5 short stories

Top Five Short Story Reads from January 2017

Over the years, I have always looked forward to the release of the Best American Short Stories’ annual edition. While I do not buy every edition, I look through the table of contents and try to find some of the stories online. That said, if the editor happens to be one of my favorite writers, I will get the entire collection because it is like taking a masterclass in writing. So, for example, I have, on my shelves, the collections edited by Lorrie Moore, Salman Rushdie, and John Updike. I also want to get the collections edited by Jennifer Egan, Amy Tan, Barbara Kingsolver, T C Boyle. . . who am I kidding? I would really like to get the entire series someday. And I wish every country had some such annual collection too.

That said, I have to admit that there are a couple of things about this series that have always troubled me: the dearth of writers of color and how the selections have typically been from traditional establishment publications like The New Yorker, The Paris Review, etc. And though The New Yorker are adamant there is no particular kind of ‘New Yorker story’, it is well-known they favor a particular kind of white and/or established writer.

The 2016 BASS collection is my all-time favorite edition of the entire series so far. For one, a terrific writer of color who actively advocates for other writers of color has guest-edited it: Junot Diaz. For another, it includes stories from smaller literary venues and not just the traditional establishment names. What is rare for me is that I enjoyed every single story in this particular collection so much (with, perhaps, the exception of one — see below) that I am unable to even pick my top favorites.

So, instead of choosing, I have simply shared ten out of the twenty stories because they are all available free online. Stories by: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Mohammed Naseehu Ali, Ted Chiang, Louise Erdrich, Ben Marcus, John Edgar Wideman, Yuko Sakata, Meron Hadero, Daniel J O’Malley, and Karen Russell.

Diaz’ entire introduction is a pleasure to read: On My Way to the Novel, I Fell In Love With the Short Story. His point about how the novel and the short story differ is spot-on.

A novel, after all, can absorb a whole lot of slackness and slapdash and still kick massive ass, but a short story can unravel over a pair of injudicious sentences. And while novels can dawdle for chapters before sparking into brilliance, the short story needs to be about its business from its opening line. Short stories are acts of bravura, and for a form junkie like me, to read a good one has all the thrill of watching a high-wire act. When the writer pulls it off sentence by sentence scene by scene page after page from first touch to last, you almost forget to breathe.

Heidi Pitlor is the series editor of BASS at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. In her foreword, she wrote about how, in her tenth year as series editor, the world has changed so much with writers of short fiction competing harder than ever for the reader’s attention due to 24/7 online media. In particular:

Each year, I read more than three thousand short stories. The best ones not only hold their own when faced with the noise of the world, they silence it. They command our attention with eloquence, honesty, and guts. In this age of information overload, these three characteristics are rare yet necessary. A good short story can ground the reader. It can give hope, solace, comfort–things that are more crucial than ever.

NOTE: Pitlor also requested online literary publications to send hard copies of their nominations to her because she only reads what she is sent. So, if you run a literary magazine and would like to see your writers featured in BASS someday, you should get on her radar.

Here are some of the stories in BASS 2016, in no particular order, that you can read/listen to for free online. Enjoy. I must add, though, that the entire collection is worth getting as the authors have also provided interesting personal notes on what prompted them to write their stories.

1. Apollo by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (The New Yorker)

This is one of those stories where the ending makes you see the beginning in a whole new light, as Adichie herself explained. It is no small feat to do this in a way that still makes the ending seem real and plausible. Besides that, as always, Adichie gives us beautiful descriptions with interesting little character details. The story is about that confusing, often forbidden, first love in adolescence. It is the grown up man, however, looking back and telling us the story of a particular childhood episode. And, the way Adichie unfolds the narrative, we, as readers, see and understand more about what happened than, perhaps, the narrator.

Nothing changed when Raphael came to live with us, not at first. He seemed like all the others, an ordinary-looking teen from a nearby village. The houseboy before him, Hyginus, had been sent home for insulting my mother. Before Hyginus was John, whom I remembered because he had not been sent away; he had broken a plate while washing it and, fearing my mother’s anger, had packed his things and fled before she came home from work. All the houseboys treated me with the contemptuous care of people who disliked my mother. Please come and eat your food, they would say—I don’t want trouble from Madam. My mother regularly shouted at them, for being slow, stupid, hard of hearing; even her bell-ringing, her thumb resting on the red knob, the shrillness searing through the house, sounded like shouting. How difficult could it be to remember to fry the eggs differently, my father’s plain and hers with onions, or to put the Russian dolls back on the same shelf after dusting, or to iron my school uniform properly?

