It’s a running joke between my family and friends that I have a terrible memory: my past is a foreign country where I have already forgotten the language. As such it takes something very special to stick in my brain. This Personal Anthology has been brought together by my shoddy memory, some old, some new, but all stories which refuse to dislodge themselves from my porous grey matter. They encompass a great many different subjects and harness voices near and distant to my own experiences. They are all writers capable of making unforgettable work.
Tove Jansson is enjoying a sort of Renaissance in recent years, with two biographies of her life published in 2014 and her 2017 retrospective at the Dulwich Picture gallery showcasing her skills as a painter as well as satirist and beloved creator of The Moomins. Her ‘grown-up’ fiction (whatever that means) has been steadily drip-fed into English by Sort Of books through her novels and short story collections. ‘The Summer Child’ is a perfect place to start if you are new to Jansson’s prose and like many of her novels takes an island family for its subject. Ali Smith writes of this story that it “challenges the way we narrate ourselves” since the boy that the Fredirikson family generously take on for the summer proves to be more trouble than he is worth. It’s a story that is darkly comic and grounded in reality, the slights and small evils of children, the harsh natural world that Jansson never idealises, all told in deceptively straight-forward prose. For an insight into more of Jansson’s excellent, honest unsentimental writing keep an eye of The Paris Review who are publishing some of her untranslated essays for the first time in English.
First published as Resa Med Lätt Bagage, Schidts Förlags Ab, 1987. Later published in English in Travelling Light, Sort of Books, 2010
Tillie Walden is perhaps best known now for her epic space opera graphic novel On A Sunbeam but it is in her short fiction comics that her more surreal side emerges. Her work is tinged with longing and melancholy, often taking as their centre female relationships both romantic and platonic and usually drawn in a refined, beautiful duotone. ‘Sweet Romance’ tells the story of a love affair between a giant woman and a young girl. She is literally giant, spanning multiple panels and taller than mountains. Walden often plays with scale in her work, women will lie down across whole cities to ponder their existence, but here she plays out the fantasy full size with the emotional heft to match. Read it and think of your first love and your last love.
Self-published online here
What would happen if we stopped using words? Walsh’s story charts the breakdown of language and relationships, working through what happens when words are no longer enough and through writing opens up new possibility for articulation outside of language. It is of course delightfully playful in its language, so that people are “dead to the word” and the failing economy places a picture at “five thousand, ten thousand words, a million!” The old writing adage is to show not tell, but in telling us the state of things, Walsh brings language and character to the forefront to create a new word-less world out of her words.
First Published in Best European Fiction, 2015. Collected in The Best British Short Stories 2015, Salt, 2015 and World’s from the Word’s End, And Other Stories, 2017
Of all of Adichie’s short stories this is the one I have read the most, perhaps because it is a story that is focuses on queer desire or perhaps because of its gut-punch of an ending that is entirely unforgettable and remains potent, despite, or because of, multiple readings. As in Americana, Adichie explores the nuances of race and racism that must be navigated as a black woman in patriarchal white America. Kamara, a Nigerian woman waits for a Green card while working as a nanny for an American family. The white father is the main care-giver, while the child’s black mother, a painter, appears only fleetingly to undo everything Kamara thinks she understands. Adichie’s skill is in creating fully embodied people in a sentence or two and then setting each of their lives off down a path to crash and swirl into one another. I can think of no better story that shows this careful crafting: that encompasses motherhood and race and immigration and longing and child-care and labour and artistry in one single heart-breaking story.
First published in Granta 98: The Deep End, July 2007, and available to subscribers here. Collected in The Thing Around Your Neck, Fourth Estate, 2009
I almost want to write nothing about this story since I think it’s best experienced for oneself. I will say that I have never forgotten this line:
and you stark me
and I am strobe-hearted
Reading ‘Smote’ for the first time made me rethink everything I thought I knew about words and how to use them.
Collected in Attrib. and Other Stories, Influx Press, 2017. First published online in The White Review, 2015. Read it here
Apocalypse stories are everywhere, they always are in times of crisis and uncertainty (that feels like now right?) and it can be hard to read about impending doom when it already feels so close to home. McClory’s flash fiction is a list story, a form I love, and unlike many apocalypse stories didn’t leave me with a deep sense of despair after reading it. It’s darkly comic in its banal bleakness at the end of the world, “Almost all that we have ever done as a species has caused harm to the earth and ourselves. Nothing special, everything so.” The narrator’s deep love for the world it what shines through, endings comes to us all, large and small. This piece of fiction reads to me like truth.
