I have ever been a lover of literature, of the power of words to introduce new realities, challenge my view of the world and broaden my perspectives on people and ideologies.
In her premiere story collection, S. Andrea Allen dips her quill in the ink of creativity and offers up literature that broadens readers’ perspectives, I believe, on subjects not typically broached in contemporary story collections. Allen’s work demands thought, from its cover to its choice of stories and essays. When you part its pages, the book posts a sign, ‘No skating allowed,’ in the meaningful silence behind its provocative title. As a reader, you will be required to feel, reflect, and reexamine what you may have previously held as truth.
A Failure to Communicate lifts the curtain on the issue of the importance of communication, or the lack thereof, in the lives of Black women.
The collection opens with a story that hits home with women who suffer the brunt of body shaming and being made to feel as if they aren’t worthy because of their weight. Ava, whom everybody says is “pretty for a fat girl,” comes to see her value, when she finally walks away from an abusive partner. I appreciate this story even if I’m not a full-figured woman. I have voluptuous family and friends, and from their words, I know the damaging effects of society’s judgments about their size. In “Epiphany,” readers find another protagonist, Trish, who eventually decides that she can leave Jordan, her gambling, and hurled epithets, one of which is “Fat bitch! What you crying for, bitch?” behind.
Allen tackles the subjects most people don’t wish to discuss on the best of days, like what happens when a loved one takes her own life, leaving a plethora of unanswered questions in the aftermath. The thinking mind knows that communication is essential during turbulent times, but when we fail to talk about something we couldn’t stop from taking place, we tend to silence ourselves and others…to heal in isolation. But not Cynthia in “Lunch Date.” She spreads the unspoken across the table, drawing her long-time friend, Jay, into the light. Ten years after their beloved Vicky’s suicide, the friends finally open the lines of communication between them and begin the healing process.
My favorite story is the finale. How fitting to compile pieces centered on communication and entitle the last short story “Truth.” There is something about the magnetism in Arthurine’s voice and mannerism that entices me to want to read straight through the short story and into a novel. This piece is ripe with period atmosphere, drama, danger and the electric attraction between Arthurine and the woman for whom she bakes her prized caramel cake. I find it delightful that I’m planning a surprise birthday party in March for my baby sister, whose favorite pastry is a caramel cake.
Although the book’s subtitle denotes it as a story collection, it is actually a compendium of stories and essays. Perhaps Allen will consider broadening the collection’s subtitle in a future visitation, although it, by no means, detracts from the grace of the work.
Since I enjoy movies, after reading the essay “Bi-racial Bride = Culturally White Wedding?”I appreciated Allen’s take on the striking absence of Black people from Bridesmaids, a hilarious film about a bi-racial bride, whose father is Black, mother white, and what happens on her wedding day. Mind you, there are no Blacks in the wedding party, Allen notes, or anywhere else, except for the token extras in the scenes panning the town. Outside of the father, who behaves as a shuffling white-faced comic (my take), the only other signs of Blackness are the bride’s so-called Black mannerisms. What the script writers wanted to portray in that one, besides off-color humor, eludes me, too.
My favorite essay, though, is “Jimmy B. and Chi-Chi Peak.” Why? I love James Baldwin. I love the legacy of work he left behind. I love that he announced that he was gay so no one could have the satisfaction of exposing him. I love that Allen fights her senior English teacher for the thrill of writing her book report on a writer who isn’t regaled on Mrs. Peak’s list of acceptable writers. Were I the narrator, I’d have waged the same battle. If Beale Street Could Talk is worthy, not to mention Baldwin’s collection of essays, Notes of a Native Son, The Fire Next Time, and Giovanni’s Room, all critical reads that flipped and continue to flip America on its head with their in-your-face, revolutionary thought.
Not only do Allen and I share an affinity for Jimmy B., but also we love Langston Hughes.
In this collection, the writing is inviting, visual and confident. Allen is sure of her narrative prowess and proves it fully in the auspicious story of Arthurine and Truth. Her writing style in the personal essays guides the reader back to the past with authority on matters of race, injustice and feminism and the acumen of a voice that intends to not only be heard, but also to be taken seriously.
If you’re looking for a different sort of story collection hailing timely, tough subjects and showcasing lesbians in peril, reeling under the desire to communicate or standing up to speak against all odds, then this book is for you. No, there are no sex scenes. S. Andrea Allen, I will admit, does not write erotica. Instead, she chronicles the other side of sex, of what happens when you’re standing in the throes of compassion, self love and confrontation.
I look forward to reading the novel Allen is quietly penning.
S. Andrea Allen