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Daughter Of African-American Filmmaker Asks, What Happened To Kathleen Collins?


Much of the world is getting to know the work of Kathleen Collins - all the more to regret that she's not around to hear the praise. Kathleen Collins was a writer and filmmaker who died in 1988 of breast cancer. She was 46 years old.

Her 1982 film, "Losing Ground," was one of the first features directed by an African-American woman. It never opened in theaters. But last year, the film sold out at Lincoln Center. And now her first collection of short stories has been published, "Whatever Happened To Interracial Love?"

Stories, almost all of them unpublished in Kathleen Collins' lifetime, have now been collected by her daughter Nina Collins and published by HarperCollins - no relation. Nina Collins, who's been a literary agent and a writer, joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

NINA COLLINS: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: I have to begin by asking - you've worked so hard to bring your mother's work to new attention. But I gather, having read articles you've written over the years, that you didn't feel particularly close to her when you were a child.

COLLINS: No, I think I did feel really close to her. But I - she was quite preoccupied as a mother. She was - as much as I know, she loved us. She was probably a writer more than she was anything else. And so our childhood was complicated.

You know, she was a divorced, single, black woman writer-mother. She had no money. And so I think it was hard. And I think she was frequently depressed. And then when she died when I was 19 of an illness that she'd kept a secret for, it turns out, much of my childhood - she first got sick when I was 11, and I didn't know about her cancer until two weeks before she died.

It was a huge trauma. And I'm probably, you know, still not quite in touch with the anger I feel about it. Or maybe I am. Maybe that's what's come out in all this - in this process and the writing I've done.

SIMON: Where do these stories come from? Where'd you find them?

COLLINS: She had remarried shortly before her death. And my stepfather and I didn't get along very well. And so in the aftermath of her death, kind of in the immediate aftermath, I gathered all of her stuff that I could and put it in this trunk - all of her writings and photographs and journals and really whatever I could kind of lay my hands on - and took it with me.

And then in my mid- to late 30s, I went through a very difficult personal time in my life. And I really needed to understand what my own pain was about in my childhood. And so I took this trunk up. And I opened it up. And I started to read it.

And, for me, they're probably the most powerful of anything she's done because they're so completely autobiographical. I mean, I recognize pretty much every character setup, every single story I can - you know, I think I know the story behind, to some extent. And so, for me, they were this incredible gift into my mother's life, which I felt I had so many questions about and, you know, not enough answers.

SIMON: Let me ask about some of the stories. "The Happy Family" - young, white man becomes part of an African-American family that he meets at a civil-rights rally in a church. A romance follows. But go ahead.

COLLINS: Yeah. That story - you know, I don't know who the white man is in that story. And often, when I read it, I get confused because I think it's my mother telling the story. So my mother met a woman named Peggy Priestley (ph), who's also still alive.

And it was a very close friend of hers - at a SNCC rally, at a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee rally. And Peggy brought my mother home to her apartment in Harlem, where she lived with her brother and her parents.

And her brother Hank, her younger brother, my mother fell in love with and had a romance with. And a bunch of years later - maybe eight or nine or 10 years later - Hank killed himself.

SIMON: Another phrase of your mother's I marked in there - the narrator says, looking at the romance - he says, oh, my God, how life will take them apart.

COLLINS: Yeah. (Laughter) It's a good line. It's a sad one. And it did. And I don't know. It's interesting. I don't know when she wrote "The Happy Family." Did she write it - she must've written it after Hank died. And he died when I was 2. So she knew that life had taken them apart.

SIMON: Did life do that to your mother?

COLLINS: You know, I think the two kind of personal, big sadnesses of her life were her mother's death and I think her trouble with men. Or, at least, her relationship with my father was very problematic. And, you know, larger issues like race and being a black woman artist and trying to have your voice heard and be recognized - I think those were also struggles. But I don't think those things tore her apart. I think it was more kind of the personal pain.

SIMON: I've read articles you've written, I guess, for Vogue, for Elle. And, you know, at one point, you - not to be oblique about it - you seem to hold your relationship with your mother responsible for some of the problems that you had with violence.

COLLINS: Yeah. She had a terrible temper. I mean, we would have violent fights when I was a child. She had a real rage in her. There's no doubt. And she and my father fought a lot. It's not as if I saw a lot of domestic violence. There was a lot of yelling and some hitting.

And I think my response to her death was to kind of do, do, do. So within a couple of years of her death, I got married. I started a business. I had four children. I kind of went in super overdrive through my 20s and into my 30s and, you know, was depressed and saw therapists but never really looked at what was underneath my kind of hyper, you know, almost manic attempt to create a life.

And then, basically, it kind of crashed down. In my 30s, I went through a very, very difficult divorce. I was extremely angry. I think it was a lot of unexplored anger about her death and the secrets. And yeah, I probably had been raised in an environment where rage was not unusual.

SIMON: Again, not to be oblique, but you took it out on your then-husband, right?

COLLINS: Yeah, I did.

SIMON: Does getting to know your mother through these stories help you close a circle within yourself with your mother?

COLLINS: It has, I think. I mean, when I got divorced, I was 37. And that's when I started reading all of her work. And I wrote a draft of a memoir. I also went into therapy. And yeah, I mean, I certainly don't feel violent anymore (laughter).

I'm still sad sometimes. I'm not probably nearly as sad. I mean, this process of bringing her work out is - I mean, it's very emotional. It's extremely sad for me that she doesn't know that this is happening. And it feels like a weird role.

Like, I'm talking for her. But this is not my work. This is her work. And I'm so pleased that I've done this for her and, really, for the world. I'm so glad her voice is out there for people to enjoy and learn from. But it's certainly bittersweet.

SIMON: Nina Collins - her mother Kathleen Collins died in 1988. But her first collection of short stories has just been published, "Whatever Happened To Interracial Love?" Nina Collins, thanks so much for being with us.

COLLINS: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.