In one, “Boys Go to Jupiter,” a college student named Claire becomes a lightning rod — scorned by Black students, supported by the campus libertarian group — when a photo of her in a Confederate flag bikini circulates. In “Why Won’t Women Just Say What They Want,” a high-profile artist’s latest work is a series of public apologies to the women he’s wronged — ex-wives, his daughter, a former assistant — though he doesn’t realize all that forgiveness entails. And in “Alcatraz,” a woman fights in vain to reverse her relative’s dishonorable discharge, focused on the sum she estimates the U.S. government owes her family: $227,035.87.
The novella, which gives the book its name, follows Cassie, a field worker in a fictional but plausible government department, the Institute for Public History. Cassie’s job is to leave notes of clarification throughout the country about everything from inaccurate commemorative plaques to kitschy souvenirs. In one scene she corrects a bakery’s Juneteenth display — “targeted not to the people who’d celebrated Juneteenth all along but to office managers who’d feel hectored into not missing a Black holiday or who just wanted an excuse for miscellaneous dessert.” She and her few co-workers of color “shared an urgency about the kind of work we were doing, a belief that the truth was our last best hope, and a sense that our own mission was less neutral and more necessary than that of the white men we answered to at the office.”
Evans’s stories and their sensitivity to issues around race and power feel particularly resonant in 2020, and to the people who know her work, that is no surprise. “Danielle can always anticipate what’s going to happen,” the writer Melinda Moustakis, who was part of Evans’s Five Under 35 cohort, said.
Her editor, Sarah McGrath, said, “She sees really clearly the meaning of various exchanges in ways that many of us take for granted.”
Evans, who teaches creative writing at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, talked about how short stories work, the evolving discussion of race in literature and publishing, and, in a way, her fear of commitment. This conversation has been edited and condensed.