5 short storiesAnother month of short stories and there were plenty to pick from, including three award winners. For a bonus sixth, there is a story about–wait for it–the Trump family.

As I had mentioned in the first of this series, these monthly selections will be, typically, a mix of classic and new. And, as my personal goal is to diversify my own reading in terms of genre, gender, culture, country, and so on, I hope to bring more wide-ranging choices forward each month.

All of these stories are online and free to read. Enjoy.

Here is a quote about short stories to get you in the mood. This is from British writer, Sarah Hall, in a Telegraph interview:

With short stories, you want the story to reverberate in a big way, so you’re alluding to things that go beyond what you’ve just written about. A lot of readers aren’t reading to feel the disquiet that short stories can deliver because most people read for comfort or consolation. There’s this trend of wanting everything to be tied up in the end, but life isn’t like that. Short stories are a reminder that, actually, you may never get to the bottom of something. You might end up staring over a precipice.

1. Cow and Company by Parashar Kulkarni (2016 Commonwealth Short Story Prize Winner)

Each year, they select five winning writers from five different Commonwealth regions. Regional winners receive £2,500 (US$3,835) and the overall winner will receive £5,000 (US$7,670). If the winning short story is a translation into English, the translator receives equal prize money.

This year, Granta magazine published, online, each of the regional winners. The overall winner was announced at the Calabash International Literary Festival in Jamaica on June 5th.

Parashar Kulkarni is the first Indian to win this prize, beating out 4000 entries. Also, watch him being interviewed on BBC World Service.

Chair, South African novelist and playwright Gillian Slovo, said of the regional winners:

From Faraaz Mahomed’s ‘The Pigeon’ with its playful tone and unreliable narrator, Parashar Kulkarni’s ‘Cow and Company’, a witty satire that engagingly immerses the reader in its world, and ‘Eel’, a simply told and moving story of childhood by Stefanie Seddon to Lance Dowrich’s comedic ‘Ethelbert and the Free Cheese’ and Tina Makereti’s ‘Black Milk’, which impressed with a lyricism that takes the reader into another world while keeping us always on earth, these were all worthy winners and show how well the short story is flourishing in the Commonwealth.

For me, this winning story reads like a screenplay, almost. There is satire, there is pathos, and there is action. While the story is set in the colonial era, the storytelling has a contemporary style.

The managing director stepped out of his room. A cow stood in the lobby looking at him with big moist eyes, masticating.

‘What is this nonsense? Is this a joke, Mr Pestonjee?’

‘No, sir. I got her for you. To show you how she eats cud, just like chewing gum. That she deserves to be on our posters. I am going to open her mouth and show you.’

‘Natwarlal! Open her mouth,’ the manager ordered the assistant.

2. Maria Times Seven by Martha Bátiz (Words Without Borders)

Here is a beautifully-told story about a mother and her seven daughters, all of whom have the ability to experience each others’ physical sensations and emotions simultaneously. As you might imagine, this leads to certain interesting incidents and consequences. It was translated from the original Spanish by its Mexican author, Martha Bátiz. I love the magical realism and the imagery here–Bátiz has painted a world that, as readers, we want to step into, walk around, and live inside for a bit.

Once reunited with her seven Marías, Doña Toña didn’t know which one to console first. María couldn’t stop crying for her lost love, and the others suffered along with her. The tears were so copious that the floor of the house began to flood. Doña Toña gave up on the idea of using absorbent towels and had to bring out her cups and jars first, then a couple of rusty buckets to gather up the water. The more María remembered Juan, the greater the distress she felt, and the more they all wept. Doña Toña finally emptied all her liquor, sauce, and vinegar bottles so she could fill them with tears. In a few days the whole town knew what was happening in the house and, motivated more by curiosity than by compassion, the village women showed up with more containers to contain the tears, which flowed without end.

3. A Mistake by Akhil Sharma (Dublin International Literary Award)

Akhil Sharma won the €100,000 Dublin International Literary Award for his autobiographical novel, Family Life. So, this is not strictly a short story. But, as a standalone excerpt from the award-winning novel had been published a year or so ago in the New Yorker, I wanted to include it.

Sharma describes the almost 13 years it took him to write Family Life as “a nightmare – like chewing stones, chewing gravel”, said it had taken a few days for his win to sink in… It was one of 160 titles up for the prize, with nominations spanning 43 countries.

I am not entirely sold on the idea of an “autobiographical novel”. Why not straight memoir or straight fiction? That said, writers can and should write what and how they want, of course.

The overall story is of how a younger brother, after emigrating with his family from India to the US, deals with his older brother’s accident and subsequent coma. It is more than a story about an immigrant trying to assimilate into his new home country. He’s also trying to navigate how his relationships with each family member are changing, even as they are all trying to create their new self-identities. When tragedy comes for the older brother–who is smarter, handsomer, and has a promising, bright future–the younger one is left to deal with many complex, unspoken emotions of guilt, shame, fear, and so on. It is rather beautifully-told because we get both humor and pain coming together in just the right doses and at just the right moments — a very tricky thing to do.

