“Give My Love to the Savages” is Satire About Black Masculinity
Chris Stuck's short story collection blends absurdism with realism to tackle identity, racism, and being adrift in the world
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In “This Isn’t Music,” from Chris Stuck’s debut short story collection Give My Love to the Savages, a Black man who has recently moved home is covering his insecurities by making fun of everything around him, from the town’s blue-collar white residents to his Black ex-girlfriend. “You’re a snob,” the narrator says, “but only because you’re observant, hyper-observant. That’s your excuse.”
Chris Stuck has a gift for writing Black characters—often professionals—who are adrift. In different stories, a couple ruin their vacation by live-posting it, a Black conservative searches for love on a cruise ship, and an affair with a white woman turns into a Get Out-esque proposal where being a “kept man” has a new meaning. Everyone is alienated from their surroundings and not sure where to go next.
That in-betweenness is a bougie Black feeling. It’s a mixed-race one, too. Stuck has a Black parent and a white parent, and he addresses multiracial identity directly, in the Pushcart Prize-winning title story and in the collection’s wrenching opener, “Every Time They Call You Nigger,” which was originally published in Meridian.
Raised in Virginia and living in Portland, Oregon, Chris Stuck has an MFA in Fiction from George Mason University. Give My Love to the Savages is his first book, and Publishers Weekly praised its “inventive spin on Black satire” and “perfect balance of absurdism and realism.”
We spoke over video chat about Black in-betweenness and dropping your first book in your 40s.
Chris L. Terry: Writing that pushes the boundary of what’s acceptable can be really compelling. Do you feel like you’re working in that space?
Chris Stuck: It’s not like I’m trying to be controversial or anything, but I am trying to examine it. Like my story about the guy who becomes a penis, “How To Be A Dick in the Twenty-First Century.” I was having fun, writing a story that was amusing to me, and I thought my editor was gonna nix it. She loves that story for some reason! I had it buried in the collection so readers could sort of ease into the book, have a few warm-up stories before they got a six-foot-tall Black penis narrating a story.
CLT: “How To Be A Dick” makes it humiliating to be a penis. I like that one-two punch at the beginning of the collection: the poignant, personal-feeling “Every Time They Call You Nigger,” then this absurd story about a penis. It sets the parameters for the wide variety of topics and feelings that the book has to offer.
CS: I generally like fiction that has some kind of edge to it. I think a lot of fiction is so earnest that it gets boring. But sometimes I think about the humor in my book and worry that people don’t like humor in literary fiction. Some stuff, Black writing especially, tends to be what you would expect or what’s already been done. I love all Black writing, but sometimes we can be put into a box and accept it and just produce art that’s always been made by other Black folks in that box, whether that be slave narratives, inner-city narratives, drug and crime narratives, or the use of Black vernacular in a performative way in order to prove how Black you are to a white reader. This is no diss to anyone who does that, but the work that’s always intrigued me has always gone against the grain. Not everyone feels that way and that’s cool, too.
CLT: Paul Beatty has an essay about how his work attacks a certain sobriety that can feel required in Black literature. The idea that a story needs to be maudlin and dead serious to be great. I think, as a Black writer, there can be some pressure to not use humor because we need to convey things about our experiences that other people don’t take seriously. And, I agree, it can feel really stifling.
CS: When my agent, Dan Mandel, went out with this book, it was out there for a fucking year, and I noticed that most of the editors were white. So, it was hard not to get upset about that racial dynamic, and the monolith of publishing. I wasn’t what they wanted. At the same time, my stories were getting published in journals by white students in MFA programs. They were publishing me enthusiastically, so I had to check myself on some of that stuff.
Yet, no one wanted the actual book. I thought my agent would pat me on the back and say, “Well, we gave it a shot.” But he said we weren’t giving up. He made up a new list of editors and publishers. I saw Amistad was on it and I realized I’d never considered them simply because Amistad had a history of more traditional Black narratives. I didn’t think they’d dig what I do. Dan sent the manuscript out on a Thursday, I think, and Tracy Sherrod at Amistad called me the next Tuesday.
CLT: There is that generation, Danzy Senna and Mat Johnson, older Gen Xers who were writing about mixed-race Black experiences. Even Paul Beatty, who writes skewed Black experiences. I feel like maybe you and me are the next generation of that. We’re inspired by them.
CS: Definitely. They opened a door that we can go through and run off somewhere else. It’ll be the same for the ones who come after us. When we were growing up, we were the only mixed kids around. Now, I look at my younger cousins and their kids. There are mixed kids everywhere! Like, where did y’all come from? I get into old guy mode. Do you know how hard it was for us?
CLT: A lot of your characters are Black people who are isolated or adrift, like the couple in “Chuck and Tina Go On Vacation” who post their whole trip on the ‘gram. Or, “This Isn’t Music,” my favorite story in the collection, about the guy who moves back to his hometown and is having an affair with his ex. Tell me more about writing these characters.
CS: I like characters who are in between destinations, or between races in some way. That’s the way I’ve always felt. Every job I’ve ever had was just the job to make money, and it was never what I wanted to do. So, I’m always adrift. I envy my friends who are engineers and love their jobs. I was always thinking about something else while I was having to do a job or school, you know? Thinking, This is boring. I can’t wait to get to do what I want to do.
