While putting this list together I learned that I have a type when it comes to short stories. Anything unexpected, anything about grief, anything focusing on family relationships. Here are twelve stories that continue casting their spells on me regardless of how many times I revisit them.
This tender and earnest story with a family of three at its core – a mother studying in America, the father and daughter left behind – sets up its premise in the first, forceful line: “When Enebeli Okwara sent his girl out in the world, he did not know what the world did to daughters.” Arimah expertly navigates time and a young woman’s adolescence to talk about the love a father has for his daughter, a disintegrating marriage, how distance and the difference between where we live and where we want to live can change who we are and how we relate to each other.
First published online by Granta in April 2015 and available to read here Collected in What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky, Riverhead Books, 2017
With humour and sly asides about online dating, mothers, and visiting friends, this story slowly circles the grief a young woman feels over losing her sister. Even things that should be impossible (a dead sister talking from the lip of a carpet), seem plausible after Asi spends careful time building up details before confronting us with the otherworldly nature of her grief.
First published in Indiana Review, Winter 2019, Volume 41, Number 2
This may be cheating as I’m fairly sure this is a novel excerpt from Hanif’s Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, but it was published in Granta as a standalone story – so I’m going to pretend this is a short story. Nobody does humour, sarcasm, tenderness (and humour again) quite like Mohammed Hanif. This piece is about a city, a hospital, God (and the characters’ various levels of faith in Him), misogyny, the politics of courting. All of it feels electric, as if it has been waiting for Hanif to write it into existence. I also want to propose that Hanif is at his finest when writing about love and declarations of love in all their twisted manifestations.
First published in Granta 112: Pakistan, 2010 and available to subscribers to read online here
This story takes the topic of race in America and holds it up under floodlights. But under that runs a chorus of love and remembrance, of a father obsessively watching his son – setting their two lives side by side – and hoping that this time around it will be different: “I wanted to test my own beloved country: given the right conditions, could America extend her promise of Life and Liberty to me too, to someone like me?” I loved the structure Johnson chose for this piece. Having the father tell what happened back to the son gave it an energy I couldn’t look away from.
First published in Guernica, 2017, Collected in Best American Short Stories, 2018. Read online here
A woman wakes up one morning and finds that her right eye is not aligned with her left eye. Not much goes on to happen on the surface. In short simple sentences we follow the thought process of the woman as she tries to make sense of what may happened to cause the misalignment, but occasionally, and this happens so suddenly that I feel like I have been doused with cold water, the woman plunges towards what feels like the most truthful part of her consciousness before coming up again to the benign surface of her life. This is possibly the strangest, most mind boggling story I have read. A reminder of how many different ways there are for short stories to be.
This translation first published in Almost Island, 2020. Read online here
I read this story every day for an entire summer. I am not sure anymore what I was going through then but I am happy to report this story still makes me cry every time I read it. I love the first line: “Tell me things I won’t mind forgetting,” she said, “Make it useless stuff or skip it.” I had not realized what an elegy could do until I read this piece. Hempel builds the story’s momentum by painstakingly bringing seemingly disparate details together. I also credit this with teaching me how much can be contained within a paragraph break.
First published in TriQuarterly Magazine, 1983, included in the collection Reasons To Live, 1985, Harper Collins. Read it online here
Another elegy, this time by Rick Moody for his sister who passed away when she was 37. The paragraph breaks feel like jagged breaths the writer needs to take to recover as he recounts losing his sister. What a few pages contain; the life of a much loved sister in all its minuteness, her children, her jokes, her photography, the sudden shock of her death. There is the sense in this piece that that writer must get everything down on paper before he begins to forget the details of this moment. In the end, Moody acknowledges that he should ‘fictionalize this more,’ the insertion of himself into the text brings his grief even further to the forefront, we are sorry for his loss, we are sorry for all the people who have ever lost anyone they have ever loved.
First published in Conjunctions 26, 1996 Collected in Demonology, Faber, 2000 / Little Brown & Company, 2001
The first and last lines of this story are always like a punch to the gut. In fact, I think the first line here is the greatest first line of a short story I have ever read, or in the top five at least: “I stand here ironing, and what you asked me moves tormented back and forth with the iron.” A mother recounts the life of her now (almost) adult eldest daughter and in the telling, Olsen paints the picture of an era, of single motherhood and all the attendant guilt, poverty and, of sibling dynamics. It’s incredibly moving, and a masterclass in how to write monologues.
First published in Tell Me a Riddle, Dell, 1961/Virago 1980
This is an extremely funny and extremely terrifying story about friendship and warped mother-daughter relationships. It also does strange things with POV; the difference in who we think is speaking and who is actually speaking keeps shifting. There are many lessons of craft here, but actually every time I read this story, I am just in complete and total awe of Alice Sola Kim’s imagination.
First published by Monstrous Affections: An Anthology of Beastly Tales, 2014, Republished by Tin House, 2018. Read online here
This is the story I think of when I think of an elegant short story. A woman’s aunt dies, causing her to reflect on her relationships with her aunt, her long-deceased mother, her father, her cousins. In a way it is about the different ways women exist in the world. Quiet and moving, it still feels somehow joyful, as if all the life that has been lived by the characters has not been for nothing.
First published by Kalahari Review, 2015. Read online here
I read this piece and can never feel like I’ve quite grasped it, there is a through line of grief whose parameters feel just out of my reach – and then suddenly Diaz brings it all into startlingly clear focus with that last, perfect line.
First published by Guernica/Pen American Flash Series, 2015. Read online here
What I love about this short story is this whole short story. But also – the fact that Kincaid never once uses the word girl in the text, except for the title, and also that we can see past this list of instructions to touch the outline of the relationship between the two main characters – the speaker and the listener. Everyone should read everything by Kincaid.
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