‘Antarctica’ by Laura van den Berg

This story, not just about a sister searching for her brother’s remains and personal effects after he dies in an accident, but also about the impact of secrets in his life and hers, was my first introduction to Laura van den Berg’s beautiful work. I think a sense of the mysterious is what brings me back to this story – a bona fide sense of the mystery of other people, that is an earned mystery through a distinct level of alertness conveyed by the narration of the story, an alertness that is a characteristic of this writer’s other work also. I enjoy this mystery, cultivate it in my work. We are not fully knowable to each other, the story (and many other favorite stories) reminds us.

First published in Glimmer Train 88, Fall 2013, and collected in The Isle of Youth, FSG Originals, 2013

‘All Stories Are True’ by John Edgar Wideman

I think he is one of our greatest living writers and adore the way he has drawn fearlessly on autobiography, including devastating events (incarceration of loved ones, repeated losses) to write his fiction. I learn constantly from his transmutation of reality into fiction, his precise, original, utterly compelling calibration of how much truth to tell. Also, the lyricism of that first paragraph, in particular sentences like: “Footsteps, voices, a skein of life dragged bead by bead through a soft needle’s eye.” There is something in the scope of this first paragraph reminiscent of James Agee and yet completely original and specific to Pittsburgh, the natural world a respite rather than pervasive in this setting. 

First published in The Stories of John Edgar Wideman, Pantheon, 1992, which was republished as All Stories Are True, Vintage Contemporaries/Picador, 1993

‘Every Time They Call You [The N-Word]’ by Chris Stuck

I believe strongly that non-Black reviewers should not use the full slur word here because that word is not a part of our earned history and not ours to just use as we please. (As Helen Oyeyemi reminds us in one of my favorite book titles, What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours). I brace myself, however, for the people who talk about this story, and this collection, taking it as an opportunity to use the word. The story, though, opens out into a psychological terrain that is at once familiar, dazzlingly new, and operating wholly on its own terms. There is a real authority to how this story is told that made me love the collection as a whole. In terms of what I gained though, the main point for me was a reminder of what #OwnVoices means. Movements through time, selection of the most significant events, development of the ending and what constitutes an ending, what should be written as a story versus a novel – this story violates almost every implicit rule of the MFA workshop, and in doing so, completely soars. 

First published in Meridian, Summer 2019, and collected in Give My Love to the Savages, Amistad, 2021

‘The Price of Eggs in China’ by Don Lee

I tell everyone I teach writing to about this story. It really has everything I love in short fiction – a completely gripping protagonist whose perspective is conveyed in a close, often sly third-person (Dean); a unique and wholly convincing take on race; a send-up of white publishing gatekeepers (who aren’t characters in the story, but figure in the tale indirectly); and (perhaps most importantly) a dissection of the frenemy status of women of the color, the tension between sisterhood and competition because of how publishing sets up the only one story model of ethnic literature that has so rightfully been criticized by writers like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Also – and this may be the key component – it has the right kind of, very smart happy ending and gets me with the little flavoring of sentiment I love (that I also look for when I read commercial fiction). 

Published in Yellow, Norton, 2001

‘Delicate Edible Birds’ by Lauren Groff

I knew I had to include a story by Lauren Groff in this personal anthology because her level of narrative control and respect for her characters as people has stood out to me as I have read stories that influenced my own. But also, at the level of history as it impacts individuals, and for the way it dissects how much patriarchal perspectives survive even in the most extreme circumstances – this is just a great read. Lauren Groff never forgets the reader in how she writes, in terms of creating genuinely suspenseful stories even as her attention to language could not be more diligent or (often) lovely. I strive to have both these elements in my fiction – page-turning as well as crafted at the sentence level – and I was thrilled when some of the reviews of my collection called it compulsively readable. That sense of momentum for the reader is everything. 

First published in Glimmer Train 70, Spring 2009. Collected in Delicate Edible Birds, Hyperion/Windmill Books, 2009

‘The Years of my Birth’ by Louise Erdrich

I first heard this story while driving and forgot to take the correct exit, I was so engrossed. It was read out loud on the New Yorker podcast by Tommy Orange, along with his commentary on the story and its characters, and I found this indelible. The story is about a woman who late in life encounters the family who gave her up for adoption. The rendering of their cruelty to her is vivid; their rejection of her not confined to a single act, but enacted over a protracted period and in evermore, newly cruel ways. The striking twist of the story is that she is white, adopted by a Native American family, and that her physical disability renders her Other to the white family of origin in ways not entirely dissimilar to how they regard Native Americans as Other and as inferior. The sensitively drawn comparisons between these ways of being Other are fascinating in the story, which taught me, as a writer, that no one gets to decide how much is too much for a story about marginalization and resistance. No one gets to cut down multiple identities to just a single one that a hegemonic white audience can somehow more easily deal with. 

Published in The New Yorker, January 10 2011, and available for subscribers to read here

‘Hell-Heaven’ by Jhumpa Lahiri

She is such an important short story writer, really very dexterous and able with a few strokes to make a story feel perfectly polished and neat. Yet this was one of the first and few stories in first person, told by a narrator looking back in time, that I think I read of hers (it came out in the New Yorker before being included in the book, and I was immediately moved and affected by it). I love the way Jhumpa Lahiri can convey pain and suffering beneath surface elegance – the woman wearing a lilac raincoat (chic, carefully chosen, belted and fitted of course) while standing in her backyard about to immolate herself. The story also offers such an honest and unsparing look at some of the dynamics of pseudo-family, community as family, immigration as a bond. That felt really new at the time though I think a lot of writers since have taken this in different directions.

