In July 2021, Susan Choi was awarded the 2021 Sunday Times Audible Short Story Award for her story ‘Flashlight’. In 2020, the U.S.-based Story Prize was awarded to Edwidge Danticat for the second time since 2004, out of a shortlist consisting entirely of women with migrant backgrounds, including Zadie Smith and Kali Fajardo-Anstine. That same year, Souvankham Thammavongsa won the Canadian Scotiabank Giller Prize for her short story collection How to Pronounce Knife, and the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Short Story Collection was delivered to Mimi Lok (four out of the five finalists were migrant women).
These awards, and the recent buzz around Anthony Veasna So’s Afterparties (2021), are indicative of the growing recognition of the wider cultural contributions of migrants to the short story in English. As I argue in my forthcoming book (tentatively entitled Migrant Women Writers and the Habitable Short Story in North America Since 1980), with the rare exception of authors such as Jhumpa Lahiri, migrant short story writers are very rarely represented in anthologies and short story theory. The focus tends to be on white, ‘unmarked’ writers, people who ‘belong’ to the ethno-racial and cultural understanding of the nation, people whose identities and stories fit the narrative requirements of the Western nation and literary canons. The Best American Short Stories yearly anthologies, for instance, have since 1978 only been guest edited by four migrant writers: Amy Tan, Salman Rushdie, Junot Díaz and Roxane Gay. In this regard, the Personal Anthology website is much more inclusive and international in scope.
For this personal anthology, I am bringing forward a selection of stories by migrant women writers which I particularly enjoyed. I came to the short story through migration. I grew up bilingual in a French-British family, and was an avid novel reader until I spent a year abroad at a liberal arts university in upstate New York as part of my MA. After years of having been taught at school in France that short stories were defined not only by their brevity, but by their O. Henry-style surprise ending or climax, I discovered the joys of the open-ended and unresolved fragment. From Sandra Cisneros’ Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories (1991) and Junot Díaz’s Drown (1996), which I first encountered in a class on Latinx literature in the U.S., to all the subsequent collections and anthologies I read, I found myself falling in love with the form. As Tim Pears puts it, while “the novel was invented by and for a settled, sedentary society”, “with a short story we sneak across the border to steal what we can, return at dawn with images that tell more than we’d realised” – a reading experience which encapsulates and replicates some of the instability and precariousness of migration.
Selina, the Caribbean narrator, is part of the Windrush Generation, and trying to survive in London. The story opens with her being evicted from her flat and offered a new home in a richer neighbourhood where she is unable to find a job and spends her days drinking, singing and sleeping. Out of frustration with her white neighbours’ outright hostility, she throws a rock through their window and is sent for ten days to Holloway Prison, where she stops drinking and learns a tune sung by the other prisoners. Some time later, having found a job, she whistles that tune at a party at a colleague’s house, where a man “plays the tune, jazzing it up”. She thinks nothing of it until she gets a letter from him informing her has sold the song and containing £5 to thank her for her help. This short summary cannot do justice to the craft and rhythm of this tale of exploitation, this portrait of 1960s London, and the protagonist’s powerful presence.
First published in The London Magazine, 1962, and in Tigers Are Better-Looking, Andre Deutsch Ltd, 1968. Collected in The Collected Short Stories, W.W. Norton & Co, 1992, now Penguin Modern Classics. Also published as one of the Penguin 60s in 1995
The premise is very simple: it is 1962, and a Sikh woman and her husband (to whom the text is addressed) have recently moved to Canada where his turban is proving to be a drawback, as no one will hire him because of it. Most of the story is taken up by her loving descriptions of delicately handwashing the colourful turbans in the bathtub, “working each one in a rhythm bone-deep, as [her] mother and hers must have done before [her]” before hanging them to dry on the curtain rod in their small flat. The turban is imbued with more symbolism than I can convey in this short summary – the link between past and present, ancestors and younger generations, there and here, wife and husband, etc. As the wife carefully and lovingly performs the chore of washing, she makes the promise that she will never let her husband “cut [his] strong rope of hair and go without a turban into this land of strangers”, in what is, ultimately, a love letter.
