“We all had white bellies and brown arms. We never took off our shirts because we never went to the beach anywhere, despite being residents of the Great Lakes state.”
That’s an excerpt from writer Jim Ray Daniels' collection of short stores set in Warren, Eight Mile High. The collection is on the Library of Michigan’s 2015 Notable Books List and is Daniels’ fifth collection of short stories, though he has also won many prizes and fellowships for his poetry.
Daniels is a professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. He grew up in the 1960’s and 70’s on Eight Mile Road, which functions as a boundary between Detroit and Warren. It was a scrappy neighborhood, where dads did their time at the auto plant and kids marked their time until the plant sucked them in as well.
“One of my lifelong goals as a writer has been to show these lives that don’t often appear in our literature and in our films and in our TV shows and say hey, there are stories worth telling here about these people whose lives matter,” Daniels said. “It’s been a kind of consistent focus for me in my work.”
Much of his work has autobiographical characteristics, enough that an old high school teacher wrote him in attempt to pinpoint which past high school kid was the inspiration for which character in his story.
“Most of them have some element of truth that I expanded into fiction,” he said.
And yet the lives of his characters are often austere, something that’s reflective of Daniels’ own reality.
“I looked for dark humor for levity, particularly when the circumstances were kind of hard in various ways and so there was a kind of cynicism in terms of what our futures held for us so one way we dealt with that was humor, sarcasm, and kind of self-deprecation often,” he said. “So our expectations weren’t high, but we didn’t really think of them as being bleak, it’s just that’s the way things were.”
Austere lives, however, are not necessarily absent of hope and humor, as Daniels’ stories and characters show.
“They find hope and joy where they can take it. So their expectations, or how they might define hope and joy might be different for the rest of us,” he said. “A lot of times it’s the small victories, the little things that get you over. And of course, a love sustains the people in here wherever they find it – the sense of 'well, we’re in this together.'”
– Lindsey Scullen, Michigan Radio Newsroom