It’s undeniable that a strong female voice underscores Danielle Evans’ eight-story collection, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self. In “Harvest,” Angel is a student at Columbia who watches white girls sell their eggs to fertility clinics. “Robert E. Lee Is Dead” follows Crystal, who slips through her school’s “de facto segregation” to be the only black student in the honors wing of her high school, much to the chagrin of Mrs. Peterson, the guidance counselor who blames immigrant kids for the school’s dropping test scores.
Many of these women, like Tara in “Snakes,” whose racist grandmother takes exception to her braided hair, are forced to compare themselves to their white counterparts.
Tara to her cousin, Allison, who is given preferential treatment by their grandmother; Angel to her white suitemates, whose genetics, “Columbia credentials be damned,” are more desirable on the fertility market. “If they had wanted brown babies that so obviously didn’t belong to them, they would have just adopted.” This dynamic - this understanding of the self in relation to others - is the source of the collection’s ability to resonate powerfully with its readers and unifies all of Evans’ characters, including the men.
Evans’ few male protagonists show us that identity is inextricably caught up with our relationships - with girlfriends, sisters or daughters - that we define ourselves by how we matter to other people. Take Georgie in “Someone Ought to Tell Her There’s Nowhere to Go.”
He is sent home from Iraq with an honorable discharge after a traumatic experience gives him hallucinations and finds that the people he left behind moved on with life in his absence.
His mother can’t take the whole day off work to greet him and he knew before he left that his ex-girlfriend, Lanae, would have a new partner by the time he got back.
Georgie has to find a way to matter to someone. After offering to baby-sit Lanae’s five-year-old daughter, Esther, he allows her to call him “Daddy” and he needs to believe that “it meant something, the way she didn’t act up with him… the way she’d used to at day care.” It’s not about getting back with Lanae, not really.
Esther gives him a center around which he can re-construct his identity, the way Eva does her father William in “Jellyfish,” who spends hour after hour researching blenders for her in the hope that she’ll “think of him while pureeing soup.”
Though Evans’ characters are for the most part young, smart, black and yes, female, her male characters remind us of the universal need of human beings to believe in their importance to others. Carla, in “Wherever You Go, There You Are,” reflects that “[o]ne minute you have a parent, or a friend, or a lover, something solid, and physics tells you their resistance will always be there to meet you as you press yourself into relief against them.”
Until, of course, they aren’t. It seems that almost every protagonist in this startling collection is pressing themselves into that resistance as a means of establishing identity.
Whether into white girls who seem to have fallen on the knife of their own good fortune, or privileged classmates, or five-year-old girls looking for a father figure, we all need to push against someone who will push back and remind us who we are.
Danielle Evans will be at Union Little Theatre at 3:30 p.m. March 29 for a reading and book signing.