George Bailey is a poet and a prose writer who also teaches writing at Columbia College in Chicago. He has just released his first book of short stories, Haunted Exiles Back Up on the End.
On August 27 I went to a reading at AfriWare that Bailey gave and then was able to meet with him at a coffee shop later to talk about his work.
Language is critical to Bailey. He says that he uses “hypercumulative sentences” when he writes, meaning that he piles details upon details in his descriptions. Think of towering storm clouds full of color and movement. He told the audience at his reading that “Writers fail. I’m a failed poet.” When you read the short stories in this collection, you will find the poet’s ear for the sound of language in all the stories.
In one of his favorite stories, Ramblin’, he uses language like a paint brush. For example, a woman setting out early in the morning is described thus:
Passing Mama and Daddy’s open bedroom, Grandma witnessed Mama’s thigh thrown across Daddy’s torso, her hair wild and peaked as they shared one pillow. She saw how content Mama appeared, all coiled around Daddy, her arms twined guardian-like about his neck, the covers trailing from the bed, roped and curling.
And later in the same paragraph, “She sat down on the steps and buckled her sandals. The piercing signature of darting and unseen birds ribboned through the moist morning.”
Many modern fiction writers and readers dislike lush description. It’s all about spare and lean prose a la Hemingway. But I felt pulled in by Bailey’s evocative language, even as he left me wondering at times what the blazes was happening in the story. He’s clearly a writer with strong tendencies toward too much detail, but he also has an artist’s awareness of when enough is enough.
I didn’t particularly like the stories when I heard them read by the author the first time. Without the written word to follow, it was easy to get lost in the language and lose the meaning. However, when I went back to the written word and read the selections again, I discovered that I liked them very much.
The stories explore many themes, all linked to loss and the desire for wholeness. I found the story, The Estranged Daughter, which deals with white parents turning away from their daughter and her family because she married a black man particularly sad. But I was also deeply touched by Rampage of the School Yard Girls, which deals with urban violence and anger.
When I talked to Bailey, he described this collection as exploring the themes of diaspora, dislocation, loneliness and isolation as it impacted Africans in the New World (his term for African-Americans). I would like to respectfully disagree. While the players in most of the stories are connected to the African American community, the themes play out as human stories that will resonate with people of any culture or time. I recommend this collection of stories to those who like strong writing and who want to think about what it means to be human.
Copies are available from AfriWare.