‘Shu Yi’ by Maxine Beneba Clarke

Stories about children making bad decisions always make my toes curl and leave a devasting impression on me. In ‘Shu Yi’, our narrator is Ava, a young and somewhat lonely bookworm. Her mother, who “worked tirelessly to fit [their] brown-skinned family of five into conservative white suburbia” asks her to befriend new girl Shu Yi. Although Ava describes her as “the most beautiful creature I had ever seen” and “exactly what I would have been like, if I were a little less me” she recognises Shu Yi not as a kindred spirit, but as a social burden in a school whose racism permeates the very air around them. Caught in a net of internalised racism and with the strong desire to slip through school unseen, Ava shuns Shu Yi, with devastating consequences. A must-read about racism, fitting in and peer pressure.

First published in Peril, 2010, and collected in Foreign Soil, Hackette Australia, 2014/Corsair 2015

‘Sundaes at the Tipping Yard’ by Lara Williams

This is a story about “a girl who quits her job, her boyfriend, her flat and does a Creative Writing MA” only to find that she can only write about girls who quit the aforementioned to do Creative Writing MAs. It’s written in the second person, which I always love, and it has a kind of hopeless rhythm to it as the narrator consistently succeeds at nothing but mediocrity. It’s a story about gentle disappointments, about washing diazepam down with warm white wine and “thinking about the air.” If it sounds navel-gazey, that’s because it absolutely is – and I love it for that exact reason. Returning to the story to write this, I was shocked to discover that it – like many others in the collection – is incredibly short: just six pages, and it has left as lasting an impression on me as any novel. It reminds me of some of my favourite recent books about lost millennial women: The Idiotby Elif Batuman, Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney (in fact, everything by Sally Rooney), All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg and many of the stories from Abigail Ulman’s Hot Little Hands.

Published in Treats, Freight Press, 2016

‘Synaesthete, Would Like to Meet’ by Eley Williams

It was hard to pick one story from Attrib., because the whole collection fizzes with the fresh, addictive energy that made it such a hit. It feels impossible to play favourites. While I often reread the alphabet paragraph from the opening story, I chose ‘Synaesthete, Would Like to Meet’ for my Personal Anthology because I think it best captures Williams’ playful spirit whilst also fitting into my loose theme of relationships. The story introduces a character with synaesthesia before, during and after a strangely successful date. The narrator has synaesthesia, which means as they interact with the world, words, sounds and images are paired with flavours, scents, colours and sensations in an overwhelming cacophony of stimulation. By dating the right person, the narrator discovers a way to numb the overwhelming clash of the senses and the general sensory noise is slowly turned down. Every story with Williams is an adventure in a brilliant linguistic gymnasium and I love her writing to death.

First published in Night and Day, 2011, and collected in Attrib. and other Stories, Influx Press, 2017

‘When the Year Grows Old’ by Amy Bloom

‘When the Year Grows Old’ introduces a sensible, practical suburban housewife in the midst of a nervous breakdown. No longer prepared or able to meet the demands of her controlling husband, Laura sets up a camp bed in the basement of her neat suburban house and regresses to her barefoot, black-clad student days. Her daughter observes this sudden change in her mother from the side-lines as Laura develops a penchant for Dunhill cigarettes and quoting Blake. Loss is a constant theme in Amy Bloom’s work, and this story about loss of youth, loss of love, loss of life, is wonderful. I love the juxtaposition of mother and daughter, and the temptation to regress to what is arguably a more complicated and yet ultimately freer time of life.

First published in Story, 1992, and collected in Come to Me, HarperPerennial, 1993, and Rowing to Eden, Granta, 2015

‘Who Will Greet You at Home’ by Lesley Nneka Arimah

Motherhood, whether tender or terrible, is touched upon often in Lesley Nneka Arimah’s spellbinding collection. Although What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky is all killer, no filler, I’ve chosen ‘Who Will Greet You at Home’ as my stand-out story. In a matriarchal society, young women must craft their children from found materials, like yarn, raffia or clay, in the hope that their mothers will breathe life into their handmade effigies. Before that can happen, they must carry these dolls like babes in arms and keep them safe for a full year before there’s any hope of them coming to life. The narrator, Ogechi, struggles with the task of self-made motherhood, but after multiple false-starts she finds success with a somewhat unusual material. It’s a story about the pressure on women to be mothers, and to be perfect mothers at that, with perfect children, as well as covering themes of fertility and infant mortality.

First published in The New Yorker, October 2015, and collected in What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky, Tinder Press 2018

Introduction

These are the stories that came to mind as I was thinking about my personal anthology, the ones that have stayed with me the most in recent years. I guess this selection is pretty representative of my reading these days – mostly writers from the mid-20thcentury, some pieces in translation here and there, and a fondness for character-driven fiction. I hope you find something of interest across the mix.

‘A Glutton for Punishment’ by Richard Yates

Few writers capture the crushing pain and disillusionment that can accompany everyday life quite as well as Richard Yates, and this story illustrates it beautifully. Here we have a classic Yates protagonist, Walter Henderson, a rather unassuming young man who works in a Manhattan office in the heart of NYC. A graceful and gracious loser all his life, Walter is convinced he is about to be fired from his job, and in spite of his wife’s best efforts to make their home life as bearable as possible, the weight of this expectation hangs over Walter on a permanent basis. In writing this story, Yates exposes some of the anxieties of life, the sense of pride and respect we all crave from those around us. Moreover, it also highlights the different roles a woman was expected to play back in the late 1950s/early ‘60s, the various modes she had to adopt irrespective of how taxing or frustrating they proved to be. A period piece that still has some relevance today.

Collected in Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, Little, Brown and Co. 1962, currently available as a Vintage Classic