‘The Loudest Voice’ is the only story I know of about being Jewish at Christmas time. Shirley Abramowitz, growing up in a secular Jewish family in the 1930s, is called upon to narrate her school’s nativity play because her “voice is the loudest”. It’s hard to describe what a revelation the story was for me when I first read it. Like Shirley, I grew up in a secular Jewish immigrant family in New York. My parents were ambivalent about Christmas, religious identity, the mythology of America… almost everything; they sometimes approved of celebrating Christmas and sometimes didn’t.
Every time I thought I found a book or TV show about people who didn’t celebrate Christmas (The House Without a Christmas Tree, a Hallmark Special), it turned out to be about people who stopped celebrating because of a trauma instead of because of cultural reasons, and the trauma was always addressed and the Christmas tree erected and decorated before the show was over. But Christmas in ‘The Loudest Voice’ isn’t magical or redemptive – it appears simply as one kind of cultural practice in a multicultural society. “The teachers became happier and happier. Their heads were ringing like the bells of childhood,” Shirley observes, as the children decorate the school for a holiday many of them don’t celebrate. I recently found a recording of the story that Paley made for Vermont Public Radio in 1998. Hearing it so many years after I first read it, I was struck by how deftly and perfectly Paley conjures up a working class New York neighbourhood where it is a good thing to have the loudest voice: “There is a certain place where dumbwaiters boom, doors slam, dishes crash; every window is a mother’s mouth bidding the street shut up, go skate somewhere else, come home. My voice is the loudest.”
First published in The Little Disturbances of Man, Doubleday, 1959 and can now be found in The Collected Stories of Grace Paley, Virago Modern Classics. You can hear Grace Paley read it for Vermont Public Radio here
Chosen by Linda Mannheim. Linda is the author of three books of fiction including This Way to Departures, which was shortlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize. The Guardian said Departures “exposes the cracks in the facade of the American dream.” Linda’s stories have appeared in Granta, 3:AM Magazine, and Catapult Story. She divides her time between London and Berlin. You can read Linda’s full Personal Anthology and other seasonal contributions here.
It’s Christmas time in 1956 and Lou, a soon-to-be-single mother of toddler Ben has arrived in El Paso, Texas for a family reunion. Her glamorous cousin Bella Lynn picks her up from the train and informs her: “Your mama and my mama started drinking and fighting right off the bat. Mama went up on the garage roof and won’t come down. Your mother slit her wrists.”
I knew as soon as I started reading Lucia Berlin’s ‘Tiger Bites’ that it was the Christmas Story for me. My Christmas memories are marked by neighbourhood violence, breakdowns, cold radiators, cash shortages, and a kind of squalor that we all wished would magically go away. ‘Tiger Bites’ takes place in a different time and place, but the trouble that eclipses Christmas in this story seemed so familiar to me that I wanted to claim Lucia Berlin as family when I read it.
Lou is pregnant with a second child and her husband Joe has left her. Rather than finding solace among her family on the Southern US border, she’s persuaded to travel to Juarez, Mexico where, for $500 cash, she can obtain an abortion at a secret clinic. Her journey there and what she witnesses is terrifying. And yet, there’s also a kind of magic to the story. It’s not redemptive, but even as Lou observes and endures terrible things, she conveys what’s happening with humour and warmth. And the terrible things don’t destroy Lou; she keeps going.
First published in A Manual for Cleaning Women, Picador, 2015. Also available online at LitHub.
Chosen by Linda Mannheim. Linda is the author of three books of fiction, most recently This Way to Departures, a collection of stories about people who have left the places they consider home. Her work has appeared in Granta, Catapult Story, Ambit and other magazines. You can read her full Personal Anthology here.
I told Jonathan Gibbs that I was the sort of person who walked around constructing anthologies in my head all the time any way, so, yes, I would like to put together a personal anthology for this project.
Like others who have contributed, I’m going to quote Jonathan quoting Borges: “My preferences have dictated this book. I should like to be judged by it.” I look for patterns in my choices. Some of the patterns don’t surprise me: stories set in places I have visited and written about, South Africa and Nicaragua. Some of the patterns do surprise me: the number of stories with teenage boys in them, the number of stories about fathers.
Mostly though, I figured I would wind up with an anthology focused on loss. As Kit Caless and Aki Schilz observed when they created LossLit, the digital writing project, much of literature is about loss.
I grew up in a neighbourhood in New York where the background noise was made up of the voices of those who had had to leave something behind. And thus, the adults always longed for what they’d lost when they were displaced in some way: the brilliant red sunsets and warm sea air of the Dominican Republic before Joaquin Balaguer made it impossible to stay, the neighbourliness and ease that existed alongside the poverty and brutal racism of the American Deep South, the German language childhoods and evaporated landscape remembered by the refugees from Germany.
The stories that I think of again and again, that I am haunted by, hounded by even– are almost always about those who can never return to a particular place or to a person who is gone somehow (often because they themselves did something that led to that person’s injury). I am comforted by these stories of loss, by they acknowledge that almost all of us are trying to find our way through a landscape we weren’t expect to find ourselves in.