Published by Split Lip Magazine, 2018. Read online here
Stories that tackle head-on social media in fiction seem few and far between despite it being something most of us interact with daily. This is a story about a relationship and what happens when a relationship ends and what happens when you still go on Instagram to look at their Instagram and maybe their new girlfriend’s Instagram and maybe when you’re making your Instagram posts you’re really thinking about what they will think when they look at their Instagram. Sherwood captures so accurately the pressure of watching and being watched online, the careful, carefree performance of it, the rhythm it becomes in our daily lives.
Collected in the Bridport Prize 2018 Anthology, Bridport, 2018
Butler is a master at world-building. Often called her “pregnant man” story, this short story follows a day in the life of a human on a distant planet in an arrangement with the insect-like creatures that rule over them. Butler says she wrote it after reading about insects that lay their eggs in other animals as I way to exercise and investigate her dual fascination and repulsion at the thought. It’s certainly not a story for the squeamish (which I had forgotten recently until I reread it and gasped all over again), but those brave enough to read will find a tale told with sensitivity and a slowl sense of dawning horror. As always Butler shows that science-fiction is never just about aliens and spaceships and she has some of the smartest character building and plotting around.
First published in 1984, Collected in Bloodchild and Other Stories, Four Walls, Eight Windows, 1995. I hesitate to link to Amazing, but a free Kindle edition is available here
Back to the violence of children: Shirley Jackson is another writer who knew how wicked people, and especially children can be. Her work is deeply entrenched in American Gothic but found within the domestic, the horror of a loveless marriage say or children who can’t wait to punish their bad dog as in this story. It contains all the hallmarks of Jackson’s longer work: mistrustful neighbours, small-town gossip, children who revel in the punishment of others a little too much, a propensity towards cruelness and a killer last line.
First published in Harper’s Magazine, November 1948, and available to subscribers here. Collected in The Lottery and Other Stories, Farrar, Straus and Company, 1949, republished by Penguin Classics in 2009
I don’t know about you but sometimes when I read a really good story it is like a film playing in my head, sometimes I forget if a scene I can see so clearly in my mind is from a film or a book. Reading ‘Eight Bites’ I can so vividly recall its metaphor made real, a body made of flesh once part of a woman, now cut away but not dead, living inside her house, friendly, soft, alone, abandoned: something, “body-shaped. Prepubescent, boneless […] one hundred pounds, dripping wet.” A body that trying to hide itself but which continues, fleshily to haunt. ‘Eight Bites’ shows the transformation women’s bodies can go through, the weight seen or not that is carried with them, the pain they can endure. That to be a woman is to inhabit a body that will be appraised, that this is inescapable. Machado effortlessly blends reality and something more real than reality to create a story that embeds itself in your own flesh and leaves you gnawing away at its ideas. A story that asks you to be kinder to your body and embrace it as your own.
First published in Gulf Coast magazine 29.2, Summer/Fall 2017 and available to read online here. Collected in Her Body & Other Parties, Graywolf/Serpent’s Tail, 2017
There are some stories you read as a reader and there are other stories you read as a writer with one eye fixed on the how each word makes the sentence, how each sentence stacks up into paragraphs of meaning and emotion. This is a story I read and reread to learn how to write character, to learn how to turn character into plot, to learn how to tell a story before the reader even notices they are in the middle of one. Morrison teaches you how to tell a story that pulls no punches, that doesn’t care if the reader likes the narrator or not, that leaves much for the reader to figure out for themselves while pertaining to state plainly what they mean. There is no better school than this.
Published in The New Yorker, 2015. Read online here. Later formed part of Morrison’s novel God Help the Child, Knopf/Chatto & Windus, 2015
I first came across Kirsty Logan when I read her debut collectionThe Rental Heart, a queer reimagining of fairy tales, and have devoured all her stories full of magic and queer women. In A Portable Shelter Logan cleverly links her short stories through a framing narrative, a Scheherazade-like tale of two women, Liska and Ruth, who take turns telling stories in secret to their child growing inside Ruth. There are stories of selkies and fisherman of lighthouses and witches but it is the final story that I have never been able to forget. The premise is a sort of support group for people who see ghosts of loved ones and who want to disprove their existence. It’s a thoughtful and sensitive exploration of what it’s like to grieve and the role that death plays in the lives of the living. Logan writes, “If no one ever died, maybe we would never learn what it meant to miss them.” That this is the last story in the collection is fitting, a death to balance Ruth and Liska new baby, a poignant reminder to question how much we can prepare our loved ones for the harsher realities of the world. What portable shelters can we carry with us as protection? How safe can you make the world? How much of death do you need to know to truly live?
Collected in A Portable Shelter, Vintage, 2015