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Danielle Evans, an author straddling racial divides
Evans says the title came from this line: "Find another connection to the rest of the world/Find something else to make you legitimate/Find some other way to be political and hip/I will not be the bridge to your womanhood/Your manhood/Your human-ness . . . I'm sick of mediating with your worst self/On behalf of your better selves/I am sick/Of having to remind you/To breathe/Before you suffocate/Your own fool self."
Early on as a writer, Evans says, she was inspired by the poem's idea of "translations" -- of one subset of people explaining themselves to another subset of people, who explain themselves yet again, wondering whether anybody will ever "get" them, wondering why they can't just exist as "human," instead of something else. "A lot of my characters' lives," she says, "are acts of translation."
The poem was confrontational, Evans said. "And I like that because I think I am writing about people who don't often get to tell their stories in their own words. A lot of them do feel marginalized in one way or another."
An adapting transient
Evans's personal story of translation, transience and adaptation started early in life. Her parents -- both lawyers -- separated when she was a toddler, divorcing when she was 7. Evans, an only child, and her mother moved often for better schools or more diverse schools or cheaper places to live, venturing from Southwest Washington to Falls Church to Fairfax before moving back to Falls Church, then to Arlington, then to Cleveland, where her mother was a law professor. Then once again, the pair moved back to Falls Church, then to Burke then to Alexandria.
"Until I was in college, I had never had the same address for longer than two years," she says. "Though we did spend some time in New York and Ohio, the majority of those moves were around the D.C. area, within 20 minutes of each other, so they meant less of a cultural adaptation and more of a personal adaptation."
Each time she went to a new school, she got to be somebody different. "In that sense, I'm a little unlike some of the characters in the book, because I rarely felt displaced by a move. They always felt like opportunities."
Northern Virginia plays a prominent role as a setting in Evans's stories. It is, the author says, a place without much distinction, where some neighborhoods hold concentrations of new immigrants speaking different languages, down the highway from historically black enclaves, which are across the highway from majority-white developments with, as Evans writes, "mammoth brick houses, circling the private beaches built around the man-made lake, where small groups of our classmates gathered for parties on weekends."
"When I was growing up, I used to say that nobody could actually be from Northern Virginia, because it felt to me like a place defined by what it wasn't -- not D.C., not what people think of as Virginia, not quite suburban, not home for most of the people who actually lived there," Evan says.
"In some ways I'm jealous of writers whose work is grounded in place, because mine feels more grounded in transience, which is probably in part due to my sense of Northern Virginia, and to a lesser extent D.C., as a place," she says. Her mother, Dawn Martin, remembers Danielle as a precocious kid who as young as 3 said things that still send chills through her mother. Danielle's language was always precise, her mother says; to some extent, she always seemed to be translating, explaining race even to adults.
"She always said things in a way that was not kidlike," says her mother, standing in an aisle of books in the electric-blue dress she wore for her daughter's reading. Martin, who is biracial and grew up in the Bronx, N.Y., looks across the room at her daughter: "It was like she had been here before."
Danielle was a 4-year-old first-grader, having started school early, and they were living in Fairfax. That year, a boy called Danielle the N-word on the school bus and warned other first-graders that if they sat with Danielle at lunch, he would beat them up. The mother went to school, but nothing was resolved.
That night, Martin was talking with Danielle's father on the telephone. "I was very angry," Martin recalls. "I said, 'This little monster, so and so' -- I said his name, 'I want to go smack him. He is making our child's life miserable.' "