Sorting through the Wreckage: The Stories of Diane Oliver



Diane Oliver. Courtesy of Peeler Studios.

Read Diane Oliver’s short story “No Brown Sugar in Anybody’s Milk,” published in the Summer 2023 issue of the Review.

A year ago, I had never heard of the astounding short story artist Diane Oliver. This admission is embarrassing, as I am a novelist and professor. Furthermore, Oliver and I have a number of shared characteristics. We both are Black, Southern, daughters of educators, graduates of women’s colleges, and we both attended the University of Iowa. Born in 1943—the same year as my mother—she was a generation ahead of me, paving the way. Yet, somehow, I had never come across her work, not even at Spelman College, where Black women’s writing is the core of the English major. Initially, I blamed myself. Why had I not been more diligent as a graduate student? Oliver published four stories in her lifetime, and two posthumously. Her work appeared in Negro Digest, Sewanee Review, and was reprinted in the anthology Right On!. In other words, Neighbors was hiding in plain sight. After more thinking, I faulted the gatekeepers—whoever they may be—for not including Oliver in the anthologies that form the curriculum of writing programs. But after a while I grew tired of wondering why and chose to celebrate the discovery.

I encountered Neighbors in a most unusual manner. I received a copy printed on plain paper, no intriguing cover, no laudatory blurbs from great writers, not even a paragraph from the publisher providing context or summary. I knew only that the author was a Black woman and the manuscript was slated for publication. The bound stack was simply labeled “Neighbors.” I could have asked for more information or done a quick Google search. Instead, I recognized the opportunity for what it was: a chance to let the words introduce me to the work of Diane Oliver.

This breathtaking collection of short stories is a marvel. When I was a young writer, I remember receiving this advice from one of my peers: “Imagine that the world as we know it is over. Now imagine the people of the future trying to sort out the wreckage. Well, that’s what books are for—to let the new people know what the hell happened.” I had almost forgotten that scrap of undergraduate wisdom until I read the first few pages of this book. Neighbors evokes the feeling of sorting through a time capsule sealed and buried in the yard of a Southern African Methodist Episcopal church in the early sixties. The political issues of the day—namely racial integration—permeate the narratives, as this is this most significant social shift since emancipation. Oliver explores the changing America while beautifully documenting the culture of Black Americans living in the South. She remembers the domestic workers who leave their own children home alone to keep house for rich white folks. Boy coats with raccoon collars were all the rage for the wealthy, while poor folks took pride that their simple clothes were cleaned and ironed. “Up North” and “Chicago” are both shorthand for a promised land where a person could earn a decent wage and send her children to college. This is Oliver’s world, and she shines a light in every corner.

The title story, “Neighbors,” stands in stark contrast to the iconic image of six-year-old Ruby Bridges, precious in braids and a pinafore, bravely integrating her elementary school. The little girl is surrounded by federal marshals. The famous photo doesn’t show the jeering crowd of adults, nor does it show the child sitting alone in her classroom, since the other parents removed their children in protest. Norman Rockwell recreated the moment in his painting The Problem We All Live With, but portrayed the girl against a backdrop of thrown garbage and painted slurs. In her best-known story, Oliver takes us where the news cameras will never go. This is the story of a family the night before their first grader is set to integrate his new school, alone.

When we are able to see the dynamics inside the family’s home, the correct path is not obvious. Despite the triumph of Brown v. Board of Education, is it morally right to send a child where, at best, he is not wanted? A neighbor muses, “Hope he don’t mind being spit on, though.” After a sleepless night, the mother says to the father, “He’s our child. Whatever we do, we’re going to be the cause.” And in that moment, the issue at hand is more personal than political. Is there a true distinction between what is best for the race and what is best for their little boy? Whatever decision they make, there is no way that the reader can judge them because Oliver has taken us for an uphill walk in their shoes.

She revisits the subject in “The Closet on the Top Floor.” Winifred, a college freshman, is “tired of being the Experiment.” Her first day of college marks the thirteenth year of integrating educational institutions. “Her father had worked hard, petitioning the trustees and threatening a court suit to get her into this college, and she had felt ashamed for not wanting to go.” Although her parents have the means to keep her in the latest fashions, she never fits in on the campus of the Southern women’s college. Isolated, homesick, and racially marginalized, Winifred’s mental health begins to deteriorate. As she leaves college, shattered, it is tempting to read this story as a coda to the one begun in “Neighbors,” affirming the family’s decision not to send little Henry to the white school. Yet an honest reading causes one to wonder if Winifred is driven mad by the racism of the school or her parents who think civil rights is just a game.

Although Brown v. Board was a seismic decision, hobbling “separate but equal,” there were many Black folks to whom Winifred’s college experience would seem like a high-class problem. These are the women who clean houses, the children who sleep on pallets on the floor, and babies born “afraid to breathe.” Oliver’s storytelling would be incomplete without their rich emotional landscapes.

