Jenny Shank remembers an open field in southeast Denver where she would see pronghorns nibbling grass as she passed by on her half-hour bus ride north to Cole Middle School.
The field’s an IKEA now.
Shank remembers Sundays when the streets of Denver were empty because everyone in town was watching the Broncos game. She remembers when Boulder was a sleepy town ensconced in a haze of patchouli. She remembers a time, not so long ago, before tech start-ups and legalized weed and bumper-to-bumper traffic.
Her newly released collection of short stories, Mixed Company—winner of the 2020 George Garrett Fiction Prize—conjures this Denver of recent past by juxtaposing the former “cow town” during its ’80s oil-bust economic woes and court-ordered crosstown busing for racial desegregation with the burgeoning and gentrifying city of today.
“I think I probably mythologize the places I write about a little bit,” Shank admits over the phone. “I’ve written about my middle school so many times, but it was such an interesting place to be because I was bused across town. It was like 1990 or so, and back then there weren’t any hip-hop stations, there wasn’t any rap playing on the radio. So I heard NWA and Public Enemy from my classmates who played it on their boomboxes. It was just a whole new culture that I was exposed to just by going down the road.”
It’s these connections that form the beating heart of Mixed Company. Shank creates moments of grace between seemingly disparate people: the white seventh grader eager to fit in with her new Black classmates across town; a stalled-out journalist searching for validation through a mentorship with a young Latina; a girls basketball team at a majority-Black school in Denver faces off with a white team from a private school; a politically-charged mother engages in a standoff with a college Republican aide at Corey Gardner’s Fort Collins’ office. Over and over, Shank’s main characters are forced to look at themselves harder, to face their foibles, their biases, their deficits. It’s often uncomfortable, as growth always is.
Shank stays in her lane by writing from a white perspective, often female, but without the white savior trope that has maliciously dominated mainstream American pop culture for decades.
“Even though the perspective might be from the white character, the characters that make a difference are of all different races,” Shank says. “It’s the sacred right of the reader to say, ‘Oh, you got it wrong here,’ and I welcome that, but I choose to blunder forward including everyone in my stories because I just can’t stand a segregated bookshelf where white people would only write about white characters.”
But Shank, who now lives in Boulder with her family, never fumbles. These are stories she knows, pieces of her own life turned sideways, shifted, examined in a new light. She has mentored students of color; she did play sports; she was bused across town.
“[Busing] ended the year after I graduated from high school,” Shank says. “And then everyone just decided, oh, that was a bad idea; let’s end it and never talk about it again. But I think it actually was a good idea. I’m so thankful for having gone to schools where I was among a handful of white people. I learned so much. It was an opportunity, looking back, to be immersed in so many different cultures. It really shaped my life and shaped my writing for sure.”
Sports also shaped Shank’s life, and she turns to games often as a backdrop for her stories. In “Hurts,” a girls basketball team contends with the reality of racialization in America when a rival team mocks their star player’s Jheri curl.
“Our team was up by eight with two minutes left on the clock,” Shank writes. “The Montbello fans tried to rattle us, starting up a chant: He-ey, number 3-4, your greasy curl’s dropping on our floor! I looked at Junebug and Isabel in disbelief. Charmaine wore 34. Junebug bit down hard on the hand towels we were given to wipe up sweat—though ours were merely decorative—to keep from screaming.”
“I think [sports] are arenas in which people from all different walks of life are forced to contend with each other,” Shank explains, “and there’s not there’s not a whole lot of those spaces in society . . . Sports appeals to such a broad cross section of people. That’s what I find intriguing about it. These people are united in this common goal, and they are brought together from all over and they form a team, somehow they form rivalries. The clash of different people getting together is most interesting for me.”
Mixed Company comes at a time when America is reckoning with its racist foundation, in the wake of public outrage over the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain and too many more Black lives lost at the hands of white people to list here. The collection doesn’t deal with these injustices head-on, but instead asks readers to consider whether they see themselves in any of these characters, if they’ve ever played the savior or taken up space that wasn’t theirs to inhabit.
“If you’re reading one book this year, don’t make it mine,” Shank says with a laugh. “If people want to pick up a book, I would, of course, first recommend a book written by a black author first. But if you’re reading 20 books this year, mine fits right in there.”