5 short stories

Top Five Short Story Reads For May 2017

For this month of May, which is also the annual month-long celebration of short stories, here is a double-bonanza collection of ten mother-daughter stories — classic, contemporary, award winners, etc. — by some of the best writers out there: Tillie Olsen, Jamaica Kincaid, Grace Paley, Cynthia Ozick, Edna O’Brien, Alice Walker, Jhumpa Lahiri, Nina McConigley, Helen Oyeyemi, and Celeste Ng. They are all free to read online as usual — just click the story titles.

A personal note about Mother’s Day coming up on May 14th: though I wished my mother each year when she was alive, this day has gained a whole lot more meaning for me after she passed away. It is a reminder to me to pause and reflect on her legacy, of course, but also on motherhood in general. This might seem odd to those who know me because I am not a mother, by choice, myself. Nor do I have any regrets about this decision. But what I firmly believe is this: while not everyone needs to be a mother, everyone does need to be mothered. And fathered too, of course, though “fathering” has not acquired as much verb significance yet.

I also believe that the first bond we form when we enter the world is with our mother. Some might say it begins while we are still in the womb. Some might also say that many of us grow up needing and/or trying to recreate that precious bond throughout our lives.

I intend to search out mother-son stories for next year. And father-son, father-daughter ones too. In the meantime, do share your favorite mother-related fiction in the comments too.

1/ I Stand Here, Ironing by Tillie Olsen

Olsen was a late-starter — her first book did not come out till she was fifty. This is because she was busy working multiple jobs and raising a family. She has written extensively about this in her memoir, Silences.

This story involves a mother trying to explain her daughter, Emily, to a person who thinks Emily needs help. And, as the mother irons, she narrates the story of this oldest of five children, now nineteen years old, and what has made her the way she is.

It is heartbreaking as the narrator opens up about her own failings and guilt as a single, busy mother, her regretful acceptance of things she could not control or change, and how her own life has turned out to be not what she had hoped for either.

The thing I like most about how Olsen wrote this is that, even though the mother is describing Emily as this gloomy, sickly, unpopular, unconfident person, what emerges is a picture of a sensitive, thoughtful, caring teenager with unique talents of her own. That takes a certain skill — to show the reader more than what the narrator is actually saying.

Like the narrator, Tillie Olsen was also a single mother during the Great Depression of the 1930s. So, much of what we read here comes from hard, real-life experience.

I stand here ironing, and what you asked me moves tormented back and forth with the iron.

 

“I wish you would manage the time to come in and talk with me about your daughter. I’m sure you can help me understand her. She’s a youngster who needs help and whom I’m deeply interested in helping.”

 

‘Who needs help’ … Even if I came, what good would it do? You think be­cause I am her mother I have a key, or that in some way you could use me as a key? She has lived for nineteen years. There is all that life that has happened out­side of me, beyond me.

2/ Girl by Jamaica Kincaid (The New Yorker)

I have mentioned this work before. It has been anthologized so often and is taught in many English and writing classes. It is a long, single sentence story of instruction and admonishment to a young girl from her mother. A prose poem, really, with the musical  cadence of Caribbean English.

In particular, it involves the mother telling the daughter how to act like a girl and what is expected of her. Of course, it is more a statement about how our society/culture perceives women and men and prescribes particular gender-specific behaviors.

This was Kincaid’s first work of fiction and, like a lot of her writing, deals with the experience of being poor, young, and female.

Wash the white clothes on Monday and put them on the stone heap; wash the color clothes on Tuesday and put them on the clothesline to dry; don’t walk bare-head in the hot sun; cook pumpkin fritters in very hot sweet oil; soak your little cloths right after you take them off; when buying cotton to make yourself a nice blouse, be sure that it doesn’t have gum in it, because that way it won’t hold up well after a wash; soak salt fish overnight before you cook it; is it true that you sing benna in Sunday school?; always eat your food in such a way that it won’t turn someone else’s stomach; on Sundays try to walk like a lady and not like the slut you are so bent on becoming;…

3/ Mother by Grace Paley

Another one from an earlier feature.

