'Life took on so much color. . .'

Kathleen Collins, Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?

Granta, 192pp, £12.99, ISBN 9781783783403

reviewed by Lucie Elliott

Whatever happened to Interracial Love? is the title of Kathleen Collins’ collection of short stories and a question posed throughout. The stories were written between 1970 and 1980, published for the first time in the UK by Granta, almost 40 years since their conception and 30 years since Collins’s untimely death at 46. Collins had worked as an editor, a French teacher and Film professor at CCNY; she was also a playwright, known in academic circles as a pioneer in black independent film-making. During Collins’ lifetime her work never received the exposure or reverence it deserved.

Her first feature film, Losing Ground from 1982 (one of the first fictional features written and directed by a black woman), saw its initial theatrical release in 2015. The film prioritises the scope of a young black women’s desire and interiority, observing the breakdown of a marriage between a black intellectual artistic couple, living in New York. The near obscurity Collins and her work faced serve as a reminder and illustration of how marginalised these types of narratives have been until relatively recently. Since then, the Collins revival continues, as more of the writer’s corpus is unearthed.

Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? contains 16 stories that read collectively conjure a multifaceted portrait of black female interiority. Elizabeth Alexander opens the foreword for this Granta edition by declaring: 'She does not strive to simplify nor does she fear the complexity of black female interiority. Her vision is clear.'

The stories scrutinise a landscape of interracial marital malaise and race and identity politics, preempting transculturality and questions of black authenticity. Exploring shifting constructs of black identity, in the story ‘Stepping Back’, a young woman explains all the ways in which she isn’t ‘colored’:

I don’t mean to go on like this, but when people say to me, ‘You don't know yourself to be colored! Don’t you ever remember that you’re black?’ it makes me pause. I turn to my journal and devote pages to reminding myself that I am a colored lady. I try to bring myself up short. But again and again I am astonished at how uncoloured I really am.

Collins sought to redefine the stereotypical narratives of black women’s lives offering nuance, inclusivity and variety in ways we have seldom read before. Rarely has black female depression and desire been recorded; in this collection, it is detailed with bold sensitivity. Traditionally, culture has made categorical demands of black women; that they be strong and resilient, or silently submissive. Collins’s challenge to these marginalised narratives creates space for more nuanced portrayals of black female subjectivity. The stories in this collection are told without fetishism, but with what Collins herself called, ‘a residual softness.’

Several of these stories are set in the confined spaces of New York apartments; their ‘gloomy contours’ forever evocative of the trappings of urban malaise. A latent frequency of isolation vibrates throughout the stories, as characters negotiate themselves in liminal spaces: ‘Sometimes I felt like we made love inside a vacuum that must have been his loneliness.’

Collins draws intimately on her own experiences as source material for her work. Several stories delve into her past, fictionalising her experiences working in civil rights activism; in voter registration and speech writing for the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee); to growing up black bourgeoisie in Jersey City and the breakdown of her own interracial marriage. Failed relationships and affairs, biracial relationships, the loss of a mother, and conservative patriarchs figure frequently in these stories. Nina Collins, (Kathleen Collins’s daughter, responsible for the recovery of Losing Ground) described her mother as ‘vibrant and frequently depressed’. The description aptly applies to this collection of stories, characterising its author and characters in much the same manner.

Counter to traditional literary criticism which seeks to omit the author’s biography from interpretations of their work, in this instance it seems essential for Collins’ biographical presence to be noted: her invisibility has lasted too long. It is therefore necessary to read every page conscientiously with Collins at the forefront of our minds, questioning the reasons for her historic absence. We are fortunate to have the opportunity to see Collins come to life through this collection, and with this gift comes a collective responsibility and a collective promise to Collins and others like her: to ensure they remain visible and prominent, their achievements celebrated.

In an interview with David Nicholson for Black Film Review, Collins recalled an objective in her work, ‘to find a filmic language of my own’ describing herself as a ‘literary filmmaker’. The form of Whatever Happened is cinematic, the narrative frame operates in the manner of a camera, panning back and fourth, jumping between scenes and characters. Several of the stories are set in the realm of independent film making, allowing an insight into the struggles Collins likely faced as one of the few black women making films in the 1970s. ‘When Love Withers All of Life Cries’ plays with the film script as a literary trope, while ‘Documentary Style’ is a first person satire narrated by an egotistical assistant cameraman who thinks he should be the director. (This story may have been inspired by Collins’s involvement in William Greave’s experimental documentary, Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take One, from 1968.)

The opening story ‘Exteriors’ describes a couple’s argument, realised through the interior set design and lighting of their apartment. The narrative is delivered by a director giving instructions for lighting location on-set:

Now find a low level while they’re lying without speaking. No, kill it, theres too much silence and pain. Now fog it slightly when he comes back in the evening and keep it dim while they sit on the bed. Now how about a nice blue gel when he tells her its over.

Language too has a cinematic quality, it is colloquial but not cliched; it is relaxed and fluid. In this manner, the short stories possess vibrant discursive moments of humour and sadness in the discussion of race. They foster a lyrical tableaux similar to Losing Ground, where painterly cinematography brings scenes to life. Collins’s lucidity with language creates striking moments in time, but they are for the most part relatively brief, like snapshots or montages; they plunge you into a moment full of feeling only to pull you back out all too quickly.

The strength of this collection is its ability to infer mood or feeling in an economy of space and time. Collins manages to use parenthesis as a means for moving casually between past and present without jarring. In ‘Interiors’, a duet between husband and wife, the husband relives the breakdown of their marriage:

…you loved me like a god and so accommodated yourself instantly to all my whims…while all along I was igniting myself at will…I’m moody, damn it, and restless…and life has so many tuneless days…I can’t apologise for loving you so little. Only dreams carry the sweet logic I respect…dreams and a certain…insouciance…primevally inaccessible to your nature.

A more sombre tone emerges in the wife’s half of ‘Interiors’ , which seems to foreshadow Losing Ground. Collins successfully conceives black female agency, sensuality and melancholy without reproducing characters of type:

the sun was setting, and in the glow of the sunset I relieved the outer edges of my sadness, letting it blend with the surf-like monotony of the cars splashing below and the faint, luminescent splendour of the New York skyline…then came a period where nothing soothed me[…] the waking hours weighted themselves between my legs, and there was no relief in sight.

The title story, ‘Whatever Happened To Interracial Love?', is set in 1963, according to the narrator, ‘the year of the “human being.” The year of race-creed color blindness.’ An apartment on the Upper West Side is shared by two roommates ‘One roommate (‘white’). . . The other roommate (“negro”)’. Both are female, both struggling to reconcile their own interracial relationships with their families. Each character’s race is noted in brackets with ironically placed quotation marks; in part, an acknowledgement of the inescapability of race as a category, but also an example of Collins’s observational commentary: knowing, full of humour, candour and wit.

He does not seem to understand that this young colored woman he has spawned does not, herself, believe in color: that to her the young freedom rider of her dreams is colorless (as indeed he is), that their feelings begin where color ends (as indeed they must), that if only he could understand that race as an issue, race as a social factor, race as a political or economic stumbling block- race is part of the past. Cant he see that love is color-free?

Some of the stories in Whatever Happened to Interracial Love feel unfinished. Presumably, this is unavoidable when collecting unpublished fragments of a deceased author’s work, but in this instance this fact doesn’t tarnish Collins's ability as a writer of short stories. We witness here the potential of a writer whose opportunity to develop was tragically cut short by illness. We hear a distinctly original voice and are left to wonder about the mechanisms which served to keep it quiet for so long.