In “How to Fight,” by Thich Nhat Hanh, the Zen master wrote, “When we cannot communicate, we suffer, and we spill our suffering onto other people.” To open the doors to communication requires a deep listening, and with it, setting aside the impulse toward condemnation. That is where fiction comes in. This form allows both writers and readers to process dangerous emotional responses in a safe and private solitude.
With unflagging honesty and nuance, Johnston evokes the essence of her characters without showing judgment for how they navigate the predicament of being alive. There is no easy redemption here, but these people feel real and capacious and, despite their circumstances, dynamic.
In “What’s Yours and What’s Mine,” readers meet a high-schooler named LeAnn as she swirls in an eddy of trailer park life just after puberty. “LeAnn knew she was hot when her boobs came in,” Johnston writes. LeAnn’s disabled mother unwittingly sets her on the path to sex work with an exhortation: “If you’re going to give it, and believe me, they’re going to want it . . . just make sure that you get yours first.”
Hewing close to her protagonist’s mentality, Johnston narrates what follows — LeAnn dropping out of school while sustaining her family with the profits of self-exploitation — with precision that gathers force. The story’s ending, when it comes, leaves LeAnn in a state of unrecognized devastation.
In a later story, Johnston gives readers the grace of seeing LeAnn again, this time through the eyes of a child placed temporarily in her care. Farther along the path she has chosen but still making mistakes, LeAnn has garnered more wisdom along with the seasoned weariness of someone whose leather vest deems her the property of her partner’s motorcycle gang.
Sometimes the best work comes from small publishers who do not sacrifice voice or reduce risk to increase commercial appeal. “Rites” was published by Jaded Ibis Press, a feminist press focused on works by people of color who engage with social justice as an artistic practice. By depicting survival in the wake of genocide, “Rites” joins a canon of short story collections that includes “From the Hilltop” by Métis memoirist and fiction writer Toni Jensen and “Afterparties” by Cambodian American writer Anthony Veasna So, whose literary legacy outlasted his short life.
The clearest insights in “Rites” come from kids conscripted into supporting adults who do not serve them. In “Joyride,” an 8-year-old daughter of divorce, AJ, chauffeurs her father into a flood zone “out here in the sticks, with the coyotes and the rusted-out oil rigs.” With the hypervigilance of someone who has seen too much, AJ remains alert to the slightest ways she might offend her dad as he drinks peppermint vodka in the passenger seat: “I don’t interrupt when he tells his stories. My silence, too, is a part of the language.”
In the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, where the windows remain shuttered as they were during her years of hiding from Nazi persecution, a video interview of Frank’s father plays on repeat. In his bereavement, Otto Frank forged a deep truth, gleaned from years of reflecting on his daughter’s diary: Children protect their parents from their emotional inner lives, no matter how close the relationship may have seemed.
In most families, adults make the decisions, and children deal with the aftermath. Throughout the stories in “Rites,” we meet people who attempt to defy intergenerational trauma by abandoning themselves to drugs, sex and petty crimes that instead perpetuate the cycle. “We want everything, and we take it. We do it easily, and we do it often. We do it in plain sight. We accumulate things for the sake of having things; each time sates us for a while, but the want creeps like ivy. The things we take are an ointment, and there is no cure.”
It’s hard to wrap up a story collection as beautifully wrought as “Rites.” Dissatisfied by its ending, I delved right back into the beginning, putting myself into a time loop that, with each pass, revealed what it means to be human.
Kristen Millares Young is a prizewinning journalist, essayist and the author of the novel “Subduction,” which won silver Nautilus and Independent Publisher Book Awards.
By Savannah Johnston
Jaded Ibis Press. 174 pp. $17.99