Grace Paley is one of my all-time favorites. She’s one of those short story writers who packed a lot into less and still gave us many layers. She also managed to give her characters such unique voices that, when reading, you can actually hear them speaking to you. Not an easy feat at all.

This story is bittersweet for me because it reminds me of having lost my own mother. It makes me want to see my mother standing in doorways again and talking to me, even if she’s only nagging about something or repeating a story she has told all of us many times before.

Apparently, Paley wrote this with the specific intention of ending with “Then she died.” Sorry to give it away. But it will not ruin your experience of reading this, I promise you, because there is almost an entire novel in these few words.

One day I was listening to the AM radio. I heard a song: “Oh, I Long to See My Mother in the Doorway.” By God! I said, I understand that song. I have often longed to see my mother in the doorway. As a matter of fact, she did stand frequently in various doorways looking at me. She stood one day, just so, at the front door, the darkness of the hallway behind her. It was New Year’s Day. She said sadly, If you come home at 4 a.m. when you’re seventeen, what time will you come home when you’re twenty? She asked this question without humor or meanness. She had begun her worried preparations for death. She would not be present, she thought, when I was twenty. So she wondered.

4/ The Shawl by Cynthia Ozick (The New Yorker)

Rosa, a mother, is marching to a Nazi internment camp with her baby, Magda, and her niece, Stella. Ozick wrote a story of such horror in less than 2000 words. I remember my blood running cold when I first read this.

Apparently, Ozick was compelled to write it due to a line in the book ‘The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich‘ by William L. Shirer, which mentioned the event (a real one) described at the end of this story.

There is also a novella version of this, where the story continues in the US, after the WWII. Francine Prose wrote about it here.

What is most remarkable here is Ozick’s descriptive language and stunning metaphors to show us the horror of what is happening.

Stella, cold, cold, the coldness of hell. How they walked on the roads together, Rosa with Magda curled up between sore breasts, Magda wound up in the shawl. Sometimes Stella carried Magda. But she was jealous of Magda. A thin girl of fourteen, too small, with thin breasts of her own, Stella wanted to be wrapped in a shawl, hidden away, asleep, rocked by the march, a baby, a round infant in arms. Magda took Rosa’s nipple, and Rosa never stopped walking, a walking cradle. There was not enough milk; sometimes Magda sucked air; then she screamed. Stella was ravenous. Her knees were tumors on sticks, her elbows chicken bones.

5/ Green Georgette by Edna O’Brien (Irish America)

O’Brien is one of my favorite Irish writers. Many of her short stories deal with mother-daughter relationships. Her collection, A Fanatic Heart, has several of my favorites but I could not find them online for free.

This story is one I had not read before. It has many of O’Brien’s hallmarks: country living, a child narrator who sees and understands more than some of the adults around her, the rambling and musical narrative voice, beautifully cinematic imagery, and more.

A daughter is telling us about how she and her mother call in on new neighbors who are more well-off than them. It is a simple story with little drama, except for the mother’s and daughter’s caustic and canny observations. Just a lovely little yarn that shows how the daughter is, indeed, her own mother in the making.

We went back into the room and surprised Mr. Coughlan, who was wolfing the sandwiches. The moment he saw us he made some apologetic murmur and bolted. Mama whispered to me that there was a strong smell of drink off him and said that no one ever knew the skeletons that lurked in other people’s cupboards. She removed the fire screen and out of habit poked the fire and put a sod on it, and then she vetted the contents of the room more carefully, estimated the cost of all the furnishings, and said if she could have one item it would be the tea trolley and perhaps the mirror with the little candelabras on either side, but that she would not give tuppence for the piano. Then, as if I were absent, she said aloud to herself that there was no swelling and no rash, and that for a woman to wish to go to the doctor at that hour of evening was fishy, decidedly fishy.

6/ Everyday Use by Alice Walker

Here is another widely-anthologized story that is studied in English and writing classes because it is that good. There is also a movie version.

