JUNE 13, 2019
AFTER AN ABRUPT BATTLE with breast cancer, Kathleen Collins died at the young age of 46. The bulk of her work, most of it unpublished, was left to her daughter, Nina Lorez Collins, who in 2006 began to sift through her mother’s enormous archive, working to have it published. The archive also included one of her films, Losing Ground, originally released through limited distribution in 1982. The film was restored and reissued in 2015, bringing a new surge of interest in her creative works.
In December 2016, a collection of Collins’s short stories was published, Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?, reigniting significance to the creative force known as Kathleen Collins. Her acclaimed stories were written in the 1970s, detailing intimate territory of marriage, self-love, vulnerability, and empowerment within all those cells.
The new compilation from her daughter, Notes from a Black Woman’s Diary, covers more intimately the uphill battles of depression and heartache spanning from childhood to the last few days of her illness. With this said, the letters, notes, short stories, and screenplays could easily have been written this year, or the last. The timely refrain of struggling through loneliness, single parenting, and being close to financial ruin for the sake of her art, could easily be the social media timeline of one of your favorite writers. But Kathleen Collins turns all of this suffering into badges of honor, a cry for survival with triumph in the end.
In her letters, she speaks confidently of her sadness, owning and offering reverence of the experience. She describes her inability to love in a manner accepting of fault, as well as a device for healing. One of the letters to her daughter is filled with regrets and confessions. She writes, “I couldn’t possibly allow myself to love you children except by being a good caretaker and a good provider. I, literally, put my love into that and kept my heart closed. It was all the love I could handle, all I could provide.” These are words no mother wants to utter, and yet, they may feel honest in the dark of night.
Her unflinching words make for a sturdy path, one to cross with caution: “I was going through my own life, keeping up, coping, holding on, trying not to fall apart.” This candid proclamation is her release of pain and guilt, making it clear she was proud of her journey. “But there was value in those years. The emptiness made me free of fear. It helped me become free in many ways that most women, particularly, never achieve. I got over many insecurities and especially of being alone. I felt finally, my life was on course.” There is power in releasing the thing you are most afraid of. That’s what we learn from Kathleen Collins as she gains more freedom with each statement, gathering more momentum and understanding of her passage through life’s pitfalls and accomplishments. She wasn’t perfect. What mother is?
Maybe it was the certainty of her death (the cancer had already taken a strong hold) that led to her truthfulness. Apparently, her greatest gift was to leave her children and family her honesty.
It was through illness, solitude, finding my way clear, to love you children, forgiving Momma and Pop Pop, finding a confident voice as a writer — all these little things, these little victories, so to speak, took place in this house, bit by bit, year by year, until I found myself, saw clear into my own heart, and knew not only that I could love, but that I could love because I was whole: the past forgiven, the present an alive vital process I was willing to live fully every single moment without needing to cheat or hide or play games with myself or with others.
After reading Notes from a Black Woman’s Diary, I see what it means to stay connected with our past. I used to keep journals over the years. I found them one day while packing and read through my emotional tirades page by page. I ended up ripping out the pages and destroying the evidence. Who wants to remember all of this baggage? I decided the past hurts and disappointments were gone, and there was no need to relive them.
Now I long to reconnect with that old part of me. In one of Kathleen Collins’s short stories, “Lollie: A Suburban Tale,” one of the principal characters is asked by her husband about a male friend who frequents their Jewish family dinners. The rueful Janice refuses to satisfy her husband with the backstory of their friendly houseguest. Instead, she drives him crazy by giving him barely tidbits of her friend’s history. She knows not telling her husband the details will infuriate him. She teases, “What’s a character without a past?” It’s a powerful statement. We need to know who we’re dealing with. There’s no safety net without those fine details, those tiny crumbs of knowledge. The who and the how are what shape our identity. How are we to trust without the details? Collins uses this theme throughout her short stories, diary entries, plays, and screenplays. She gives each of us a hint, just enough of her character’s measured steps to understand their lives before we met them. Every story comes with a touch of the character’s history, the draw that pulls you in. A need to fully understand who these characters are drives us. We are led through the complicated lives of a woman living with a difficult child not her own, a daughter fraught with becoming independent, a wife never satisfied, yet never really knowing them completely, flush with a longing to fill in the blanks. This could be said for Kathleen Collins herself. Her past is what drives us to know more about her.
What a loss it would’ve been if Collins’s journals had never been saved and found. Notes from a Black Woman’s Diary is lucid, transformative storytelling from a talented writer who refused to limit herself or accept the labels society tried to impose. She was a black woman who wanted to write from a place of artist, woman, friend, lover, wife, and most of all, human being.
Her screenplays were filled with these women’s voices, many of which reflected various stages of Collins’s own experiences. There is always one character, from one story to another, who is a sublimely hidden voice of her past. Writing this close to the heart means we get a piece of her legacy with every story she tells.
The men in her stories have been the musicians, artists, lovers, husbands, and fathers who she’s met along the way. They are powerful men in the New York art world who make prominent appearances but are not vilified, simply shone as who they are — or lovers who take without giving. Without a varied life, full of highs and lows, the stories wouldn’t hold as much value. Knowing there are kernels of Collins’s real life turned into fiction on these pages makes the reading all the more interesting.
There are no filters here. Her writing is from a place of freedom and a desire to speak out loud. This is a guide to the unabashed workings of a black woman, or simply to a woman’s mind, under the guise of fiction. Kathleen Collins gives a voice to insecurities, as well as a glimpse of the arduous steps of becoming an adult and navigating daily life. Her prose is saturated with first-person streams of thought so rich with detail that there is no separation between the reader and characters on the page.