When I agreed to put my personal anthology together, I was planning to go the Desert Island Discs route. However, when I started to think about the short stories I read when I was younger, they formed a fairly stereotypical list of mostly great white males. And that couldn’t be further from what I read or who I am now. Here instead is a list of twelve stories by women writers that I love this very instant. Some I’ve lived with for years, some I’ve read very recently. What they have in common is these are stories by and about women and their experiences; what I noticed as I was writing the commentaries was how many of these women are unnamed.
I picked What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky from my shelf a couple of weeks ago. I wasn’t sleeping well and only had the concentration for something short – the half-dozen, half-read novels scattered around my flat are testament to this. I read the first story, ‘The Future Looks Good’ and immediately took to Twitter to say that the collection was worth buying on the strength of that story alone. The rest did not disappoint. The collection is the best I’ve ever read: Arimah does things with the form that shouldn’t be possible whilst delivering a fierce emotional punch.
In ‘Light’ Enebeli Okwara raises his unnamed daughter while her mother is in America studying for a master’s degree. But Okwara is unaware of what the world does to young women, ‘He did not know how quickly it would wick the dew off her, how she would be returned to him hollowed out, relieved of her better parts’.
From What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky. Winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize for Africa. First published in Granta and available to read here
I first came across Helen Simpson’s work in 1994, the year I sat my GCSEs. Her debut collection Four Bare Legs in a Bed was given away with Cosmopolitan magazine, back in the days when books were regularly given away with monthly glossies. In some ways, it feels like the first grown-up book I ever read. Here was a glimpse into a world of adult women which I was yet to enter or fully understand.
In 2016, when I had experienced more than enough of what it means to be a woman in the world, I saw Simpson at an event in London. During the evening, she read a story from her latest collection Cockfosters. ‘Erewhon’ is narrated by a man, a teacher, awake at 4am, worrying about the kids and money and media representations while his wife snores beside him. As Simpson read the story, we laughed. It was funny hearing our own fears through the voice of a male protagonist. All this shit we worry about, it’s hilarious, right? Right?
From Cockfosters. Available to read here
Ottessa Moshfegh is a genius. She’s talented, outspoken and interested in portraying lives that make other people feel uncomfortable. I enjoy watching the reactions to her work as much as I enjoy reading the work itself.
In ‘An Honest Woman’, Jeb sets up his nephew with the unnamed young woman who lives next door. His opinions of women are pretty grim: “You know women. Stray cats, all of them, either purring in your lap or pissing in your shoes.” Doesn’t stop him trying to take what he fancies though.
In Homesick for Another World. First published in The New Yorker and available to read here
Generally I prefer Roxane Gay’s non-fiction work but there are some absolute corkers in her short story collection Difficult Women. ‘Open Marriage’ is one of the shortest pieces. The premise is simple; a husband suggests to his wife that they have an open marriage. They discuss the idea while she eats an out-of-date yoghurt. The final two lines are killer.
From Difficult Women. Available to read here
When I was studying for my A Levels (1994-6), Channel 4 broadcast a three-part series on three contemporary Scottish writers: James Kelman, Irvine Welsh and Janice Galloway. I recorded the late-night program and watched it the following day. I knew who Welsh was, Trainspotting had not long since been published, but it was the other two writers who were to have the bigger impact on me.
It’s the setting that stood out to me in ‘Love in a Changing Environment’; the couple in the story move into a flat above a bakery. Their relationship plays out to the smell of crumpets, cobs and Danish pastries. That is until the bakers leave and the butcher moves in.
I first came across Eley Williams when her short story ‘Smote, or When I Find I Cannot Kiss You in Front of a Print by Bridget Riley’ was shortlisted for The White Review Short Story Prize in 2015. It was Williams’ second shortlisting in two years. Yes, she is that good.
‘Alight at the Next’ is my favourite story in her debut collection. The narrator stands inside a tube carriage. The train is in the station and the doors are open. As the narrator hesitates, contemplating asking their companion to come home with them, a man tries to step up into the carriage. The narrator halts him by placing a finger in the middle of his forehead. The whole story then takes place with the characters in this position. Williams perfectly balances desire, fear, humour and word play.
From Attrib. & Other Stories. First published in 3:AM Magazine and available to read here
Is a feminist list of short stories even a feminist list of short stories without the inclusion of Angela Carter?
I was late to Carter. I didn’t study her at school, I didn’t study her at university. A friend who read her for A Level recommended Wise Children to me. I read it not having a bloody clue what was going on. In 2010, I had to teach The Bloody Chamber to my own A Level students. It was a revelation.
In ‘The Company of Wolves’ Carter revisits Little Red Riding Hood. All the men/wolves are abusive in some way, Little Red Riding Hood has to work out how to survive in a patriarchal society. It’s not pleasant but it’s effective.
From The Bloody Chamber
This is the story on the list that I’ve read most recently. The narrator (unnamed, of course) meets her husband-to-be, has lots of sex, marries, bears a son, raises a child. She’s a storyteller but no one believes her stories (by no one I mean the men in her life, of course). All women in this world have a ribbon attached somewhere on their body. The narrator’s is green and on her neck. Her husband is fascinated by it but she won’t allow him to touch it. You know where this has to end but the journey there is entrancing.
From Her Body & Other Parties. First published in Granta and available to read here
When I first started compiling the ‘In the Media’ round-up posts on my blog, I used to include fiction pieces. This is how I discovered Leesa Cross-Smith’s work. I’m amazed more people aren’t aware of her, she’s prolific as both a fiction and non-fiction writer. She writes sentences that I read and repeat to myself, hold in my mouth while I feel the shape of the words. She also comes blurbed by Roxane Gay, yes THE Roxane Gay.
‘Absolutely’ is a flash piece about a woman and her lover(s). It contains two of my favourite sentences in Cross-Smith’s debut collection; I’ll leave you to decide which sentences they are.
From Every Kiss a War. First published in Sundog Lit and available to read here
Most of the writers I’ve come across in the last five years I seem to have found, in one way or another, via Twitter. I think Anneliese Mackintosh was one of the first. I went to see her at a spoken word night around the time her debut collection was published. Her performance – and it was a performance – was captivating. Any Other Mouth is semi-autobiographical and it’s clear that Mackintosh isn’t afraid to bleed onto the page.
‘When I Die, This Is How I Want It To Be’ provides instructions for the protagonist’s funeral. It sounds fantastic and terrible and it had me at the wake happening to a soundtrack of the “Top 25 ‘most played’ list on my iTunes”.
American Housewife was one of those books which arrived with a big fanfare. For a brief period of time, it seemed to be everywhere and then it never quite filled its promise. A huge shame because this is a sterling collection of stories. Ellis is sassy, hilarious and very dark.
‘Dead Doormen’ is about an unnamed (of course) wife who keeps house, in this case an apartment in the city, while her husband works. She spends her day hanging out with the doormen and making plans.
From American Housewife. Available to read here
Sarah Hall is my favourite writer. Her novel The Electric Michelangelo is my favourite book. I have no time for the ‘but how can you choose?’ brigade. Simple: Hall’s work changed my view of the world. It took me to Coney Island; it inspired my PhD thesis; it speaks to me about my life. I am evangelical about her work.
‘Mrs Fox’ tells the story of a woman who transforms into a fox while her husband attempts to adjust his life around her. Read that sentence again, it’s radical.
From Madame Zero. Winner of the BBC National Short Story Award 2013