The mother is the narrator here and she tells a story about how her two daughters, very different from each other, want a handmade quilt. The older daughter is more educated and has come to visit her mother and younger sister. She surprises them with how she has chosen to embrace their African and Muslim roots — her dress, her name change, her manner of viewing traditional items and rituals, etc.

Yet, it is Maggie, the younger daughter, who has remained by her mother’s side, and who actually has more knowledge and appreciation for their culture and traditions and heritage.

The relationships of the mother with her two daughters, of the daughters with each other, and of all three women with their complex heritage — these are shown with such insight and compassion. And, yes, humor too.

The quilt is, of course, a symbol of how history and culture is passed down through generations. It isn’t the only symbol in the story, but it is the most important one.

In real life I am a large, big-boned woman with rough, man-working hands. In the winter I wear flannel nightgowns to bed and overalls during the day. I can kill and clean a hog as mercilessly as a man. My fat keeps me hot in zero weather. I can work outside all day, breaking ice to get water for washing; I can eat pork liver cooked over the open fire minutes after it comes steaming from the hog. One winter I knocked a bull calf straight in the brain between the eyes with a sledge hammer and had the meat hung up to chill before nightfall. But of course all this does not show on television. I am the way my daughter would want me to be: a hundred pounds lighter, my skin like an uncooked barley pancake. My hair glistens in the hot bright lights. Johnny Carson has much to do to keep up with my quick and witty tongue.

7/ Hell-Heaven by Jhumpa Lahiri (The New Yorker)

I know, I know. Third New Yorker story on this list. Last one, I promise.

This is another of Lahiri’s stories dealing with immigrants, their struggle for identity, their attempts to belong to and fit into multiple cultures, and more.

It is narrated by the daughter, Usha, about how her mother, as a Bengali immigrant, finds a natural kinship with or attraction to a male family friend, Pranab Kaku (honorific uncle), who is also Bengali. When the latter marries a white American woman, it nearly breaks the mother’s heart for several reasons — one being that he was abandoning their Bengali culture. As Usha herself grows up, embracing more of the American culture and even taking the side of the American wife, there are conflicts and rifts with her mother.

The ending is wrenching as mother and daughter eventually bond when Usha’s heart is broken by a man and her mother finally confides her own heartbreak to her.

He appeared without warning, never phoning beforehand but simply knocking on the door the way people did in Calcutta and calling out “Boudi!” as he waited for my mother to let him in. Before we met him, I would return from school and find my mother with her purse in her lap and her trenchcoat on, desperate to escape the apartment where she had spent the day alone. But now I would find her in the kitchen, rolling out dough for luchis, which she normally made only on Sundays for my father and me, or putting up new curtains she’d bought at Woolworth’s. I did not know, back then, that Pranab Kaku’s visits were what my mother looked forward to all day, that she changed into a new sari and combed her hair in anticipation of his arrival, and that she planned, days in advance, the snacks she would serve him with such nonchalance. That she lived for the moment she heard him call out “Boudi!” from the porch, and that she was in a foul humor on the days he didn’t materialize.

8/ White Wedding by Nina McConigley (Memorious)

Time for another rerun.

Sometimes, I like to look up an author from my TBR list. Sometimes, I like to dive into a magazine’s archives to find gems I might have missed earlier. This story meets both of those criteria.

Nina McConigley showed up on my radar when her short story collection, Cowboys and East Indians was published and then won the 2014 PEN Open Book Award. She was hailed by some as the next Jhumpa Lahiri, though hers is a different landscape and demographic of East Indians from Lahiri’s typical East Coast intellectuals. McConigley’s voice and style are quite different too.

There are many things I love about this story. First, it takes me back to my times driving through and spending time in the American West. I miss those old mountains too. Then, there’s the intimate, wryly humorous first-person voice telling a story about her sister. And there’s an Indian wedding with a white groom — always interesting to see how those turn out as each is often unique in its own way.

I held off a while reading this story after scanning it the first time as it involves a daughter dealing with her mother’s death. My mother passed away in 2014 and it was so sudden that we, the family, did not get to say goodbye, did not get to consider properly the fact of her not being with us someday.