My last job was in diversity consulting, for a small Black-owned company here in Portland, Oregon. My boss was a successful dude and I want to see more of that in writing. So many times, Black characters are relegated to being down and out in fiction. That’s a narrative that publishing is familiar with, so they just keep hitting it over and over again. Even my editor, she was like, there’s only one or two blue-collar characters in your book. And I was like, but these white-collar characters are like you!
The guy in “This Isn’t Music,” he tried to go into higher education, but his heart wasn’t in it, so he went back to driving trucks. There’s that in-betweenness again. So there’s the question: as a writer, what do I write? How the world is keeping us down? Because in so many ways, it is. It’s reality. Or do I write about how some of us are actually excelling or trying to? Most of my family’s blue-collar, and when I’m around them, I occasionally feel how I’m not like them. But if I’m around more highly educated people, I feel like they’re stiff as fuck. I love it and hate it, but I feel like that’s my material.
CLT: I like how a lot of your characters are professionals. Do you feel like a middle-class identity separates a Black person from the Black mainstream?
CS: I do have people in my family who got into the right line of work, but when they come back to their family, it’s a lot of code-switching. With my mother, I could tell who she was talking to on the phone by her tone and diction. When I’d call her at work growing up, it felt like she was another person. It was “Professional Ma” on the phone. White folks are listening, boy. That’s what some of “Every Time They Call You Nigger” is about, figuring out where the hell to be comfortable in all these different worlds.
Black people travel across so many different lines every day. So, people who have done well in life, I don’t think that separates them. If you’re tapped in, you’re tapped in. If you’re stuck up, like so many Black conservatives and certain Black social critics seem to be, you were never tapped in. It’s sad to say, but Black success is still such a new thing in the American mind. The first example we probably think of is the Huxtables. Maybe now it’s the Obamas. A fiction and a reality. But white America has had examples since the beginning of time. So it’s another in-betweenness that we have to deal with. You have to hold on to your Blackness yet know that Blackness is a broad state of being.
CLT: How does it feel to be bringing your first book into the world in your 40s?
CS: It’s too late yet right on time. I went to graduate school right out of undergraduate. I had classes with some of the professors that taught in the graduate program, and they were like, “Oh, you should apply.” So, I did and got in. But I was 23, in an MFA program, and I was a complete stoner, drunkie too. I still had to figure myself out.
Right after that, I got a fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center. While we were there, Jonathan Safran Foer’s agent or editor came to visit and she told us about him and his great book, even what his advance was. Naturally, everyone was jealous. He was younger than us, and we were young, too! Everyone wants to be the wunderkind, but I couldn’t deal with that. Back then, I didn’t have the confidence or the intelligence. I would’ve washed out. I think a lot of writing is just confidence. I know who I am now. I didn’t know myself for so long. I don’t think the male brain matures until the age of 27. Mine was probably after that.
CLT: How do you decide if or when you want to address mixed-race identity in a story, as opposed to just Black identity?
CS: The first story and the last story in Give My Love to the Savages are the only ones about mixed race, although other times I’m dealing with interracial situations. In the first story, I was talking about every time I’ve been called “nigger.” I wrote myself as the character and then started to change things. I don’t want it to be, “Me, me, me.” I want it to be a version of me or someone like me.
For the last story, a friend, who is white, told me her cousin flew into L.A. right when the riots were starting. And I tried to write it the way she told it, but it just wouldn’t work, which was for the best. But as soon as she told me that story, I knew the character was gonna be mixed-race because of Rodney King, the LAPD, and everything with race surrounding that. If the character was white, there could be some complications, especially with having a racist father, but not as many as if he was mixed with a white racist father and some baggage in his past. That’s just where my creative mind went with it. It felt like a story I hadn’t seen before, a story I could partially relate to. I’m always looking for the complications in stories, the in-betweenness again, and in a way, it’s an update on the “passing” narrative. How more in-between can you be than being a mixed kid with a racist white father driving around L.A. just as the ’92 uprising begins?
CLT: In your work, even if it isn’t explicitly a mixed-race character, there’s still having these interracial, experiences. I think that those are stories that we’re positioned to tell.
CS: For sure. Sometimes writers of color are pushed to exploit their corner of oppression, like, “Oh, I’m mixed. This is my niche. This is what I’m going to do forever.” I don’t want to be the mixed-race guy who just writes mixed-race characters. But I get if someone would. Sometimes, mixed folks are really into being mixed. I play around with that with my social media handles @super_biracial and @super_biracial_man just because I always got jokes. I actually identify as Black, not biracial. I was lucky to grow up around my Black family for 90% of my life. I was raised to be a Black man, even by my white father. So I could always see my brothers’ and cousins’ in-betweenness too because I’m them and they’re me. A Black person has never said I wasn’t Black enough. It was always someone who wasn’t Black. Yet being mixed, I can also see all the different nooks and crannies of race. I can travel across lines that some darker Black folks don’t or can’t. In some way, I feel like it’s a lucky position to be in as a writer. The stories are unfortunately endless.