Let’s start by getting real. I’m approaching this anthology as a conscious exercise in avoiding nostalgia. By which I mean: new(-ish) shit only. Asked at a different time, and this selection would’ve consisted of the short stories that both shaped me as a writer and shifted my reading into a different gear. I’m thinking of the time when an introduction to Paula Fox’s ‘Cigarette’ changed my life, and in no small part altered the trajectory of a novel I was working on. And many years before that, early 90s, picking up a copy of Cheever’s Collected Stories from NYC’s legendary Gotham Book Mart and devouring them back in my seedy hotel room off Broadway and 10th, which was dealer, travelling salesman, hooker central. By which I mean: deeply romantic. Considering our current moment, you might feel that a spot of romance is in order – needed, even – but I’m leading you down a different path here, highlighting stories from writers that challenge and inspire me. I need that more than I need a beautifully turned Elizabeth Taylor sentence right now (virtually any line in ‘Hester Lilly’.) We all know that Paris is beautiful, so what is there outside of Paris? I’m over getting misty-eyed thinking about William Maxwell penning a heartbreaking short story in between sending letters and rose cuttings to Eudora Welty. Those are all nourishing moments, but in the midst of our turbulence I’m fuelled by anger and need the wisdom of those working around me to clear that mist (powerful, addictive, debilitating). I look for stories that make me feel smarter, hotter, which energise my beaten spirit, and most of all, give me hope. This is where I am, now, and these are the stories. Hope you feel them. 

‘Grace Jones’ by Irenosen Okojie

I’m constantly in awe of Irenosen’s talent and where her imagination takes me as a reader. Her stories constantly pleasure, surprise and disturb, and what holds them together is sinuous, captivating writing. Read any of her stories and whatever you follow after that will seem basic as fuck. She’s truly special. This story from her new collection about a girl from Martinique with a degree in forensics moonlighting as a Grace Jones impersonator is the one that’s stayed with me the most: dark, layered, and unlike anything else. 

First published in Nudibranch, Dialogue Books, 2019

‘Drag’ by Leone Ross

Any story that starts: “Today I feel like a drag queen,” “Today I feel like a bride,” has my name all over it. This story from Leone’s most recent collection, about degrees of self, and what we choose to show or conceal in relationships, is as playful, sexy and subversive as the character who narrates it. It’s a fully inhabited world, unambiguous in its depiction of female desire, as the layers of realness and power play are revealed. Hot AF. The entire collection is incredible, but I love the (literal) bounce of this. 

First published in Brown Sugar: A Collection of Erotic Black Fiction, ed. Carol Taylor, Dutton Plume, 2001. Collected in Come Let Us Sing Anyway, Peepal Tree Press, 2017

‘Memory House’ by David Hayden

I stan for David, and will pretty much drop everything whenever new work appears. What I love is his physicist-like degree of observation: precise and unsettling, with much explored in the tension between physical and emotional landscapes. I always feel that I’m a better reader and writer after spending time in his world. This story, in its wandering around the memory of objects and owner of those memories, encapsulates all the qualities that make him such a peerless writer. 

First published in Numéro Cinq, August 2014, and available to read online here. Collected in Darker With The Lights On, Little Island Press 2017

‘Jungftak’ by Eley Williams

This is a shout-out for both Eley’s genius, and Rich Porter’s epoch-defining trilogy of anthologies of queer life, published over the last couple of years. Eley’s story – more a rumination on false words, symmetry and self-definition – cuts to the heart of queer being, and being seen. It’s a story about singularity that becomes as inclusive as you’d wish. In reading it, you feel your loneliness being drawn from you. A wonder. 

First published in Not Here: A Queer Anthology of Loneliness, ed. Richard Porter, Pilot Press 2017

‘Sheer’ by Stuart Evers

“The stockings were a provocation, pulled taut over flexed leg, held there just so.” I am totally here for a story that begins with a pair of nylons. I’m always interested to see the work published in Visual Verse (all written in response to an artwork), and this latest piece by Stuart is an excellent reminder of why he’s one of our country’s best short story writers. Evocative and immersive, the gulf between genders is exquisitely is explored here, with the dialogue as taut as the pulled-on stockings themselves. Excited for Stuart’s novel coming next year.

First published in Visual Verse, Vol 06 Chapter 12, and available to read onlinehere

‘New York City in 1979’ by Kathy Acker

Less a story, more a series of vignettes – starting with the killer dialogue of ‘The Whores in Jail at Night’ (major Genet vibes) – reading this is to be plugged into the danger and glamour of NYCs queer culture. It’s beguiling and fucking terrifying in equal measure. Needless to say, I’m obsessed by it. This period of NY history has left a lasting imprint of my psyche: Acker, Peter Hujar, David Wojnarowicz, Halston, Studio 54, Danceteria, Fab 5 Freddy, Basquiat, Haring, Ciccone. I couldn’t have written This Brutal House without this story and these ghosts. 

First published by Top Stories #9, 1979; reissued as a standalone Penguin Modern #27 by Penguin Modern Classics, 2018