By DONNA EDWARDS
LaToya Watkins has surpassed the high bar set by her beautifully crushing debut novel, “Perish,” with a collection of short stories titled “Holler, Child.” Heavily rooted in west Texas where the author grew up, the 11 fictional pieces focus on Black lives — and the huge range of people and relationships within — to form a profound collection.
In the namesake short story, which includes some of the most brutal scenes in the book, the bloodied face of the narrator’s son reminds her of the day she was raped and beaten — “Holler, Child” being what she commanded her 17-year-old self to do way back then, but couldn’t. Now, confronted with the possibility that her son may have raped someone, she has a chance to handle things differently.
Its ending is completely unexpected — a battlefield of conflicting logic and emotion that’s hard to fathom, but also strangely sensical.
While many of the pages are about mothers and wives, some are from a male perspective, like “Dog Person.” The narrator convinces his girlfriend to accept his dog as a part of himself in a story that turns out to be absolutely heart-wrenching. Layers of betrayal and hurt and blame and sadness have nowhere to go, so they fester. What does the dog have to do with it? It’s impossible to say, exactly, even though the dog is the keystone of the story.
Generations of trauma, sacrifice and striving make the characters complex and Watkins fits loads of information into just a handful of pages by skipping unnecessary context. Instead, she draws on societal truths and the reader’s empathy to form the solid foundation beneath each story.
Each voice brings something special, every narrative hard-hitting yet tender. Then, in the final short “Time After,” it all comes home.
And, really, all the stories are about coming home — wherever or whomever home may be, and regardless how the characters feel about it. In many cases, home is west Texas. In some, it’s a mother, or oneself.
An article by Watkins for Juneteenth this year — the first year it was officially recognized as a federal holiday despite over a century of celebrations — helps to frame the motif of gender roles and divisions between men and women throughout “Holler, Child.” It’s a messy, fluid thing that she explores in various forms: a wife completely fed up with her husband after decades of marriage; a husband who feels his wife has peeled away pieces of him over the years; two sisters in search of the brother who was disowned because of his identity.
Those male-female relationships go on to influence others, like the daughter who confronts her mother for her cold-heartedness; the mother who decides to love her kids out of spite for her husband; and the young woman who sees her parents in a new light after her baby’s father refuses to help.
The stories lay bare the death of a child, a partner, a sibling, a pet — topics that, in less careful hands, might be beyond ethical approach in a mere 20 pages. Watkins gives these momentous life changes the proper weight they deserve with the exact distance at which to feel them without being crushed.
In all of these stories, there’s tragedy at large and small scales. The fictional characters are in very real situations, each of them unique but carrying a feeling of familiarity.
“Holler, Child” is an excellent collection with true staying power. Every single story could stand on its own but works beautifully toward the whole.