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Review of Renee Simms’ short story collection ‘Meet Behind Mars’

Professor Simms holds her book — photo credit to Emma Jones

“It’s also about education and the fact that I’m a black woman who lives alone with her son,” character Gloria Clark in professor Renee Simms’ titular story from her new book, “Meet Behind Mars,” writes. Simms’ collection shows off the author’s range, from the fantastical and self-referential plot in the opening story to the epistolary style of the final.

After an event in which girls from Jesse’s class vandalized Gloria Clark’s home with a lewd drawing and expletives, mother Gloria Clark files a report made up of phone calls and emails. The vandalization acted as a catalyst for the report, which demonstrates a long-endured experience of racism through micro-aggressive actions at the school her son attends, all while Gloria Clark, a single mother, attempts to provide her son with a better education and life.

“Meet Behind Mars” is contemporary literary fiction told from the perspective of African American characters. Additionally Simms has a recurring focus on female protagonists in her short stories and often writes on their experiences. The wide variety in these experiences serves as a subtle critique of the media establishment’s long-lasting stereotypes of one-dimensional black and female characters. As a professor who teaches on race and gender in literature and film, Simms’ message comes as no surprise.

In story “American Industrial Physics,” mother Johnetta Green faces struggles similar to character Gloria Clark. As a professor of sociology, Green submits her study on veterinarians working on automotive crash tests. The result is a non-chronological story in which a now successful professor rehashes the emotional trauma she endured as she worked towards financial stability.

Through a crash test with a small monkey, Green shares her discomfort with the practice. While her son detests what she does, she continues in order to earn a living to support both of them. In “American Industrial Physics” and “Meet Behind Mars,” Simms shares a recurring theme with her writing — the interaction between desire and environment.

While both mothers face limitations in their environment — prejudicial ones for Clark and financial ones for Green — they ignore these limitations to achieve a better life for their families. Simms’ characters are unique, and the details of their lives reflect this. In all of the 12 stories, a character’s fate can never be counted on.

In a collection of stories where the characters each lead such drastically different lives, it is difficult at first to see the connection. It is then that Simms reveals that each character resides in an environment that is hardly comforting to them.

The short collection is rich with characters whom the audience may find a connection to. Trevor, the protagonist in “Who Do You Love?” works at a pawn shop and lives a floor below the woman with whom he once had an affair. In “Dive,” Alex describes her rehab for her past drug addiction and her pregnancy that follows as she travels to the home of her adopted parents. And in “A Body When Buoyant,” Nichelle’s life has been split between a post-hurricane Katrina New Orleans and Los Angeles, and she struggles repeatedly in both.

In each of their environments, Simms creates stories where her characters interact with difficult relationships in equally difficult environments. Some of their choices are less universally understandable. Instead of alienating readers, the discomfort this creates ultimately adds to the emotional depth of the work.

I found Renee Simms’ stories to be heartbreaking, complicated and attention-grabbing. I read the stories over and over and each time found details I had first missed. Simms writes tales that offered me something different than I had ever read before.

Additionally, she seems to ask the reader to do more than to just read. Instead I felt Simms asked her readers to do their best to understand. “Meet Behind Mars” offers a reader a chance to see the desires of characters, both good and bad, as Simms crafts their fate through many twists and turns.

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