Writers are often told to pluck fiction from the world around them. Danielle Valore Evans is grabbing whole handfuls of America as we know it today.
In her second collection of short fiction, The Office of Historical Corrections, Evans’s characters have more than enough shading to lift off the page. In the story “Anything Could Disappear,” Vera rides a Greyhound to New York City seeking a new life. However, she leaves the bus with more than her carry-on, making a life-changing choice few would understand. Yet, somehow the reader still deeply roots for her.
This Thursday, Evans reads a selection of her work for San Jose’s Center for the Literary Arts. The online event also includes a craft concept lecture and author Q&A.
Evans says all stories have the narrative energy of a mystery, and each story in her collection builds like an emotional whodunit through tales of woe and grief.
“There are two kinds of grief, the actual grief of loss, but also the grief in which there’s a diminishing number of choices to be made. Every choice you make closes another possibility. Sometimes it’s grief for other people, but sometimes it’s grief for the versions of yourself you have to lose to become you.”
Evans is familiar with both kinds of grief.
“If you had told me at 20 that I’d only have my mother alive for 10 more years, I might have prioritized differently,” she says.
In her first collection, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, Evans wrote retrospective stories of mixed-race youth and people of color experiencing the world. These themes continue in Corrections, just in the present tense.
“Retrospective gives you a way to measure somebody’s self-awareness and reliability, because there’s what happened and there’s what they’re telling you about it. But present tense—when someone’s telling you in real time what’s happening or who they are—is sometimes more complicated because you have to let people be unreliable, but in a way that doesn’t make the reader stop trusting you.”
For writers, she offers a simple practice to help create from what they know.
“If you know what it feels like to be trapped in an elevator, you can write about being trapped in a spaceship,” she says. “What we’re doing with fiction is escalating the stakes and putting bells and whistles on things.”
However, Evans is decidedly not an optimist. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the societal trauma of the last three years has given her a sense of despair.
“Somebody gets to be moody,” she laughs. “But I think my job is to not be the kind of non-optimist who destroys other people’s sense of hope.”
Teaching on Zoom has kept her grounded even while living through what she calls a “slow apocalypse.” But a recent conversation with a Native American writer provided her with a new perspective on the past.
“There are all kinds of communities for whom something apocalyptic has already happened, including my own as a Black American. People who lived through all kinds of unimaginable, unspeakable trauma. Sometimes the most important thing in those moments is what can survive.”
As a writer, Evans is a student of story structure with an almost virtuosic sense of emotional realism. As a teacher, she is educating the next generation of writers at the Krieger School of Arts & Sciences at Johns Hopkins. She implores all writers to read often and to find out what stories they feel are missing. To writers of color especially, she stresses the importance of developing an independent aesthetic sensibility and to avoid those who try to tell them who they are as a writer.
“I am looking at these young people who want to have a future, and they’re not naïve. They’re really angry that no one has given them something to believe in and to look forward to. They’re really angry, but sometimes in a really beautiful way. The people entrusted with preserving their future are not doing their jobs.” Here she laughs. “It makes me feel like I should do my job.”
Danielle Valore Evans
Thu, 7pm, Free