The 12 stories in Jenny Shank's affecting new collection, "Mixed Company," live up to the book's title: Shank's characters navigate the fraught encounters that arise when people of different racial and economic backgrounds are forced together, often against their will, by circumstances they can't control.
Nearly all of these stories play out in the context of the author's hometown of Denver. Together, they trace its recent history from economically troubled melting pot to rapidly gentrifying "it" city.
One story, "Lightest Lights Against Darkest Darks," dramatizes Denver's desegregation through court-ordered busing in the 1980s and '90s. The narrator, a white middle schooler named Emily, is bused to a school in a Black area of the city. "Going to that school made me feel like a parody of a white person that a comedian would perform on BET," she says. Emily must decide whether her allegiance lies with her Black classmates, with whom she desperately wants to make friends, or with the aptly named Ms. Omber, a white-passing art teacher who has taken Emily under her wing.
Like Emily, most of the narrators and protagonists in these stories are white girls and women, struggling to understand where they fit into the city's shifting demography. In the hands of a lesser writer, this setup might risk positioning the characters of color as mere instruments, serving only to help the white protagonists understand themselves. Shank, however, imbues all of her characters with equal humanity and depth.
In the best of these stories, the characters of color actively resist being used as props. In "La Sexycana," for instance, a white journalist seeks out a Latina named Araceli whom she had mentored through high school before losing contact. Charlotte's life has become a disappointment to her, and she wants Araceli's validation that it hasn't been wasted. But Araceli refuses to give her that validation. "I appreciate what you did," she says dramatically in the nightclub where Charlotte finally finds her. "But we don't need each other anymore."
The collection's strongest story, "Signing for Lineman," features a white medieval literature Ph.D. student named Kimberly who takes a summer job tutoring mostly Black football players in American Sign Language. The football players quickly prove to be better at the language than Kimberly is herself. They are also better than the other white women in the class, who jealously accuse them of cheating. When the players protest this act of blatant racism, Kimberly joins them, recognizing in the other white women some unsavory aspects of herself.
Ultimately, this collection provides a vivid portrait of a changing city, full of diverse people who are trying — often failing but sometimes succeeding — to understand each other.
Mike Alberti is a Minneapolis-based writer and managing director of Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop. His first book, "Some People Let You Down," won the Katherine Anne Porter Prize for Short Fiction in 2020.