Author Archives

Brittany Allen
Brittany Allen is a New York based prose writer, playwright and actor. Her essays and fiction have been published in Catapult, The Toast, Green Mountains Review, and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter @Britt_Kathryn.

Getting Tricked by Helen DeWitt

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Brittany Allen | Longreads | July 2018 | 7 minutes (1,809 words)

Different writers call for different verbs. With Mary Karr, I go galloping. E.M. Forster wants to waltz. I hopscotch with George Saunders and craft, as in beaded amulets, with Helen Oyeyemi. Elena Ferrante is usually trying to slap me, and Denis Johnson is plummeting: out of windows, out of planes. Reading Helen DeWitt is puzzling, but not the kind of puzzling that will eventually resolve and make some pretty picture on a box.

There is the urge to go spelunking through her books, to descend into the mad caves and walk the corridors and labyrinthine tunnels, in search of meaning (or…treasure? Uh-oh, here goes the metaphor). But I discovered — about five stories in to DeWitt’s bursting, bizarre new story collection, Some Trick (New Directions) that the most pleasurable way to be with her fiction calls for a verb that requires no gear. What you really ought to do with DeWitt’s prose is dance with it. But I’m not talking waltz: these words want a fast-paced, hectic, muscular dance. Picture a foxtrot, breakdance, 15-step. I had the most fun getting “tricked” when I elected, as a reader, to live for the flash of poetic symmetry in a DeWittian gesture, parseable in the middle of some huge, hectic movement — the revelation sentence, the left turn ending line, the belly laugh one-liner out of seemingly nowhere. Less joy came from digging through the dark matter and attempting to make some neat narrative from the many objects in this collection. In DeWitt’s case, it is best to simply follow this dizzy mind where it leads, and be delighted. Prepare to sweat on the journey, though. Read more…

Masters of Contradiction


Brittany Allen | Longreads | May 2018 | 12 minutes (3,259 words)

A kind of cognitive dissonance occurs when your body is a political battlefield, but your body is also an ordinary meat-sack, worth love and attention and a good talking-to like any other flawed protagonist. In this reader’s experience, to be black, or perhaps more generally “Other,” in today’s America, is to dwell in this contradiction; it is to feel freighted by the harrowing historical origins of one’s existence, even as it is to know what every human knows — dailiness, murk, muddle, and tedium. Fiction writers who carry the burden of “Otherhood” must contend with this paradox on the page (not to mention in the marketplace). And when one is a Lorax, one may find oneself wondering how to treat the political heft of “Otherhood,” while creating characters and situations that feel true in the most mundane, human sense. Put another way: when you’re a Lorax, how do you write for an individual truffula tree without sinking under the weight of all their combined trunks? How do you render humanity when recent history and current politics — those arch and lumpy enemies to imagination — cast tall shadows over the lives of your chosen subjects?

I’ve met few fictions that really inhabit the murkiest corners of — say — black life in America, perhaps because rare is the author who gets to write (or feels free to write), about what and who is murky and daily when such an obvious historical tragedy defines us from the get-go. I’ve encountered few fictions that explore the maddening, difficult-to-name contradictions inherent to “Otherhood” (as I know it); few characters who feel like myself, or the people I love and know. Black folk who have wondered about their own individual responsibility to blackness. Black folk who struggle to name the pesky, omnipresent sensation that they are thwarted in some way that’s vaguely but crucially connected to their skin color. But this spring marks the arrival of two new collections that take on all the cognitive dissonance with compassion, insight, and unflinching honesty: Jamel Brinkley’s A Lucky Man (Graywolf) and Nafissa Thompson-Spires’ Heads of the Colored People (Atria). Read more…