Introduction

This took some doing. How on earth does one begin to choose a mere, magical twelve? Ultimately, I decided by creating three categories: stories that inspired me to write when I was much younger, and before I ever published, that lingered in my memory; next, contemporary stories that make me feel happy right now, ones that keep me writing. Then I snuck in a third category: new and upcoming writers, published by the University of Roehampton’s Fincham Press, where I am an editor. I think these five young women are fabulous now, and I think their writing is going to stay with you, and give you permission, and make you cry, and feel, and laugh in the future. 

‘Fern’ by Jean Toomer

This has to be number one, because it’s haunted me for 30 years, ever since that first reading, age 19, English undergraduate at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica. I have driven my own students mad with it ever since. That first line, daaamn, it grabbed me by the throat: “Face flowed into her eyes…” It made me sit up and ask what was possible on the page, and to ask what I was allowed to do as a writer. Fern is a bewitching woman with that way of attracting men and not giving a damn, standing on her veranda, eyes all in the distance, neck-back inches away from an errant nail in the wall, unknowable, indefinable. The narrator is obsessed by her, they go out one day, she faints – or perhaps it’s a sexual metaphor – whatever the case, in the end, nothing is really concluded or even understood. You’re left with the odd impression that Fern or women like Fern will be standing there swaying forever, perplexing men, and also with the idea that women like this are probably very easy to understand, if men could make listening more important than conjuring enigmas of hurt and beautiful women. Toomer’s style is often odd, his prose is full of unapologetic lyricism, sensuality, and even now, when I read him, I want to sway, sway, like a cornflower, want to be lost in the sound of the South, this bewitching, complex place, so packed full of pain and beauty. 
 
The more I learned about Toomer himself, the more fascinated I became, about the mixed race heritage that he seemed to deny, at why he was never quite the cream of the Harlem Renaissance crop like Zora Neale Hurston and Baldwin, at why he remained that confounding thing, a ‘writer’s writer’, which is to say, not commercially successful. Some reports suggest his eventual spiritual conversion gave him insurmountable writer’s block. I think every word of his anti-narrative prose was a gift, and that Toomer was doing something with language that no other black writer then or since has quite accomplished. It’s not just the surrealism, or the beauty, or the pain. He gave no fucks, and every part of my learning, rebel-self responded viscerally. 

First published in Cane, Boni and Liveright, 1923. Read the story online here

‘Death in The Woods’ by Sherwood Anderson

I have an abiding fondness for the tragic, under-sung artist and Anderson is one of them. He has an astonishing ability with character and this piece is one of the best examples of him showing off his craft and huge empathy. An old woman is responsible for feeding things: cows, men, dogs. The fact is that her entire world has fed on her, and Anderson chronicles her life and solemn death with such wisdom and tragic understatement.  The ‘dog scene’ is unforgettable. It’s that bold eye, that truth-seeking, that intense regard for small things, that precision of language, that kindness, that gets me every time. Read everything he has ever written, I say. And slowly. 

First published in Death in The Woods and Other Stories, 1933, Liveright. Read the story online here

‘Girl’ by Jamaica Kincaid

When I was growing up, I found a lot of Caribbean literature [shhh, whisper it] unbearably worthy. Perhaps it was what they gave us to read at school, perhaps I had swallowed a colonialist aesthetic [ahem, Stephen King], but there was something so obedient about these literatures of my youth, before I had the capacity to realise, for example, what Naipaul or Sam Selvon were trying to do. Our nonfiction, speeches, essays, our political rhetoric from Garvey to Fidel was so subversive and often so beautiful, our poets from Mutabaruka to Louise Bennett so playful and irreverent. Was reggae our only recourse for story? It was really only when the deliciously vulgar and mischievous Anthony C. Winkler blew Kingston apart with his 1987 novel The Lunatic that I stopped being so annoyed by the literary conservatism. All along, it was Antiguan writer Jamaican Kincaid’s short stories that sustained me. She never explained her femaleness, her heritage, her blackness. She was just that, and you accepted it, and she assumed your ass would get her, and if you didn’t, she seemed unbothered. She was a modernist, a sometimes-magic realist, and she seemed fearless to me. ‘Girl’ is one of her better-known and most beloved short works, taking the form of a list of declarative statements or commands, made by an unknown mother figure to who we presume is a daughter. In one long, unfurling, brilliantly detailed sentence, we see the entirety of domestic and social expectation on a young black girl’s head. I realise, curating this anthology, how important sound is to me, just as in Jean Toomer’s work, so in Kincaid. “Are you really going to be the kind of woman who the baker won’t let near the bread?” Kincaid asks, a po-face, bad-gyal call-to-arms. I wanted to be exactly that kind of woman. 

First published in The New Yorker, June 26, 1978. Collected in At The Bottom Of The River, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1983. Read it online here

‘The Distance Of The Moon’ by Italo Calvino, translated by William Weaver

This is a gloriously sensual story, narrated by a man who wants another’s wife – but the true star of the show is the moon. Calvino imagines it so close it risks dipping its scales in the sea. Fishermen gather lunar milk as the protagonist writhes in unrequited love. I still remember discovering magic realism and fantasy – adult literature that gave me permission to work seriously with playfulness, allegory and the “precious muck” of detail. This is a great example of the form – full of texture and motion and mischief and longing. I suggest you read it while eating a very good crème brûlée.

First published in Cosmicomics, Giulio Einaudi (Italy) and Harcourt Brace (US), 1965. Currently available from Penguin Modern Classics, 2010, and as a £1 Penguin Modern, 2018. Read the story online here

‘The Woman on the Dunes’ by Anais Nin

I loved Nin when I was in my early twenties; as I’ve gotten older, I still have an abiding respect. 

For her bluntness, for her insistence on including the erotic in all things, in making it so central and complex. I still think she could have done more interesting things with adjectives, but this story of a horny man prowling a beach, the ensuing sex with a beautiful woman, and the unapologetically dark meta-fictive flourish at the end, is an example of Nin at her juicy best. I like that erectile dysfunction is handled with tenderness, not drama, that the limits of masculinity melt away in the kindness and the water. The repetition, the narrative of changing moods, the combat of it all, is so finely judged. Nin forensically collected and presented all those tiny, compulsive things that we need to get off. I truly think the world is a better place because of artists who take the textures of sex seriously. 

First published in Little Birds, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979. Currently available from Penguin Modern Classics, 2002. You can hear [a rather bad] reading of this story here

‘Beverley Home’ by Denis Johnson

This story comes from Johnson’s interconnected, profoundly weird collection, and is the one that I go back to read again and again. It’s about a voyeur who works in the titular Beverley Home for the disabled and elderly, who begins peeping into the home of a woman and her husband after the sound of her singing in the shower calls him in from the road on his way home. What strikes me is Johnson’s unsentimental presentation of the things we do when no one watches, and the weight and complexity of loneliness. He reminds me that the best writer lays judgement aside and just watches: witnesses possibilities, taboos, truths, and the scattered, slow, multi-layered world going by. Johnson’s ability to evoke the body, especially when that body is judged ‘ugly’ or broken, and his ability to make it all new again, gives me so much pleasure.

First published in The Paris Review, Fall 1992 and available online to subscribers here. Collected in  Jesus’ Son, FSG, 1992/Granta Books, 2012