Twenty-eight years after her death, Kathleen Collins’s debut collection begins with a breathtaking wisp of a story: the emotional arc of a romance told through instructions for lighting an apartment — the stage set for a couple’s relationship.
“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. . . ”
Fleet and eggshell-delicate, “Exteriors” ushers us into “Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?” — and instantly raises a question that will recur throughout this slender and surprising book: Why have I not heard of Collins before? And another: If she had been born later, or lived longer, would she have broken out?
The answer to the first is partly that Collins, who was 46 when she died of breast cancer in 1988, was a black woman artist at a time when being either black or a woman stacked the deck against you in theater and film, her two principal mediums. It matters, when you’re trying to say something — as Collins was, about men and women, about civil rights and the black bourgeoisie, about skin color and the way we register its gradations — that people are willing to listen.
As for the second question, Collins was gaining steam artistically in the decade before she died. Her 1982 movie, “Losing Ground,” had its New York premiere the following year and was later broadcast on PBS. Meanwhile, her plays made her a two-time finalist for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize for female playwrights: “The Brothers” in 1982-83 (Marsha Norman’s “’Night, Mother” won and Caryl Churchill’s “Top Girls” got a special commendation — not bad company to be in) and “While Older Men Speak” in 1986-87.
But the 16 stories in “Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?” mostly went unpublished during her lifetime, and for years languished in a steamer trunk, until her daughter took them out and read them. It would be interesting to know when Collins wrote them, especially pieces like the powerfully sardonic title story, a quietly angry, perfectly pitched look back at 1963 as it plays out in the Manhattan apartment of two heedlessly idealistic young women: Cheryl, privileged and black, who fell for a white freedom rider when she went south to register voters, and Charlotte, a white community organizer in love with a black poet.
Cheryl’s father “does not seem to understand that this young colored woman he has spawned does not, herself, believe in color: that to her the young freedom rider of her dreams is colorless (as indeed he is), that their feelings begin where color ends (as indeed they must) . . . race is part of the past. Can’t he see that love is color-free?”
Nothing, of course, is truly color-free for Cheryl or any of the other characters who are autobiography cloaked in fiction. There is always a sense, not unpleasant, of the author glimpsed faintly just behind them.
“I don’t mean to go on like this,” the cultured narrator says in “Stepping Back,” a swift and piercing satire, “but when people say to me, ‘You don’t know yourself to be colored! Don’t you ever remember that you’re black?’ it makes me pause. I turn to my journal and devote pages to reminding myself that I am a colored lady.”
Not every piece is equally accomplished, and “The Happy Family” is an outright dud — though even then Collins’s point is interesting: She has chosen a mannered white man for her narrator, knowing that he will tell the story wrong.
Collins doesn’t go in for pyrotechnics. There is almost a politeness to her prose, even as she traces themes like love and ambition, dignity and snobbery, and the stubborn boundaries meant to keep people apart — as in “Dead Memories . . . Dead Dreams,” the story of a girl whose light-skinned mother displeased her family by marrying a darker-skinned man from a lower social class. Intraracial love has its troubles, too.
But the most potent story here may be “Documentary Style.” Collins was also a film editor, and this story is set in that world, where a young black cameraman takes a job with a black-owned production company. He’s cocky and an underdog, and we root for him until he encounters an assistant editor, a light-skinned black woman: “I had a thing against light-skinned chicks.” He refuses to work with her — needs, it seems, to crush her.
This is what Collins was up against. This is what might have gotten better — if she had lived.
WHATEVER HAPPENED TO INTERRACIAL LOVE?
By Kathleen Collins
Ecco, 175 pp., paperback, $19.99.