- G.O.A.T. Short Collections
Prior to my matriculation at the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program in 1990, I had some vague and diffuse notions about literature but was particularly passionate about defending them. Of course, I really hadn't read enough. Who has at 22? I hadn't tested any of my theories about writing or reading fiction. I know now that I was merely parroting a number of things that my instructors at other institutions had impressed upon me. But after the nearly six years I spent in the Bayou City, informed perhaps more by conversations with peers and instructors at garage apartment parties than by what transpired in seminar rooms, I emerged with most of the convictions I have today, not the least of which is my limitless affection for the short story collection.
I can remember well the moment when what had been some largely incoherent but enthusiastic rumblings—Why did I prefer story collections to novels?—started to find their shape. It was upstairs on the third floor of the Roy G. Cullen building, a room resembling more storage space for outmoded office furniture than a place of learning. We workshop students had a visitor that day, an African American writer I had never heard of until that afternoon: Reginald McKnight. (That I had never heard of him attests more to my ignorance than Mr. McKnight's achievement.) A book on personal enlightenment would characterize this as an event where a spiritual mentor appears when the student is ready. For not only was I in need of a living black writer in my presence, but I was also in need of one who possessed what Reg McKnight had: erudition, generosity, understanding, and patience. He was a candidate for a job at U of H, which I didn't know at the time, so maybe he was demonstrating for the search committee just how well he could work with such numskulls as I; I don't know, as this was the only day I've ever been in the same room with him.
He read from his first collection of stories, the Drue Heinz Award-winning Moustapha's Eclipse(1988); the story was "Gettin' to Be Like the Studs." Told in first person, from the point of view of a white adolescent who shockingly betrays an African American classmate who previously was his friend. The story garnered my full attention because of its parallels with my own life (having been that classmate screwed over by white kids), and because in the room McKnight mimicked a flawless redneck accent (you know me, ABR fam, I like good mimics). Had that been the extent of the hours we spent together, I would have become an ardent McKnight reader, but after McKnight finished the story, there was an opportunity for us students to ask questions. Still working out for myself how to write fiction where race was utilized in a way different from how Richard Wright handled it, I asked McKnight if his stories were mostly about race relations. (Memory has aided me in blocking out exactly what I said, as I'm sure it was inelegant and likely inaudible.) McKnight paused and said not just about race relations, then he looked at me and said, "You know, man, sometimes you just don't want to write the same story over and over." He must have had his next collection, The Kind of Light That Shines on Texas (1992), in his writing queue at the time, for he went on to describe that what he always wanted out of a story collection was a writer who could show his or her range. He didn't want twelve stories in first person. Or ten realistic stories. Or eight wacky experiments. He looked for story collections that mixed POV's, subjects, styles, and voices. He looked once more at me: "You know what I mean?" he asked.
Man, did I ever.
And I only had to wait a few years for that book to come out. Meantime, I was delighted to read Moustapha's Eclipse and the subsequent novel, the vastly underrated I Get on...