This week the long-running comedy show Saturday Night Live hired Sasheer Zamata as a new cast member. The show had come under criticism for its lack of diversity, especially its lack of black women; Zamata will be the show's first female African-American cast member in six years.
When news of Zamata's hiring broke, it was met in many circles with equal parts excitement and trepidation — the possibilities of a range of new, funny, strange black female characters not played by Kenan-Thompson-in-a-dress, up against the reality that whatever role she is playing, Zamata's debut will mean she's always performing the role of SNL's Black Woman, and she faces the burden of playing within or against the history of what that role has meant.
In thinking about that complicated and also, hopefully, joyful and rewarding space she will occupy, I was reminded of one of my favorite story collections. Asali Solomon's Get Down is a book that understands the degree to which race and racial identity are so often about performance.
In the opening story, "Twelve Takes Thea," Thea and Nadja struggle with the pressure and suspicion that accompanies being the only black girls at a wealthy white prep school. Thea, awkward and uncertain, is at home called "Jane" by her older brother, who taunts her for being too white. At school, she's treated as an emissary from a land of urban danger, and often confused for her bolder friend Nadja, so that their friendship means their two distinct identities collapse into their role as their grade's black girls. When Nadja leaves school and a new black classmate arrives, the internal and external pressure Thea feels to befriend her twists itself into a cruelty that Thea believes is the only way she can differentiate herself.
Later, in "The Star of the Story," Solomon explores the heartbreaking space between the people we are, the people we wish to be and the stories we tell about ourselves. Solomon writes "It was during that time, in Eduardo's arms, that Akousa came into one of her favorite selves, an Afrocentric Lola Falana. ... She shoplifted bright, beaded, slinky things from Macy's and wore strappy sandals in the dead of February."
Akousa is not the only character in the collection drawn to the idea that a new self can be as simple as a costume change or a willful reinvention. Solomon's characters are aware of the ways in which they are weird and quirky and lonely and awkward and searching and human. They are aware of the ways in which they are never far from their histories, and never free from the prisms through which they are viewed.
Race is one thematic link of the collection, and it is given its due complexity. But the thread that ultimately ties these stories together, and these characters to readers, is the raw desire for genuine human connection in the face of everything — race included — that seems determined to sabotage it.
Danielle Evans's latest collection of short stories is Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
This week, "Saturday Night Live" hired Sasheer Zamata, its first African-American female cast member in six years. Zamata's hiring follows recent criticism of the comedy show's lack of diversity. Author Danielle Evans(ph) says she has an idea what it's like to be in Zamata's shoes as the only black woman on the show. Evans has never done sketch comedy, but she has read a book of short stories that draws on the theme. It's called "Get Down" by Asali Solomon.
DANIELLE EVANS: Asali Solomon is a writer who understands what race has to do with performance. "Twelve Takes Thea," the opening story of her collection, is about two black girls at a wealthy prep school. Thea is awkward. At home her brother calls her Jane and teases her for acting too white, but at school her classmates treat her like an emissary from the land of urban danger.
She's also often confused for her friend Nadja(ph). It's almost as if their friendship means that they can't be themselves, their personalities collapse into their own role as the class' only black girls. When Nadja leaves the school, and a new black classmate arrives, Thea feels pressured to be friends with her. She finds herself twisting into cruelty to differentiate herself.
In another story called "The Star of the Story," Solomon writes it was during that time in Eduardo's(ph) arms that Akusa(ph) came in to one of her favorite selves. She shoplifted bright, beaded, slinky things from Macy's and wore strappy sandals in the dead of February.
Akusa isn't the only one in this collection who thinks a new self can be as simple as a costume change. All of Solomon's characters are aware of how close behind them their histories are, how they'll never quite break free from the prisms through which they're viewed. It's something they grapple with, and it's something that Sasheer Zamata will also definitely grapple with.
CORNISH: The book is "Get Down" by Asali Solomon. It was recommended by author Danielle Evans. Her latest collection of short stories is called "Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self."
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