I didn’t know she would die later that day, but I knew the end was coming. I wanted her in those last moments to tell me something profound, something that would change my life. I wanted her to be my compass—to tell me where to go.

 

And what I wanted the most was for her to tell me to get the hell out of Wyoming. To go to India. To live a different life.

 

But instead, before she slipped off into a coma and her breathing became slow and almost non-existent, she told me one thing.

 

“Take care of your father,” she said this slowly, her eyes opening and closing.

 

And when you came right down to it, it was the most Indian thing she could say. Staying was the most Indian thing I could do.

9/ My Daughter, the Racist by Helen Oyeyemi (BBC National Short Story Award)

While this story contains three generations of mothers and daughters, the story is mostly about the narrator as a mother of a precocious, spirited child and a widow. Their country is occupied by foreign soldiers. Their village is filled with the usual conservative, gossipy folks that make life hard for a single mother trying to raise a strong, independent woman by herself.

Despite the grim setting and context, Oyeyemi’s narrator has a wry sense of humor and we see where the child gets her own sharp wit. There is much sadness and even danger here for mother and daughter, yet we see how the mother tries to keep both their spirits up and uses difficult moments as gentle teaching experiences for the daughter.

This is the kind of story you read and want to reread right away. Which is what I did and encourage you to do also.

One morning my daughter woke up and said all in a rush: ‘Mother, I swear before you and God that from today onwards I am racist.’ She’s eight years old. She chopped all her hair off two months ago because she wanted to go around with the local boys and they wouldn’t have her with her long hair. Now she looks like one of them; eyes dazed from looking directly at the sun, teeth shining white in her sunburnt face. She laughs a lot. She plays. ‘Look at her playing,’ my mother says. ‘Playing in the rubble of what used to be our great country.’ My mother exaggerates as often as she can. I’m sure she would like nothing more than to be part of a Greek tragedy. She wouldn’t even want a large part, she’d be perfectly content with a chorus role, warning that fate is coming to make havoc of all things.

10/ Every Little Thing by Celeste Ng (The Sunday Times Short Story Awards Shortlist)

She did not win the award but this story is so beautiful and heartbreaking. What I liked most about it is that there is a grandmother, mother, and daughter in this story and Ng shows us all the interconnected relationships between them and how they have shaped each woman.

Actually, there are four women here and one of them is not related to the others. Yet, each woman has a story arc of her own.

It’s well-written, polished, rich with images and symbolism. On the surface, it may seem like an old story being retold: a mother who had her child too early and how that held her back in her own life. But Celeste Ng gives us a very interesting plot (the protagonist has perfect recall memory) and a couple of sub-plots (which I will not spoil for you) to go along with that, which is a both clever and skillful. And the ending is simply wrenchingly beautiful.

First let me try and explain: it’s like falling into deep, deep water. A sudden plunge that knocks your breath away, and once you go under, you forget which way is up. One minute I’m in line at the bank, or crossing the street, or pushing my cart through the Sav-Mart. Then something trips me and my memory opens up and I tumble in. Maybe I see a barrette in someone’s hair and suddenly I’m six years old, at the Gimbels perfume counter. Eight greasy fingerprints on the plate glass front. Eleven atomizers on a tray, piano music tinkling through the store stereo. A poppy seed stuck in the saleslady’s front teeth. She turns her head towards Leather Goods and two wisps fly loose from her tortoise-shell clip and my mother slips a bottle of Chanel No 5 into her pocket and a snail of sweat creeps down my back and she pulls me away by the hand. I live it again, every little thing, and when I come back to the present the teller is shouting Miss? Miss? through the hole in the plexiglass, cars are honking, a quart of ice cream is melting to soup in my hands. On my back the same wet snail-trail. In my nostrils, Chanel No 5.

[NOTE: Starting this month, there is a small change to this series. Rather than sharing the past month’s best short story reads, I’m sharing short stories that I’ve read or intend to study further during the current month. This is partly due to a request from some readers for certain topical stories — like mother-daughter stories for the upcoming Mother’s Day — and, partly, because it has always felt a bit weird to be writing about the past month rather than the current.]

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