First published in English Lessons and Other Stories, Goose Lane Editions, 1996. Available to read on Commonlit.org
This story, entirely written in Indo-Trinidadian dialect, is narrated by an Indo-Trinidadian (self-identified) butch lesbian living in Canada in the 1990s. Accompanied by her femme girlfriend Janet, she goes to an Indian sweet shop in Vancouver’s ‘Punjabi Market’. There, and through a series of interactions, her Indianness is challenged by her inability to name the sweets correctly (they carry different names in Trinidad) according to the waiters, and by her queer identity. With its ironic tone, the story questions rigid definitions of Indian identity and belonging in the diaspora.
First published in Out on Main Street, Press Gang Publishers, 1993
I read this story from Nalo Hopkinson’s collection Skin Folk (2001) a long time ago, and though I don’t remember all the details as well as I would like to, it has stayed with me. The protagonist, Jacky, is a PhD student who lives with her grandmother. Her story is interspersed with the myth of the soucouyant, a vampire-like figure who leaves her skin at night to go and suck the life spirit from children, and a recurring character in Caribbean literature, from Jamaica Kincaid’s ‘My Mother’ (1983) and Edwidge Danticat’s ‘Nineteen-Thirty Seven’ (1995) to David Chariandy’s Soucouyant (2007).
First published in Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora, Warner, 2000. Collected in Skin Folk, Aspect, 2001
The contemporary musings of a Senegalese woman with a degree looking for a job in France. The title is an allusion to National Front discourse which favours French-born citizens in all aspects of public life. Having recently divorced her French, white, husband, the protagonist is quite literally a second-class citizen with very limited rights. First she is refused a job at a bakery in Strasbourg because her French is too standard and she can’t speak Alsatian, then a French woman looking for a tutor for her daughter changes her mind after seeing her skin colour. The job, unsurprisingly, goes to a white friend of the narrator, who suggests she work as a cleaner instead.
First published in French in La Préférence Nationale, Présence Africaine 2001. First published in translation in The Granta Book of the African Short Story, ed. Helon Habila, Granta, 2011
Like many authors, Madeleine Thien is best-known for her novels, but her debut collection, Simple Recipes(2001) is well worth the detour. Most of the stories concentrate on young Malaysian Canadians and their relationships with their parents. In the opening (and title) story, for instance, an adult narrator looks back fondly at memories of her father cooking dinner, memories that are also tinted with violence. As the story reveals, her father, who could “transform […] orange peels into swans”, make a sprig of green onion bloom like a flower by placing it in water, sit “for an hour mining a watermelon with a circular spoon [and] carve […] the rind into a castle”, was also capable of killing a fish for dinner in the kitchen sink, and striking her brother. The tensions between the father’s creativity, his frustration and powerlessness in a new land, and his children’s own grappling with their identities, are wonderfully captured in this contained and seemingly straightforward but dense story. I couldn’t agree more with Alice Munro’s praise for the collection: “This is surely the debut of a splendid writer. I am astonished by the clarity and ease of the writing, and a kind of emotional purity”.
First published in Simple Recipes, McClelland and Stewart, 2001. Also published in Trek, Fall 2002 and available to read here in pdf form
In this story, the narrator, a young Somali-Italian woman, asks her drag queen friend Angelique to accompany her to brunch at her conservative mother’s, specifically to distract her attention from a big announcement the narrator is about to make. While the narrator’s Somali family has been living in Italy for as long as she can remember, her mother refuses to buy a house, or even to acquire wardrobes or cupboards, as they would give a certain finality to their resettlement. Instead, the (rented) family house is overflowing with suitcases packed with books, CDs, clothes, souvenirs, ready to pick up and go if need be. But the protagonist, who has long been pining for a big, sturdy, cupboard, needs to tell her mother that she has decided to buy a house, in a symbolic ‘coming out’ as Italian. While touching upon complex generational differences and the pain of exile, the narrator’s confessional, anxious, and slightly annoyed tone make for a very amusing and powerful story.
Like her protagonist, Igiaba Scego was born in Italy in 1974, after her Somalian parents fled Siad Barre’s dictatorship. Aside from her novels (which have been translated into English), she champions the voices of migrant and minority Italian authors through edited publications such as the recent Future (2020) and Africana (2021).
