Whatever Happened to Kathleen Collins?
by Jon Michaud
For this month’s Book Drop, our head librarian Jon Michaud examines Kathleen Collins’s posthumously published short story collection Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? Michaud discusses Collins’s use of cinematic elements, themes of race, and the parallels between the collection and Kia Corthron’s The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter.
Kathleen Collins’s Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?, a slim collection of posthumously published short stories, was released in paperback by Ecco at the end of 2016. It garnered a handful of significant reviews and a segment on NPR’s Weekend Edition, but didn’t, I think, receive the collective attention it deserved. (No doubt the election also helped draw focus away from this and other worthy books published late last year.) Though Collins’s stories were written almost half a century ago, their themes and subjects still feel urgently relevant today.
Collins, who died in 1988 at the age of 46, would have been all but forgotten were it not for her daughter, Nina, who has been pivotal to the recent flourishing of interest in her mother’s work. Up until a few years ago, Collins was known—if at all—as the director of a legendary but rarely seen film, Losing Ground (1982), one of the first features to be directed by a black woman. In 2015 it was shown at the Film Society of Lincoln Center to widespread praise and sold-out houses. It is now available on DVD from Milestone Films.
The film is revolutionary for reasons that should not be revolutionary. It is the story of an African-American philosophy professor and her unfaithful artist husband. Witty and sensitive, it offers a nuanced, complex portrait of their marriage that runs strongly counter to the standard depictions of black life in American movies.
Losing Ground was shot after Collins had written the stories collected in Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? and they share a lot of common territory. As her daughter recalls, Collins struggled with the difficult balancing act of being a single mom, paying the bills, and pursuing an artistic career. (Earlier in her twenties, Collins had worked with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee writing speeches and registering voters in the South.) It was not an easy life, as Nina recalled in Vogue:
My mother wrote incessantly; multiple creative ventures were always under way, as well as grant applications, project proposals, and constant jottings in her journal. She alternated between being distracted and enraged, often over something my father had done. [Collins’ husband was “mostly out of the picture,” Nina says.]
With the exception of one story and a short play, Collins never published anything in her lifetime, which makes the arrival of this book, so soon after the release of Losing Ground, feel like an unexpected gift.
Discussing the book and film on The New Yorker’s website last year, Richard Brody noted that “Collins endows her stories with a sense of form that is itself cinematic.” The influence of the author’s work in movies and theater is evident on nearly every page, both in the content of the stories and in their style. The first story, “Exteriors," opens with an unaccredited speech that sounds like a director giving instruction to a set designer or lighting technician: “Okay, it’s a sixth floor walk-up, three rooms in the front, bathtub in the kitchen, roaches on the walls, a cubbyhole of john with a stained-glass window.” You can practically see the speaker holding her hands up like a camera frame. Other stagelike commands follow. “Light up that worktable with all those notebooks and papers and stuff.”
“Exteriors” describes, in storyboard fashion, the pantomime of a relationship in that roach-infested apartment, from giddy early romance to break-up. The final passage is devastating. Again, the director is focused on the lighting:
Now take it up on him a little while he watches her coldly, then up on her when she asks him to stay. Nice. Now down a bit while it settles between them and keep it down while he watches her, just watches her, then fade him to black and leave her in the shadow while she looks for the feelings that lit up the room.
“Exteriors” snaps to a close on that final phrase, which joins the metaphorical and literal “light” at the heart of the story, moving from the external to the internal. It is followed immediately by a paired story called “Interiors”—the only story of Collins’s to be published during her lifetime—that is made up of opposing interior monologues, first the (unfaithful) husband’s, then the wife’s.
As the yearning in its title suggests, failed relationships are at the heart of many of the stories in Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? The failure is often the inability to bridge racial or ethnic differences between romantic partners—a mirroring of the personal and the political. The title story is set in 1963, “the year of race-creed-color blindness.” The central character is Cheryl, the daughter of the first “colored” school principal in New Jersey. She was the lone black student in her college class. Her boyfriend Alan is a white freedom rider who has been beaten and jailed. The story, clearly autobiographical, narrates the resistance to the “queer integrated life” they try to fashion for themselves. Both sets of parents oppose it; Cheryl suffers from manic depression because of their pressure; and Alan, returning to New York from a Mississippi jail cell, capitulates to it as well. “He had just come from his parents’ house. He knew now that he could not marry her.” The distance between the characters’ lofty goals and the reality of their lives gives the story its grim power.
While reading Collins’s book, I thought often of Kia Corthron’s novel, The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter, which won the Center’s First Novel Prize last year. Corthron’s book is an epic about race relations in the United States, spanning much of the twentieth century, but it is composed of dozens of small scenes that bear the hallmark of her work as a playwright and screenwriter. (The plot is usually advanced through dialogue.) Some of those scenes would not be at all out of place in Collins’s book.
About midway through Corthron’s novel, one of her four main characters, Eliot, a young, ambitious African-American lawyer, receives a visit from a potential client whom he initially thinks is white. (This is in 1959.) “You realize this is a Negro law firm?” Eliot says. The man replies, “Don’t I get it from the white an the black. I’m colored! … That’s my curse.” Because he passes for white, he has been able to purchase a home in a white suburb. However, when he and his “brown-skinned” wife and children moved in, they received verbal abuse and then a barrage of stones through the windows, forcing them out. The realtor claims that he was deceived. The “white black man” wants to sue.
The scene doesn’t feel as dated as it should. Both books delve deep into what Collins called “the mythical underbelly of America … where it is soft and prickly, where you may rub your nose against the grainy sands of illusion and come up bleeding.” And both books deserve more readers.
The Book Drop is a monthly column of thoughts, trends, and tidings from the desk of our librarian, Jon Michaud.
Jon Michaud is the author of the novel When Tito Loved Clara, named a best book of 2011 by the Barnes & Noble Review. He was Head Librarian at The New Yorker from 2003 to 2012. Prior to that, he worked in libraries at Time Inc. and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. A regular contributor to The New Yorker’s Page-Turner and Culture Desk blogs, Jon also reviews books for The Washington Post. He lives in Maplewood, New Jersey with his wife and two sons where he is at work on a new novel.
You can find him on twitter @jonmichaud