Introduction

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. 

‘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

‘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

‘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

‘How Many’ by Bryan Washington

This story was included in the NYers flash fiction series that ran over the summer. Bryan’s debut collection Lot, published earlier this year is amazing and essential. Every story’s an out and out banger. But what I loved about this flash piece was how it captured gay hook-up culture in several short paragraphs. It needs to be buried as a time capsule, that’s how fucking on it ‘How Many’ is. “The first one takes you back to his place, on Mandell. He asks you to top him and you do and that’s it. ….. The fifth one takes you home from Blur. You decide to let him fuck you.” No amount of emojis cover this brilliance. 

First published in The New Yorker, August 8 2019 and available to read online here

‘Orange Horses’ by Maeve Kelly

It was a toss-up between including this or something from Benedict Kiely. Both Tramp Press and Turnpike Books do an excellent job reissuing the work of forgotten writers from both sides of the Irish border. I always have an eye out for everything they publish. ‘Orange Horses’, a story of domestic violence in a traveller community is so powerful, visceral and shocking, it has stayed with me in the three years since I read it. I’m not only cowed by the intensity of the story itself, but also Kelly’s mettle in writing it. This is the collection I pass on when someone says that can’t get into short stories. 

First published by 1978 and reissued in 1990 by Michael Joseph. Now available in Orange Horses, Tramp Press Recovered Voices, 2016

‘Ideas’ by Patricio Pron, translated by Mara Faye Ketgem

This is another story that has never left my mind since reading. A young boy disappears from his home after football, subsequently spotted around his small German town, only to entice other children to disappear into the forest with him. The generosity of space in this story is where its power lies. It’s silent to the point of airlessness, which in turn cranks up the reader’s sense of dread. I’m currently reading Yoko Ogawa’s genius novel The Memory Police, whose voicelessness gives a similar feeling.

First published in English in The Paris Review 191, Winter 2009 and available to read online here

‘My Husband’ by Natalia Ginzburg, translated by Paul Lewis

Discovering Ginzburg’s body of work has been one of my reading highlights over the last eighteen months. This story is typical of her magic, written in the first person, detailing a newly married wife coming to terms with the intrusions in her relationship. She writes with such clarity, and almost lulls you into a false sense of security – when sudden emotional tornadoes hit. This is fiction as memory, visceral and often proudly sad. Predictably, I’m hooked. 

First published in English in The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories, ed. Jhumpa Lahiri, 2019

‘The Vegetarian of Poznan, Hamburg and Now Prague’ by Swpnil Patel

The best thing about the four-issue run of The Good Journal was to see the strength of British BAME writing across fiction, poetry, essay and memoir laid bare. Publishers now have no fucking excuse. This story from the final issue, Patel’s first, is super-impressive: part-travelogue, part-history lesson, as an unnamed narrator and the mysterious Susanne hunt for statues and meatloaf. Gave me millennial Bellow vibes – in a good way. Keen to read what he writes next. 

From The Good Journal Issue Four, ed. Diana Evans, Autumn 2019

‘Animal Heart’ by Niven Govinden

I am of course including one of my own stories, because my ego knows no rest. I wrote several short stories around this time with the resurgence of global violence towards LGBTQ+ people very much on my mind. These stories informed something of the collective trauma I would later explore in This Brutal House. In this piece, dealing with a teenager arrested in a clandestine gay dance in an unnamed country and subsequently thrown from a tower, the brutality and cruelty is laid bare.

First published in A Kind Of Compass: Stories on Distance, ed. Belinda McKeon, Tramp Press 2015