2. Ravalushan by Mohammed Naseehu Ali (Bomb Magazine)

There is so much to love here besides the first-person plural point of view done just right. Ali gives us a crowd as a collective protagonist while also giving us individual memorable characters from within that crowd — again, no mean feat. This particular point of view fascinates me because, for a while, it was overdone, then it fell completely out of favor. And it is hard to tell an entire story with this point of view because everything has to be mostly observable or commonly-known. I intend to do a Top Five just on stories with this point of view shortly — watch this space.

Back to this story. It is set in Zongo Street, a fictitious community in West Africa, that is going through a dictator’s takeover. Ali is from Ghana and based the story on a real dictator’s coup in the country during the 1970s.

For me, Ali is a new discovery and I will have to get his entire collection: The Prophet of Zongo Street.

Oh, and does this excerpt remind you of anyone? Last name rhyming with “rump”?

Listening to his angry speech one could have sworn by the Quran that Sergeant Leader, the name we instantly gave the new head of state, was sent by Allah himself to rescue us. To lift up Zongo Street from its poverty, to give us the opportunities other tribes enjoyed, to buy some respect for us and all the common folks in this land. The speech lasted not more than six minutes and, before concluding, the Sergeant Leader explained that some anti-revolution soldiers were trying to stage a coup to counter his “Uprising,” and that in order to stabilize the situation, a six-to-six curfew had to be imposed nationwide, “Until further notice.”

 

Wallahi, this man is a man of action, we cried. A man of the people!

3. The Great Silence by Ted Chiang (e-flux Journal)

Ted Chiang is more well-known now for his short story, ‘Story of Your Life’, which was made into the award-winning movie, ‘Arrival’. But he is a consummate writer who has been putting out award-winning sci-fi short stories for decades now.

This particular short story has science, philosophy, allegorical fiction, and a whole lot more. And it is not your typical BASS story because it’s not strictly literary. So it is good to see Diaz ignoring genre boundaries by including it. Also, it started as a collaboration with a couple of visual artists who wanted to highlight the endangerment of a particular species of parrots in Puerto Rico. The text, which is this story, was written by Chiang to accompany their video art.

The narrator is an intelligent parrot, talking about how and why his species has remained silent, as, indeed, have many others. Another story that seems rather relevant to our times when minority voices and communities struggle not just to be heard and seen but also whether it is worth it, after all, to be heard or seen.

You can also listen to this story on PRI’s Selected Shorts program.

Chiang is another writer I read for the first time and will be reading more of.

The universe is so vast that intelligent life must surely have arisen many times. The universe is also so old that even onetechnological species would have had time to expand and fill thegalaxy. Yet there is no sign of life anywhere except on Earth.Humans call this the Fermi paradox.

 

One proposed solution to the Fermi paradox is that intelligent species actively try to conceal their presence, to avoid beingtargeted by hostile invaders.

 

Speaking as a member of a species that has been driven nearly to extinction by humans, I can attest that this is a wise strategy.

 

It makes sense to remain quiet and avoid attracting attention.

4. The Flower by Louise Erdrich (The New Yorker)

Set in 1839, this story is about a young Ojibwe girl and white traders. Though not based on actual historical figures, as Erdrich explained, we can see how much historical research she must have done to give us the richly-detailed ways of life back then.

In addition to the supernatural elements in the story, the themes of escape, justice, loneliness, and alienation are beautifully presented through these characters and their story arcs. The points of view shift between the main characters quite a lot, which makes for an even interesing narrative in this case, as you will see.

The birds were silent. She had scrubbed her body red with snow. She threw off everything and lay naked in the snow asking to be dead. She tried not to move, but the cold was bitter and she began to suffer intensely. A person from the other world came. The being was pale blue, without definite form. It took care of her, dressed her, tied on her makizinan, blew the lice off, and wrapped her in a new blanket, saying, Call upon me when this happens, and you shall live.

 

Wolfred hacked off a piece of weasel-gnawed moose. He carried it into the cabin and put it in a pot heaped with snow. He built up the fire just right and hung the pot to boil. He had learned from the girl to harvest red-gold berries, withered a bit in winter, which gave the meat a slightly skunky but pleasant flavor. She had taught him how to make tea from leathery swamp leaves. She had shown him rock lichen, edible but bland. The day was half gone.

