Radical Softness

A Book Review of Exodus Oktavia Brownlow’s I’m Afraid That I Know Too Much About Myself Now, To Go Back To Who I Knew Before, And Oh Lord, Who Will I Be After I’ve Known All That I Can?: essays and Look at All the Little Hurts of These Newly-Broken Lives and The Bittersweet, Sweet, and Bitter Loves

By Maud Lavin

Exodus Oktavia Brownlow creates worlds, and they are sumptuous, vivid, filled with longing, bearing patches of starkness, and containing vectors of misdirected love. Her first two books, I’m Afraid That I Know Too Much . . ., creative nonfiction essays, and Look at All the Little Hurts . . . , primarily short stories, were both published recently, by E.L.J. Editions and Ethel respectively. If you can, read these two together. They’ll take you to Blackhawk, Mississippi, into the town, and into the surrounding forests, and into a deep feeling heart, thoughtful, observant mind, and lyrical cadences that you don’t want to stop.

I want to tell you about one of the short stories that got to me, hard, “I am Your Protagonist.” It’s been on my mind for a while, and when I go back to re-read it, I’m surprised it’s only 5 pages long. The craft is impeccable, the story told from two points of view, and the timeline split into two also—then and now. The girl/woman remembers a mortifying childhood moment she is sure the boy/man witnessed. Surprisingly, he remembers the moment as benign, superseded by his terrible fight with asthma and his daddy’s making it more difficult. In the middle of the telling of playground dynamics the reader hears, “Today my daddy took away my inhaler. I never went anywhere without my inhaler because it made it easier to play but my daddy said that it was time I started acting like the man that I was (26).” I’m gutted when I read this, two inhalers sitting nearby in my purse, and memories of my parents not understanding why it was so hard for me to breathe. Back in the story, it turns out that as adults the woman and the man see each other regularly in the grocery store, where she shops and he works. The wordless exchanges between them are described in an understated way, the small smiles, and I have rarely read such captivating writing about the quietly packed looks between people who have grown up together in a small town, who might have some attraction for each other, who for sure have memories of each other, who will likely never connect beyond the grocery store.

I know what heartstrings of mine this story plucks, I’ve told you one of them, and there are more. Stepping back some, I try to think what it is about Brownlow’s writing that stands out in the literary landscape. This story is fiction, although it reads as well-crafted nonfiction, and so the comparisons and resonances that come to mind are primarily memoirs. I think of an Alexander Chee quote that I love, “My mother was called in for annual visits with my teachers, during which she was told that I inhabited a dream world of fantasy, and that I would have to live in the real world eventually. Afterward, she would come home and tell me this, and each time I would say, I don’t have to live in the real world (234, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel).” As a reader, I imagine Brownlow as a writer inhabiting such worlds. But her writing, fiction and nonfiction, is also exemplary in the ways she communicates many small pleasures and acts of self-love and love between people, as well as trauma. In fact, the author insists, in many of her pieces, on not centering trauma. There’s a creative nonfiction piece, “I Don’t Want to be a Person’s My Person Because Persons Aren’t Very Good People” (and yes, Brownlow is the Queen of Titles), at the close of Look At All the Little Hurts that can be read as advocating for a kind of radical softness, and Brownlow’s use of language across genres gives that kind of astute generosity, a playfulness, a sharing of virtuoso language twists that carry sharp points and soft landings.

At times, especially in the fiction, the traumas come more to the fore and become surreal, as in the story “Baby is the Big Man, Now.” This one, on a relationship, seemingly both real and fantastic, between a boy and his father, doesn’t seem autobiographical, but the knowingness about uses of fantasy may be.

Brownlow’s nonfiction delivers on this knowingness. In the essay “We Deserve More Black Stories with Happy Endings,” she states, “I want to write the happy black endings that exist fully without tragedy. Happy endings like the countless books that I have read by white authors, featuring white characters. But I want them to be written because they exist outside of fantasy. I want them to exist because they reflect reality (49, I’m Afraid That I Know Too Much).”

While arguing that such endings in the present are too often conditional, Brownlow also foresees unconditional ones flowering in the future. And she doesn’t withhold anger and other complex feelings when small pleasures, ones she has created for herself as small happy endings moment-by-moment in today’s small-town Mississippi, are willfully interrupted. The essay book, I’m Afraid That I Know Too Much, ends with the brilliant piece, “In This Newer South, While Wearing a Selkie Dress and Afro, A White Man Tells Me That I Remind Him of the Old South.” Brownlow brings the reader into the everyday pleasures she’s enjoying, ordering an iced caramel macchiato to go, wearing her Selkie Caviar Dress with its “crisp kind of cotton, that sweepingly ruffles at the bottom (74),” as the older white man edges closer to her, fantasizing about the old South, and his wife looks at her disapprovingly. She breaks this creepy moment down, look by look. Even on the way to her car, white men in a truck yell at her. She feels her own resentment and fear, while also conveying her inner gyroscope at work, her sharp-edged intelligence seeing every detail unfold. And it dawns on the reader that words are Brownlow’s revenge, as well as tools of her dazzling softness and full containers of her emotions. This essay tells of invasive, everyday outrages, and it gives iron fist in a velvet glove of words. Powerfully, Brownlow wonders “if it’s ever possible for a Black woman to just exist without there always being something more to make herself aware of (75).” She reminds herself of having to know “how progressive [a town] may or may not be (75).” She states, “It is fatal to not take into account that whether her curls courteously curtsy, her kinks jump and jack, that she would still be too much for either.”

Then Brownlow twists deftly, movingly, at the end, delivering “I am a Black woman who exists as I am, where I am, without expectations of doing or knowing more.

“The care that I need most is this lie. (p. 77)”

Maud Lavin

Born and raised in Canton, Ohio, Maud Lavin lives in Chicago, where she writes, edits, and runs the READINGS series at Printers Row Wine. One of her books, CUT WITH THE KITCHEN KNIFE, was named a New York Times Notable Book. She has also published CLEAN NEW WORLD, PUSH COMES TO SHOVE, and, as editor, THE OLDEST WE’VE EVER BEEN, among others. Her writing has appeared in JAKEBRIDGEReckon ReviewCowboy JamboreeRoi Faineant, and Heimat Review. She is a Guggenheim Fellow and an editor at Red Ogre Review. She has recently completed JEW-ING AROUND: A HYBRID MEMOIR, and is in the process of looking for a publisher. On Twitter, she’s @maud_lavin, on Instagram @lavinmaud.