different decisions about how to approach something, one of your decisions will always be held against the other person’s, one of you [will be] used as an example of the “right” way to be a Black woman.

Do you think your work is in conversation with Edward P. Jones’s stories about the Black civil servants and Black life in Washington, D.C.? If so, how? Are there other writers whose work feels important to you, both in terms of literary lineage and inspiration and as peers?
I love Edward P. Jones’s work, and I think, like him, I hold a tenderness for the civil servants who make up the day-to-day life of the “federal government,” and an understanding of how central those desegregated, stable jobs were to building a Black middle and working class, alongside the awareness that a small amount of power can be a dangerous thing, and the reality that Black lives can be ignored even by Black civil servants, for whom the job is sometimes not to do what people need. As a child I believed in government and its possibility with a desperate faith that, of all the faiths I grew up with and shed, has been the hardest to shake, although it does feel pretty shaken these days. It is the last pocket of my idealism, and in that way I suspect I part ways with Edward P. Jones. But I am also aware that Jones’s brilliant collections take place in a Black quadrant of a majority Black city, and the D.C. I’m writing about isn’t quite that one, though I’m glad to have his work as a signpost. I’m also happy to be writing in what feels like a golden age for Black short story writers—the story collection is one of my favorite forms, and of course I’d put Jones high on the list of all-time greats, up there for me with Toni Cade Bambara, and then there are so many newer voices. And then I get to be writing alongside Rion Amilcar Scott and Jamel Brinkley and Nafissa Thompson-Spires and Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah and Bryan Washington and Asali Solomon, and I could go on and on, and that abundance is wonderful. I was lucky enough to write the introduction for a second volume of Kathleen Collins’s beautiful posthumously published work, and I’m incredibly excited about a forthcoming collection from a former student of mine, Dantiel W. Moniz. The kaleidoscopic view of a story collection is a great way to see a city, but it’s also a wonderful way to get a cross-section of Black lives from a single writer. And, beyond Black writers, I think the short story is in many ways still in the age of Alice Munro, whose work has such an amazing ability to play with time in a way that demonstrates that a small space can also be capacious. Her stories can seem to wander but inevitably reveal themselves to be perfectly structured.

This collection addresses several timely political and social issues, from the #MeToo movement in “Why Won’t Women Just Say What They Want” to white supremacy in your novella. Can you say more about the importance, perils, and/or rewards of writing contemporary work that takes up political issues?
I was writing this book for ten years, on and off, so a lot of what turned out to be topical was not intended that way. I didn’t, for example, see gentrified Juneteenth coming! It’s something I’ve had to wrestle with a bit—if you’re going to write a story based on real events, you start with the real event, and change things to get someplace new or more interesting. So it can be disorienting when you write a story, and then a similar event happens later or is in the news as the story is being published. I held on to “Boys Go to Jupiter” for years between submissions. It was first written in 2013. When Confederate flags started to come down after the Charleston massacre, I wondered how much longer a story in which a white person claims innocence in regard to the flag could be plausible. A while, it turns out! The story ended up first being published in 2017, the same week as the white supremacist march in Charlottesville to protect Confederate statues. Thinking about how the story could account for that was partly a question of articulating the time frame, so people knew that the characters weren’t responding to specific, more recent events. But it was also about deciding that what I wanted space to think about—the way racism can be invoked as a joke, or a way to express a more generalized anger, but still lead to actual consequences for Black people, the way a white person’s claim of innocence works, the way a story’s point of view can in its very structure reveal a lack of accountability, the way both grief and privilege erase a sense of the passage of time, the way a story can hopefully work to challenge or complicate the spaces where our desire to be empathetic or nuanced bleeds into a dangerously reductive fantasy of “both sides have a point”—all of that seemed as relevant as ever and not dependent on the particular iconography of the flag.

“Why Won’t Women Just Say What They Want” was one of the only stories that was actually responsive to current events. It was written for a special issue of Barrelhouse. I wanted again to think about how to put pressure on the question of who a story belongs to—the person who may or may not be sorry or the person who got hurt—without completely reducing the story to a question of the artist’s sincerity. What if he’s truly sorry but it doesn’t matter? Or what if it matters profoundly to some of the women and not at all to others?

