A Closer Look: “Meet Behind Mars,” Renee Simms
“Meet Behind Mars” is the title story in Renee Simms’ debut short story collection, published by Wayne State University Press this month.
The story, which you can read here in a slightly altered version, is in the form of a letter from Gloria Clark to the school board in her town, and it consists of her written thoughts, email messages, and transcribed voicemails. The story she is recounting takes place from 2008 until 2015 and concerns her son Jesse. Interestingly, Simms does not always move chronologically through the events but occasionally circles back through time, just as the events she is recounting repeat and recur.
Over the course of the story, we learn that Gloria and Jesse moved to this town when Jesse was young, and that Jesse was the only black child in his class in elementary school and, later, one of few black children in the ninth grade. We see in the events that Gloria is responding to and in the way that she is written to by the teachers and the administrators, the racism that she and Jesse face on a daily basis.
It is extraordinarily hard to write a fully-developed story in the form of a letter. Characters must come alive through their words alone; the narrator’s voice carries a tremendous burden as well. This story succeeds, in part, because of the strength of Gloria’s voice, a voice that’s honest and forthright, tinged with a sense of humor. A voice that makes plain the racism she faces from her community.
A teacher emails to say that Jesse “bullied” a child because he placed a leaf on that child’s shirt, and told the child it was a bug, all the while knowing that the child was scared of bugs. Here is Gloria’s response:
Hi Mrs. Manning,
I’m confused. Is this child blind?
In another instance, Gloria is informed that Jesse has been given detention because he was found with a nail file. Gloria responds:
Dear Principal Kuchanick,
This may be too much information but we don’t own any nail files in our home.
The beauty of this is in its brevity and conciseness. Using the emails and voicemails also underscore the distance between the school officials and Gloria. There is no face-to-face confrontation in the space of the story; all communication is done via letter, email, or voicemail. And even when Gloria recounts events that have happened to her, Simms sets it up like dialogue in a play or a screenplay. Here’s how a scene is presented when Gloria is in the classroom, volunteering:
TEACHER: Jesse is a real leader in this class.
ME: That’s great! We—
TEACHER: You can tell that he will be the life of the party when he’s older. He and his buddy, Vershawn, are going to be so popular. They’re so cute. They almost look like brothers.
How different this story would be if Simms didn’t insist on these formal constraints to tell the story. The form so nicely underscores the content.
One of the other ways that Simms makes the structure of the story work is to interject the present moment voice into the historical record. She allows Gloria to structure the narrative of the story that she is telling, rather than just let the emails and voicemails speak for themselves. There’s a wonderful moment when Gloria recalls listening to the song “Star Love” with her sister, in the back of their mother’s car:
We’d be curled up like roly-polies in the backseat, singing, and our mother would be in the driver’s seat surrounded by light streaming through the windshield and the smoke from her cigarette. Back then, my sister probably imagined “making star love” to one of her boyfriends, but when I listened to “Star Love,” I heard a call to go wherever I damn pleased, and to expect good things when I showed up.
It’s such a bittersweet moment—the lovely image of her mother, the two girls in the backseat—combined with the optimism of the young and the reality of the present.
Good short stories are often also about the act of writing, and this story is one of those. At the start, Gloria explains her rationale for including all the past events as follows:
Recalling this has been hard for me, Dr. Lutz, and I feel like I can’t tell one story about a giant mustard penis because it’s not about a mustard penis only, but about all of these incidents together, in context, and through time. It’s also about education and the fact that I’m a black woman who lives alone with her son. It’s about lots of stuff, some of which I tried to include in this statement but most which I decided to leave out.
To me, this is what writing is: you can’t ever tell just one story. Everything is connected “in context, and through time” and much of what makes a good story great are the gaps between what’s said and what’s left out.
At the end of the story, Gloria dismisses the letters of apology from three students who were the perpetrators of the “giant mustard penis” incident and asks, instead, for the girls to come in person to her house (read the story to find out more about what Gloria requests!) But in defending her decision to ask for this, Gloria writes “See, a letter leaves the work to me to translate what they really think.”
In the real world, words are one thing, and action is another.