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Danielle Evans’ The Office of Historical Corrections Gives Readers More Questions to Sit With

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The tradition of storytelling is not a lost art for Black women. In fact, it is one of our most original forms to date that only grows in beauty by the generation. Acclaimed author Danielle Evans makes this claim profoundly true. Her latest book, The Office of Historical Corrections, is a collection of short stories (with the inclusion of a novella), that pronounces the narratives, dialogues, and imagery of women that we prophetically and intimately know at large. Simply put, it is a compilation of stories that reflect the varied experiences of modern women and women of generations past. 

Stories like “Happily Ever After,” “Boys Go to Jupiter,” and “Why Won’t Women Just Say What They Want” encompass a ghoul-like thematic figure enticing readers to witness how menacing and violent invisibility can be for women as they navigate placemaking and placekeeping in the world. And stories like “Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain,” “Anything Could Disappear,” and “Alcatraz,” on the other hand, invoke what it means to reclaim, declare, and pronounce one’s identity through worldly divestments and story creation. 

The Office of Historical Corrections is nothing short of brilliance and mastery on the page. It is an invigorating yet challenging reading experience that elicits gluttonous speculation, raged inquiry, and critical self-reflection through the exchange of cautionary and familiar histories. 

I had the opportunity to speak with Evans, who is based in Baltimore and teaches at The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University, about her writing journey, what it means to follow in the lineage of Black literary foremothers, harm and correction, and the landscape of community support. 

 

Jamesha Caldwell: Alice Walker is very forthright in stating that she doesn’t write for anyone besides herself. We are only spectators to her craft. What is your forthright claim about your work, especially in relation to the brilliant stories crafted in The Office of Historical Corrections

Danielle Evans: I think that this is a weirder book than my first [Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, 2010], and in an interesting and good way. One of the things that I am trying to do is to consider the question of truth and correction, and the tension between what it means to believe that people deserve second chances and can be better than themselves. [While also] considering the structural reality that people who often get second chances tend to be the people with the most privilege to abuse, so it costs something to believe in people who already have harmed you in some way. 

Here’s my forthright: The thing that I love the most about being a short-story writer is that you can answer the same question in different and sometimes contradictory ways. So I do think that I write primarily for myself. I revise with some idea of the audience in mind but not necessarily with the idea that the audience exists to be pleased. 

You have done a brilliant job at crafting stories of women who carry stories that are simply not theirs. The burden, the violence, and the guilt of that experience often shapes and transforms our navigation and quality of living. How does one begin to craft their own story devoid of stories that aren’t our own? 

The world won’t give you the right to make yourself the protagonist in both your life and in your own writing. I think that some of the stories change just because of who is centered in them, or change just when you start to see some pressure on an unfamiliar narrative based on who else is in the story. I’m interested in how shifting the perspective can shift the arc of the story in a way that doesn’t mean that some other version of the story isn’t also true, but it just means that there is a version of the story that belongs to you. The version of the story that belongs to people without structural power is often the people that we hear less often. 

[You craft these stories by] giving yourself the permission to write [the story], giving yourself permission to hear it, and giving yourself permission to center the characters who might be secondary in another version of the story. 

The quality and quantity of intimacy seem to be a complicated yet guiding requirement for many of the women in the book to explore and define what is either needed or demanded of them by partners and/or by the world. In developing and curating these stories, how did you personally define intimacy, either for your characters or yourself, and what did you learn from that experience? 

Early on, I said that one of the questions of this book is the question of intimacy across racial lines. I think that I realized how much I was writing about romantic intimacy more broadly and the challenges of navigating that as a heterosexual woman, especially when I was working on the story “Richard York Gave Battle in Vain.” I realized that the part of the turn in the story about these two women, where I’d originally thought “This is a story about somebody who is going to her ex’s wedding” was more interesting than that. It was more interesting to me once I realized that it was really about two women who both felt locked into choices they’ve made in different ways and both had to give something up to make those choices. To be the version of themselves that either tied their life to a man or who tied their life to a kind of independence. There was a cost to both of those things. 

[I’m interested in] how do you have real intimacy across any kind of power dynamic? Not just race but gender as a type of power dynamic… and other kinds of power that take up space in intimacy. How do you choose between freedom and connection? But again, it’s one of those questions that I have seventeen different answers for because I don’t know that all of the stories [in the book] are treated the same way, or arrive at it in the same way. 

 

One of the things that you want to have the freedom to do as a Black woman writer is to write characters who are not warm, and open, and not trying to fix everybody’s life in the way that a lot of the more cliche Black female characters who appear in popular culture are.
Danielle Evans

One of the most pertinent lessons throughout many of the short stories is that danger is often familiar… too familiar. Given the multigenerational scope presented throughout the book that arrives with this lesson, could you elaborate further upon any influences, either personally and/or through the Black women literary canon that taught you?

