When Nina Collins was 19 and studying in Europe, she had a distressing phone conversation with her mother. I have cancer, and you need to come home, her mother said, but don’t worry, I’m going to be fine.
Ms. Collins immediately made her way back to New York. Her mother died two weeks later.
Kathleen Collins, a pioneering playwright, filmmaker and screenwriter, had kept her breast cancer diagnosis a secret for eight years. When she died in 1988, at 46, she left behind a trove of papers, journals and letters. Her daughter dutifully preserved the documents, stuffing them in a traveling trunk, but found them too painful to read.
“Every time I tried to look at them it made me cry,” she said.
When she finally cracked open the trunk about a decade ago, she found more than 20 short stories, as well as an incomplete novel, some unproduced screenplays and plays, and most wrenching of all, the journal her mother kept during the last two years of her life, as she hid her illness from her children and friends.
Now, nearly 30 years after her death, 16 of those stories have been rescued from obscurity and published in a collection, “Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?” The collection has been embraced by prominent writers and artists like Zadie Smith, Leslie Jamison and Miranda July, who called the stories a revelation.
For Nina Collins, the stories offered a window into her enigmatic mother’s fertile and complicated mind.
There were autobiographical stories that chronicled her feverish and awkward early romances, her activism in the civil rights movement, her struggles as an artist and the dissolution of her marriage to Nina Collins’s estranged father. Some were heartbreakingly personal, like “Interiors,” a first-person story narrated alternately by a husband and a wife that exposes the rift between them, which revealed the crushing loneliness and isolation her mother felt as her marriage collapsed.
“That’s why they’re so painful to read,” Ms. Collins said.
Many of the stories, which often feature black intellectuals, artists and filmmakers, explore the fault lines of race, class and gender in a way that feels strangely contemporary, though they were written decades ago. Apart from one story that was picked up by an obscure literary journal, none of Ms. Collins’s fiction was published in her lifetime.
“To be able to see the kind of interior workings of a black woman intellectual artist’s mind is tremendously exciting,” said Elizabeth Alexander, a poet and literature professor at Columbia University, who wrote an introduction to the collection. “That just feels like a window thrown open.”
The stories are the latest creative resurrection for Ms. Collins, whose groundbreaking work was nearly lost to history.
Last year, her 1982 feature film, “Losing Ground,” a biting domestic drama about an intellectual black couple whose marriage is foundering, had its premiere at a film festival at Lincoln Center and was met with near universal praise. (In The New York Times, A. O. Scott called it “a bulletin from a vital and as-yet-unexplored dimension of reality.”)
The film also captured the attention of Brigid Hughes, the editor of the literary journal A Public Space, who contacted Ms. Collins to see if her mother had any unpublished writing.
Ms. Collins, a former literary agent, thought of the stories. She hadn’t given any thought to publishing them. “I thought, who’s going to care about these?” she said.
After Ms. Hughes went to Ms. Collins’s Brooklyn Heights apartment to rifle through her mother’s fiction, Ms. Collins realized that the stories might have literary and historic significance, beyond their sentimental value as a link to her lost mother.
“They were extraordinary, from the first sentence,” said Ms. Hughes, who published the story “Interiors” in A Public Space.
Combing through her mother’s writing has at times felt painfully intimate. Growing up in Piermont, N.Y., Ms. Collins was always aware that her mother was a creative force. But she often resented her mother’s inscrutability and need for solitude, and the turbulent environment she was raised in. The family had little money. Her father was mostly absent, and when he was there, her parents fought constantly, sometimes physically. They divorced when she was 6. At times, Ms. Collins felt as if she had to raise herself.
“She was always locked in her room writing, and we weren’t supposed to disturb her,” she said. “I knew growing up how depressed and complicated she was.”
As an adult, Ms. Collins worried she had inherited her mother’s emotionally destructive tendencies. At 37, she divorced her husband, the father of her four children, after 16 years together, and was arrestedthree times, on charges of assaulting him and his girlfriend, and for violating an order of protection he had taken out against her.
Shortly after her divorce, she decided that she needed to understand her mother’s volatility to come to terms with her own depression and rage. She opened the trunk and began sorting through her mother’s photographs, journals and fiction.
The remnants of her mother’s creative legacy were spread across Ms. Collin’s large dining table on a recent afternoon, in her sun-soaked waterfront apartment overlooking Brooklyn Bridge Park. While researching a forthcoming memoir about her mother, Ms. Collins organized her mother’s papers and other material into large white binders.
One held the cheerful, gossip-filled letters that her mother wrote to her as she was hiding her terminal illness. At the same time, her mother was keeping a private journal, writing about how terrified she was of dying. Read alongside the journals, her mother’s letters seemed like dispatches from a parallel fictional universe, one where Kathleen Collins never got cancer.
There was also a paper trail that revealed her mother’s unsuccessful attempts to publish her fiction, including cover letters to a literary agency and the odd rejection note.
Scattered among the papers, Ms. Collins found an agonizingly polite rejection letter from 1975 signed by the novelist Alice Walker, then an editor at Ms. Magazine.
“We kept these so long because we liked them so much,” Ms. Walker wrote, before explaining that the magazine had reached its fiction quota and couldn’t buy any new stories. “The friends who told you you are good, are right.”