By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 7, 2010; C01
On the bottom floor of a Bethesda bookstore, Danielle Evans, the 26-year-old Washington-area author who has been praised by Salman Rushdie and the Paris Review as a literary prodigy, recites her story "Snakes" from her debut collection.
It is the tale of a biracial girl who is sent by her mother one summer to visit her white grandmother. But the grandmother immediately disapproves of her daughter's child with the brown skin and long, curly hair. "If I thought my grandmother would like me better when my mother wasn't around, our reunion quickly disabused me of the thought . . . ," Evans reads.
The grandmother greets the girl, whose name is Tara, with an obligatory kiss, then tentatively touches her hair, which is twisted into tight cornrows.
"Did your mother do this to you?" Evans reads, standing in a black sweater dress in front of a stack of her books. A small crowd spills attentively before her into the aisles.
" 'My hair?'
" . . . 'Mommy can't do my hair,' I said. 'A girl from her school did it for her.'
" 'I swear, even on a different continent, that woman -- When you go upstairs, take them out. You're a perfectly decent-looking child, and for whatever reason your mother sends you looking like a little hoodlum.'
" 'I am wearing pink,' I said, more in my own defense than in my mother's."
The crowd laughs nervously. Evans continues to read. Some attendees will say later that they were astounded by the maturity of Evans's voice as a writer, by the telling of stories of characters who seem so familiar. Depending on who is listening, the characters in the collection -- titled "Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self" -- could be a best friend or that girl down the street, but many of them are "outsiders," says Evans, black or biracial people who are wrestling with race and the legacy of race in a so-called post-racial era.
Often, she says, her characters do not feel they belong in one culture or another. They straddle the divide between white and black. Evans says her stories explore the meaning of race at this particular time in this country when it seems that racial divides should have disappeared. The truth, she believes, is that the lines have just receded to the point that they are harder to see.
"Right now we have a moment with a lot of language about post-racialism and yet a lot of evidence that we are clearly not post-anything," she says, "and there's a lot of room for complication, contradiction and ambiguity, which is good territory for fiction."
After the reading, Evans explains to the crowd that her book was influenced by "The Bridge Poem," written by Donna Kate Rushin. The poet explains in the poem that she is weary of translating the world for one group of people to another, "Sick of being the crazy at your holiday dinners/Sick of being the odd one at your Sunday Brunches/Sick of being the sole Black friend to 34 individual white people."
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.' "
Her mother did not realize it but Danielle had come into the bedroom and heard the telephone conversation. Danielle stopped her mother.
"She said, 'Mommy, so and so is not really a monster. He's just a little boy.'
"I was like, 'Oh, my God, she is so right.' He is just a child. He was three years older than she was. And she is telling me this. And I am the adult. She told me, 'Mommy, I am going to write a puppet show to show' " the boy " 'that he shouldn't be like this and that color doesn't matter.' "
By the time Evans was 5, she was writing stories. In elementary, middle and high school, she continued to deal with being the new kid, and often the only black student in advanced classes. In each school, she says, she deliberately decided what role she would play. Sometimes she was the insider, rolling with the cool crowd. Sometimes she was the outsider, the loner. Sometimes she was neither, just a student straddling lines, much like her characters.
Evans says her ability to adapt and change her public self helped her empathize with a range of people. This gave her critical tools for writing characters, she says, "and the ability to understand how easily life can change completely, which is good for plot."The gifted student
Her story "Robert E. Lee Is Dead," she says, is tied to her experience at a Northern Virginia high school. It's about a "gifted" girl at a fictional Robert E. Lee High who is the only black student in her honors classes. Evans writes about a fictional teacher there who appears to be racist: "I slipped through our school's defacto segregation and she wasn't happy about it," Evans writes. ". . . The magnet elementary and middle schools were the Lake Country School District's last line of defense against the evaporation of its upwardly mobile white people."
The girl in the story struggles with the idea of going to a school named after a Confederate hero. Evans writes: "I'd always thought the whole world was just a bigger version of Lee High School -- a line running down the middle of it and people on either side telling me that I didn't really belong there."
"Robert E. Lee Is Dead" was the first story with which Evans says she felt satisfied. "Though it took many geographic and plot departures from my actual life," she says, "the tensions at the center of the story -- the strangeness of having one of the most diverse communities in the country nestled in this landscape where every other street or school is named after a hero of the Confederacy, the way that immigration creates new history on top of that old history, the way some schools or communities try to use educational tracking and rezoning and reframing, not realizing the world they're trying to avoid . . . is the only world there is anymore -- were very much rooted in the years I went to high school."
The main character in "Robert E. Lee Is Dead" graduates as valedictorian and is heading to a prestigious East Coast college, much like Evans in real life. After high school, Evans went to Columbia University, where she took creative writing classes but majored in anthropology before realizing "I hated footnotes."
She wrote the acclaimed short story "Virgins" her second year of graduate school at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. The idea came to her while at the gym listening to a playlist that seemed to be stuck on R&B and hip-hop from "like 1996," Evans says. She began to think about women and rap and how women are often portrayed in hip-hop and "how do teenage girls navigate that territory" when their only options are to be puritanical or a video vixen.
"I read so many stories about women who make stupid decisions," she says, which provoked her interest in writing about female characters who deliberately made what some people would think were stupid decisions, see what's coming and "don't flinch. . . . I'm always interested in characters that make choices. I'm bored by stories where female characters are flattened by their lack of agency. As a feminist, I'm of course aware that we live in a world where sometimes women have only bad choices to make."
Evans was 23 when "Virgins" was published in the Paris Review. She did not expect this kind of literary success so soon. "I think part of this is a matter of the right people reading the right story at the right time," she says. "You only need one person to fall in love with something and for them to make a big deal about it. "
Critics have called her writing precocious and bold. Amy Hempel chose one of Evans's stories for "New Stories From the South," and Heidi Pitlor and Richard Russo have plucked another for the 2010 collection of the "Best American Short Stories."
Evans, who currently teaches creative writing at American University, is working on a novel she calls "The Empire Has No Clothes," about generations of an interracial family.
The writers who have influenced Evans most include F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Irving and Toni Morrison, who she says write complicated but flawless narratives. She is also drawn to Audre Lorde and Junot Díaz because their work is political, she says, and explains the complications of history and how collective struggle can marginalize "the experience of individual black people, especially women or those who find themselves in one way or another marked as outsiders." She says, "I needed to see that that could be done, before I felt brave enough to try it."The insider, outsider
At the bookstore after her reading, Evans picks up a copy of her collection. On the cover, the words "Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self" are connected by thin, golden loopy thread running off the margins, outside the lines. The stacks of her book are quickly dwindling as people pick up copies. Along with her mother, Evans's father, Walter Evans, is there, standing in a black suit near a back row outside the crowd. He is a quiet man who Evans says has a talent for saying so much in so few words. Evans's extended family of aunts and cousins are lined up in the front row for the reading by the girl who was always moving, inside to outside.
These days, Evans says, she is adapting. "Sometimes I am a writer with a book out, degrees from Columbia and Iowa, a list of fancy publication credentials and a tenure-track job," she says, "which considering how many writers work hard their whole lives to have the opportunity for any of that, let alone all of that, makes me rather clearly an 'insider,' in some circles."
On other days, she says, "I am the only black girl in the room, or the only child who wishes everyone else would respect her space and go away, or the awkward kid who needs the reassurance of knowing she's outgrown it and can make a room adore her. It depends on the room, and the day."