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Writer Jamel Brinkley proves persistence of the short story

“Stories are the things that happen on the days that are different,” Jamel Brinkley, renowned short story writer and Stanford University professor, said at a Nov. 7 visiting author seminar. To a full house in Viking Theater, Brinkley read snippets of his recently-launched short story collection, “A Lucky Man.” The author’s lulling voice made the event feel like storytime with the English department and all the professors in their tweed coats and elbow patches leaned in so not to miss a word of his talk.

“A Lucky Man” is an exploration of fiction that highlights the vulnerability of the human experience. It tells nine powerful, coming-of-age stories of black men living in Brooklyn and the South Bronx. Yet the term, coming of age, does not limit itself to children and young adults, in Brinkley’s opinion.

“We’re always coming of age,” the author said. “And I think the older folks in the audience would agree with me.” The tweed coats laughed.

Brinkley read a section of “J’ouvert, 1996,” a story that narrates the nonsensical, dilly-dallying inner dialogue of a young boy in his transition to becoming a man. 17-year-old Ty is definitely coming of age, dealing with bad haircuts, bullying, his mother’s new boyfriend and the responsibility of being an older brother. Fresh off a fight with his mom, he takes his little brother on a spur-of-the-moment adventure: the J’ouvert parade. J’ouvert is a Caribbean word that means “dawn,” “daybreak” and in this case, the all-night street party in New York City.

“J’ouvert, 1996” is funny, witty and honest. Brinkley walks the fine line between poetry and stream of consciousness, occasionally inserting comments and dialogue that led audience members to laugh out loud. His prose is lyrical yet true to life. The author writes to reveal the details of day-to-day life that others may overlook. He unveils struggles with race, gender and class with an incredibly vulnerable Ty.

“J’ouvert, 1996” immerses its audience in a world that is already in motion, with characters that feel alive and events that make you wonder if they are nonfiction. Brinkley’s stories are only stories; yet, he uses real life as inspiration. The stories in “A Lucky Man” all take place in New York City, where Brinkley grew up. His poetic descriptions are colored by real experiences, such as the challenge of being an older brother like Ty and the frustrations with that added responsibility. Even his depiction of J’ouvert – the lively dancing, the explosion of paint and color and music, the “feeling of being shamelessly alive,” as quoted from the story – draws from his own attendance at the event.

But Brinkley actually advises against taking stories directly from personal events. Stories should be a piece of truth rooted in personal experience, but not an exact retelling. He finds that, as a writer, he often feels imprisoned by the facts of life. His advice to writers is to explore a place for invention as soon as possible. “Crack open space for creativity,” he said.

Assistant Professor of English Jeremy Nagamatsu sees Brinkley’s work as proof of the persistence of the short story, which has been critiqued as declining in popularity.
“The short story is not dead,” Nagamatsu said. “It is, in fact, thriving.”
There is no doubt that the author, Jamel Brinkley, brought life into an unpopular form of literature. I am even planning to read the other eight stories in “A Lucky Man.”