While the phrase "post-racial society" is batted back and forth like a tennis ball on the cable news networks, this is the year that Bantam Books chose to launch a new annual series, "Best African American Fiction."
Face it, there are already a lot of "Best Of" writing series out there: best short stories, best essays, best poetry, best food writing, best travel writing, best nature writing, even best religious writing have all been launched, and most continue from year to year. The concentration on African American writing is just as worthy as any of the rest -- not to separate these writers from others, but to give an overview of a vibrant writing culture that's happening right now (well, the stories included are from 2007, but close enough).
The series editor, Gerald Early, is a professor of English, African and African American Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. "My hope for the Best African American Fiction series is that it will show how far African American fiction has come, and more important, how far it extends," Early writes in his introduction.
This specific volume is edited by E. Lynn Harris, perhaps best known for his novel Invisible Life. "So abundant is African American writing now that I have yet to read many of those published in recent years," writes Harris. "I'm pleased to say that writers of color are now so numerous, and they are making themselves at home in so many different genres...that it's virtually impossible to keep up to speed."
So, get up to speed. The writing here struck me as less made-up and less self-indulgent than many of the novels and short story collections being published today, work that often seems not just imagined, but painfully concocted, like some scheme Lucy would have hatched on I Love Lucy. This fiction has a more urgent feel and pace. That is not to say that every story is about people with big problems. "Orb Weaver," by Emily Raboteau, takes place at an upper-crust writing conference in the Vermont mountains and savages its insular pretension with an outsider's cool eye.
ZZ Packer's "Pita Delicious" leads off the book. Nothing post-racial here. Packer gets right to the point: "I'd met this Jewish guy," she writes. "He was one of those white guys who had a thing for black women." It's a fast and furious take on an interracial, interfaith affair.
"The Saving Work," by Tiphanie Yanique, deals with mixed-race relations, first-generation college students, passing, and pregnancy. These are common themes in African American writing, yet Yanique complicates them through showing a variety of viewpoints (parent/child, male/female).
Amina Gautier's story "Dance For Me" also takes a plot that seems familiar, the black scholarship girl coping with her outcast role at a tony New York City private school, and makes every element heartfelt. The writing is direct, honest. This is the narrator describing her unwished-for kiss with a small time marijuana dealer: "I had a feeling as if I were waiting in the subway for my train just before it pulls in and it was rushing down the track, blowing its dirty hot wind underneath my skirt, caressing the bare skin between pleats and socks."
The short stories are the most rewarding section. Oddly, over half the book is given over to excerpts from novels -- four adult and four young adult. While it's interesting to have a sampling of what's out there in these genres, it's a lot of pages to devote to work that doesn't stand well on its own.
Also disappointing is the failure to include any kind of thumbnail biography of the included authors. The "Best Short Stories" series includes page after page of author bio and their comments on their chosen story; this would be much appreciated here, especially if the intent is to introduce these authors to a wider reading audience. If the editor admits in the introduction that it's "virtually impossible" to keep up to speed with the scene, why not include some Cliff's Notes?