Diane Oliver’s book, “Neighbors and Other Stories”, offers a sharp depiction of black America through poignant and skillfully crafted tales from a young talent.
This particular reissue from traditional publishers is notable, as the author’s writing career was brief, spanning only six months before her untimely death in a motorcycle accident at the young age of 22. Diane Oliver managed to publish four stories during her lifetime and two were released after her passing, all of which are featured in this collection along with eight previously unreleased stories.
Oliver is focusing on the experience of black women in 1960s America during a time when segregation was no longer allowed by law, but discrimination still persisted. However, the stories are successful because of their literary merit, not just their subject matter. The main story follows a family as they get ready for their son to attend a newly integrated “white” school. They face fears from both those who attack them (should they dispose of hateful letters or keep them as proof?) and those who try to support them, such as police cars patrolling the area to provide reassurance but ultimately making them more anxious.
The characters in the stories are not heroic fighters for justice, but rather ordinary individuals who sometimes long for a peaceful existence. In “When the Apples Are Ripe,” the father of the family acknowledges that eventually everything will be integrated, but he believes it’s best for sensible people with a promising future to stay out of it. Oliver’s storytelling techniques keep each story unique, even though they all share common themes. For example, “The Closet on the Top Floor” uses dry humor to portray a black woman attending a predominantly white college who refuses to join the drama sorority because she doesn’t want to play stereotypical roles. And in “Banago Kalt,” a woman visiting Switzerland is bombarded with absurd demands, including questions about potential lynching.
The stories that were not previously released have varying levels of quality. However, No Brown Sugar in Anybody’s Milk stands out as one of the best overall, with a surprising twist that amplifies its emotional impact. Some of the other stories, if they had been published during Oliver’s lifetime, could have benefited from the guidance of an editor. For example, Frozen Voices, which is an overly long and experimental piece, or Our Trip to the Nature Museum, which is a heavy-handed tale about a teacher’s involvement in a black child’s home life. It is impossible to know what amazing stories Oliver could have created if she had lived longer, but the exceptional talent showcased in these stories is reason enough to celebrate.