Atlanta author John Holman explores black identity in Triangle Ray

The new collection of short stories took nearly 20 years to write

Triangle RayEarly on in Triangle Ray, a writing teacher tells the narrator, Ray Fielding, “You seem to tell more significant truths in third person.” Indeed, the book’s changing point-of-view—the stories alternate between first and third person—deepens Holman’s exploration of black identity within a middle class existence, allowing readers to view Ray’s struggles from others’ perspectives as well as his own.

Ray is a complex character straddling distinct worlds: creative and domestic, middle and upper class, black and white. At heart, he’s a storyteller as each story in the book is meant to arise from writing classes he takes. But the writing is just a side project; he pays the bills as owner of the Triangle Ray catering company in Durham, North Carolina. The book follows 20 years of Ray’s life, from his high school days in the 1980s through middle age, and it took Atlanta author John Holman almost as many years to write it.

His first book since the 1998 novel Luminous Mysteries, Triangle Ray was inspired by a man who ran a catering company in Durham, where Holman worked as a college student. Ray, says Holman, is “struggling with being both a servant and a boss in a culture that has a history of black people serving a dominant class,” says Holman, a longtime creative writing and English professor at Georgia State University.

In addition to class issues, the book also grapples with the pervasiveness of violence in daily life. Mostly, Ray manages to avoid conflict in a world filled with it, though he doesn’t emerge unscathed. In one of the strongest stories, “Honeymoon,” Ray and his wife visit Atlanta as newlyweds while the local police are hunting Wayne Williams, a notorious 1980s serial killer known as the Child Murderer. The honeymoon’s violent backdrop lends a sense of foreboding to Ray’s own marriage, which soon dissolves. Holman is at his best when capturing the moment when the facade starts to crack, leaving the big events off page.

“I don’t see a lot of fiction about middle class black life or the various class structures within the black community,” says Holman. “But I’m just writing about the part of the world where I know about.”

Why was it important that Ray be a writer?
I wanted him to have a way of being in a world that wasn’t just being a kind of servant. So he can create a different identity for himself that way. I suppose I made him a writer because in part there is that autobiographical aspect because I became one. And also it allowed me as an author to play around with some metafictional techniques by having the character also be a writer and creating himself.

Violence seems to be on the edge of a lot of these stories. Why was this theme important to you?
When you listen to the news and the news is “two people shot in this neighborhood, and another person was hit-and-run in this neighborhood,” it seems like violence is all around and happening at all odd hours. I was interested in what’s it like to just go through the world trying to avoid that violence but having that violence go on around you.

Despite how this book is mostly set in Durham, does it have any similarities to Atlanta?
Yes. Atlanta is a bigger city, obviously. But in terms of there being a black middle class that’s fairly prosperous, there was one in Durham as there is in Atlanta. And the history of segregation in the neighborhoods and the schools is in both. The poverty that people try to ignore still exists in both towns.

What are you working on next?
I’m writing stories set in and around the part of Atlanta where I live, East Lake Terrace. I don’t know what it’s going to turn into. It’s very much present day. I’m not going back 20 years from now, but it may be 20 years before I finish it.

This article originally appeared in our January 2016 issue under the headline “Class Matters.”