Winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, At-risk (University of Georgia Press) by Amina Gautier is a heartbreaking, eye opening, and endearing collection of stories that focus on African-American children in turmoil. Fathers leave, or if they stay, fall apart—addictions and failure all around them. Mothers ignore, or distance themselves, pushing their own agendas. Brothers and sisters either die in the street or get out by whatever means is necessary. And somewhere in the shadows of these events sit the boys and girls who try to make sense of it all—and try to survive it, unscarred.
When you are lost, ignored, and generally treated as less than worthwhile by society, your family, and your friends, how do you find yourself, how do you find a way to rise above it all? In the case of “Girl of Wisdom” you seek the attention of somebody, anybody, that will make you feel special. Melanie starts out joking with the neighborhood boys but tries to grow up fast by hopping in the car of a stranger and riding off with him. He’s a much older man, but she takes charge of the situation, in an effort to transform herself from a girl into a woman:
“Melanie finds his bedroom on her own. She doesn’t wait for him to follow. She goes to it, undresses, peels back thin cotton sheets and climbs into his bed. What courtesy he shows when he turns his back to her while he undresses, before climbing in beside her. He doesn’t pounce on her the way a boy her own age would. His legs are wiry and strong against hers, his feet bony and cold. How gentle it is when he parts her legs, how silent when he enters her.”
Even though we all lost our virginities in one way or another, this is still a difficult scene to watch. When she comes home later, she hopes that her mother, Bernice, will finally notice her and see the change, see how she is wise now—evolved. But she doesn’t:
“Bernice is in the kitchen, paring apples for pie, when Melanie comes home. Melanie thinks her mother should know it at once. That it should be obvious. A difference in her walk and her bearing. She thinks there is now an air about her that exudes woman. But her mother is blind to it. Bernice drops an apple core into the trash and greets her, noticing nothing.”
I don’t know what is worst—the lengths she goes to in order to feel like a woman, the fact that she needs her mother’s approval so much that this is what she does, or the harsh reality that her mother doesn’t see anything at all. All of these options weigh heavily on the reader.
Another story that really resonated with me was “Held,” the story of a young girl that has gotten pregnant and can barely tolerate her own child. Kim is tired of her crying baby who only wants to be held. But her mother offers no help:
“Kim took the baby down the hallway and called to her mother.
‘Ma! What am I supposed to do?’
Her mother shouted from the living room, ‘I know you not asking me nothing. You ain’t want my advice this time last year, don’t ask me nothing now.’”
Frustrated by her situation—her mother’s lack of help, her older sister’s lectures on how to take care of her baby, her boyfriend’s lack of interest in doing anything more than the bare minimum to help her—Kim eventually realizes that this is not a chore or a punishment, but a gift. This is her child, her daughter, and she finally embraces the child:
“The baby was quiet now, but curious. Rapt. Her eyes followed Kim’s every movement. She brought the infant closer and inhaled, smelling the warm baby scent of powder and new, new skin. The baby reached for her hair and Kim laughed, feeling like the two of them were the only two people that had ever been in the world. And they were only now just meeting.”
Many of the stories end with failure, death or heartache, so it’s a comfort to see this story turn out a little better than when we started it, and we eventually root for Kim to succeed, to focus on more than her own needs—to see how wonderful her daughter is, and to love the child with an open mind and heart.
But the most devastating story in this collection has to be “Push.” Girls in school fighting and trying not to fail—these acts of survival are what you’d expect to find in this urban setting. But Gautier takes chances with this narrative and forces the audience to hold back their judgments, to stop and think about what’s happening, what is must be like to be these girls. Our young unnamed protagonist is held after class and told to write about her thoughts, to apologize to the girl, Colleen, who she pushed down the last flight of stairs. She follows Colleen in line, day in and day out. In her eyes, Colleen isn’t special—not beautiful, not brilliant—just average at best. She sees the lengths that Colleen goes to in order to get noticed, wearing her mother’s perfume, just one of forty-five kids. Here are her powerful final thoughts:
“What it really comes down to is the rightness of the push.
When they are going down the stairs and the girl pushes Colleen down the steps or forces her into the railing, the girl feels a part of something larger than herself. She believes, deep down, that Colleen expects it, in fact cannot live without it. On the rare occasions when the girl has not indulged in a minor act of violence, she has caught Colleen sneaking wounded glances at her. Though Mrs. Greenberg can never understand it, the girl knows that Colleen also lives for the skirmish. There were forty-five kids in Mrs. Greenberg’s class. If it were not for the girl’s attentive violence, Colleen would be a nobody. She’d go unnoticed and uncalled on by Mrs. Greenberg, lost in a sea of indistinguishable black kids in a public elementary school with an overcrowding problem. The girl draws a line through her apology and turns to a fresh page.
You don’t have to thank me.”
There is so much hanging on that last line, so much to take in and absorb. Is this a noble gesture that the girl is offering, or simply another selfish act? It makes you pause and wonder.
And that’s what Amina Gautier does so well. She doesn’t give us the expected stories, the same old situations, where poverty is the sickness, with no cure in sight. While her focus is definitely on at-risk children, the beauty she captures in these pages are the same truths, emotions, and dreams that exist in all of our lives. Everyone wants to be loved, everyone wants to be valued—everyone wants to be special. These stories have courage, a brutal honesty, and a layered insight that is hard to find. They will stay with you long after the stories are over. Two of the story titles still echo in my mind, a microcosm of everything Gautier tries to feature in her work: “Push,” and “Held.”