My childhood drawings were not particularly skillful or original, but they were dense with people. I drew huge families (my own was small): brothers and sisters, mothers, fathers, grandparents all facing the viewer, each in a detailed outfit complete with hair ribbons, jewelry, and hats. At one point—I was maybe 9 or 10—I developed an obsessive fear that without a set of ears, nostrils, tiny teeth, and 10 fingers and toes, my figures would be deaf, or suffocate, or be unable to chew, open a school locker, or throw a ball. So I drew all the bits, clunkily but with a panicked sense of obligation. If the details came out particularly badly, I could always cover them—ears with hair, hands with an object or neighboring person. But they had to be there, underneath.
I thought of this recently when I reread Edward P. Jones’s short-story collection All Aunt Hagar’s Children. That book has taught me—for eventually I gave up drawing and became a fiction writer—an enormous amount about how to try to capture human complexity and give every character her due. My early efforts at fiction were sparsely populated, full of only children and isolated figures. I had a genuine interest in loneliness and inner life, but it is also just plain hard to do a lot of characters and not have them read as paper cutouts.
Jones’s stories, though, are packed with people: male and female, old, young, and middle-aged: “They were the children of once-upon-a-time slaves, born into a kind of freedom, but they had traveled down through the wombs with what all their kind had been born with—the knowledge that God had promised next week to everyone but themselves.” They are government workers and artists, veterans, convicts, doctors and shamans, schoolgirls, bureaucrats, porters. Many of them live in Washington, DC, having come up from the rural South as part of the Great Migration. If they are not related by blood, they are connected by a shared history of slavery, by common geographies, and by stories—from the Bible, folklore and fairy tale, neighborhood and communal life. Marked by pasts full of physical displacement, frayed or severed connections, and the legacies of state violence, they nonetheless keep expanding the definition of family by taking each other in.
Each of the 14 stories here even has a “sibling” story in Jones’s 1992 collection, Lost in the City. It’s as if no story can stand in solitude, but must link forward and back, inside and between the very pages of his books.
For a novel to be so richly peopled and communal would be less surprising—and indeed, Jones has written a prizewinning historical novel, The Known World (2003). But what he does with the perhaps more unforgiving form of the short story is astonishing, especially because the stories are also notable for their patient, delicate limning of interior life—loneliness, passion, boredom, sadness, even solitary mirth.
Take, for example, “Spanish in the Morning.” It is, on the one hand, an utterly convincing portrait in the realist vein of a precocious little schoolgirl, as rich in psychological nuance as it is in tactile detail. The girl starts kindergarten on a wave of offerings—dresses, rulers, a pencil box—from her male relatives, for whom her education is a big deal. She makes a friend, jumps rope to playground chants (“I’m happy, you’re happy / Go tell Mama, go tell Pappy”), witnesses an act of violence—two classmates getting slapped by the nuns because they are apparently boyfriend and girlfriend. She notices things: the hands on the clock, the back of a classmate’s head, “the way the dark perfect skin of her neck flowed down from her yellow-ribboned hair, down, down beneath her collar. It was such a vulnerable neck.”
On the other hand, the story breaks just about every writing workshop edict in its handling of point of view, narration, and the laws governing memory and time. Our first hint of this comes in the third paragraph: “I held my hands out for the money and thought of the first memory of my life—my grandfather playing little piggy on my toes when I was four weeks old.” Come again? Four weeks? You remember that? So maybe the girl exaggerates for a moment, or her memory is supplemented by the stories she’s been told. But then it keeps happening. This girl recalls so much, not just about her own infant memories, but also about her parents’ lives before her, and about her grandfather’s inner life. She even “remembers” that, years earlier, he lay near some train tracks in rural South Carolina, “dreaming that a child was sticking an especially long hatpin in his right leg as he weeded a section of his collard green patch in a cruel rain.”
Jones’s stories remind us—so gently it is easy to overlook their underlying ferocity—that we are all just tiny figures inside the sweep of an often violent history.
It soon becomes clear that this child narrator is part of a much bigger fabric, not just because she has a lot of relatives, but also—and more radically—because she has access to her family’s history of rupture and suffering. She somehow senses everything, down to the contours of their most private thoughts and the dogged ways that they have shaped their lives. “But this is about my father’s father. And me. And all of them,” she slips in at one point. Even the story’s title, “Spanish in the Morning,” has only an oblique relationship to the narrator. It refers not to her but to her mother, who has a thing for Spanish and speaks it in the morning, conversing “for long periods with some imaginary person, or conjugating verbs, staying sharp for the day that some woman from Mexico, lost and without a word of English, might knock on her door and ask for help.”
Jones’s ability to get at the inner lives of women is remarkable. He also manages to drop full histories into subordinate clauses, giving even side characters their due. “Then, in late August of 1899,” he writes in “In the Blink of God’s Eye,” “Mrs. Halley Stafford, who, people said, had given her name to the comet, decided she had had enough and died in the bed she was conceived and born in.” Mrs. Halley Stafford is not a central character. Yet now she has a story; in one sentence, we glimpse its comedy, its force, its cosmic arc.
Jones is not alone in his ability to tuck whole worlds inside the compact short-story form. Alice Munro does it beautifully. So do James Baldwin, William Faulkner, and (although often with a tighter focus) Grace Paley and Deborah Eisenberg. These are all writers who make bold use of time jumps and omniscient narration, and for whom memory and the forces of history are central themes. But Jones’s short stories deserve a wider audience than they have found. And at a time when so much of the news out of Washington, DC, comes to us in florescent-orange cartoon shapes, I am particularly grateful for his subtle rendering of the lives taking place in our capital’s apartments and alleyways, transit buses and grocery stores, among the people who mop the floors of the government buildings and walk their children to the public schools.
Jones’s stories remind us—so gently it is easy to overlook their underlying ferocity—that we are all just tiny figures inside the sweep of an often violent history. They offer songs, sermons, even sewing as ways to bear witness and forge connection. They make time buckle and blur the boundaries between self and other, dream and waking, the living and the dead. “The sounds of the other sleepers now came to her as well,” Jones writes in the collection’s final story, “Tapestry.” “And there were many who were also talking in their sleep. Men and women shouting whole thoughts. A shout or two. A plea.”
This article was commissioned by John Plotz.