I’ve read a lot about relationships between women and I’ve read a lot about friendships—which is interesting to me because friendships are one of those places where you have to choose it over and over again. It creates an interesting structure for fiction because there is this classic version of a story where there is a marriage plot that has an inherent kind of closure. Either people get married or they don’t. Once you are in a relationship that is defined that way, it takes some doing to get out of it. But friendship doesn’t really require a plot to undo or do. Friendship requires choice. 

I’m interested in the ways that you create inherent arriving action or mirrors for different versions of yourself when you compare the point in which you choose your friendship with somebody to the point in which as a different person you are still choosing that friendship, or the point at which you no longer choose that friendship because it is a more dynamic relationship. One of the writers that really captures Black women’s friendships and Black women’s long-term friendships is, of course, Toni Morrison. Sula is the obvious book that explores that most directly, but I also think about the friendship between Violet and Dorcas in Jazz, which is wary and difficult. There is a way in which they see each other that pulls them together in a world where other people don’t see them as clearly. 

One of the things that you want to have the freedom to do as a Black woman writer is to write characters who are not warm, and open, and not trying to fix everybody’s life in the way that a lot of the more cliche Black female characters who appear in popular culture are.

I think that how long women, Black women in particular, have been writing about that is both reassuring and it feels like you have predecessors. 

One of the fantastic subtle nuances of the book is how you weave complex geographical stories to guide narration. How do you draw the line between placemaking in lieu of crafting fictional stories, but also capturing the essence and experiences of very real locations?

That is a question that I answer differently story-to-story because some stories are set in very real places, some stories are set in fictional places, and some of them are set in hybrid spaces. The answer is different depending on the terms of the story. The question is how I then clear enough in the story where I signal something about the world in which it is happening. I’m interested in spaces because I think that all spaces have an interesting echo of time. Location is an interesting echo for time because space is always what you are seeing right in front of you, but also it has some kind of history, and it has its own history independent of what you remember. 

And place usually has some suggestion of what is happening. Are [the spaces] decaying? Are they being rebuilt? Are they shifting in some way? I think I am most interested in space as an echo for how time works, space as a way of thinking about memory, space as a way of thinking about the difference between the version of a character who saw the place for the first time and the character who is seeing it now. And that is how I hugely think about details and how to capture space. Place is very much tied to the character. 

So much detail about the physical landscape for me comes from both the sense of time but also a very specific embodied experience of the world. Where is this character comfortable? Where are they on edge? Where are they on guard? And where does this come from? 

When creating characters like “The artist” in the story “Why Won’t Women Just Say What They Want,” is the intention for them to be ghoul-like haunting figures? Because that character is still personally haunting me! 

I think that was the only story that I’d specifically written that was in response to a topical event. I started the story with the thought of “Oh, this is going to be silly,” but then when I started writing the story, it was less fun than I thought it was going to be. Because I think there is something really absurd about the artist, but there is also something really harmful. That is often a part of the ingenuity of people who are harmful.

Once I’d realized that there’s an engagement with trauma in this story, I wanted to put pressure on the absurdity. The story both escalates in its absurdity but also in its level of emotional intensity, and also shifts in that it starts focusing on this character but then gradually you begin to see around him. It becomes both a very cliche and familiar version of the public apology that I’m poking fun at, but also more of this complicated story of all of the people who exist around the periphery of that apology. And I think that it was important to me to capture not just a terrible man and salient people but the ways in which other people adapt to a world in which people get away with harming them. 

 

Danielle Evans, photo by Beowulf Sheehan

 

A lot of what a story is... is less about the ending that resolves the plot question, and more about when the subterranean world comes into focus on what the story is actually about all along.
Danielle Evans

What advice would you give to aspiring women, non-binary, and trans writers in the exploration of the gore and soul-stirring navigation of the human condition?

Sometimes we are made to feel in writing spaces as though our identities are going to flatten the story. Like if we focus too much on who you are in the space of the world in the story, the story that you are telling, then, won’t be good or pure. My advice is mostly to regard that as nonsense but also to understand why that is nonsense. 

My general writing advice is that a lot of story happens in the divide between our public selves and our private selves. A lot of stories happen in the question of the performance of self. And what we have to understand about the world and ourselves in order to make that performance happen and what it costs to make that performance happen. 

If you are a person with a background that has made you have to pay attention to power, pay attention to safety, pay attention to when you can be yourself and let your guard down, and when you have to be a version of yourself that is palpable or acceptable or going to grant you entry or protect you in hostile spaces, and when you have to be a version of yourself that makes a declaration of who you actually are in order to save you from that space—even if there are consequences—that is interesting. That is the stuff of story. That is the tension on the page that makes you think that anything can happen. 

We know that a person might badly want to commit to conflicting things and so I think that understanding that space is political and desires are political and that doesn’t mean that the story has to be flat and redacted, but it means that there’s room in that gap between the version of you that exists in your head and the version of you that you show other people should do some really interesting story work. So it’s not a thing that you are burdened with as a writer who has to create a context for identity that other readers might not understand. I think it’s actually a gift that lets you go into really complicated and nuanced territory.

