We’re on a smoke break when Claudia tells me that her husband said she’s ugly when she cries, and I almost ask her, What he do, what happened this time, but then I think, Don’t be a fool, this is what you been waiting for, and I take her hands, look into her eyes, and start to give her all my best ideas on how to leave Greg—Greg who treats Claudia like a greasy rag he can pull out of his back pocket whenever there’s a mess, Greg who likes that Claudia’s ass is wide but not her nose or her waist—and it feels good to feed her these pieces I’ve been carrying in the space underneath my tongue for so long, some so bitter I thought I might choke on them, and I know she doesn’t really want to hear it but I tell her anyway, and I say things like Bleach everything in his closet, yeah even his new shoes, especially those and Throw all his shit out the window and watch it smash real ugly to the ground, and I can tell she doesn’t mean to but she finally starts to smile, her lips full and pretty as a plum . . .
Where did you find the idea for this story?
I’d been wanting to write a story about friendship for a while. Obviously, in my story, the narrator’s feelings for Claudia evolve beyond friendship, but I started writing it with that rough framing in mind. I think a lot about how Black women care and show up for one another—how so often we have to—and how my friendships with other women have been some of the most meaningful relationships of my life. So I wanted to explore some of the layers there and the depth of platonic love. I think, above all, the narrator cares deeply about Claudia as a friend—she wants her to see that she deserves more—and even if her desires for a romantic relationship go unfulfilled, that fact wouldn’t change.
How long did it take you to write this story?
I wrote this story in a couple of hours. There was maybe another hour or so of editing after that, but the final version is pretty close to the initial draft. Generally, I am not a fast writer, but with this one the words just flowed!
The form of “Good Girls” is one, long, breathless sentence that covers an impressive range of emotions and sensations, and remains rooted in a single, present moment while also moving back and forth in time. What made you decide to write “Good Girls” as one sentence? Was that your plan for the story’s structure from the start?
As a reader, I’ve always felt really struck by this form when I’ve encountered stories that use it, but this was my first time experimenting with it in my own writing. There was no plan or outline when I first started drafting the story, I really just began with the idea of the narrator’s feelings toward Claudia and her motivations, and the structure followed. Looking back, I can see why it took shape this way—in the story, everything is riding on this moment for the narrator, so she’s very caught up in the urgency of telling Claudia how she feels. At the same time, internally, she’s processing the gravity of this moment in the context of her own life, and that’s when we learn more about growing up with Aunt Rikki and her grandparents. It’s an intense moment for the narrator, and the reader gets kind of swept along on that wave of urgency.
The narrator’s grandfather warns Aunt Rikki not to bring her friends around the narrator and her cousins because they’re “good girls.” What is a “good girl,” and how might this pressure to conform to that role affect Claudia and perhaps also the narrator?
I think for the narrator’s grandfather, a “good girl” is a girl who conforms to society’s expectations of respectability. It’s definitely not a girl or a woman who looks to anyone to approve of her choices. And I think even more plainly—although the grandfather doesn’t explicitly say this—a “good girl” doesn’t explore or flaunt her sexuality. So the way Aunt Rikki shows up in the family home—from how she presents herself physically to the presence of her girlfriends—openly challenges their expectations.
I think the narrator has reached a point in her life where, like Aunt Rikki, she can live life on her own terms. I don’t think that means she hasn’t or doesn’t ever experience pressures to conform—she’s a queer Black woman, so that absolutely influences how she navigates the world and people’s expectations of her. But she’s also older and more experienced, and I think those pressures take up less space for her. There’s no one to answer to but herself.
She recognizes that Claudia isn’t in the same place as her and that there are limitations in the reality of her life. So while, yes, the narrator is interested in a romantic relationship with Claudia, I think, above all, she wants Claudia to release the pressure she’s carrying to make a really terrible relationship work. It’s not easy to make choices that others might label “messy” or “disruptive,” but sometimes that’s the only way forward. The narrator wants to help Claudia see that.
The ending lines are lingering and enigmatic: “. . . I’m watching Claudia stub out the cigarette with the bottom of her shoe, watching her round the corner of the alley as she smooths the back of that stupid pink uniform that they make us wear, even though it stains like hell, even when we scrub and scrub and scrub at the grease until our fingers are white and raw, even when we know that some things, once they’re set deep enough, can never be washed away.” What forces in Claudia’s life do you imagine as these “things” that “once they’re set deep enough, can never be washed away?” What about for the narrator and other queer Black women?
The ending is definitely speaking to a couple of different things as it relates to both Claudia and the narrator. On one hand, it’s a nod to the strength of their relationship—even if they don’t act upon their romantic feelings for one another, it doesn’t change the fact that those feelings are real and exist. They don’t just disappear—at least not immediately.
I think this sense of lingering also speaks to Claudia, in particular. She risks losing parts of herself by staying in a relationship that makes her feel small, and all the wants and needs that she has to bury to make that type of existence possible. Even if she’s successful at burying them, I don’t believe those parts of herself just die. She might forget them for a while or they might feel less urgent over time—but they’ll always linger and find a way to surface, and that creates its own complications. I think as a queer Black woman, the narrator knows that risk all too well and it’s certainly a part of why she so wants to see Claudia out of this situation.
How has the Robert J. Dau Prize affected you?
Life is remarkably much the same! But being recognized has been an honor and still feels a bit surreal. It’s also been really inspiring to connect with the other writers who won the prize. Writing can be a lonely endeavor—you spend so much time working in front of a screen or inside of your own head—so it’s lovely to have a really smart and talented group of peers to learn from and to cheer on in their own writing. The entire experience has felt really affirming for me as a writer and motivated me to continue growing and prioritizing this area of my life.
What are you working on now?
Right now, I’m working on multiple short stories. Hopefully they can come together into some sort of cohesive collection, but for now I’m following each idea as it comes.
What’s the best or worst writing advice you’ve ever received and why?
It’s not exactly direct advice, but I’ve really appreciated hearing from writers with day jobs or living with other realities that seriously affect their time and energy—like being a caretaker or living with chronic illness—how they’re able to maintain their writing lives. Being able to write full-time or without interruption is a privilege that most of us don’t have. It can be easy to beat yourself up for not being able to dedicate massive amounts of time and energy to sit down and write every day. But there are still small ways to keep your project alive and continue making steady progress. Richard Mirabella’s recent essay in Catapulton writing while working a full-time job really resonated with me. One recommendation he gives is that even if you’re unable to write every day, “maybe look at your project every day.” I loved that idea of staying connected to your writing, even if it’s as simple as taking a moment to look at your work or writing down one sentence or idea that keeps your project going. Writing at a slow pace—or along the contours of what life personally looks like for you—is still writing.
Finally, where do you discover new writing?
Twitter has played a big role in helping me discover new writing. I’m constantly being introduced to new-to-me authors, stories, publications, classes, and writing opportunities, and it’s definitely my main reason for staying on that app. I also browse a lot of local bookstores to see what other readers and booksellers are recommending—Two Dollar Radio Headquarters and Gramercy Books are a couple of my favorites here in Columbus.