Love Does Not Make Me Gentle or Kind
Chavisa Woods
Fly By Night Press
ISBN Number: 978-1-930083-12-7

Reviewer: Kristina Marie Darling

          In her most recent collection of short stories, Love Does Not Make Me Gentle or Kind, Chavisa Woods explores the complex transition from adolescence to womanhood, a subject that proves at turns majestic and violent throughout the book. By pairing youthful narrators with profound observations on race and gender politics, the work offers a thoroughly modern variation on the bildungsroman, in which girlhood becomes part of a larger sociopolitical landscape. Conveying these themes in innovative ways, often by projecting the internal conflicts of characters onto the exterior world, the stories in Woods’s new collection experiment with form and genre while addressing fundamental questions of social justice, gracefully merging realism with elements of meta-fiction.

          Throughout the book, the use of nature imagery to complement and complicate the interior landscapes of characters is impressive. Frequently evoking idealized visions of flora and fauna, Woods uses such motifs to convey dissonance between a character’s own ideals and the world that surrounds him or her. In doing so, Woods depicts adolescence as a growing consciousness of the tension between interior and exterior, her protagonists encountering the disillusionments inherent to adult life. Her story “The Smell of Honey” exemplifies this trend:

Marie still didn’t blame her father. She didn’t blame anyone. Far as she was concerned, this was life, painful and awful. Only thing she could no longer abide was it smelling so goddamned sweet all the time. She held the axe with both hands, the way he’d shown her how to hold the gun. The handle’s tip dug into her hip…The spindly, prickly, winding vines gave some pops.

          In this passage, the main character, Marie, reacts to her parents’ history of domestic violence and her father’s abandonment of the family. Although Woods depicts her as realizing that such personal tragedies are visited upon many, she also suggests that society’s failure to acknowledge them remains equally painful. Conveyed eloquently through imagery of the honeysuckle bush, the sweet smell of which Marie “can no longer abide,” Woods exposes a world in which issues such as domestic violence are often masked—by both society and the victims themselves. Inventive in its effort to merge interior and exterior through metaphor, “The Smell of Honey,” like many other works in the collection, offers both evocative language and eloquent social criticism.

          In creating such tensions between her protagonists’ emotions and their surroundings, Woods often presents characters in an abstract manner, allowing them to represent larger ideas and debates within American society. In doing so, the stories within Love Does Not Make Me Gentle or Kind treat such themes as racial equality and social class through the eyes of adolescent characters, suggesting that the journey to adulthood also encompasses the development of a young person’s inchoate political consciousness. The story “Sundown in the Land of Lincoln” is a prime example of this trend in Chavisa Woods’s work:

There was also the fact that I was a girl. People always made a big deal out of it when a girl stood up first or did something without being asked to. When the boys stood up they were just a person standing. But when a girl did it, they were a GIRL standing. It’s not easy to be the first girl standing, especially if its to stick up for a boy.

          In this passage, Woods describes her protagonist’s efforts to defend an African-American youth in elementary school, as well as the difficulty in doing so when her actions will always be read in terms of gender. The female protagonist and her experiences become a point of entry to larger social questions, particularly the ability of women, who are themselves a persecuted group, to contribute to efforts for racial equality. As with many other stories in the collection, “Sundown in the Land of Lincoln” presents the traditional coming of age story as part of a broader sociopolitical landscape, of which her young characters are just becoming conscious.

          Along these lines, the stories in Love Does Not Make Me Gentle or Kind frequently remain critical of the undue burdens placed on adolescents by the societies that they inhabit. Highlighting the incongruity between the age of her characters and the political questions that they are often forced to contemplate, Chavisa Woods uses the disparity between interior and exterior to offer commentaries on her society. She writes in “Mr. Bunny,”

…wherever she stood would be cold and cracking to mud, making her struggle to keep standing with nothing to hold on to, and all immediately around would look black and awful, while just beyond, always glittering and blue just as before. That’s how it made her feel with all of his worrying and calling her out as a lady even though she never acted like one. ‘Why do you keep telling me what’s good for ladies?’ she hollered. ‘What do you care about ladies if I don’t do nothing ladylike?’

          In this excerpt, Woods suggests that adolescence, for many young people, represents a discovery of socially constructed and often limiting gender roles. Although suggesting that most embrace the distinction between “ladylike” and “unladylike,” the story treats the few girls who find them undesirable, questioning the pressure to conform that such young women experience. By including passages such as the one quoted above, Woods presents a vision of adolescence permeated by the concerns and injustices of adulthood, the end result being a carefully crafted and often poignant critique of contemporary children’s coming of age.

          All points considered, Love Does Not Make Me Gentle or Kind is a thoughtful and philosophical read. Highly recommended.

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