First published as ‘Dismatria’ in Pecore Nere: Racconti, Contromano 2005. First published in translation in Rome Tales, Oxford University Press, 2011
Fortune Mpande is a political refugee living and unable to return home as it would disqualify his status. He works at a care home in Luton in the UK, where he is much appreciated by his colleagues and the patients. In his free time, his “attention moves between four screens: an iPad, a 40-inch Philips TV screen playing a football match, a Sony Vimeo laptop and Samsung Galaxy phone”. His favourite hobby, though, is to troll online forums, where he has several alter egos, who have very little in common apart from their shared hate for the Zimbabwean president. One of them has in fact become so famous that he has created a blog for her in which “she” describes her sexual exploits. So, when the president makes “caustic comments about how all people who had fled Zimbabwe were nothing but British Bottom Cleaners”, Fortune uses his forum aliases to start off an online rumour that the president has died, a rumour that rapidly gains international attention.
This collection’s format makes it difficult to pick just one story and discuss it separately from the others that surround it. After the success of her unlinked debut collection, An Elegy for Easterly (2010), Petina Gappah returned to the short story form in 2016 with Rotten Row, a collection of interlinked stories with recurring characters, in which all the stories relate to the criminal courts found in Rotten Row, a road in Harare that was given its name by the Cecil John Rhodes’ British South Africa Company. The name of the street is a homage to an avenue in London called Rotten Row, itself a corruption of “Route du Roi” (King’s road), and established to provide access to Kensington Palace. Drawing on her own background in law, the stories are concerned with justice and law, and some, like ‘In the Matter Between Goto and Goto’ and ‘In Sad Cypress’ are written in legal forms. The polyphony of voices and stories makes for a bustling collection, and some stories such as ‘The President Always Dies in January’ are both bittersweet and very funny.
First published in Rotten Row, Faber & Faber Limited, 2016
In 2015, Jhumpa Lahiri took the radical decision to no longer write in English, and to choose Italian instead – a language she had been studying since her undergraduate years and in which she believes to be “a tougher, freer writer”. Following the publication of her 2015 language memoir, In Altre Parole (In Other Words), she wrote a novel entitled Dove Mi Trovo which she translated as Whereabouts in May 2021. Leaving behind detailed descriptions of Bengali American life, Lahiri’s Italian texts are more impressionistic and meditative. They contain nameless and wandering characters and take place in unidentified locations. And yet, the themes of identity and otherness continue to dominate her writing, as ‘The Boundary’, her latest Italian short story, demonstrates. The story, which she translated herself for the New Yorker, and which will be contained in her upcoming collection of Italian stories, is narrated by a teenager whose immigrant parents are the caretakers for a holiday house in Italy.
First Published The New Yorker, January 2018, and available to read to subscribers here
The story opens with Nnam clearing her house in Manchester of her dead husband’s smell and memories. She and Kayita had been together for over five years and had two sons together. At his funeral, she finds out that he had been living a double life the whole time. He was still married to his first wife in Uganda, and he passed on to her their rented house in Uganda, having secretly fathered two more daughters. Nnam and her sons are treated as his illegitimate family. A group of middle-aged women arrive at the mourning ceremony and start retelling the story, from Nnam’s perspective. This story, which was the Overall Winner of the 2014 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, is included in Manchester Happened (2019), a collection that focuses on the experiences of Ugandans in Manchester and even draws on some of Jennifer Makumbi’s memories of when she worked at Airport Security. It carries many resonances with Sam Selvon’s canonical The Lonely Londoners(1956), with whom the child of the protagonist in Makumbi’s ‘Our Allies the Colonies’ shares the same name.
First published in Granta, June 2014, and available to read here. Collected in a Commonwealth collection of best winning stories Let’s Tell This Story Properly, Dundurn Press, 2015, and in Jennifer Makumbi’s Manchester Happened, Oneworld Publications, 2019
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie hardly needs an introduction, but (controversial statements aside) her stories collected in The Thing Around Your Neck (2009) and elsewhere have long been favourites of mine. Her latest story, ‘Zikora’, was released by Amazon Kindle Singles, with the hope that high-speed publishing would permit the narrative to “join the cultural conversation ahead of the US election”.
The story opens with an Igbo DC lawyer (Zikora) awaiting an epidural while she is giving birth in an American hospital. As she experiences the trauma of childbirth as a single mother with her own demanding mother by her side, old memories resurface: her pregnancy, her being abandoned by the father of her child, her parents’ fraught relationship during her childhood, her abortion as a teenager. The story’s very down-to-earth tone, its attention to small details and the complex and layered mother-child relationship at its heart are very relatable and moving.
First published on Amazon Kindle Singles, 2021