Each Story In Danielle Evans' New Collection Is About Getting To The Truth
NOEL KING, HOST:
Danielle Evans is a fiction writer who tries to keep off of the news. She's way more interested in the past. But some of the stories in her new collection, "The Office Of Historical Corrections," seem like they're taken directly from this summer's headlines, when the U.S. was confronting its history. She told me that her main impulse is to understand the truth.
DANIELLE EVANS: What kind of story are we talking about the country? What have we chosen to believe? And what's the cost or danger or change possible in telling some other version of the story?
KING: "The Office Of Historical Corrections" is both the title of the book and it's a novella that concludes the book. It's a really grabby idea - "The Office Of Historical Corrections" - which you describe as a kind of bureaucracy, a government bureaucracy, a fictional one. But explain what it is.
EVANS: Yeah, it's an agency that is kind of real-time fact-checking. So in theory - and in the book, it sort of starts as this grand idea and then is a kind of small, underfunded government office, as many things go.
EVANS: But in theory, it's supposed to be a kind of public works project for historians so that people are in public and having conversations with the public and also correcting kind of formal, informal signage and landmarks and markers of historical events that are supposed to be there to sort of engage people in a real-time, fact-checking process, which, of course, is both more controversial and less powerful at times than the institute hopes. But the idea is that it's a sort of agency created to reckon with our crisis of information and our crisis of truth.
KING: This fictional office is very reminiscent of debates we're having over Confederate statues and whether they should stay up. And whether if they do stay up, there should be a plaque near them explaining what the truth of them is. Was there a particular incident that sparked the idea for this story, the idea that we might have a national office dedicated to telling the truth about America?
EVANS: No. You know, like, maybe a decade ago, I started telling a joke - because I think I was on the metro one morning and I heard some people - I don't remember what they were talking about. I think it was, like, the Haitian revolution. But they were having such a factually devoid conversation...
EVANS: ...Like, they were so wrong about whatever they were saying that I was just like - I got off the train. I don't know who I was talking to. But I was like, you know, I would pay, like, 10 extra tax dollars a year to form an agency just to, like, correct people in public.
EVANS: Like, this is basic, accessible information. Like, they could Google this. The idea stuck with me. And I also thought about the ways in which that could be terrifying, right? And so I think now we're in this moment where this book is coming out and some of the sort of things that have happened feel strangely topical. But there's also the sort of larger question of, you know, we have the federal government now holding conferences about patriotic education. And it's almost like this sort of sinister, Bizarro World version of the agency I created. And so I do think some of those questions about, like, but when you build something, who can use it, and is an agency as good as, like, the best person in it who believes in what it's supposed to be doing? Or is an agency only as good as, like, the worst person who wants to use it for harm? And that's part of the tension at the heart of the story, I hope.
KING: In one story, a careless young white woman named Claire wears a bikini with a Confederate flag design. It's not a statement. She's just not thinking. But a picture of her in the bikini goes viral, and it hurts a college classmate. Claire doesn't apologize. Instead, she doubles down. She should be a hateable character, but she's not. I asked Evans about the debate over whether authors can write authentic characters who are of a different race than them.
EVANS: You have to write what you understand. And I think most Black people are very equipped to write about whiteness in this country because most of us have spent our lives watching it and learning it. And we've certainly been in that room where we are the minority and where we hear people kind of talk amongst themselves. Whereas I think if you don't have a window to how a group talks amongst itself, it's hard to do the actual work of fiction, which is to create layers. And so, you know, one of the things I wanted with that character is that, you know, she does do a kind of awful, hurtful thing.
She also has a narrative of herself that makes sense to her. And so I wanted to think about the intersection of this sort of version of herself where she isn't, in her own mind, the villain of the story, and yet she is actively, like, harming people throughout the story. Because that, for me, is sort of the question of privilege - right? - is the intersection of, when does your own self-narrative or your own failure to grow belong to you as a narrative? And when is it someone else's story just by virtue of the even passive power that you have over them? And so in order to ask that question, she couldn't be somebody that people would immediately kind of avert their eyes from or immediately disassociate from because I wanted there to be that grappling with the sort of - if you wanted to forgive her, where is the point where you shouldn't have?
KING: That is really interesting. There are a lot of lost moms in this collection of stories, moms who are lost to cancer or other illnesses, moms who vanish. That stood out to me a lot. Am I reading too much into it?
EVANS: No. I think often writing a book - the process of writing a book is sort of finding out what book you wrote after the fact. And so...
KING: Ah, (laughter).
EVANS: ...I didn't set out to write a book about my mother dying. But I think in some ways I wrote a book about my mother dying and I didn't know it until I'd done it.
KING: I didn't know your mom had passed. I'm sorry.
EVANS: Yeah, she died in 2017.
KING: Does writing help with grief, or is that too simplistic?
EVANS: You know, I don't know that anything helps with grief (laughter).
EVANS: But I do think that what I realized in retrospect is there's a kind of structural way that grief came into the stories and there's also a kind of thematic way that grief came into the stories. And I think, structurally, the logic of grief - which is also kind of the logic of crisis, and so I think it was I was responding both to personal grief and a sense of national crisis - is often divergent from our kind of classic narrative arc, right? That sometimes in a story, everything follows the same path and the emotional climax of the story is the same place as the plot climax. And sometimes it's not. And often, those are stories about things we can't control - right? - where there's some event or weight or emotional tension at the core of the story and the whole plot is all the things someone does to kind of evade what actually matters or ignore what actually matters or distract from what actually matters. That's how grief feels. And so it comes to the story in the moments where time compresses. And you can sort of feel that shift or that weight underneath a story that's ostensibly about something else.
KING: That was Danielle Evans. Her new collection is "The Office Of Historical Corrections."
(SOUNDBITE OF KEEM THE CIPHER'S "BLOSSOM.") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.