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​Read the First Story from Kathleen Collins's Brilliant 'Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?'

The nearly lost collection of stories by the celebrated filmmaker Kathleen Collins is really, really good.
December 8, 2016, 5:00am
Photo of Kathleen Collins by Douglas Collins. Courtesy of Ecco/HarperCollins

There are some books that you immediately fall in love with. And there are some, even rarer, whose words are so auspiciously timed, so painfully beautiful and true, that you can only be grateful to have happened upon them—and then tell your friends.

Kathleen Collins's exceptional Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?, released Tuesday, fits both of these categories. The story collection might be my most memorable reading experience of the year—in a year of very memorable reading experiences, including Alejandro Zambra's ingenious Multiple Choice and the reissue of Helen DeWitt's masterpiece The Last Samurai. Multiple reviewers have hailed Collins's incisive and original stories about black intellectuals, interracial relationships, and colorism as a revelation, and I can only agree. Collins, who died in 1988 at the age of 46, was the pioneering filmmaker behind the nearly lost Losing Ground [1982], which was unearthed just last year to much critical acclaim, and these stories, with their verve and vérité, confirm the remarkable aesthetic vision of their creator.

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Here's the very short first story of the collection, an example of simple, cinematic elements (only dialogue, only technical directions, everything dealing with lighting and dimming) executed to concise perfection.

—James Yeh, culture editor

Exteriors

"OK, it's a sixth-floor walk-up, three rooms in the front, bathtub in the kitchen, roaches on the walls, a cubbyhole of a john with a stained-glass window. The light? They've got light up the butt! It's the tallest building on the block, facing nothin' but rooftops and sun. OK, let's light it for night. I want a spot on that big double bed that takes up most of the room. And a little one on that burlap night table. OK, now light that worktable with all those notebooks and papers and stuff. Good. And put a spot on those pillows made up to look like a couch. Good. Now let's have a nice soft gel on the young man composing his poems or reading at his worktable. And another soft one for the young woman standing by the stove killing roaches. OK, now backlight the two of them asleep in the big double bed with that blue-and-white comforter over them. Nice touch.

"OK, now while they're asleep put a spot on the young woman smiling in that photograph taken on the roof of the building and on the young man smoking a pipe in that photograph taken in the black rocking chair, and be sure to light the two of them hugging each other in that photograph taken in the park around the corner. Good. Now backlight the young woman as she lifts that enamel counter covering the bathtub and put a little light on him undressing her and a nice soft arc on the two of them nude in the doorway. Nice touch. Now dim the light. He's picking at her and teasing her. No, take it way down. She looks too anxious and sad. Keep it down. He looks too restless and angry. Down some more. She's just trying to please him. It can stay down. She's just waiting at the window. No, on second thought, kill it, he won't come in before morning. OK. Now find a nice low level while they're lying without speaking. No, kill it, there's too much silence and pain. Now fog it slightly when he comes back in the evening and keep it dim while they sit on the bed. Now, how about a nice blue gel when he tells her it's over. Good. Now go for a little fog while she tries not to cry. Good. Now take it up on him a little while he watches her coldly, then up on her when she asks him to stay. Nice. Now down a bit while it settles between them and keep it down while he watches her, just watches her, then fade him to black and leave her in the shadow while she looks for the feelings that lit up the room."

Kathleen Collins was an African-American playwright, writer, filmmaker, director, and educator from Jersey City. She was the first black woman to produce a feature length film.

From the book WHATEVER HAPPENED TO INTERRACIAL LOVE? By Kathleen Collins. Copyright © 2016 by The Estate of Kathleen Conwell Prettyman. Reprinted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.