By DeNeen L. Brown
On the bottom floor of a Bethesda, Md., bookstore, Danielle Evans, the 26-year-old Washington-area author who has been praised by Salman Rushdie and the Paris Review as a literary prodigy, recites her story "Snakes" from her debut collection.
It is the tale of a biracial girl who is sent by her mother one summer to visit her white grandmother. But the grandmother immediately disapproves of her daughter's child with the brown skin and long, curly hair. "If I thought my grandmother would like me better when my mother wasn't around, our reunion quickly disabused me of the thought … ," Evans reads.
The grandmother greets the girl, whose name is Tara, with an obligatory kiss, then tentatively touches her hair, which is twisted into tight cornrows.
"Did your mother do this to you?" Evans reads, standing in a black sweater dress in front of a stack of her books. A small crowd spills attentively before her into the aisles.
" 'My hair?'
" … 'Mommy can't do my hair,' I said. 'A girl from her school did it for her.'
" 'I swear, even on a different continent, that woman — When you go upstairs, take them out. You're a perfectly decent-looking child, and for whatever reason your mother sends you looking like a little hoodlum.'
" 'I am wearing pink,' I said, more in my own defense than in my mother's."
The crowd laughs nervously. Evans continues to read. Some attendees will say later that they were astounded by the maturity of Evans' voice as a writer, by the telling of stories of characters who seem so familiar. Depending on who is listening, the characters in the collection — titled Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self — could be a best friend or that girl down the street, but many of them are "outsiders," says Evans, black or biracial people who are wrestling with race and the legacy of race in a so-called post-racial era.
Often, she says, her characters do not feel they belong in one culture or another. They straddle the divide between white and black. Evans says her stories explore the meaning of race at this particular time in this country when it seems that racial divides should have disappeared. The truth, she believes, is that the lines have just receded to the point that they are harder to see.
"Right now we have a moment with a lot of language about post-racialism and yet a lot of evidence that we are clearly not post-anything," she says, "and there's a lot of room for complication, contradiction and ambiguity, which is good territory for fiction."