A tweet from the critic – and my favourite tastemaker – John Self sent me in the direction of this slim collection of stories by Kathleen Collins. I’d never heard of Collins, not particularly surprising given she died in 1988 (from breast cancer at the age of 46) and was best known for the movie Losing Ground (1982) which, until recently was out of circulation. Having now read this amuse bouche of a collection, I’m keen to check out her film.
Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? is slim and so are the stories. Vignettes about family, about love, about intense relationships, about being a single woman and still desiring a fuck now and again. And race. It’s not an overt aspect of every story but it’s certainly a consistent theme. It’s race in the context of being a black woman, of having a white boyfriend, of coming to terms with black culture and identity. The title piece – Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?”” – one of the longest stories in the book is an almost fable about integration and segregation. The story pinpoints 1963 as a year where, in the bohemian nooks and crannies of New York, ‘race was not a factor’ where love was colour blind. But as young black women introduce their white boyfriends to parents who only remember discrimination and racial violence integration feels like a betrayal. In a manner that’s almost prophetic, or inevitable, it highlights the tension between identity and culture over assimilation. It’s an incredible powerful and relevant story.
And it’s not alone. Whether exploring what it was to be a black woman in the 1960s or one very funny and razor-sharp piece about love, infidelity and commitment this collection is filled with magnificent writing, powerful moments and muted tragedy (suicide, in particular, features in a few of the stories). Collins is also playful and inventive in how she presents her fiction, borrowing from her experience as a playwright but also marrying together prose with epistolary. In such a small collection the breadth of styles and storytelling is a little bit amazing.
Not every story wowed me, but what became clear is that Kathleen Collins was a major talent. The tragedy of coming across a writer this good is knowing there’s nothing else to look forward to (at least in terms of prose). And yet the existence of this collection is important in not just reminding us or making us aware of a unique talent but also in promoting powerful, female black voices.