“Traffic Jam” centers on Libby, a young mother who works for Mrs. Nelson. Her husband, Hal, is who knows where. In many ways, this story is a retelling, or perhaps an untelling, of the Black maid who loves her employer’s family as her own. Although the bulk of the story takes place in Mrs. Nelson’s kitchen, it is clear that domestic work is a job for Libby, not a calling. As she prepares breakfast for the Nelsons, she worries about her own baby left in a laundry basket on a babysitter’s porch at 6:30 A.M. When she heats soup for their lunch, she thinks of her daughter scavenging for fallen fruits. And overlaying all thoughts is her longing, anger, and concern for her husband, Hal. She yearns for him as a lover and partner, but she also desires the security and respectability of having a husband at home. When she is reunited with him, the Nelsons could not be further from her mind:

She was almost upon him now … She wondered for a minute what she would say; she had imagined him coming home but not at a crazy time like this. Yet, she felt strangely sure of herself … She kept walking toward him, and even this far away she could see the high cheekbones that marked all of their children as belonging to him.

When they finally touch, the meeting is sensual, but with Libby’s anger streaking through at his long absence. She is exhausted and embarrassed about having been driven to steal slices of ham from a white woman’s kitchen to feed her children. Her husband announces that he bought a car, blue with new seat covers. Frustrated that he would squander his savings, she understands that “if she wanted him, she had to want the car.” They go home to resume their marriage. Except for the paper bag of stolen food, the Nelsons are all but forgotten.

Oliver demonstrates a gorgeously layered understanding of the range of Black life in the South. She understands the life of a poor woman traveling miles on foot to take her children to the doctor. She empathizes with a couple who are driven by racism to live in the forest, and are then gripped by homicidal rage. She knows why destitute families would sell everything they own to buy train tickets to the North, having no idea what awaits them. And she can also write the inner life of a doctor’s wife forced to entertain a sullen stepdaughter, just as these lives are impacted by the changing racial and social mores.

If Black lives are changing in the wake of segregation, then so are white lives, and Oliver turns her eye to them as well. “Spiders Cry Without Tears” explores an interracial romance in the wake of Loving v. Virginia. The heroine, Meg, is a “Kelham lady. All the girls in her family marched in the annual Daughters of the Confederacy Parade, smiling at the groups of Negro children who waved them to the cemetery.” Meg, now divorced, falls in love with Walter Davison Carter, a wealthy doctor. Although he may be mistaken for Portuguese or some other tan foreigner, he is definitely Black. Furthermore, he is married to a woman who is terminally ill. Despite the fact that she should be disgraced only “for her grandmother’s sake,” the relationship blossoms and endures for years. For Meg, there is a cost for loving across the color line. Learning of the affair, her friends distance themselves due to the mere possibility that “he looks like he’s trying, well you know, to pass.”

Eventually, Walt’s wife passes away, and the couple marry. Meg is completely alienated from her old life, but finds that being Walt’s mistress was much more satisfying than being his wife. Oliver chooses not to make their marital conflict a matter of race. “He owned her exactly as he did the house, the cars, and those poor people who thought their hearts would collapse if her husband retreated from medicine.”

Oliver shrewdly allows race to dominate Meg’s understanding of the relationship during their courtship. There is even a moment just before their marriage when she berates herself for thinking of him as “colored” after so many years of intimacy. But once they are married, gender becomes a more significant factor than race. She is his wife, who happens to be white. This is what is known as intersectionality.

Neighbors is the rare work of fiction that is somehow of its time, yet before it as well.

Recently, an interviewer asked me who did I consider to be my literary foremothers. I listed all of the greats—Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Ann Petry—but then I added Diane Oliver. Her name surprised me as much as it surprised the reporter. I have only recently been made aware of Oliver’s work, but I feel that her thinking somehow influenced mine. There is a part of me that says that this is impossible, but the part of me that feels the presence of spirits knows that it is possible.

Writing fiction can be an otherworldly experience. Is it not magical and inexplicable that we transform imagination into marks on a page, legible and lasting? I believe that twenty-two-year-old Diane Oliver released these stories into our common air, water, and soil as she inked them onto the pages. Just as we all have ancestors whom we never had the pleasure to meet, we carry their legacies in our bodies. Their memories nest within our own. Their words are our words, whether we know it or not.


This essay is excerpted from the introduction to Neighbors and Other Stories by Diane Oliver, forthcoming in February from Grove Atlantic.

Tayari Jones is the author of four novels, most recently An American Marriage. She is an Andrew D. White Professor-at-Large at Cornell University and a Charles Howard Candler Professor of Creative Writing at Emory University.