5 short stories

Top Five Short Story Reads from July 2016

5 short storiesAnother month of discovering several outstanding, well-crafted short stories by inspiring writers. This month, there is also an excellent audio story (performed with well-timed humor and style, as you will see) and a flash fiction piece. The featured authors come from India, South Africa, and the US: Mahasweta Devi, Lidudumalingani, Oindrila Mukherjee, William Goyen, and Reem Abu-Baker. And, there is a brief short story how-to by Joy Williams as only she can tell it. Enjoy.

In a recent interview, Joy Williams, American writer, had this to say about short stories:

1) There should be a clean clear surface with much disturbance below
2) An anagogical level
3) Sentences that can stand strikingly alone
4) An animal within to give its blessing
5) Interior voices which are or become wildly erratically exterior
6) Control throughout is absolutely necessary
7) The story’s effect should transcend the naturalness and accessibility of its situation and language
8) A certain coldness is required in execution. It is not a form that gives itself to consolation but if consolation is offered it should come from an unexpected quarter.
9) A novel wants to befriend you, a short story almost never.

All of this resonates deeply with me. I do not read/write short stories for comfort or friendship or to escape into another world so I can forget my own for the duration. Short stories, to me, are brief spaces or moments that make me more intensely aware of the world around me — even as I am reading them.

With that, let’s get straight to the five stories from this month. As mentioned before, the stories I share each month are from free-to-read, online sources, but not necessarily all published in that particular month. Also, I hope to continue sharing more diverse short fiction — in terms of genre, form, culture/country.

1. Draupadi by Mahasweta Devi; translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Scroll.in)

Mahasweta Devi passed away last week at the age of 90. She was/is a well-revered Bengali writer and social activist. Her writing, fiction and non-fiction, was mostly about under-represented and oppressed communities — the lower castes and their mistreatment. Several of her award-winning stories/novels have made their way to Indian cinema.

This particular story is about a tribal woman who is gang-raped by the police. Sadly, this is an everyday reality in many parts of India. The author took a situation that shows up in local/national news quite regularly. It is, however, all the more poignant and stark here with her language and characterization.

It should be read in the context of the Naxalite movement in India — a far-left radical Communist movement with a rather complex and violent history. It began in the 1960s and was (continues to be) repressed by the state.

Draupadi is a reference to one of the central female characters in the Hindu epic, Mahabharata. She was much-maligned and much-abused by various powerful male figures. In particular, the epic tells of a famous public disrobing scene, which Mahasweta Devi has borrowed to chilling effect. Excerpt below.

Then a billion moons pass. A billion lunar years. Opening her eyes after a million light years, Draupadi, strangely enough, sees sky and moon. Slowly the bloodied nailheads shift from her brain. Trying to move, she feels her arms and legs still tied to four posts. Something sticky under her ass and waist. Her own blood. Only the gag has been removed. Incredible thirst. In case she says ‘water’ she catches her lower lip in her teeth. She senses that her vagina is bleeding. How many came to make her?

2. Memories We Lost by Lidudumalingani (Caine Prize for African Writing)

Lidudumalingani is a South African writer, film-maker, and photographer.

The link above has the entire shortlist — both in audio and written form.

The Caine Prize for African Writing is awarded to an African writer of a short story published in English. The prize was launched in 2000 to encourage and highlight the richness and diversity of African writing by bringing it to a wider audience internationally. The focus on the short story reflects the contemporary development of the African storytelling tradition.

As a winner, Lidudumalingani has the opportunity to take up a month’s residence at Georgetown University as a Writer-in-Residence at the Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice. In addition to a £10,000 prize, he is invited to speak at the Library of Congress and take part in Cape Town’s Open Book Festival, Nairobi’s Storymoja and Nigeria’s Ake Festival.

Prize Chair, Jarrett-Macauley, said:

The winning story explores a difficult subject – how traditional beliefs in a rural community are used to tackle schizophrenia. This is a troubling piece, depicting the great love between two young siblings in a beautifully drawn Eastern Cape. Multi-layered, and gracefully narrated, this short story leaves the reader full of sympathy and wonder at the plight of its protagonists.

In a conversation with The Daily Vox, Lidudumalingani touched on the inspiration for the story.

The first might have been mental illness, or at least the way in which villagers speak and deal with it. Then there were conversations with friends, texts, and visuals that suddenly were on my radar, memories of extended family members who struggled with mental illness – many of them on and off and at varying degrees.

