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