Danielle Evans just wants to get back to writing. But judging by the requests for interviews and public readings following the publication of her critically acclaimed collection of short stories, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, she may have to wait awhile.
“Evans’s greatest talent is her ability to create poignant moments of crisis in the lives of transient people who can’t seem to connect with those they love,” wrote Ron Charles, fiction editor of the Washington Post.
“With polished short stories plumbing the intersection of adolescence, race, hormones, and emotional instability, the twenty-something Iowa-workshop graduate threatens to become the season’s hot young MFA discovery,” enthused New York Magazine.
Feature stories about her and reviews of her work have appeared in the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal; People, Time, O Magazine, Claire, and Kirkus; as well as a host of other print and online media outlets. Her stories have twice been chosen for Best American Short Stories by Salman Rushdie and Richard Russo.
Her success is all the more remarkable considering that the author, who teaches fiction writing in American University’s College of Arts and Sciences, is just 26 years old.
Evans’s meteoric rise started three years ago with the publication in the Paris Review of “Virgins,” the story of two black 15-year-old girls in a rush to grow up. The story is, as her publisher describes it, “a pitch-perfect examination of race, class, and the shifting terrain of adolescence.”
Race is a central element of her fiction, but her stories are nuanced explorations of contemporary attitudes. In that regard, her work mirrors changes in American society. “There is this way in which racial issues [have] become much more intimate,” she says. “My grandmother was a white woman and she married a black man in the 1950s and their challenge was that marriage was still illegal in something like 30 states. And so the challenge of a personal interracial relationship today is not necessarily legality but the sort of smaller and more intimate negotiations that take place.”
The title of the story collection comes from Donna Kate Ruchin’s “The Bridge Poem,” in which the poet expresses her exasperation at “mediating with your worst self on behalf of your better selves.” That tension is evident in Evans’s work.
The role of intermediary translating cultural experiences seems to come naturally to Evans, who as an undergraduate majored in anthropology at Columbia University. After Columbia, she studied at the prestigious University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she connected with literary agent Ayesha Pande, who submitted her work to the Paris Review. Thus began the path that saw her spend a year as a fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing before accepting a teaching position at American University.
Coming to AU was something of a homecoming for the author, who grew up in the Northern Virginia area. She estimates that by the time she went to college, she had lived in 16 different houses and apartments in Southwest D.C., Falls Church, Fairfax, and Arlington, among other places. She’d also lived in Cleveland, Ohio, and New York. Her parents, both lawyers, divorced, and job changes and personal circumstances necessitated the moves. Growing up, Evans never attended the same school for more than two years. Unsettling as that may have been, she took each move as a chance to reinvent herself.
What’s the next chapter? She plans to continue writing short fiction but to concentrate primarily on finishing the novel she’s been crafting for several years. All she needs is time to get back to work.