5. Cold Little Bird by Ben Marcus (The New Yorker)

I remember reading this one when it first came out in The New Yorker. It unsettled me then and it unsettled me again when I reread it in the book. But, I guess, “unsettled” in a good way because we rarely come across stories about parenting that are from the point of view of a father. Or, at least, I have not come across any other that stayed with me so much.

A ten-year-old kid begins to withdraw coolly from his parents, which not only alters his relationships with them but, of course, also impacts the couple’s relationship. Parenting is a lifelong struggle for most and, here, an intelligent, urban couple is trying to hack their way through it.

He told Rachel about this later in the morning, the boy’s unsettling calm, his odd response.

 

“Yeah, I don’t know,” she said. “I mean, good for him, right? He just wanted to read, and he told you that. So what?”

 

“Huh,” Martin said.

 

Rachel was busy cleaning. She hadn’t looked at him. Their argument last night had either been forgotten or stored for later activation. He’d find out. She seemed engrossed by a panicked effort at tidying, as if guests were arriving any second, as if their house were going to be inspected by the fucking U.N. Martin followed her around while they talked, because if he didn’t she’d roam out of earshot and the conversation would expire.

 

“He just seems like a stranger to me,” Martin said, trying to add a lightness to his voice so she wouldn’t hear it as a complaint.

 

Rachel stopped cleaning. “Yeah.”

 

For a moment, it seemed that she might agree with him and they’d see this thing similarly.

6. Williamsburg Bridge by John Edgar Wideman (Harper’s Magazine)

If I recall correctly, this was one of Diaz’ favorites from the collection. It happens to be my least favorite. And that’s not because it isn’t well-written. I think I must have some inexplicable aversion to stories about writers–a type I absolutely devoured during a particular reading phase. I also tend to be skeptical of a kind of stream of consciousness narrative that passes for “experimental prose” in avante-garde literary magazines these days. Most of the time, the “experimental” label covers a wide range of fiction which may be unconventional but not necessarily interesting or thought-provoking.

That said, Wideman’s story is definitely interesting and thought-provoking. And it is certainly not entirely stream of consciousness, though it is certainly all interior monologue. I may just need to get past my own hangups and reread this one with a more open mind, I suppose.

Wideman’s writer here is down on his luck, as they tend to be in fiction, and contemplating jumping off the titular Williamsburg Bridge. I won’t spoil it for you. Read for yourself and decide what you think.

To be absolutely certain I rode the F train from my relatively quiet Lower East Side neighborhood to 34th Street and set myself adrift in the crowds around Penn Station and Herald Square. Short subway ride uptown in dark tunnels beneath New York’s sidewalks, twenty-five, thirty minutes of daylight aboveground, among countless bodies hurtling ahead like trains underground, each one on its single-blind track. Quick trip yesterday, so today I’m certain and determined, though not in any hurry. Why should I be? All the time in the world at my disposal. All mine the moment I let go.

7. On This Side by Yuko Sakata (The Iowa Review)

This one is on the longer side. The writing style is reminiscent of ‘Norwegian Wood’ by Murakami (which, for the record, is not my favorite of his). Yet, there is something about this story that just draws you in–a sweet kind of sadness.

You sort of know where it’s headed before you reach the halfway point. Two people reunite after having drifted apart during their school days. Both are emotionally damaged in their own ways. And, as they form a new kind of friendship, they get to know more about themselves too. This last is particularly true for the main character, Toru, through whose point of view we see the events unfolding.

“Toru-kun.” The girl stood up. Her voice sounded oddly thick.

 

For a moment they stood awkwardly together on the stairs. A mixture of soap and sweat wafted from her. Up close, Toru saw that her face was meticulously made up, her skin carefully primed and her expectant eyes accentuated with clean black lines. He was slow to recognize what was underneath. But then he felt his heart skip a beat.

 

“Masato?” he said.

 

“Hello.” As though in relief, she held out her hand, and Toru shook it automatically. Her fingers were bony but solid in his palm. “I go by Saki now.”

 

“Saki?”

 

More than ten years ago, in junior high school, she had been a boy.