Two women briefly cross paths. Marie lives in a big house, drives a Lexus, and indulges her three demanding children. Callie lives on the rough side of town and tries to keep her son off the behaviour- controlling medication doctors have advised him to take. The women meet when Marie and her children visit Callie to buy a puppy she is selling. “It was a nice pup,” thinks Callie, “White, with brown around one eye. Cute. If the lady showed up, she’d definitely want it.” But when Marie shows up, she misunderstands what is happening in the household, and, with the bravado of the privileged, initiates a staggering wave of destruction. Saunders often seeks out the absurdity of American social structures, makes something that is familiar laughable through a kind of exaggeration. ‘Puppy’ is from a collection that came out after America became involved in Afghanistan and Iraq though, after the no man’s land between different Americans became greater and deeper, and it is part of a body of work that is both darker and more illuminating than Saunder’s earlier fiction.
From Tenth of December (Random House), first published in The New Yorker, May 28, 2007 and available online here
A young good-looking lawyer in a three piece suit is sitting in a bar in Concord, New Hampshire when he is approached by a woman in a cowboy hat: Sarah Cole. She is the most unattractive woman he has ever seen, and she has come to talk to him because her friends dared her to. The lawyer and Sarah become friends, then become lovers. And then, the relationship flounders. “I was pretty, extremely so,” he explains, “and she was not, extremely so, and I knew it, and she knew it.” But it is the class divide that makes the man most uncomfortable; when she brings him to gatherings with her friends and family, notes the lawyer, he has nothing to say to anyone after he is introduced. ‘Sarah Cole, A Type of Love Story’ is about different kinds of longing – longing to connect with someone you think you do not have permission to connect with, and, after having destroyed the possibility of that connection, longing to revise past actions. The lawyer’s brutality doesn’t kill Sarah Cole, who we learn early on died in unrelated circumstances, but ten years after he last saw Sarah, he feels that he mortally wounded her and reckons with his own monstrousness.
From Success Stories (Harper Collins), first published in The Missouri Review, 1984. You can hear Russell Banks reading the story here
I knew Alison Moore as the author of a short story collection and two novels, one about the Orphan Train – a train that took unaccompanied children to homesteads when the American West was settled; many of the children never saw their home towns or siblings again. When I turned up in England, I was surprised to find another Alison Moore, celebrated for writing about quite different themes. The short story by US-based Alison Moore that has haunted me over the years is a story about a twelve year old girl named Matty who runs away to New York with a boy she has a crush on. Knowing all the dangers she faces, you hold your breath as she describes their journey. When the thing that you most feared happens, you lose your breath entirely – the adventure is devoured by an emotional violence that Matty will never speak about and will never fully recover from.
From Small Spaces Between Emergencies (Mercury House). You can find Alison Moore’s website here
I am usually not very interested in stories about writers are having trouble writing, guys from working class backgrounds who feel like outsiders in academia, or men who moan about having lost the woman in their life by behaving badly. Diaz’s story is all three of these things. Yunior – a character very much like Diaz whose life Diaz has tracked in other stories – has lost his long-time girlfriend when she discovers the breadth of his disloyalty. “She could have caught you with one sucia, she could have caught you with two, but because you’re a totally batshit cuero who never empties his e-mail trash can, she caught you with fifty!” His back is damaged from carrying heavy pool tables when he worked in a delivery service before he became a writer. Middle-aged and alone, he can’t see how he can find a relationship again. Why is that Yunior wins me over in this story? Is it that he has some sense of proportion and recognises that his problems, when compared to those of his friend Elvis, an Iraq war veteran, aren’t the worst? Is it that he’s not really all that precious about his misery? I sit the way he describes his “exile” in the racist and provincial city of Boston? “White people pull up alongside you at traffic lights and scream at you with a hideous rage, like you nearly ran over their mother,” Yunior explains. When he looks like he might find himself through, with grace and humour but no happy endings, I’m rooting for him.
From This is How You Lose Her (Riverhead Books), first published in The New July 23, 2012 and available online here
A 42 year old woman – Faith, Paley’s alter ego – leaves Manhattan and takes the subway out to her childhood neighbourhood in Brooklyn. It is the early 1970s and entirely African American now; Faith is the only white person on the street. The neighbourhood is run down, neglected, and rife with heroin addiction. Then, a preposterous exchange causes Faith to seek sanctuary in what is – literally – her childhood home, moving in with the family who now live there. Their interaction is both hilarious and touching – Faith tries to explain the place she knew and the family tries to explain the world they know. When Faith leaves after several weeks, she realises she both can and cannot return to the place she came from. Paley’s stories repeatedly confront the most serious of subjects (love, death, war) without ever taking themselves too seriously, and therein lies their power. The titles of her collections (this story is from Enormous Changes at the Last Minute) are playful, comforting, knowing, like she’s sitting in an all night diner and wants you to know that, in the end, That’s life, darling.
From Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), first published in Esquire, March 1974 and available online here
This story – about events leading up to the death of comedian Bob Monkhouse’s estranged son – socked me in the stomach when I read it and Evers’ description of the cheap Thai hotel where the son dies of a heroin overdose left a lingering bruise: “He liked the clatter of the next-door cafeteria, the low honk of voices, the pouring of liquid, the flames and the fire.” ‘Your Father Sends his Love’ is the title story from Evers’ second collection; almost every story is about a father who loses his child in some way; none of the fathers’ stories are simple, and none are allowed the luxury of self-pity. Because I did not grow up in the UK, I had to learn who Bob Monkhouse was from a search engine; the sad comedian and his doomed son existed for me only in Evers’ world of fiction.
First published in You Father Sends His Love (Picador, 2015) You can find Stuart Evers’ blog here.
“Treats could save a person,” the protagonist in this story, Elaine, thinks. But her life is filled with empty pizza boxes, birthdays unacknowledged by those around her, a job making coffee and filing papers for others. Elaine tries to look on the bright side though: her pleasure when the man at the sandwich shop throws a French tart in her bag, the joy she gets from anonymously buying a cinema ticket for the young woman in the queue behind her. Still, you realise Elaine’s just scrunching up her eyes, not wanting to see how bad the big picture is. And because she is so deserving of something more, you find yourself wanting to scrunch your eyes up too. I came across ‘Treats’ in Best British Short Stories 2017 (it is also in Williams’ debut collection). This is the story that has stayed with me the most from this year’s anthology, hovering around like a vulture.
From Treats (Freight Books). Also available in Best British Short Stories 2017 (Salt). You can find Lara Williams’ website here
All of Rodriguez’s stories in his first collection, The Boy Without a Flag, are set in the desolate and destroyed South Bronx of the 1970s and 1980s, when cheap strong heroin was everywhere on the streets, apartment buildings succumbed to arson and accidental fire, and America’s poorest congressional district (located next to the richest) literally looked like a war zone. Elba is a teenage girl wanting a normal courtship. “Danny took her to the empty lot on Fox Street. Their sneakers struggled over jutted bricks and crackling wooden beams while a red sun splattered the sky and filtered through gaping windows.” Two years later, Elba is a mother in an almost empty apartment, abandoned by her parents and young husband, trying to drown out the sound of the crying baby. The scariest thing in this story isn’t anything that you read; it’s what you don’t read, what you imagine will happen.
From The Boy Without a Flag (Milkweed Editions), originally appeared in Story Magazine, November 1999.
Rose is eight years old when she first meets, Peter, an entomologist in his late 20s. Her parents laugh at her passionate crush on their dashing and charismatic contemporary, but Rose is furious that she’s not taken seriously. More than two decades later, Rose runs into Peter in an airport. She is a celebrated biochemist, he is less accomplished, and the connection they feel to one another is intense and reverberates – it is rooted in their shared history as well as a contemporary attraction. It is easy for them to begin a relationship, but Rose begins to see what their age different means as time goes on. “When she returned to Boston Peter had bronchitis and emerged from the shower hacking and coughing, each cough making the loose flesh around his nipples shimmy,” we’re told. Their parting – just like their coming together – is complex, bound up with other memories and other griefs that (like ubiquitin) are ubiquitous.
From Servants of the Map (W. W. Norton & Company). You can find Andrea Barret’s website here
All the stories in ZZ Packer’s debut collection, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, are mesmerising. In this one, a teenage boy is dragged along to the Million Man March — 1995’s gathering of African-American men in Washington, D.C. – by his self-absorbed and reckless father. Along the way, they stop in Indiana to pick up some macaw parrots, which the father plans to sell during the march. The father’s sometimes girlfriend, Lupita, has looked after (and grown fond of) the birds. “You are never thinking about what Lupita feels!” the girlfriend shouts, as they take the macaws. The boy thinks she’s going to come after him and his father when they take the birds, “but all she does is plop down on her porch step, holding her head in her hands.” And so the men continue on to DC, with the macaws echoing phrases they have learnt. When the boy is let down by his father again and sits alone in a DC train station, he watches another father and his son who have come to the march: a man who treats his toddler son with playful tenderness.
From Drinking Coffee Elsewhere (Riverhead Books), originally appeared in The New Yorker, November 25, 2002 and available online here
A well-off white couple are driving back to Cape Town from a winery tour in Rondebosch on the N2. It is the mid-1990s, the Apartheid regime recently ended. In Crossroads, the black township that the highway cuts through, a group of young men are beginning their initiation ceremony. “The bush,” explodes a mother, when she hears where her son will go as part of the initiation. “Call that strip along the N2 a bush? Just a rubbish scrap of trees left there to keep our place out of sight.” Themba, the son, can hear the white couple who have pulled over onto the shoulder of the highway above him, cursing because they are unable to deal with a tyre puncture. When Themba climbs up onto the highway, they panic and pull a gun on him. Once he persuades the couple he can change the tyre for them, he helps them, then finds himself asking them for money. I first came across this story when Zoe Wicomb read it to an audience in Cape Town, and I can still hear her reciting the words that echo in Themba’s head as he approaches manhood: “Please sir please madam have you please got some rand some rand some rand…
From The One That Got Away (New Press), originally published in Stand, August 1999