In 2021 my friend Paul Price was cleaning out a storage unit when he stumbled on collection of Black literature called Right On! An Anthology of Black Literature. Published in 1970 and edited by Bradford Chambers and Rebecca Moon, the book featured work by LeRoi Jones, Lorraine Hansberry and William Melvin Kelley, to name a few. Though I was familiar with the names and writings of most of the contributors, my interest was piqued when I saw the byline Diane Oliver. While I considered myself well-read, especially when it came to African-American authors, Oliver’s name was new to me.
Without hesitation I dove into her story “Neighbors” and was soon blown away by the style and subject matter. The story was about a southern family trying to decide if they’ll let the young boy child of the house integrate a local school. The story was sweet and sad and stirred-up many emotions. By the end of “Neighbors” I was a Diane Oliver fan and I wanted more.
However, after digging deeper, I read that the Charlotte, North Carolina native had died in 1966 in a motorcycle accident when she was 22 years old. A few days later she was supposed to have graduated from the Iowa Writers Program with an MFA, but that obviously never happened. Still, though she’d left only a handful of stories (“Mint Juleps Not Served Here,” “Health Servicer” and “Traffic Jam”) about southern communities, various families and racism in America, some which I found in the Negro Digest archive on Google Books, I was determined to spread the word of my discovery.
In 2018 I had started writing about out-of-print Black writers when I launched the short-lived column The Blacklist. My mission was to introduce to a wider audience authors who were Black, brilliant and, in many instances, forgotten. While the column only lasted for six months, I took that same agenda to various other sites including Longreads, The Paris Review and CrimeReads.
When I sat down to write an article on Diane Oliver, I had no idea who I would send it to, I just knew it needed to be done. However, as I soon found out, I wasn’t the only one who had never heard of Diane Oliver. When I inquired with writer friends Deesha Philyaw (The Secret Lives of Church Ladies) and Bridgett M. Davis (The World According to Fannie Davis: My Mother’s Life in the Detroit Numbers) in an effort to get secondaries for the essay, neither knew her work.
Nevertheless, I ventured forth and wrote the essay “The Short Stories and Too-Short Life of Diane Oliver,” which was published by The Bitter Southerner in 2022. Thankfully through my work the literary community was exposed to Diane Oliver’s stories and her audience began widening. A few months later the two-part Ursa Short Fiction Podcast hosted by authors Deesha Philyaw and Dawnie Walton (The Final Revival of Opal & Nev) helped spread her name further.
Later, British literary agent Elise Dillsworth contacted me and was successful in tracking down Oliver’s niece and sister. It was through Dillsworth’s efforts that a collection of Oliver’s short fictions, Neighbors and Other Stories, will be published this February by Grove Atlantic, and in England by Faber & Faber. Both editions will include an introduction by An American Marriage author Tayari Jones.
Though a couple of my literary essays has helped revive interest in other writers including Nettie Jones and Charlotte Carter, both who are still alive and writing, Diane Oliver, who has been dead for 58-years, is finally getting her moment in the sun. Shine on wonderful writer…shine on.