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Know the West

Reaching across Colorado’s racial frontiers

Jenny Shank’s new story collection ‘Mixed Company’ reveals racial fault lines in the Centennial State.

 

Colorado-based writer Jenny Shank’s new short story collection, Mixed Company, is focused on the racial and class divides in her home state — even when the action takes place elsewhere. The first story, “L’homme de ma vie” (the man of my life) is set in Paris, France. The protagonist, Nicole, daughter of a Colorado ranching family, is married to Etienne, a French immigrant she met in college. “L’homme” unfolds as a poignant tale about the intimate negotiations of a binational marriage and the unspoken toll taken by intergenerational trauma. But moving underneath these themes is an unlikely Western. 

Nicole’s 3-year-old daughter Adele — perpetually clad in a cowboy shirt and boots — emerges as the story’s central concern. Nicole is visiting Paris in part to introduce Adele to Etienne’s schizophrenic mother. In her intense anxiety about the emotional impact this visit could have on her daughter, Nicole imagines herself as the savior of her family and the hero of her own Western. “I would save Etienne and Adele both. I already had the cowboy hat. Adele would grow, learn, love, and thrive. She was born in Colorado, but she would belong everywhere.”

A protestor holds up a sign depicting Elijah McClain playing violin during last year’s March Against Racism & Police Violence from Aurora to Denver.

This desire for a cowboy (or in this case, cowgirl) hero who will redeem the damaged inheritance of Europe and transform the West is as old as the Western itself. It’s also one of the themes that unites the stories in Shank’s collection. In these tales, white women living in the greater Denver area attempt to reach out across the frontiers of race (and often class) in attempts to build a community that defies Colorado’s reputation as a bastion of white privilege. In almost every story, the protagonists learn a hard lesson about the failures of the institutions — whether they’re public high schools, not-for-profits, or universities — that Americans have relied on to bridge racial divides since the civil rights era.

One of the most provocative stories, “La Sexycana,” opens on Charlotte, a middle-aged white woman working in local journalism. Charlotte discovers that a woman she had once mentored in a “Big Brothers and Sisters”-like not-for-profit program, Araceli Ramirez, has turned to online sex work (under the nom-de-OnlyFans “La Sexycana”) to pay her way through college. This discovery leads Charlotte to reminisce about the awkward yet hopeful outings and tutoring sessions during which she felt like she was making a connection with her working-class Latina mentee.

Like so many of Mixed Company’s stories of white intentions gone awry, Charlotte’s tale climaxes with a cross-cultural showdown that is equal parts devastating and cringe-inducing. I won’t spoil her nightclub confrontation with “La Sexycana,” but suffice to say it doesn’t end with Charlotte’s triumphant fulfillment of her white savior dreams.

“Charlotte figured out that doing something the whole world claimed to believe was worthwhile didn’t actually mean that it was,” the story concludes. Similar realizations come to other protagonists in Mixed Company: the white adoptive parents who painfully watch their Black son pull away from them; the white public school student who realizes that the diverse school she is bused to is hardly a refuge of interracial harmony.

Shank’s seemingly benevolent white protagonists are revealed to have unconscious and deep-seated biases, but the forces that produce such prejudices go largely unexplored.

Mixed Company is full of such compelling if occasionally toe-curling tales of botched attempts at interracial outreach, but it sidesteps the ongoing presence of white supremacist violence or attitudes in the West. Nor does it bring to life the long tradition of resistance taking place on the other side of the racial frontier — from the ongoing struggle of Ute, Cheyenne and Arapaho peoples for their homeland, to Corky Gonzales and the Crusade for Justice, to the Black Lives Matter protests in response to Elijah McClain’s death — that have made space for people of color in the Denver area since the settlement’s founding.Shank’s seemingly benevolent white protagonists are revealed to have unconscious and deep-seated biases, but the forces that produce such prejudices go largely unexplored.

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To acknowledge this omission is not to identify a shortcoming in Mixed Company as much as it is to locate the collection in its moment. Most of the stories in Mixed Company were written in the two decades leading up to the sea change set into motion by the murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2020. They give us a revealing glimpse of white life in a multiracial city whose tensions are clearly building toward a rupture. In her most affecting stories, Shank’s protagonists come to the realization that they have been following a time-worn script in which they play the part of Western hero on a racial frontier. They’re forced to confront this script as part of the problem, even if they can’t quite grasp what can or should come next. In their failures, white readers should painfully recognize aspects of our own.

Alex Trimble Young is a scholar of U.S. culture and transnational settler colonialism. He lives in Phoenix, Arizona, where he teaches at Barrett, the Honors College at Arizona State University. 

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Note: This story was updated to correct the name of the Crusade for Justice and Black Lives Matter protests.