8. The Suitcase by Meron Hadero (Missouri Review; audio from PRI’s Selected Shorts)

This is a story that most first-generation immigrants will recognize rightaway. A woman who travels back home from the US and, as she begins to leave, a large group of friends and relatives show up with gifts for their own family for her to take back with her. The interplay between the various characters and the individual stories behind each gift item or each family member they miss so much are achingly familiar. Of course, the suitcase will only bear so much weight per the airline allowance. So, decisions have to be made. In addition, there is the underlying story about the main character’s inability to really “come home again”. She feels a stranger in the country of her birth and upbringing now and that adds to the tension and inner conflict — again, something most immigrants know all too well.

It was time to go and she was relieved when Fassil said–in English, for her benefit–“We are running out of time, so we have already started to fill this one for you.” He pointed past the suitcase that Saba had packed before her walk and gestured to a second, stuffed with items and emitting the faint scent of a kitchen after mealtime. At her mother’s insistence, Saba had brought one suitcase for her own clothes and personal items and a second that, for the trip there, was full of gifts from America–new and used clothes, old books, magazines, medicine–to give to family she had never met. For her return, it would be full of gifts to bring to America from those same relatives and family friends.

 

Saba knew this suitcase wasn’t just a suitcase. She’d heard there was no DHL here, no UPS. Someone thought there was FedEx but that was just for extremely wealthy businessmen. People didn’t trust the government post. So Saba’s suitcase offered coveted prime real estate on a vessel traveling between here and there.

9. The Bridge by Daniel J O’Malley (Alaska Quarterly Review)

This is about a child, a boy, who witnesses a rather shocking event from his window and finds that his parents do not believe it happened. A quiet little story for all that — just a boy coming to terms with his “illusion.” And O’Malley cleverly uses the child’s point of view so that, like him, we are also never sure if the whole thing happened or not. Then again, the vivid, thorough details of the event are, I suppose, meant to gently nudge us in a certain direction.

Probably the shortest story in the collection, this one is no less powerful. Not a word wasted. The first two paragraphs alone (see below) give us so much information about the child and his everyday life that the event stands out in stark contrast.

He saw the old couple twice, once when they stopped halfway across to pose for a picture, and again a year later, when they came back, this time without a camera, and for a while, all they did was stand there.

 

Both times, he watched from the window, which was what he was not supposed to be doing, he knew that, he knew well what he was supposed to be doing, which was studying. In the mornings, his mother would tell him things–he would follow her around the house while she did her inside work, then outside where she did her garden work and her chicken work–and he would listen and take notes in his notebook while she talked about the histories of their state and their country and their family–his mother’s family, plus his father’s family, and then their own family, the family they had made when they made him, but also about the flood and locusts and frogs and other plagues that had happened before and could happen again, and he would take notes so that in the afternoon he could sit in his bedroom and study, and then in the evening, after the supper dishes were done, he could stand and recite for his father what all he’d learned from his mother in the morning.

10. The Prospectors by Karen Russell (The New Yorker)

Russell is one of my favorite contemporary writers. Even when she’s writing conventional realism, there is nothing conventional about her writing. Everything is tinged with the strange and the abnormal — straddling genres, defying definition. To me, her language sings off the page. She started young, like Zadie Smith, and brings a lot of similar depth and insight to her writing.

This story is set in a historical time in the past. Two young girls pair up and go about from party to party doing whatever they have to do to survive. They “prospect” fortunes in their own way. The main event of this story involves them arriving at the wrong party — one they had not intended to go to and, more ominously, one that seems to have rather strange people there. I won’t ruin it for you.

The entire ride would take eleven minutes. That was what the boy had promised us. The boy who never showed.

 

To be honest, I hadn’t expected to find the chairlift. Not through the maze of old-growth firs and not in the dwindling light. Not without our escort. A minute earlier, I’d been on the brink of suggesting that we give up and hike back to the logging road. But at the peak of our despondency we saw it: the lift, rising like a mirage out of the timber woods, its four dark cables striping the red sunset. Chairs were floating up the mountainside, forty feet above our heads. Empty chairs, upholstered in ice, swaying lightly in the wind. Sailing beside them, just as swiftly and serenely, a hundred chairs came down the mountain. As if a mirror were malfunctioning, each chair separating from a buckle-bright double. Nobody was manning the loading station; if we wanted to take the lift we’d have to do it alone. I squeezed Clara’s hand.

Until next month, then, readers.

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