While many of the narratives felt like they’ve reached a conclusion, after reading each story I was often left to my own devices of creating “life-after” narratives for characters like the Sullivans in “Alcatraz,” the Daughter of the artist in “Why Won’t Women Just Say What They Mean,” and Vera in “Anything Could Disappear.” How do you know when to put the pen down? 

Often through trial and error! I will say, because I tend to try to write the first draft quickly, I also stop if I feel stuck. Generally, by the end of a first draft, I know where a story ends in terms of the plot. I don’t always know what the actual story is. I think that a lot of what a story is, especially short, is that it is less about the ending that resolves the plot question, and more about when the subterranean world comes into focus on what the story is actually about all along. And that is the sort of thing that is going to haunt or stick with the reader. 

Sometimes that is what surprises me in a first draft, in the last part of the story where I realize “Oh, this is what I’ve been writing.” Then I have to go back and revise it a lot because I suddenly understand what the story is—even if that breakthrough isn’t going to come until the last third. I don’t want to start a story by saying, “This is a story about grief,” but I have to set the story up so that when grief comes to the surface it feels like it is inevitable and urgent and was there all along, and you just didn’t notice it until it became the story. And so, I think about those resident moments more than the actual plot endings. What is the thing that we’ve arrived at and then how does the story close what I promised you it would close? 

A part of storytelling is that you make a promise to the reader that you are giving them a question and you are going to answer it. But at some other point in the story, you give them a lot more questions to sit with. The question of when those questions set in is often the thing that I revise the most for. 

 

Last summer, there were significant amounts of work being produced by DMV and local Baltimore talent. Given that climate, many of the “Who to look out for” lists were largely exclusionary to Black women, queer, and trans artists. How have you felt supported? What does support look like for you? 

I always hesitate to say “lucky” because it feels disingenuous, but I also feel like I mean it. I don’t mean it as a lack of confidence in my work. I think that you can be confident in your work and your work can be really good, and [you can] still be interested in being in the industry and the arts being a subjective field and not have the career or support that your work merits. I feel lucky that my work has generally been supported and recognized. I also feel like because I know how subjective that world is and I know how narrowly some good things have happened to me that were life-changing happened because I know how close they came to not happening. Because of that, I know that you don’t want your validation to come externally. Fundamentally, on some level, you have to make your art for yourself—returning back to your first question. 

Do we change the expectations or guiding principles for a book release? Do we measure support by how intimately regarded our work is, or do we demand the traditional measure of exposure?

Making sure that you have good people in your corner when you are ready to bring your artwork out into the world will help you to remember that you have the agency to build trusted relationships with agents and editors so that you can say no to things that feel wrong and/or don’t share your same vision. I think that in the larger structural and institutional world, you can do better on behalf of other people and on behalf of yourself. So the question is not so much of what can I do to get people to pay more attention to my book? Because you can’t do that much. Somebody else might be able to, but if you show up on Main Street saying, “This is my book and it’s brilliant,” people are going to say, “Of course you think that!” You can only convince people of so much by being your own hype person, but you can be someone else’s champion. 

Who can you talk to about navigating the world better? Who can you warn someone about? Who can you promote? Who can you tell other people that you really need to read something? Thinking about your relationship to the artistic establishment as a person in the community, as a taste-maker, is more productive than thinking about your relationship to that structure as a writer because you sound crazy, no matter how right you are… you sound crazy! “People didn’t pay enough attention to my work and I’m a genius,” People don’t believe you. But they might believe you if you say it about somebody else. 

Can you name/shoutout your support system? 

Well, you met the cat! But really, this book was dedicated to my mother who passed away a few years ago, but certainly was a person who believed in me and my writing all of my life. That faith, though she is no longer here, is still with me. There are others also who have been really supportive of having a child who is an artist. Parents often have complicated relationships with [their children who are artists] but my family has been cheering for me from the beginning. 

I’ve had the same agent since graduate school, she’s really great. I think she is a person who has a clear-eye view of the industry; she didn’t necessarily promise me the moon, but she always believed in my work, even when it took a lot of patience. 

In terms of the broader community, I think that there are a lot of people who have been there for me in various ways from the very beginning. Alexis Pauline Gumbs has been one of my friends from college who has been amazingly supportive of me as a human and as a writer, all of my life, and who is also a brilliant writer whose work I’m glad to be in conversation with. 

A lot of people who are not writers and are not fiction writers were really the community that helped me get this book written. I was writing this book while my mother was dying and while I was traveling all over the place and juggling a lot of things, and so I think that the people who made me feel like they loved me if I’d never write another thing again, were a part of my support system. The people who might never read this book but fed my cats when I had to get on the plane to go see my mom in the hospital were a part of my support system for this book. My cousin, who took care of my mom when I couldn’t get on a plane, was a part of my support system for this book. There were a lot of people who helped me in many ways that had less to do with the actual writing. 

 

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