Eds. Gerald Early and E. Lynn Harris, Bantam, 2009, 336 pages, $16.00
Perhaps reading and writing fiction means something different to African American audiences and writers. In the opening of his introduction to the inaugural edition of Best African American Fiction, Gerald Early recalls the efforts of African American fiction writers in the years before the Civil War. How could their work not speak to their positions as second class citizens (at best)? What did the desire to craft fiction mean in a world where it was illegal for black slaves to be literate? These early African American writers shouldered the burden of “empower[ing] the race” and “establish[ing] a tradition of black literature.”
And what has become of that tradition? In the second introduction, E. Lynn Harris notes the difficulty of keeping up with new works by African American authors. What’s more, these authors are “making themselves at home in so many different genres, both literary and commercial.” What are the new concerns of this crop of African American authors? Is it even appropriate to speak to “concerns” when storytelling is an impulse unto itself for the people of color who write? And what can readers of this volume make of the superlative “Best” on the cover of this anthology?
Best African American Fiction 2009 includes six short stories, five excerpts from novels, and five excerpts from young adult fiction. The inclusion of that last category is interesting. I tend to associate YA fiction with the Sweet Valley High books I read and discarded during my middle school years. The excerpts in this volume, however, feature works that are just as edgy, shocking, and engrossing as the fiction for grown-ups. That said, I wondered if the sharp division of these categories, if these genre distinctions, are altogether necessary. The organization of these works feels like an imposition. Why not allow a short story to mingle with the excerpt from the historical novel? Why create (and ultimately challenge) a set of expectations with a label like “Young Adult Fiction” for the works of authors like Woodsen, Myers, and Haines?
That said, this collection works hard to expand the tradition Early mentions in the introduction. The fiction included in this volume doesn’t only take place within the boundaries of the United States, and it doesn’t limit the narratives to the experience of African American characters. In Tiphanie Yanique’s “The Saving Work,” for example, two white mothers sneer at each other in front of a burning church in the Caribbean. In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Cell One,” the worlds of academia and “cult” violence collide, forcing a Nigerian family to deal with a criminal son.
In other narratives, characters struggle to nurture their relationship to the art they create. The exploration of these relationships can be provocative—like in Emily Raboteau’s “Orb Weaver”—or it can speak to a less titillating appreciation for poetic expression—like in Samuel Delany’s Dark Reflections. The collection opens with a piece that follows a jazz musician’s search for a woman in a photo (Chris Albani’s “Albino Crow”) and closes with the journey of a young, troubled musician through a treacherous urban territory. In both these pieces, jazz is a kind of refuge for characters who are in search of their element, on the move in potentially dangerous worlds.
This attention to the influence of art within these fictional worlds is an intriguing part of a rapidly evolving tradition. How does race ultimately influence craft? Is it possible to be—as Raboteau’s aspiring writer puts it—a “writer. Not [only] a black writer”? Perhaps the art itself provides the occasion for discussing the curious space that African American writers have occupied and continue to occupy. Best African American Fiction 2009—with its diverse collection of pieces—keeps that discussion going.