The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans. Penguin Random House, 2020. $27.00, 269 pages.
“It was the winter after the most depressing election of my adult life, a low point for my faith in the polis, and I had started keeping an unofficial tally in my head of how much I trusted each new white person I met. It was a pitiful tally because I had decided most of them would forgive anyone who harmed me, would worry more about vocal antiracism ruining the holiday party season and causing the cheese plates to go to waste than about the lives and sanity of the nonwhite humans in their midst” (210).
The way history is taught, passed down, or even written about in textbooks is not defined by the facts of the events, but rather it is determined by the perspective of those who are telling the stories. With a Presidential election season that made us all feel as though life was just one big anxiety attack after another, now is a better time than any to reflect on U.S. history and the way it has been passed down. A great place to start is by reading Danielle Evans’ short story collection (and novella), The Office of Historical Corrections, which addresses the complexity of grief while also exploring issues of race, the stripping of Black culture and history, and sex through a woman’s perspective.
The book is split into seven nonlinear stories titled “Happily Ever After,” “Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain,” “Boys Go to Jupiter,” “Alcatraz,” “Why Won’t Women Just Say What They Want,” “Anything Could Disappear” and “The Office of Historical Corrections.” Each story except for the last is told in a third person perspective. This allows for readers to interpret each story from a different lens, yet Evans’ quick-witted voice unifies each narration. Aside from trauma, another theme heavily discussed is the use of sex as a means of escaping grief. The stories that discuss sex describe it as a transaction between the characters, in which a man is pleasured and in exchange the lead woman can forget the pain they refuse to come to terms with. For example, Rena, the main character of “Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain” is stated to have “learned how to press the blade of her heart into the center of someone else’s life, [and] to palm a man’s crotch under the table while smiling sweetly at his wife…” (40).
Whether it be addressing the unfair treatment of Black women by the health care system in “Happily Ever After” or diving into the realities of domestic violence in “Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain,” Danielle Evans effortlessly blends the impact of trauma into what otherwise may be seen as a mundane story. A story that made me feel a whirlwind of emotions from anger, annoyance and even empathy, was “Boys Go To Jupiter.” The story follows Claire, a young white woman who goes viral from wearing a confederate flag print bikini and then continues to perform hate crimes against her peers. This chapter puts you in the perspective of a culturally ignorant white woman, which was quite honestly a concerning place to be and I personally would not like to enter that mindset ever again. Despite this, “Boys Go To Jupiter” is one of my favorite chapters in this book.
Oddly enough I found myself empathizing with Claire when her friend’s try to comfort her at her mother’s funeral: “He is a perfect gentlemen, but one with a mother, and Angela is a friend with a mother, and already they are galaxies away from Claire, alone in her grief” (67). Having lost one of my parents at a young age, this line resonated with me and spoke volumes on how hard it can be to feel connected to others when you’re mourning a loved one. Claire is a character that at first glance I would never think I would be able to relate to, yet I found myself identifying with some of the emotions she felt throughout the story. That is the beauty of this book–it can draw in an audience from any background and make them connect and relate with a character that may seem worlds apart from them.
If you like reading stories with happy endings or endings that wrap everything up like a neat Christmas present, this might not be the book for you. Originally, I was critical of the endings of each chapter because they felt unfinished and left endless questions unanswered. However, as I continued reading, I realized that Evans most likely intended for the audience to feel a lack of closure. Although these stories are fiction, they are extremely representative of the world we live in today. In real life, we may know each other’s history and how our stories began, but we don’t know how everyone’s journey is going to end and the same goes for each of the characters in this novel.
In her acknowledgments, Danielle Evans states “this book is, among many other things, about grief and loss, and about women unwilling to diminish their desires to live full and complex lives” (269). Being a bisexual women of color, I myself have known the painful burden of feeling detached from my own history and experiencing intergenerational trauma. I wholeheartedly believe The Office of Historical Corrections is a necessary read for anyone a part of the BIPoC community who is looking for representation of their voice, but also for anyone seeking inspiration to reclaim their own history.
Briana Bhola is from Long Island, New York, but is currently a junior at Loyola University New Orleans. Her Guyanese and Goan heritage constantly inspires her to pursue activist work and empower others during her free time.