On a fall evening in the early dark, a woman is reading her stories aloud and talking about her act writing. She looks at broad currents in contemporary society with a clear analytical eye and lifts up the people caught in them with compassion. She writes with a confident humor and deep sadness.
Nationally awardwinning fiction writer Danielle Evans is holding a virtual conversation at Edith Wharton’s home at the Mount. She is talking with Heidi Pitlor, editor of Best American Short Stories, about Evans’ newest collection, The Office of Historical Corrections.
In the title novella, two women are looking for the truth of a memorial in Cherry Mill, Wisconsin. Cassie, the narrator, meets Genevieve, a woman she has known from childhood, over a bronze historical marker.
‘How do you fix something that’s already happened? What do you do with an apology or a desire for a more empathetic world?’ — Danielle Evans
They are looking for a man who met violence and may have died on this ground. In 1937, Josiah Wynslow had left Milwaukee to buy a print shop here. A few months later, Cassie says in a tone of irony over steel, “a group of concerned citizens came in the night and set the place on fire.”
He had been the only Black man living in town.
More than 80 years later, Cassie and Genevieve have come to learn and tell the truth about the past, and about the present, in the parking lot of a red brick candy store selling brandy fudge, and it is a life-or-death choice.
Cassie has come as a government researcher for the Institute for Public History — the name Office of Historical Corrections is a kind of in-joke, “the imaginary shadow entity on which we blamed all mis-steps and bad publicity.”
And in her story Evans explores the complex lives and the courage of the women who face the choice and the danger.
“A lot of the book wrestling with a shadow self, a version of you that’s messed up,” Evans said. “… How do you fix something that’s already happened? What do you do with an apology or a desire for a more empathetic world?”
Courage in hard times
These are stories of women surviving day to day in encompassing grief. And like Lyssa, the main character in her opening story, Evans has faced a deep and recent loss in her own life. Her mother died in 2017.
“It shapes the structure of the stories,” she said, “and the movement of day-to-day things you can control when there’s something (huge) you can’t. It’s the emotional core of the story, and there’s nothing to be done about it, so everything happens above and around it. It’s the crisis, and it’s only understood later.”
Her first book, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, she sees as a gathering of coming-of-age stories.
“They have a clear before and after and an active core and emotional core,” she said.
“In this collection, the stories are not about a character making a dramatic choice. Sometimes they are creating drama to distract from trauma.”
So here, In Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain, Rena, a photojournalist, comes to the wedding of a man she met long ago when she was returning from a freelance assignment in Burkina Faso. And in the course of that weekend, the story reveals that she has lost her sister.
“The story not really about the wedding,” Evans said. “It’s about this grief she’s carrying, and her real grief intersects the rest of the story.”
Rena has gotten through the years since then with a kind of intentional mobility.
“She had built the kind of life that belonged to her and her alone,” she explains in the story, “one she could pick up and take with her as needed …”
“To some it feels like freedom, and to some like trauma,” Evans said.
Rena has negotiated her own kind of independence, she said, feeling a tension between what it would mean to have space to be a full person, as a black woman, to center her desires, and what it would mean to have the freedom to build relationships that ground her.
She chooses a moveable independence because too often the people around her don’t think it’s reasonable for her to have pleasure.
“The alternative feels so reductive that it isn’t a choice,” Evans said.
Rena cannot imagine a loving romantic relationship in which she’s fully valued.
“She has a lot of control,” Evans said, “but not a lot of community. Dori (the bride-to-be) has made different choices, and they are also fraught. … They are both more complicated than the choices they’ve made allow them to be.”
They come together almost by chance in a weekend that begins with Noah’s Ark and ends in a water slide. And they find, at least for one taut afternoon, a moment of shared honesty and a kind of release, a kind of elation.
“When they’re at the water park,” Evans said, “there’s a lot of joy.”
She laughed and then sobered.
“You can see the collection as bleak at a personal and national (level),” she said.
She sees a relationship between hope and joy, she said. They’re inverse. But they are also connected. She thought of the experience of caring for someone in a long illness.
“There are a lot of hard days,” she said. “You try a new thing, and it may hurt. The possibility of a new treatment is wonderful and exhausting. There are days when there isn’t hope, when they’ve found there’s nothing they can do, but I have time with my mother, and we’ll do something together, and it doesn’t matter (if it’s silly, or if it’s not good for you). We’ve had a lot of hard years, and it can feel like we’ve already lost, and we can’t save the world. And there are days when you’re exhausted but hopeful.”
Revealing the past and present
Her characters can show a care and exertion in daily acts, as Cassie chooses her costumes for teaching with intense awareness of her classes’ responses. And the awareness heightens as Lyssa prepares to come to the hospital with her mother, dressing like a person who won’t be treated badly, so the doctors will tell her what she needs to know about her mother’s mortal illness.
These women move through the world with a consciousness of how the world will respond to them, Evans said — a double consciousness, as she echoes the phrase W.E.B. DuBois puts forward in Souls of Black Folk: “this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”
Against those hostile eyes, Evans’ characters measure what it means to tell the truth, and how high the stakes can be.
In the title story, the novella, Cassie and Genevieve come together as part of a national network of fact-checkers, a group originally created as “a friendly citizen army making the truth so accessible and appealing it could not be ignored.”
They have known each other since childhood, and they converge in the story at a time when they have felt their lives shaken. They contrast with each other and with their younger selves, Evans said. And they are wrestling with the ways they live in or with an institution that is not adapted to them.
Cassie has come to work for the institute, for a new initiative to fund public historians, out of an urgent belief in the work — “a belief that the truth was our last, best hope.”
Now she is caught between the agency’s directives and a truth they do not want investigated.
And Genevieve is fighting for a new job, a secure career foundation and the custody of her daughter. She will have to decide how far she will go to make the truth public, knowing that the danger Josiah Wynslow faced can re-ignite today.
The practice of historical correction becomes a danger and a necessity.
Restoring lost histories
It is also a challenge. Some histories have not been preserved, Evans said. In researching the novella, she found 20 years of microfiche in Milwaukee, and yet a town board might keep meticulous notes for one meeting and then nothing for some time afterward. The local Black newspaper at the time could only publish sporadically. The archives are well kept now, she said, but they were not for a long time. And so there are gaps in the record.
“One (kind of) writer might fill them in,” she said, “but I’m interested in what we fill in without knowing, what we choose to remember. And our external selves. what story we choose to tell about our family and our country, because we don’t have the information or because we are ignoring it, and how we are revealing the version of ourselves that we want to be.
“Where there are gaps in the record,” she said, “sometimes history is there all along and people won’t engage with it.”
Evans considers the people who stand at the center of the story and the tools to amplify their voices.
She sees a power in confrontation, when it’s necessary to engage and tell someone they’re not telling the truth, and a power of silence when it’s necessary to disengage, to say I won’t even interact with this conversation — it’s so far from what it needs to be, what it’s really about.
She has worked on this book on and off for 10 years, she said. Two of the pieces here have appeared in Best American Short Stories, Richard of York and Boys Go to Jupiter. She has often read from them, and professors have often taught them.
“I’ve thought about how people are responding to them,” she said.
Looking at the collection now, she turns thoughtfully to Cecelia in Alcatraz. Here too are two women trying to right a historical record, and Evans said this story is, in part, closely based on family history.
Cecelia is trying to take care of her mother, who has made a lifelong cause of fighting to clear her grandfather’s name. In World War I he had enlisted at 15 and been falsely blamed for a gun misfiring. His grand-daughter has fought for years to set the record straight, and on a sweltering day on the Pacific coast, Cecelia takes a step toward giving her closure.
“Hers is the closest to a narrative that’s sustainable but not a lie,” Evans said. “She separates her own cause from her mother’s. It’s a different battle and smaller victories, and it lets her continue to do the work.”