"Sometimes I felt like we made love inside a vacuum that must have been his loneliness. Sometimes I felt like we were inside his cool, graceful humor. Only once did I feel we broke all the way through to each other."
It's hard to deny the ineffable beauty of art found long after the artist has died. So much of our creative impulse is borne of the realization that we are immaterial, impermanent; our bodies will wither and decay while only our words and images live on. Creating art is our elixir of life, our key to immortality. Even if they are never read, their mere existence, in a world that has grown colder in our absence, constitutes a certain triumph over death. A persistence. A remembering.
Kathleen Collins died from breast cancer at the tender age of 46 years old. She died the year I was born, in the fading twilight of the 1980s. Her death was abrupt: her daughter, Nina, was left to sort through her mother’s writing, the majority of which was unpublished, unseen. This collection of her short stories, Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?, was published just last year, 28 years after her passing.
Each vignette feels like a tiny morsel bitten off from some rich, immense delicacy: laden with meaning, yet nimbly told. The mood, perspectives, and style of dialogue shift from story to story, an ebb and flow not unlike the ocean waves. The collection isn’t disjointed, but it isn’t quite linear, either: there’s a gentle, ordered chaos to the inherent push/pull of the narrative sequence. In “Exteriors”, we witness a couple’s rapid dissolution through an unknown, omniscient narrator's voice; “Interiors” comes straight from the source, chronicling a relationship’s slow, meandering dance to its natural end through the eyes of the participants. There is a palpable distance between lovers in each story, a subtle through-line in which Collins examines the reasons, spoken and unspoken, that men and women fail to recognize and truly connect with each other. She writes these shortcomings as melancholy inevitability rather than surprising misfortune; still, her resignation feels somewhat buoyant. It probably can’t work out, she seems to whisper. But the curve of your lip, the home that you’ve made, the sound of the rain - it will be beautiful nonetheless.
She plunges fearlessly into what it means to be black and female in the 1960s with a frank tenderness that feels daringly anachronistic. There is a college-aged woman whose father despises her natural hair, and who giddily tumbles into an affair with her older French professor, kinks and all. And another woman who longs to fold herself into her partner’s ideal of sophistication and grace, before realizing her identity as a black woman is a hurdle he cannot clear. Collins’ women are self-possessed and self-aware; there is no willful blindness or denial to justify the ways they are being treated - or mistreated. In “When Love Withers All Life Cries,” Miriam cannot fathom her partner Richard’s no-frills, straightforward communication style, and demands:
“Why don’t you give excuses, like you have to work late, like you’re going on location, like you missed me and you’re sorry you can’t come rushing over. Why do you always have to be so fucking blunt?”
The pervasive dysfunction in a partnership, Collins seems to affirm, does not justify accepting mistreatment. Even if an understanding is never found, these women find their own endings, whether we are allowed access to them or not. There is no passiveness to be found here, no tepid pandering to a patriarchal ideal. Quite the contrary: she subverts many typical markers of masculinity with unabashed finesse: a young girl who remembers how it moved her to see her uncle cry, a widower desperate to connect with his silent daughter, a garrulous pot-stirrer who marvels at the fecund radiance of a close female friend. No assumption is safe in Collins’ agile hands; life is not so neatly ordered. The wind howls, the tears spill, then dry; warm bodies crash together and peel apart, inevitable and chaotic as the tide.
Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? Kathleen Collins, HarperCollins, 2016.