“It is barely the summer—just the end of June—and already two teenaged boys have been killed.” So begins Amina Gautier’s debut collection At Risk, winner of the Flannery O’Conner Award for Short Fiction. In it, we find a dangerous world predominantly populated by vulnerable teens, preteens, and the adults whose best intentions cannot save them. In story after story in this collection, Gautier engages and interrogates stereotypes about urban black culture.
The tropes and characters we find in this collection are familiar: the unwed teenaged mother, the forty-drinking, stoop-sitting teenaged boys, the concerned and unconcerned parents, the sexual deviance, the drugs, the struggle to fit in, the futility of personal effort against stronger destructive forces. Take, for instance, the collection’s opening story, “The Ease of Living,” in which fifteen-year old Jason is sent to live with his grandfather for the summer because his mother fears that if Jason stays in the city, he won’t live to see his sixteenth birthday the next month. The plot line is not wholly original, and Gautier seems to acknowledge this. “You want to indulge in stereotypes, I can oblige you,” she writes in the grandfather’s voice, and Jason’s mother pushes his face in his friends’ coffins, saying, “Any day now, that’s you,” emphasizing how interchangeable these black boys are perceived to be. Yet Gautier’s acknowledgement of common storylines and seemingly interchangeable people does not mean she would have us accept the stereotypes. Like this boy’s grandfather and mother, At Risk seeks to push through these outward appearances into a more keenly defined individuality.
In story after story, Gautier reveals a richer interior life for these characters than familiar stories typically allow. Rather than accepting the old clichés, her stories challenge one stereotype after another, exploring the thoughts, histories, and desires of each character to open that which makes them unique. As the collection’s title suggests, each character is threatened by the internal and external forces that surround him or her. As the stories move us beyond the stereotypes that govern these characters, we’re left to face terrifying questions: can we love these kids enough to save them? Is love enough to do that work?
Even when the characters are removed from the ghetto, we sense the danger they face. In “Dance for Me,” a black girl is sent to a predominantly white boarding school because her mother perceives it to be safe. Yet even here, among rich kids dressed in designer clothes, the protagonist can’t escape harm. True, this world is less overtly violent, but the girl’s integration comes at a cost. As she dances for her fellow students to earn their friendship in a display of modern-day minstrelsy, the story’s central character confronts her own loss of self:
I pictured an image of myself that was Heather’s body and face, only it was black and it was me. I saw how much of me would change; I saw the girl I would become. And I decided to miss myself right now, knowing that the girl I would become wouldn’t know how to appreciate me at all.
The style here is typical of the collection: simply-stated but no less lyrical for that. As Gautier moves her characters from stereotypes to fully imagined individuals, she develops a voice for each, one informed by the unique personalities of the characters as they move through their reactions to the varied risks they face. As we see in this last example, the characters do not dwell in self-pity or even self-preservation. Typical of real, rather than fictional, people, they are focused on those they love, including their grandmothers, brothers, boyfriends, and friends—even those whose friendship might destroy them. They worry about earning the respect of rich strangers and earning the love of classmates who care little about them. In short, the characters in this collection are people caring about people, though they live in a city ghetto that has been uncared for by the larger community for far too long.
In “Yearn,” the final story of Gautier’s collection, Miss Earlene declares, “These kids here today ain’t amountin’ to nothing,” but Miss Earlene’s own status as the neighborhood’s “conversational drunk” implies that the odds were not necessarily any better in the past than they are now. In this story, we are introduced to Kiki and Stephen, the boys whose death is referred to in the collection’s opening line. The boys who were nothing but dreamed ghosts in the opening story are now seen trying and failing to grow in a city that provides little safety. The risks alluded to in the opening chapter are revealed to be all too real. As we read the story of yet another mother trying to save her children, we know at the start that her efforts will prove futile, leaving us with the question of what can be done. The stories along the way have offered a bevy of solutions, but each fails in its own way.
Ultimately, these aren’t stories that surprise us at the end, but rather ones that surprise us with how those ends are reached. If the story lines seem commonplace, as some reviewers have suggested, it is because such stories are played out every day in cities across the country. We may know the stories, but Gautier seeks to give us the people behind the familiar stories, to enliven the stories with their voices, to make us care. A thought-provoking read, At Risk offers no easy solutions to the problems of inner city poverty and racial discrimination. In the end, we may not be able to love these children and teenagers enough to change their circumstances, but Gautier ensures that we will, in fact, love them.
Siân Griffiths lives in Ogden, Utah, where she serves as assistant professor of English at Weber State University. Her work is published in Quarterly West, Ninth Letter, Versal, and the Georgia Review, among other publications. Her story "What Is Solid" was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and her first novel, Borrowed Horses, is forthcoming from New Rivers Press.
University of Georgia Press, 2012
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