I hope the recurring questions of the collection are both topical and long-term—how do we balance a desire for a more empathetic world where people are given second chances with a desire to prevent harm and to see people who do harm to vulnerable people actually face consequences? It’s a fundamental question we ask on a personal level but also at the heart of topical structural conversations about what justice or safety looks like. When is it a burden to stay angry, and when is it a burden to forgive? How do we, especially as people with any kind of marginalized identity, confront constantly being asked to forgive people who’ve given no indication that they really understand what they did wrong or believe we deserved better?

Was there anything in particular you were reading or thinking about regarding Black women’s and girls’ lives and subjectivity as you were writing these characters, many of whom are deeply flawed and struggle to make their humanity legible both to the men who they are trying to love and to the white people they encounter?
I mean, I think I am always reading and thinking about this in one way or another. Maybe the ongoing conundrum is that any time you have to plead for or audition for your humanity, you’ve already lost, but so much, structurally and emotionally, compels us to try. And also that it’s harder sometimes to calibrate yourself as a person when, on the whole, other people’s ideas about the boundaries/expectations/pleasures that it’s reasonable for you to have are wildly off.

I appreciated the way that your novella undertakes an examination of how racism and racist terror function in the Midwest. Can you speak more to this, especially in light of recent events, especially the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota and the shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin?
At some point I started to get nervous about how many of these stories were set in the Midwest, and then I realized that, although I am now back on the East Coast, which feels like my natural habitat, I spent about a third of my life in the Midwest. There are many things to love about it and many ways to differentiate locations within the broader region. But there is something sinister about that cheerful claim to innocence, or kindness, or civility, that parts of this country get. I mean, I live in Baltimore, which had the country’s first residential segregation ordinance, in Maryland, the first state to make laws restricting interracial marriage, where even in a majority Black city severe disparities persist. Racial inequality isn’t a regional issue. But I think you have to look at the population of some of the places that get summed up as “the heart of the country” and ask, “What’s making them so inhospitable?”

When I lived in Wisconsin, I went on a tour of the state through the university. It’s a physically beautiful state. On the second to last day, after seeing these amazing scenic locales, we went to a juvenile detention facility that has since been shut down for abuse, and I realized it was the most Black people I’d seen in one place since I moved there. The main building—I could not make this up—was named after Harriet Tubman. All of the “dorms” were named after Black or Native cultural figures. There was a “celebrate diversity” mural on the wall, in the children’s prison of an overwhelmingly white state with some of the worst criminal justice disparities in the country. I walked out and said to my friend, one of the only other Black women on the tour, “Just look in there,” and she said, “I see it too. You’re not crazy.”

So I found the particular conflation of regular U.S. racism and the passive aggression of “Wisconsin/Minnesota Nice” to be uniquely disorienting. Years ago I lived in Missouri—which I realize is controversial in terms of what region it gets assigned—in a city where the main park square had a plaque acknowledging the victims of a lynching that drove most of the remaining Black population out of the city in 1906. I used to avoid that park, even though I would rather a memorial be there than not. I tried to articulate why it felt so sinister to me, and part of it was, I think, it was a memorial to an act of violence that underscored the ways that the threat never entirely went away. There were still so few Black people in that city, mostly congregated in a tiny neighborhood literally on the other side of the tracks. So the memorial went up, but the thing in the space that felt toxic or hostile maybe hadn’t gone away. Geographic exclusions are rarely innocent. Civility, or “niceness,” can be a way of justifying failing to protect people. So of course that has an impact on the people watching those failures in action for generations, and watching those failures cost people their lives.

I deeply respect that you took a decade between your first and second books. It was certainly worth the wait. What encouragement would you offer to writers about continuing to work on projects over long swaths of time?
Thank you. The reassurance I gave myself at least was that I read books all the time that I wish the writer had sat with a little bit longer, but I have never once read a book of fiction and thought, “This is a good book, but it would have been great if I had read it last year.” If we’re chasing potentially impossible goals anyway, you chase a book you hope will be read for a long time, not a book that will be finished quickly.

That said, it didn’t fully take ten years to write a second book—some of those years I was dealing with my human life, with the loss of my mother and the years I was back and forth with her between doctors and hospitals, with being despondent about personal and national events. In order to write anything, I had to get to a place where I felt like if I never wrote another word I was still loved and valued as a human and could find a way to exist in the world. Only after that could I see clearly what was already on the page. 


Naomi Jackson is author of the novel The Star Side of Bird Hill (Penguin Press, 2015). She lives in New York City and is an assistant professor of English at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey.