Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self by Danielle Evans
Riverhead Books, September 2010
I first saw Evans at an AWP conference a few years ago and loved the way she spoke. When I heard the title of her book, I knew I had to read her writing. “Before you suffocate your own fool self” is a quote from Donna Kate Rushin’s “The Bridge Poem.” The poem suggests a speaker who must remind someone to not be foolish, to take a deep breath and not let the worst version kill the best versions of him/herself.
Looking at Evans’s stories, I can surmise why she chose this quote and title. The characters often find themselves in some sort of trouble, but never the same kind of trouble, whether it’s being honest about being a virgin pretending/wanting to handle grown-up relations, like Erica in the story “Virgins,” or Tara nearly dying the summer she lives with her white grandmother and her cousin in “Snakes.”
You might be wondering why I pointed out the grandmother is white. The characters in Suffocate are, more often than not, black. Evans doesn’t come out and say this; instead she leaves room for the readers to figure it out, which doesn’t take long if the character is younger, around teen aged. For instance, in “Virgins,” when Erica, Michael, and Jasmine are at the pool, Jasmine is quick to harass Michael for wearing sunblock: “Sunscreen…is some white-people shit. That’s them white girls you’ve been hanging out with, got you wearing sunscreen. Black people don’t burn.” Erica the narrator reassures us in that Michael is lighter than Jasmine, and that she is lighter than Michael, but that really all three of them burn in the sun. Evans goes on to make references to the differences between black and white adolescents, comparing their hair (“Snakes”), examining the race of the students and the amount money their public school has (“Robert E. Lee is Dead”), and even the value of the eggs of white versus black college women (“Harvest”). I appreciated Evans’s ability to weave race into her stories without having it be the entire focus of characters’ lives. After all, if readers are led to believe people are nothing more than their race, rather than their race being a part of their identity, the author would be doing a disservice.
The non-teenage characters don’t come right out and talk about race, which creates a sort of washing away of stereotypes: there are no thugs, baby mamas, or big mamas who beat sense into her grandchildren, images we’ve all seen on movies and television. These characters are nuanced. They go to school, have sex, make friends, consider their economic options, struggle with their parents. In “The King of a Vast Empire,” Liddie, her brother Terrence, and their parents were in a car accident years ago. Now, Liddie guilts her parents whenever she wants something, or doesn’t want to do something, by casually flashing the large scar on her forehead. They all must remember how she didn’t speak for years after the accident, that she is not permanent, and, therefore, should have her way — even if she wants to be an elephant trainer after having gone to college for some time.
Evans’s prose has depth and variety, switching points of view from first to third, using male and female narrators, and looking through the eyes of different age groups (children, teens, college students, adults). The stories don’t feel like the same subject hashed out over and over again, like some story collections, which leaves me bored. Her collection will keep you entertained and interested.
Procurement: My sweet ma gave me birthday money, so I bought this book on Amazon