We Are Taking Only What We Need

When you plunge into this collection of short stories by Stephanie Powell Watts, you’re suddenly among “dirt-roaders,” as she calls them: low-income, undereducated black working people living in obscurity in North Carolina. If this is new company for you to keep, so much the better. Trust her characters to illuminate their preoccupations and challenges.

Watts’ debut collection, We Are Taking Only What We Need, spotlights young black women and teenage girls yearning to take the next step forward, even if it’s just a step toward self-understanding. They encounter damaged family relationships, broken trust, dead-end jobs, crises of faith. Yet they do so with self-awareness, even humor, so that the inward journey trumps external circumstances. Seeing their struggles through their eyes, you’ll find yourself fervently rooting for these heroines.

In a lesser writer’s hands, the book’s grittier situations might dominate the storytelling, miring readers in social dysfunction. It’s a testament to Watts’ literary skill that the shifting inner lives of her main characters remain central and specific. Six of the 10 stories have first-person narrators, presenting an “I” equally strong and vulnerable.

Watts says, “I don’t always agree with my [teen] characters’ choices, since so often they can’t figure out what to do and they wait and wait and wait. But these kids have hope.”

The English professor at Lehigh University came to Baton Rouge in mid-January to accept the 2012 Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence, given annually to a rising African-American author. It’s easy to see how We Are Taking Only What We Need merits this distinction. Every story in it, not just those previously published, is surefooted and satisfying. Jolts of insight or resolution auger transformation in her characters, made real on the page through probing reflection and pungent dialogue.

Watts says she hopes that “readers will be surprised at the complexity of the black Southerner experience. I would love for that to happen.”