Defying Gravity

  • Edited by Richard Peabody
  • Paycock Press
  • 406 pp.

Anthology of D.C. women writers ignores boundaries in favor of strong voices and strong characters.

Anthologies can be magical, unkempt gardens (the word comes from Greek for “a collection of flowers”), and a good anthology offers a path into a new garden. That’s what I felt years ago after picking up an anthology of Latin American fiction edited by Washington, D.C.’s Pat McNees, a surprise find in a bookstore in Kathmandu. It introduced me to Machado de Assis, now one of my favorite writers.

At its best, the “Grace & Gravity” series of short fiction by D.C. women offers a verdant patch of sharply observed life. In the anthologies series, now in its 10th year, editor Richard Peabody has attempted something both seriously ambitious and unkempt. Having previously gathered work of 1950s women writers in A Different Beat, Peabody brings to the Washington series a sense of mission and an embrace of a wild range of co-existing styles: in his words, “a gathering of the tribe.” The latest evidence is Defying Gravity, the sixth volume.

Defying Gravity offers a sprawling landscape of voices telling stories across generations, backgrounds, ethnicity and gender. The male narrator of Kate Lu’s “Ink” has a haunting sense of dead lovers and the tattoo artist he falls for. Here’s their exchange after he explains that the tattoo he has requested is about his dead girlfriend:

“The girl is looking at me
now, the needle stopped, her dark eyes examining my face … ‘What?’ I ask her.

She shakes her head and goes back to working on my arm. ‘If I were you, I would
not be getting this tattoo,’ she says.

‘Why not?’

‘It just seems like bad luck … The dead can follow you around if you let them.’”

Then there’s a moment in “Through the Wrong Door,” by Cathy Hostetler, when the mundane turns chilling. The main character realizes that a momentary lapse (walking by mistake into a men’s room at the Cineplex) holds more than lingering embarrassment:

“It was not just shame that
twisted her gut, but dread. This was worse than leaving her purse in a
restaurant, forgetting her best friend’s birthday, or buying more milk when
they were out of eggs. … She could not shake the feeling of being stalked by
something deadly. That night she lay awake, reciting the multiplication tables
to herself, and could almost feel it breathing on her.”

These stories probe fears and hope and love and betrayal with a poignant edge. They have grit to burn – from the trauma of Melanie S. Hatter’s story “Something Worth Saving,” about torture and justice, to the imprisoning family of “Stones,” a debut by Stephanie Joyce. Another standout is Maggie Nye’s “Devil’s Dotter,” a remarkable story with the folkloric power of Edward P. Jones or Zora Neale Hurston. Several stories dance past the edges of genres from fantasy to young adult and lesbian fiction to show more complex views of, say, the early years of the AIDS epidemic, as well as Lorrie Moore-esque dramas amid unaffordable day care and the lethal edges of rush-hour traffic.

In the introduction to the fourth volume, Peabody wrote that his commitment to women’s fiction stems from a 1978 gig with Pacifica Radio when three guests on his show opened his eyes to the added hurdles that women encounter getting published: “Their courage and resistance in the face of so much flack impressed the hell out of me.” In a 2011 Washington Post article, Mary Kay Zuravleff, a best-selling novelist included in the series, called Peabody “the great connector,” as editor, publisher, and teacher. (Peabody was an instructor at The Writer’s Center, where I met him in a fiction workshop before he joined the Johns Hopkins writing faculty, and he included a story of mine in his 2008 anthology of fiction by D.C. men.)

The Paycock Press series aims “to energize, anthologize, promote, and cross-pollinate the Washington literary scene.” One of the delights of this installment is the disregard for the supposed boundary markers of women’s fiction.

Have these anthologies from a little press opened doors for women writers? Hard to say, but I count two dozen contributors (out of 249) who have published books of their own, and there are doubtless more. With strong characters, strong voices and incisiveness, these stories stake their authors’ claim for attention. And that path to the rest of their work may be the greatest service that the Paycock series provides to its authors and to readers.

But there is also the intangible encouragement. My great aunt taught English in D.C. public schools for decades, read widely, and had a tart tongue and a clear point of view. But I find no evidence that she ever put her stories to paper. If she’d lived in the Paycock era, we might have her voice now.

Not all the voices here are equally compelling, and not all the stories have satisfying endings. But if the selection occasionally proves uneven, the risk is worth it. Defying Gravity prizes an ear for witness over comfort or safety. And like the author party that Peabody imagines in the introduction, in that gathering of witnesses and testimony there’s a deep satisfaction.

David A. Taylor’s fiction has appeared in the anthologies Stress City and Eclectica’s Best Fiction, and in Potomac Review, Jabberwock, Barrelhouse, Washington City Paper, Rio Grande Review, and the Baltimore Review. His collection Success: Stories received the Washington Writers’ Publishing House fiction prize and was a People’s Choice finalist in the Library of Virginia Literary Awards. His nonfiction book Soul of a People (2009), about the WPA writers of the 1930s, was ranked among the Best of the Month by and the year’s best books by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. It was made into a Smithsonian documentary film that Taylor wrote and co-produced. His nonfiction also includes Ginseng, the Divine Root (2006), a plant’s odyssey, and The War of 1812 and the Rise of the U.S. Navy (2012), co-authored with Mark Collins Jenkins for National Geographic Books. He contributes to the Washington Post, teaches at the Writer’s Center, and lives in D.C.

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