First published in The New Yorker, May 24, 2004, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in Unaccustomed Earth, Knopf/Bloomsbury, 2009

‘Why I Live at the P.O.’ by Eudora Welty

This was the first short story I read in my first ever fiction workshop (as an undergrad, with the head of the creative writing program, who intimidated me at first but was ultimately such a nurturing influence on my work). We were assigned to read this to learn about the concept of the unreliable narrator and I know this is how most of us use this story to teach in workshops as well. And yet there is so much more than unreliability – there is orneriness, petulance, hope, jealousy, even a kind of greed, including greed for the comeuppance of other people. All within the small space of a family, and all started (the story behind the story goes) by Eudora Welty spying a photograph of a woman doing her ironing at a set-up behind a local post office. 

First published in A Curtain Of Green, Harvest Books, 1941. Printed as a Penguin 60 in 1995, and currently available in The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019. You can hear the author read it here

‘The Lazy River’ by Zadie Smith

I read this right after breakfast during a MacDowell residency, and it blew my mind at the time. There is such skill in how the anger and moral outrage is contained, such a careful, precise and measured approach to how and when that anger is expressed – but it is there, I did feel it. Maybe in the lines: 

Down below, the Lazy River runs, a neon blue, a crazy blue, a Facebook blue. In it stands a fully clothed man armed with a long mop—he is being held in place by another man, who grips him by the waist, so that the first man may angle his mop and position himself against the strong yet somniferous current and clean whatever scum we have left of ourselves off the sides. 

From this story, I feel I really learned from how to keep the reader’s attention to submerged meanings, awareness of ostensibly peripheral experiences, actually right at the forefront – to keep the reader tense and vigilant. I also was more aware of the language of the story, its old-fashioned elocution and elegance, in comparison with a lot of other work I read, and was glad for it. 

First published in The New Yorker, Dec 11 2017, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in Grand Union, Hamish Hamilton, 2019

‘Our Language’ by Yohanca Delgado

I know the author from a writing group, so read this story with pride but was also uniquely moved by it – how I had met the author when she came to my reading in 2018 and then met her again at the writing group and now was reading this gorgeous story to emerge from all the hard work she did in between. She will be a Stegner fellow this year and I am looking forward very much to the collection this will be part of. Here is what I wrote to her about this story: 

I LEGIT cannot get your story from A Public Space out of my head. It’s so incredibly sweet, deft, haunting, all the elements of mystery, suspense, legend, history, plus that person’s voice (a person, definitely. Not a “creature” except also a creature – the image of “sea grave”, the teeth, etc). Melancholy, loving. The intense magic of the voice that lives in between the strangeness of a creature and the authority (and love) of a grandmother. The self conscious “anthropology.” There is a layer of sophistication belied by the clarity/ simplicity of the language. It. Will. Last. I know it. What brings tears to my eyes is how reading it influenced me to cherish my own work in a different way. : )

first published in A Public Space #29 and available to read here)

‘The Husband Stitch’ by Carmen Maria Machado

I read this online when it appeared in Granta and immediately was charmed by it, though also so intrigued, because nearly all the stories mentioned within this story, as well as the frame story (a woman with a ribbon around her neck, no spoilers here!) were all literally taken from a book called Scary Stories that any parent of an elementary school or middle school child will know. I am so intrigued by that. None of these stories were original. Yet all are re-imagined in a completely original, literary, compelling way – i.e. like writing a story about Law And Order: SVU which this writer has also done. But it is not out of reach, for anyone, to be inspired by material like this. This is a talent that is besotting as well as making it clear that when we use material at hand, memorable and renowned stories can result. But literally. I know little kids for whom the story about the mother replaced by the stranger with a glass eye and wooden leg were unreasonably frightening. So deeply troubling and frightening. There is a way these Scary Stories and the other scary stories (the violent crimes against women portrayed in Law And Order: SVU) become new and unprecedented myths around which to build stories – no less powerful than myths about Circe, Medusa, Daphne, which several of Carmen Maria Machado’s stories also evoke. 

First published online in Granta in 2014 and available to read here. Collected in Her Body And Other Parties, Graywolf/Serpent’s Tail, 2019)

‘The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and Her Heartless Grandmother’ by Gabriel García Márquez, translated by Gregory Rabassa

I think I was in high school when I first read this story and it seemed to speak in a language intended only for me, as an adolescent girl going through some of the same changes and reactions from others as the title character. What I think Gabriel García Márquez models so exquisitely – placing him alongside Isak Dinesen, Naguib Mahfouz, and a few writers who have also evoked this response from me – is a way to create books that do not really seem written; that have a strong point of view, sense of humor (especially in Love in the Time of Cholera)but that reach so far beyond the subjectivity and ambitions of one single writer that they seem to have pre-existed any specific writer. I believe this only comes with a completely immersive revision process in which lines like the below then feel earned rather than overly ambitious: 

The house was far away from everything, in the heart of the desert, next to a settlement with miserable and burning streets where the goats committed suicide from desolation when the wind of misfortune blew.

It is not always possible to do what Gabriel García Márquez (including in his Paris Review interview, which I studied like a canonical text when I first realized I wanted to be a writer) says that he does (did) to create that immersion – writing for six hours a day without doing anything else (9:30 to 2:30 pm) and then using the afternoons for the business of writing. It is a gift of time and opportunity to be able to do that. But writing all this out and looking at both that story (which Esquire made free online for a time after the author died at the age of 87) – I am going to try the six-hour block thing whenever I can!!

First published in Spanish in 1972 as ‘La increíble y triste historia de la cándida Eréndira y de su abuela desalmada’. First publication in English in Esquire, 1973 and available to read to subscribers here. Collected in The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and Her Heartless Grandmother, Harper, 1978. Currently available in the Collected Stories, Perennial Classics, 2005)