In his essay “We Need Diverse Diverse Books” at Lit Hub, Matthew Salesses asks for an end to the imperative of the “one story” and its limitations and stereotypes. Salesses decries the ways that a single racial or ethnic narrative dominates and recurs, as if the market can only bear a single hyphenated-American experience (the African-American, the Dominican-American, the Japanese-American, and so on), finally clarifying his desire for diversity this way: “My problem is with the lack of books about people who look like me but aren’t like me.”
Tom Williams’ story collection Among The Wild Mulattos and Other Tales may come as close to realizing Salesses’ ideal as any book I have ever read. (I first became aware of Williams through his work as editor of The Arkansas Review, when ten years ago he accepted a story of mine.) The collection explicitly considers the experience of being biracial, as Williams is. The majority of his protagonists are “mulatto” and they speak their experience eloquently, as light-skinned black men uncertain of how they belong in a binary world. Among The Wild Mulattos and Other Tales is playful, inventive, and hilarious—scene to scene and line to line, these stories are an unpretentious, compulsively readable delight.
The collection opens with a wonderful meta-fiction, “The Story of my Novel, Three Piece Combo with Drink”) wherein a failed writer sits down in his favorite chain restaurant, Cousin Luther’s, for a meal he loves, though he notes that, as “a person of color, I tend to be wary about public consumption of watermelon, barbecue and fried chicken.” The writer, seized by inspiration, pitches Cousin Luther’s management on a novel that would act as an ode to the restaurant, and they accept on the condition of changing the entire book. In the initial draft, he “made my first person narrator biracial—as I had with every other piece I’d written…[but never] did I think too long about making him a writer: that seemed corny, too self-reflexive.” The story is a light-hearted farce, yet it comments seriously on the literary construction of identity, the relationship between author and book, and between literature and commercial commodification. It satirizes modern race relations, considers how we change ourselves to survive the commercial marketplace, and exposes the absurdity of the entire pursuit. Rarely does a collection begin with a story at once so inventive, compelling, funny, and self-aware.
In the final story, “Among the Wild Mulattos,” a young interracial man escapes to a rural enclave of biracial blacks who live outside the “two-box world” where a mulatto “is subject to the worst kind of stupidity and intolerance.”
[For] every Anglo like my uncle who pretended I didn’t exist so he wouldn’t have to admit his niece had had intercourse with a black man, there was a black man who sneered when I tried to find solidarity with him.
The Wild Mulattos, in the far reaches of the Arkansas Delta, embrace the young man, who hails from New Orleans, but has lived most recently (unhappily) in Illinois. They offer him a place to stay, and “arrange” (unbeknownst to him, by patriarchal edict) for a woman who looks like he does to take romantic interest in him, so that for once he does not feel he has to “choose” between being white or black, while never being really white, or ever being “black enough.” This artificial reprieve from the binary world proves temporary, for by late in the story, the mulattos have locked the protagonist in a small room, so that he must escape this new prison—he belongs not in an artificial ethnic enclave of the in-between, but back home in Louisiana, two-box and flawed, but real.
Despite its persistent engagement with race and identity, there is nothing ideological about Williams’ approach—he is not writing to convince us or impress us, nor is he particularly concerned with the political ramifications of his unifying theme. Rather, he embraces the absurd and irreal, as doppelgangers arrive to take over one character’s life, a talent agency finds that literary impersonators are far preferable to writers themselves, and an enthusiastic couple helps makeover a stodgy academic so he can make a true “Movie-Star Entrance.”
Williams’ stories feel new, and if their plots are oriented toward the disoriented hybridity of the “mulatto,” their concerns are universal: what it means to be human, to seek belonging, to err, to want, to long, to feel the impossibility of finding happiness or a home in the world. Surely Williams has had to live his entire life in his own uncertain skin, but this collection never feels autobiographical. For me—a multiracial fellow who’s spent much of his life in a two-box world, people-less—these stories resonate, but not because they embody my particular experience. Williams leaves us richer by implicating all of us in these stories. Here, at last, is literature’s diverse diversity.