Kathleen Collins was a professor of film history at New York’s City College who made a groundbreaking contribution to the subject that she taught. “Losing Ground” (1982), which Collins wrote and directed, was one of the first feature-length dramas made by an African American woman. Collins, who was also an activist and playwright, never got the chance to make another film. She died in 1988, at age 46, after a bout with breast cancer — a life, and a life’s work, cut brutally short.
“Losing Ground” is the story of a marriage in crisis and an intimate portrait of the black creative class in New York in the 1970s. Sarah, a promising young academic, is married to Victor, an older and somewhat louche painter who has just made his first major sale to a museum. (Notably, his work is acquired not by an American institution but by the Louvre.) To celebrate, they rent a summer house in a majority-Puerto Rican community in the Hudson Valley, where Victor becomes smitten with the local culture (and a local woman) while Sarah starves for intellectual and emotional attention, until one of her students asks her to come back to the city to star in a film of his.
Richard Brody, writing in the New Yorker this past spring, called “Losing Ground” “a nearly lost masterwork” and noted ruefully that “[h]ad it screened widely in its time, it would have marked film history.” The film, which never had a theatrical release, was digitally remastered in 2015 and released on DVD and Blu-ray. The project was overseen by Collins’ daughter Nina, who began exploring her mother’s archives in 2006. That same exploration has now yielded up a manuscript’s worth of short fiction, newly published as “Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?”
The title story is set in 1963, “[t]he year of race-creed-color blindness,” when “Idealism came back in style. People got along for a while.” The main characters are two recent Sarah Lawrence graduates — both women; one black and one white — who have turned their Upper West Side apartment into an “interracial mecca” for artists, poets and activists. Wry notice is taken of “another nubile Sarah Lawrence girl (‘white’)” who accompanies a “young, vital heroin addict (‘Negro’).”
Every character is tagged by race, but the tag is always in scare quotes, an acknowledgment of the simultaneous absurdity and inescapability of race as a category. The black roommate takes her lover, a white Freedom Rider, to meet her father, who is in the hospital after a stroke. “He could not move a muscle, yet he seemed to be saying, Is it for this that I fought and struggled all these years, for this, this indecent commingling?” The Freedom Rider, meanwhile, has a father who “will not even venture to meet the girl he has chosen to marry.” How can he ever bring such a man “to an understanding of what it feels like to be beaten to a pulp? Teeth mashed in, jaw dislocated, nose rearranged, stomach pulpy. And all for freedom.”
Several pieces draw on Collins’ knowledge of the film world. “Exteriors” describes a couple’s argument in terms of the set decoration and lighting in their apartment. “When Love Withers All of Life Cries” plays with the film script as a literary form, and “Documentary Style” is a satire narrated by an egotistical assistant cameraman who thinks he ought to be in charge of the shoot he’s working on. “Broken Spirit,” “Treatment for a Story” and “Only Once,” meanwhile, pack worlds of emotion into a few pages apiece. (Comparisons to Amy Hempel and Grace Paley have been made, and are apropos.)
Collins can work wonders with a single line. The narrator of “The Uncle” recalls the ne’er-do-well she grew up worshipping: “To be broke but still so handsome and beautiful, lazy and generous.” Christine, in “The Happy Family,” “wanted so much for her father to laugh, be gay; it was as if she were seeing her childhood for the first time with all its gloomy contours and she wanted so much for it to be otherwise.” A woman in “When Love Withers All of Life Cries” remarks, “I hate fights … fights and working both make me sick.”
There is admittedly — perhaps inevitably — some variation in quality among the 16 stories. I will even share my suspicion that the author herself, had she lived, might have regarded a few of them as not quite finished. But Collins’ voice is so original, her corpus so small and this discovery of her work so long overdue that one can only applaud the editors’ decision to err on the side of inclusion. At this point, why hold anything back?
In the foreword to the volume, poet Elizabeth Alexander writes, “The very existence of this book feels to me like an assurance that while we may think we have done our archival work and unearthed all the treasures of black thinking women, there is always something more to find. We have literary foremothers who are not just the ones we know we had, who continue to remind us of ourselves: Our minds are intricate. Our desires are complex. We are gorgeously contradictory in our epistemologies. We were not invented yesterday.”
That this needs to be said at all, much less spelled out and insisted upon, should occasion reflection and dismay, particularly among those — such as yours truly — whose historical privilege has all too often facilitated passive ignorance and/or active tuning out of what are (or ought to be) self-evident truths. But please understand that I’m not asking you to eat your literary spinach here. The best reason to read this book is simply that it is fantastic: original, provocative, revelatory and bursting with life.
Taylor’s most recent book is the short story collection “Flings.”
Ecco: 192 pp., $15.99 paper