mina Gautier is a writer, professor, native Brooklynite and someone who desires more than just red sweaters. This Stanford and UPenn grad currently resides in Chicago where she is an assistant professor of English at DePaul University. Gautier is the second African-American in history to win the prestigious Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction for her collection At Risk (University of Georgia Press, 2011).
Dominion of New York recently had the pleasure of chatting up Gautier about her new book, being from Brooklyn and what red sweaters have to do with fiction.
Gautier will read from her book at her first New York City book signing on November 20, 2011 at the KGB Bar (85 East 4thStreet) at 7 pm. A limited number of copies of At Risk will be available to purchase on site, so feel free to come with your book in hand.
Congratulations on winning the Flannery O’Connor Award for your new book of short stories At Risk. The official Flannery O’Connor Award site says the award is for “emerging writers.” You have 65 published short stories under your belt, do you consider yourself to be an emerging writer?
I’m very honored and humbled by the Flannery O’Connor Award. It is funny that I’m considered to be an emerging writer, but within the context of the guidelines I am. Like you said, I have numerous published stories and I’ve been published in anthologies, but this is my first book on my own. All of the stories in At Risk were previously published in journals like the Notre Dame Review and the North American Review.
There’s definitely a theme in the At Risk stories. They all involve African American youth in urban settings, Brooklyn to be exact, who are right in the thick of possibly life changing moments. What was your motivation for putting together a collection with this particular theme?
I was born and raised in Brooklyn and when I was coming up, there were a lot of enrichment programs for minority students. Upward Bound and other programs like that were created to close the achievement gap between the minority or low income kids and the children from wealthier families and better resourced schools. I am a product of those programs. I participated in that and I was still going to school and living with kids in the neighborhood who didn’t have those opportunities. That’s really interesting to me. When you start calling kids “at-risk” or “low-performing,” you start seeing them as statistics instead of people. I wanted to remind people that these children are individuals, human beings.
Do you have a favorite story from this collection?
No! These stories are my babies, my children.
Parents always have a favorite child. If anyone tells you differently, she’s lying.
And that’s so bad. I have a story in there about that too. Well, I don’t really have a favorite, but “Push” is special to me. It’s the most recent story in the collection and I wrote in basically in one day. That’s the quickest story I’ve ever written. I wanted to challenge myself to write it quickly because the story itself spans just one hour of time and I wanted to capture that fast paced energy. Plus, “Push” was the first time I added humor to my work. I didn’t think it was part of my style, but it is.
“Dance for Me” is pretty funny too. The part where the girl is dancing her little heart out in the bathroom for the other girls is pure comedy.
You know what, that was unintentional. I didn’t know “Dance for Me” was funny until I was doing a reading and the audience started cracking up laughing at that part. When I wrote it, I was thinking about how blacks were always made to perform for white people, to provide entertainment. I was thinking about Stepin Fetchit, Bojangles and other people from that era. Had no intention of being humorous, but it turns out that it is funny.
The stories in At Risk are all in urban settings, but this book is most certainly not what people like to call “urban lit” or “street lit.” That genre is very popular though and a lot of today’s best-selling black authors write those types of books. Do you find it challenging as a black author who wants to be published, but does not write in that genre?
I have never been interested in writing those genres. I write literary fiction. I’m more along the lines of James Baldwin, not street lit. It has it’s challenges. I have been writing short stories for 10 years.