This post is sponsored by the Center for Literature and Theater at Miami Dade College
Growing up in Brooklyn during the late ’80s and early ’90s, Amina Gautier witnessed poverty and the crack epidemic first hand. “As most people know,” she says, “that was a really rough time to be a New Yorker.” Gautier survived the experience and ultimately channeled it into her short-story collection, At-Risk, which won the Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Award from the University Press of Georgia in 2010.
The 10 stories in At-Risk feature black adolescents, each of whom lives in the world Gautier herself grew up in and grapples with a unique set of challenges. In “The Ease Of Living”, there’s Jason, whose two recently killed friends haunt him during a summer spent hiding out from trouble at his ornery grandfather’s rural Tallahassee home — an arrangement that seems only to delay Jason’s run-in with a grim fate. Then there’s the narrator in “Dance For Me”, who, as one of the few black girls at a private school, literally dances her way through an invisible web of class, race, and sexuality. As its title suggests, At-Risk deals with characters whose young lives can still head in any direction, be it toward an early grave or beyond the claustrophobic confines of an impoverished neighborhood.
With the short-story collection recently published in paperback, Gautier will be reading from At-Risk and giving a craft talk at the Center for Literature and Theater at Miami Dade College on Monday, February 11. The free event is open to the public and kicks off a series of writer-led workshops that you can learn more about at thecenteratmdc.org. First, here’s a lightly edited transcript of my recent interview with Gautier, who spoke to me by phone from Chicago, where she teaches creative writing at DePaul University. The transcript starts after Gautier explained to me that she experienced several different education models (public school, enrichment programs, boarding school) as an adolescent.
Through its various characters, At-Risk explores the atmosphere and impact of different education models. Did you draw heavily on your autobiography?
Gautier: Not exactly. The stories aren’t really autobiographical. But like any good writer, I’ve definitely paid attention and observed [my surroundings]. That’s one of the things we have to do as writers, is watch things intently and then apply a rubric of questions to them. You know, Why is this person doing that? What does it mean? What if this person were to say no? How would the story change? How would the trajectory be different?
But education was a big focus in this particular collection just because I’m dealing with children and adolescents. And when you’re not an adult, and you don’t have a job or bills to pay, you basically live in two worlds. You have your home life … and then you have your school life. In the best of both worlds, both of those environments give you positive reinforcement. But unfortunately if you are from the ghetto, the hood, the projects — whatever you want to call it — usually one of those environments is going to be off in some way. If your school life is dangerous, you go to school and people are outside on the corner selling drugs and you have to navigate that just to get to class, or you get beat up because you’re smart, then you might retreat more into your home, into your family. But if your home life is disturbed, living in a home with a parent who’s dysfunctional or unstable or in jail or on drugs, then you maybe you might lean more on your school life just to find a safe space for yourself. So the collection is really looking at that dichotomy … and how the characters’ choices sustain them or destroy them.
In exploring that dichotomy through recurring characters throughout the collection, did you view At-Risk as almost an episodic novel?
Gautier: Absolutely not. I don’t view it as novelistic in any way, but I do think that the stories have enough cohesion that they make sense together. This collection that finally won [the Flannery O’Connor Award], I had actually sent it around and entered it into the various contests for several years, during which no one paid much attention to it, I think because the stories weren’t as unified. I eventually took some stories out and replaced others because it never occurred to me to want a [short-story] collection to look or feel anything like a novel. You know, I always felt, well, if I want to read a novel, I’ll read a novel. I won’t pick up a collection that pretends to be a novel. Just like if I want a Twinkie, I’ll eat a Twinkie. I won’t get a Twinkie made out of tofu. [Laughing] You know, I just want the real thing.
So what did it mean to you to win the Flannery O’Connor Award and get guaranteed publication of the collection?
Gautier: It meant I was going to Disney World! No, I’m kidding. I’m just saying that because you’re in Florida. It was definitely validation for me. I’m more interested in the work itself, but occasionally I have to think about marketing and the industry, even though I prefer not to. Prior to the publication of this collection, all of the stories in it had been published [individually] in various literary journals. I had published about 50 to 60 stories before this collection came out, but because I didn’t have a book, I wasn’t considered a real writer. But once the book came out, according to the industry, now I’m a real writer. So it was like a stamp of approval.
I’m curious to learn about your formative literary experiences — what books shaped you as a writer?
Gautier: Obviously too many books to name. But when I was an adolescent, reading Toni Cade Bambara was definitely an influence. I had read some of the stories that came out of Raymond’s Run in elementary school when I was the same age as the character Squeak that she writes about in that collection. Prior to that, all the fiction that I had been exposed to in class was more about not just white characters but wealthy and affluent characters … stories about families that had nannies and governesses and tutors and people living in mansions. That was nothing like my background. It wasn’t race as much as it was class. And you got the impression that the only people whose lives are worth describing are the rich and the noble. So Bambara’s stories, set in Harlem about a young African American girl, allowed me the freedom to know that the world I lived in could become literature.
Looking ahead to your reading and craft workshop at MDC, what is the one piece of advice that you would give to young writers?
Gautier: Besides telling them to read a lot I would say to write well rather than write new. It’s a big pet peeve of mine when people praise fiction as new or innovative when it’s really not new — it’s just new to them. It just shows how much more deeply they need to read. Like last year my students were fascinated with the idea of writing a short story like a PowerPoint presentation or as an email or a text message … and I was like, that’s great if you want to write it that way, but don’t think it’s new. You know, Samuel Richardson wrote Clarissa in the form of a letter back in 1742.
So I don’t think [fiction] needs to be new to be good. Most of the books that we think of as good stand on the shoulders of some other book that came before it. The Canterbury Tales couldn’t have been written if Boccaccio hadn’t written The Decameron. You know, it wasn’t new — it was just good.
To learn more about Gautier’s upcoming reading and the Center’s program of writer workshops, visit thecenteratmdc.org.