Sunday, July 27, 2014

Damn Love by Jasmine Beach-Ferrara

Damn Love is an interesting collection of nine stories. They are linked by place—they are mostly set in San Francisco and Durham, North Carolina—and by characters. A minor character in one story will be the protagonist in another. Each story, however, stands alone and can be read in random order. You don't need to know, for example, that Weasel, the drug addict protagonist in the eighth story, is a patient of Ruth, the doctor protagonist in the first story. But because characters turn up in different roles in different stories, the book gains in richness and resonance.

This is Jasmine Beach-Ferrara's first book. She has an MFA from the Warren Wilson Program for Writers, but does not suffer from what I consider the MFA-disease: glorious sentences in stories that have no content (or about young people in dead-end jobs and dead-end romances). She is a minister in the United Church of Christ and the executive director of the Campaign for Southern Equality, which promotes LGBT rights in the South. On the evidence of Damn Love she has already had a full and interesting life.

The main characters, male and female, are lesbian and gay. The stories evoke the ecstasy and pain of love—love unrequited, love requited, love lost, damn love. They involve love between two women, between two men, between parents and children, and between siblings. And it's never easy. Here's how one story begins:

"In early May, Doctors Reddi and Lombardo shocked each other by confessing that they had fallen in love with the same woman. That Reddi and Lombardo were best friends and that this woman, Erin Champion, had been married to another woman for six years meant that it would be a difficult season for all of them. They knew this, and yet they could not help themselves."

In some stories, the main character tells her or his own story. In others, Beach-Ferrara uses the third person point of view. In all the stories, the characters struggle with what they want, what they can get, and what they have to settle for—just like real life.

One of the stories I found especially strong in a strong collection is "Love the Soldier." Keisha, who is gay, is a cop and a member of the National Guard about to be deployed to Iraq with her MP unit. She and her partner are trying to finally put away a Durham drug dealer and when Keisha is off duty she is trying to deal with her parents. Her mother doesn't want her to go, and if she has to, to get office duty. Her father is a preacher who opposes the war. Toward the end of the story, Keisha and her mother (and 1,000 parishioners) attend a Sunday service in which her father preaches about the war and his daughter's involvement in it. The lesson: As one should hate the sin but love the sinner, hate the war but love the soldier. Powerful, persuasive, and moving.

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