One day in May 1966—just a month before she would have graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and two months before her 23rd birthday—a brilliant young writer named Diane Oliver was killed in a motorcycle accident.

During her brief life, Oliver published only four short stories; three more were published posthumously. Still, the meticulousness of her observations, the astonishing depth of sympathy for her characters, and the clarity of her deceptively simple prose are palpable.Neighbors: And Other Stories (Grove, Feb. 13), a new collection of Oliver’s work that describes the day-to-day (and occasionally surreal) lives of Black Americans forced to endure prejudice, segregation, and poverty in the Jim Crow South, gathers previously published and unpublished stories with an introduction by novelist Tayari Jones.

Oliver’s “ability to distill the everyday struggles and humiliations experienced by African Americans in the ’50s and ’60s with such clarity and imagination is extraordinary,” Elise Dillsworth, the literary agent representing Oliver’s estate, writes in an email. Dillsworth was instrumental in both the assembling and the publication of Neighbors; she first encountered Oliver’s name in an essay by writer/critic Michael A. Gonzales that appeared in The Bitter Southerner, an online magazine of storytelling.  Dillsworth, who focused on African American studies when pursuing her master’s degree, says she was surprised that she’d never heard of Oliver. Gonzales himself had run across Oliver by chance when, “[g]uided by spirits, one overcast morning,” as he puts it, he plucked a book from his shelf (Right On!, an anthology of African American fiction published in 1970), flipped through it, and landed on Oliver’s story “Neighbors.”

In “Neighbors,” a family prepares, emotionally and practically, for their young son, Tommy, to desegregate his school the following day. “He’s so little,” Tommy’s mother whispers. In its subtlety and raw power, Oliver’s depiction of the family’s plight—protect their son by keeping him sheltered (and segregated) or expose him to the dangers of an infuriated white world—is tremendous.

Gonzales writes that he “was blown away by the narrative power [Oliver] demonstrated.” Dillsworth felt the same way. After reading Gonzales’ essay, she began tracking down Oliver’s extant work: both the anthology and the small magazines (The Sewanee Review and Negro Digest) where Oliver had first published her stories.

In a Zoom interview, Dillsworth says she was astounded by “the maturity of the writing…[and] the depth of observation in someone so young.” Her detective work led her from a former classmate of Oliver’s to the librarian at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and eventually to Facebook, where she discovered Oliver’s niece, Kim McGregor—and, through Kim, Diane’s sister, Cheryl Oliver.

After hiring Dillsworth to represent Diane’s estate, Cheryl and Kim produced a treasure trove: a box stuffed full with Diane’s stories, many of them previously unpublished. These were manuscripts that Cheryl had typed herself. “I remember typing the stories after she passed,” Cheryl says. “My mom organized them and had them all in a box—had everything about her in a box.” The box had sat, untouched by anyone outside the family, for decades.

Dillsworth says she had a moment of nerves when she first encountered the new work—maybe it didn’t measure up to the previous work. But, she says, “it was incredible to find stories that were just as strong.”

Dillsworth took Oliver’s work to editors from Faber in the U.K. (where she is based) and Grove Atlantic in the U.S. Together, they compiled the collection, deciding which stories to include and in what order. Dillsworth says that she and the editors (both have since moved on to other jobs) performed only a light copy edit of the stories, “but nothing was changed in terms of sentences or anything like that.” Luckily, she adds, “there was no need.”

Peter Blackstock, deputy publisher at Grove Atlantic, inherited the book from departing colleague Katie Raissian. When Grove first received the book, Blackstock remembers, they were presented not with a polished manuscript but with a set of scans of typewritten pages—the very typewritten pages that Cheryl and her mother had put together after Diane’s death. It was like “something from the archives,” Blackstock says. “You just felt the history and the weight of it somehow.”

Having encountered Gonzales’ essay, as well as a two-part episode on Oliver that writers Deesha Philyaw and Dawnie Walton produced for the Ursa Short Fiction podcast, Blackstock could see that interest in Oliver’s work was growing. “You could tell, having produced this much work at that age…that [writing] was something in her blood,” he says.

For Blackstock, the force of Oliver’s stories extends from her characters, whom “you feel are absolutely alive, and…burst off the page,” to “the cadences of dialogue and gesture that evoke the period she’s writing in,” to “the surprise that’s in these stories—there’s such variation within them…and they take these unexpected turns.”

But Blackstock was also moved by the eerie and almost surreal quality of some of them, which he likens to work by Gogol or Daniil Kharms, whose stories are “so much rooted in [a particular] place and yet they’re so surreal and they’re so timeless.”

Originally published in 1967, “Mint Juleps Not Served Here” describes a Black couple living in a remote forest with their son, who doesn’t speak. When a white caseworker turns up (“We didn’t know you people lived so deep in the forest,” she says), things take a violent turn. Throughout the story, Oliver maintains a seemingly impossible balance in tone between social realism and the otherworldly horror of a fairy tale—or a Jordan Peele film.

“One thing that’s very characteristic of [Oliver’s] work,” Blackstock says, “is this bleeding in of the surreal—or sometimes it’s the psychological state of the characters she’s writing about—into this very realist world.”

According to Cheryl Oliver, when Diane was still alive, their mother tried to discourage her from publishing “some of these stories because they were about family members and close friends,” and she worried about their reactions. Diane “was describing people as they were,” Cheryl says, and “sometimes people aren’t that nice.”

Their mother’s worry “didn’t stop [Diane] from writing.…That typewriter was going all the time,” Cheryl says, recalling their childhood in Charlotte, North Carolina, where their mother taught piano lessons and their father served as a teacher and administrator.

Even more than writing, Cheryl remembers Diane as “always reading when she was growing up—she was always reading a book.”

“When it was time for dinner and my mom would call us to [the table],” Cheryl says, “[Diane] would stay in her books and not come.” At one point, their parents actually had Diane’s hearing checked, Cheryl says, “but they soon realized that she just was able to tune everything out.…It became a joke. They’d go check on her and say, ‘Oh, well—Diane’s with her book people.’”

Now that her sister’s collection has finally been published, Cheryl says, “I think she’d be clicking her heels.…She’d be like—in a nonchalant way—‘I’m so surprised.’”

Natalia Holtzman is a writer whose work has appeared in LitHub, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Millions, and elsewhere.