For November and December, let’s revisit the best of the last ten months of short stories from this ongoing series. Why bother with this? For one, I find many short stories, when reread, give us new flavors, textures, nuances, etc., that we might have missed during the first read. For another, I do not want these amazing stories to simply get buried in the archives.
So here are the five best-of-the-best from January-May 2017: stories by Karen Russell, Mohammed Naseehu Ali, Leila Aboulela, Robert Olen Butler, Helen Oyeyemi. These were very hard to pick, as you can imagine.
[Note: I skipped April entirely earlier this year because of a change in how I was posting each month, so we have two stories from January when I featured ten stories from ‘Best American Short Stories 2016 (edited by Junot Diaz.]
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!
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.
Sudan is the home to several ancient civilizations that lived along the Nile river. And, before 2011, when North and South Sudan were one, it was the largest country in Africa and the Arab world. Through many invasions over the centuries, both Christianity and Islam have had their way with this country. Then, it was civil war and famine that roiled the nation for decades. Today, we also know about the state-sponsored terrorism, the invitation to Osama Bin Laden, Darfur war/genocides, Sharia law, and so on.
Leila Aboulela was born in Egypt, raised in Sudan, and now calls Scotland home. A devout Muslim, her faith is clearly evident in her writing, which is in English. Interestingly, she took an M.Sc. and an MPhil in Statistics from the London School of Economics before turning to creative writing.
In 2000, Aboulela won the prestigious Caine Prize for African Writing for her short story, ‘The Museum‘. It is also in her collection, ‘Colored Lights‘. A handful more of her short stories can be found here.
This story was published in Granta in their ‘Going Back‘ issue. Majdy is a young man studying in London. His recently-married wife joins him from Khartoum. She adjusts easily to almost everything. But, coming from a disturbed country like Sudan, the serene continuity of England is difficult to get used to. She shares with her husband nostalgic memories and vivid daydreams of going back and living in their home country — something he does not intend to do. Her homesickness both worries and disappoints him. When he sends her back home for a short break, he realizes that London has changed for him or, rather, he sees London through a different lens.
‘I am not making this up,’ she said one night as they walked on a side street sleek with rain and yellow lamplight. ‘This really happened. After your mother phoned you at the Central Post office she stood for an hour waiting for a bus or a taxi. None came; transport was bad that day because of the petrol shortage. The sun burned her head and she became exhausted from standing. So she walked to the middle of the road, stood right in the middle of the road, and raised her hand, palm upwards. She stopped the first car, opened the front door and got in. “my son,” she said to the driver, “I am fed up of waiting for transport. And I can’t move another step. For Allah’s sake, drive me home, I’ll show you the way.” And he did drive her home even though it wasn’t on his way. And as they chatted, he called her Aunt.’
This story is from a collection titled ‘Tabloid Dreams’. I read it last year and enjoyed every single story. Butler took bizarre tabloid headlines and spun a fantastic story around each. Now, because these were tabloid headlines, the chances of them being “real life” are very slim indeed. But, it is more about what Butler did with them, creating even better stories, I think, than whatever was published originally in the tabloids themselves.
I chose this story over the other two because of the tender ways with which he balanced tragedy and comedy to make the story come alive so that we think: sure, this could happen. Also, Butler gave all his narrators rather interesting voices and this one fit the story so perfectly.
And all of a sudden I’m looking at Roy and he’s a little alarmed, but in addition to his face in my head is another sight. A blur of miniblinds and china hutch and then the ceiling and the pink oriental rug and the ceiling and the rug and the ceiling. And then both of these things are in me, both real, both clear as can be: the temples on Roy’s face throbbing and the little red light on the smoke detector flashing. My glass eye has flown out of my face and is lying on the rug about ten feet away and it’s staring at the ceiling and I’m seeing through it.
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.
Next month, we will finish with the best stories from June-October 2017. Stay tuned.