I used to assume that my father had been assigned to us by the government. This was because he appeared to serve no purpose. When he got home in the evening, all he did was sit in his chair in the living room, drink tea, and read the paper. Often he looked angry. By the time we left for America, when I was eight and Birju was twelve, I knew that the government had not assigned him to live with us. Still, I continued to think that he served no purpose.

4. Subcortical by Lee Conell (Guernica)

Lee Conell won the Algren Award (grand prize of $3500) for a story called ‘The Lock Factory’ (which I’ll come back and link to if I can). She has won praises from her fiction teachers, including the great Lorrie Moore.

That made me go google for some of her other work. I found this story first and could not stop reading it right away. Everything about it–the subject matter, the themes, the opening, how it goes in a direction that you sort of see coming but not really–hooked me in. It’s also one of those short stories that you wish wouldn’t end because you want to know more about what happened to all the main characters after this one life-changing episode for all of them. Which, by the way, is rather a tricky thing to achieve in a short story: have the lives of all key characters change from the single incident that is being narrated. I’m going to have to look out for more of Conell’s work now.

By the way, those brain experiments she describes in her fictional story actually did happen. The real-life doctor was Robert Heath.

In the early seventies, I began sleeping with a married doctor who wanted to cure homosexuality. I was twenty-one. In our hotel room, he showed me black-and-white photographs of patients’ brains like they were Kodak color snapshots of his own children at play: cooing over the cerebellum’s left lobe, marveling over the funniest reaction some area had had to electrical stimulation. I’m exaggerating a little, but not much. He pointed out, very tenderly, the deep brain and surface electrodes, his finger pads leaving sheeny traces of grease on the photograph.

5. The Abandoned Village by Hassan Blasim (Literary Hub)

I first came across Hassan Blasim, an Iraqi-born writer who writes in Arabic, when his short story collection, The Iraqi Christ, won the 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. I recall reading a translated excerpt (translator: Jonathan Wright) somewhere and thinking I must read more by him.

This story is part of a collection of five contemporary new Arabic short stories. It was one of twenty-four published in The Common Mag, Issue 11, which was dedicated to new fiction from across the Arab world.

What I like about it is how the narrator is a ghost, yet it is not a ghost story. Also, though we all have read news accounts of such abandoned war zone villages and incidents of lone soldiers being tortured by enemy forces, reading about these things here gives them a whole different kind of immediacy and poignancy. Most troubling of all, of course, is the central story about the mother and her daughter, both waiting for the father to return as he had promised them.

Sawsan’s mother was too frightened to move to another town without her husband. Her familiar life in the village where she had always lived had been torn apart, and the woman was now living a nightmare. She had heard that the regime militias were committing atrocities. People called them the “ghosts” and said they raped women and girls but preferred those with fair complexions. So the mother decided to give Sawsan a suntan. She forced her to sit in the sun for hours on end. Maybe they would leave her daughter alone if her skin were the color of burnt barley bread. The woman took other precautions. She had a pistol, and she had gathered all the village dogs in front of her house in the hope that they would frighten off anyone thinking of coming close. Sawsan was as frightened as her mother. More than once she thought of running away, but she had no idea where she could go.

BONUS: The Arrangements by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (New York Times)

Oh, this is just too delicious. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gives us an entire work of fiction starring the Trump family. And, it reads as if it is all true, of course, in Adichie’s expert hands, rather than a mere parody.

The first line is from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. And, like Clarissa Dalloway, Melania Trump here is going through a kind of existential crisis. Interesting that Adichie chose to make Melania the protagonist and give us her POV rather than, say, Ivanka’s. Partly, I suppose, it is because we do not get to hear/read much about what Melania thinks–there have been barely 1-2 interviews with her. On the other hand, Ivanka has been on television on her father’s reality show and there has been more written about her business and political savvy over the years.

Read more here about how and why Adichie approached the story.

There isn’t much I can add here other than: enjoy and you are welcome.

Melania decided she would order the flowers herself. Donald was too busy now anyway to call Alessandra’s as usual and ask for “something amazing.” Once, in the early years, before she fully understood him, she had asked what his favorite flowers were.

“I use the best florists in the city, they’re terrific,” he replied, and she realized that taste, for him, was something to be determined by somebody else, and then flaunted.

2 thoughts on “Top Five Short Story Reads from June 2016

  1. Thank you for including my story in your list of recommended reads. I’m honoured and very grateful. Also, thanks for recommending such great stories! I’ll read them all —I’m a huge fan of Chimamanda’s. ¡Gracias!

    Liked by 1 person

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