Here’s an excerpt:

There was never a forewarning that this thing was coming. It came out of nowhere, as ghosts do, and it would disappear as it had come. Every time it left, I stretched my arms out in all directions, mumbled two short prayers, one to God and another to the ancestors, and then waited on my terrified sister to embrace me. The embraces, I remember, were always tight and long, as if she hoped the moment would last forever.

Every time this thing took her, she returned altered, unrecognizable, as if two people were trapped inside her, both fighting to get out, but not before tearing each other into pieces. The first thing that this thing took from her, from us, was speech, and then it took our memories. She began speaking in a language that was unfamiliar, her words trembling as if trying to relay unthinkable revelations from the gods. The memories faded one after the other until our past was a blur.

3. US by Oindrila Mukherjee (The Kenyon Review)

Now, this is an all too familiar story for most first-generation Indian immigrants to the US of the past 2-3 decades. Most came to the US for higher education, a long, drawn-out journey that can begin a year or two before even setting foot in the country.

Mukherjee writes with the collective “we” point of view, which is perfect for this kind of story because she is describing a huge common bond between many such immigrants. In their home country, they might have lived entirely different lives. But, this one big life step of moving to the US binds them all together in a lengthy, shared, and deeply personal experience.

She juxtaposes, so beautifully, the various mundane bureaucratic processes with the associated emotional upheavals so that we feel the anxiety and tension ratcheting up throughout. The visuals are heartbreakingly familiar to first-generation Indian immigrants like myself.

There are some stories I read and go, “Damn. I wanted to have written that. I was going to write that.” This is one of them.

We are a mixed bunch. Some of us are going to study English, history, or political science. We are progressive and modern and eat animals indiscriminately and support homosexuality even though we have never known anyone who is gay. Some of us are engineers whose fathers slaved as government employees in small towns so we could attend the Indian Institute of Technology. We have spent most of our lives memorizing textbooks. Some of us are computer scientists. We want to write code and work for Microsoft or Apple. We are the most confident ones today because we have been told the Americans need us. All of us strain our ears to hear the conversations at the different windows. We envy the continuing student who is simply renewing her visa and gets done in a few minutes. Not everyone is so fortunate. One man in his thirties gesticulates wildly to make his case. He wears a cream shirt, a brown striped tie, black boots. His hair is slicked back, and he holds a brown folder. The agent, a middle-aged white woman, stares at the computer screen in front of her as they speak. She never smiles. The man looks around the room, pleading with us to help. In his eyes is a look of desperation. We hear the words “project,” “company,” “cousin.” The agent shakes her head and mouths the word “sorry.”

4. The Texas Principessa by William Goyen (Selected Shorts)

Now, you have to listen to this one rather than read it. It is performed by the inimitable Doris Roberts (of ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’ fame) and she is aah-mazing. The story is funny, with a lot of asides, and Roberts brings it to life with the right kind of Southern accent, the little laughs, and chuckles inserted at just the right spots.

The story is by Texan writer, William Goyen, who was also married to Roberts’. His works defy genre and style, even now. But, through all the different books, stories, essays that he published, his distinctive and interesting voice stands out always.

The link above also has three other stories and they are all worth a listen.

— Jackie Hoffman reads an excerpt about a jilted lover from David Rakoff’s final work, “Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish.” It is written in verse form with his trademark dry, pointed humor.

— A young couple have an idyllic day on the river in Rick Bass’s “The Canoeists,” read by Neil Patrick Harris.

— Bill Irwin and John Lithgow read Edward Lear’s classic poem “The Owl and the Pussycat.” Brilliant.

Excerpt:

That ever happen to you? [Listen to the story for the rest. Ha. Seriously, though, you must.]

5. Vacation by Reem Abu-Baker (Tin House)

Though not much of a flash reader I am slowly getting into it. It is a tricky kind of prose to write, I imagine, because you have to tell an entire story in compression. There’s more of an impetus to make it memorable and punchy.

This particular story is definitely one of those. The opening lines could have taken us in several possible directions. And, the sex-with-a-stranger-while-on-vacation story is almost a tired little sub-genre by itself. That said, this little paragraph of a story goes off in a rather unexpected direction and, in just a few sentences, we get an entire world and character that not only grab our attention right away, but also haunt us long after we are done reading.

On vacation, I meet a man with awful bleachy hair. I am the kind of drunk that means I suck his dick while he brushes his teeth in the hotel room. He is the kind of drunk that means he grabs my tit for just a second before he passes out, mouth open, throat wet.

And, to end, let me share one of my own short stories that came out this month in The Indian Quarterly: ‘The Plinko Watch’

Till next month then. Happy reading. And, please do share your own favorite short stories in the comments — I’m always on the lookout.

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