I should start by saying that until a year or so ago I did not think that I liked short stories very much. I had studied many as a student in India, mostly classics, mostly Russian authors but I often found them unsatisfactory. Now as I reflect on this, I wonder if it was the subject matter of many of these stories that was so far removed from the life that I was living, and the places that I was growing up in that made me feel detached and disengaged from them. Whatever the reason, over the years, again and again, I tried to come back to them, and again I found myself ambivalent. And then something happened just over a year ago. I suddenly discovered the magic of short stories, perhaps it was parenthood or the pandemic, or perhaps it was that I suddenly understood what a short story really is. And then I just couldn’t have enough of them. Over the course of one year, I wrote many short stories, and I read many more. I have found myself looking for the way writers have attempted to stretch the short story form and experiment with it and make something new and unique out of it. None of these stories experiment for the sake of experimenting. They use the form that best suits the content, shape the structure to fit around the theme. These are a few – mostly contemporary – short stories that I have loved recently for the way that they stretch the imagination as well as the boundaries of what a short story can do. I also like when writing can address big issues but in an unassuming way. I think most of these stories do this, looking at larger political issues through a personal lens. 

‘The Semplica Girl Diaries’ by George Saunders

This short story is about morality and integrity, addressing questions of immigration, racism, and about inequalities in society. The story nudges and probes the reader to look for answers within themselves, question their own privilege and biases. This is written in form of a diary, with short sentence fragments composed as a stream of consciousness. But it is of course a really well-crafted story where every sentence is in its perfect place. I like everything that George Saunders writes.

First published in The New Yorker, October 8, 2012, and available to subscribers to read here, and collected in Tenth of December, Bloomsbury, 2013

‘The Baby Carrier Built for Men: FAQs for Commando™’ by Derek Andersen

This is a flash fiction, a story under 1000 words crafted as a FAQ for a baby carrier. It juxtaposes a seemingly innocent harmless object with wartime violence, and the memories of invasion in Iraq. I don’t want to say too much. Within a few sparse sentences it leaves a lasting impact.

First published in Catapult Magazine on Jun 17, 2022, and available to read here

‘The Swan As Metaphor For Love’ by Amelia Gray

What can I say about this story that will sum up how clever it is, and how beautiful it is in all its grossness? This is written like a field guide, with a strong visual element. With carefully choses phrases and beautiful narrative quality, Amelia Gray shows us beyond the ethereal projection of swans that we often seen in literature. I started off wondering how swans could be a metaphor for love, and just within 500 words Gray had convinced me. There is much that lies underneath beyond what we can really see. 

First published in Joyland Magazine, December 21 2012, and available to read here, and collected in Gutshot, FSG, 2015

‘Snowstorm’ by Bruna Dantas Lobato

Another flash story that also reads like a diary entry even though it is not composed like one. A son, a mother, across miles and oceans. As an immigrant, who came over from India to study here in the UK, and also as a mother myself navigating communication with my daughter in snatches across digital bytes, this story really struck a chord. This story is also about the parts of us we lose as we move countries and home, the skins we shed, and how we become new people while also navigating the same old relationships.

First published in The New Yorker, August 11 2022, and available to read here

‘The Depletion Prompts’ by David Means

“Write at least six versions of the story, using different points of view, until you realize that the one with the sad ending is impossible to finish.” Written as a series of writing prompts, the story flows and ebbs between different timelines questioning the reality of the versions we believe in and that we choose to write. This is a story within a story, a meditation on how we often squeeze our stories into boxes. 

First published in The New Yorker, October 25, 2021, and available to read here

‘Orientation’ by Daniel Orozco

Wow I loved this story. It starts off as a straight-forward office orientation, narrated simply, creating a strong visual image. But the simplicity is deceptive. There is such lyricism and rhythmic quality to this story pulsating with energy underneath as it gets more surreal. Once again like the other stories here, there is that notion of how our perspective changes the stories we choose to tell and believe in. And much like many of the other stories here, it documents the sense of alienation in modern society, in workplaces and in our homes, through digital zoom sessions and skype calls. 

First published in Orientation and Other Stories, Faber & Faber, 2011, and available to read here

‘Eleven Orphaned Short-Story Openings (Circa 1996–2012) Looking for a Loving Home’ by Zsuzsi Gartner

As part of a project, Gartner issues adoption certificates to readers who request to adopt the fragments of short stories. This will be familiar to many of us, those notes made for all the story and book ideas that never materialised. There is a larger question here as well, of how some stories start well but never end. And, also how we sometimes do not know how a story will end, whether it will end, and where a story might take us. Can we take over other people’s stories, and make them our own? This has been very thought-provoking for me.

First published in Five Dials Number 25, and available to read here

‘Cipher’ by Lindz McLeod

I love crosswords. This is a story written as crossword clues, asking more questions than answering them. McLeod tries to solve the puzzle of queerness, the way we assumed a homogenous experience, and how homophobia still simmers in our society. There is a sense that while the writer is nudging the reader to ask these questions of themselves, they are also figuring things out about their lives, much like working out the clues of a crossword. 

First published in Catapult, May 13, 2022, and available to read here

‘How to Become a Writer, or Have You Earned This Cliché?’ by Lorrie Moore

A self-absorbed narrator wanting to become a writer but failing to observe the world around them. Much like many of Moore’s stories in this collection, it is witty and wry, deconstructing previously held ideas around self-help. Many of us will probably relate to the insecurities and anxieties around writing that the narrator faces. The mother-daughter relationship plays an integral role in this story forming a backdrop to the way society determines who is good enough to write and who is held back.

Published in Self-Help, Alfred A. Knopf, 1985, and collected in The Collected Stories, Faber, 2008

‘Happy Endings’ by Margaret Atwood

How do we choose an ending to a story, and where does it really end? This is a very popular short story from Atwood, one that would perhaps be familiar to many of you. I wanted to include this because it perfectly illustrates what this anthology has tried to do: to say that there is no one way of writing a story, and that all of us are unreliable narrators even of our own lives. And, even if the middle of our stories differs, and the way we shape the paths of our lives, the ending is often the same: we all die. I find this ending quite comforting. 

First published in Murder in the Dark, 1983

‘Blue and Green’ by Virginia Woolf

A diptych of short sketches as meditation on perception of blue and green, much like an impressionist painting. I feel like Woolf was trying to establish a different way of writing, a more embodied experience away from the more ‘traditional’ way of writing. Women’s bodily experiences have been seen to be inferior for so long as compared to the more cerebral one, perhaps associated with men, with emotionality and rationality set out as polar opposite. Woolf attempts to challenge this framework, and sets out an alternative where immersion and feelings could also lead to the truth. 

First published in Monday or Tuesday, Hogarth Press/ Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1921 and available to read here

‘The Huntress’ by Sofia Samatar

I wanted to end with this short story, which has many layers, story within a story, and shows the potential and power of micro fiction. Samatar evokes and sustains a terrifying mood, but there is also the underlying story of what happens when women find their inner fierce voice and rise up against oppression. 

First published in Tin House, June 2017, and available to read here

‘Here We Are’ by Lucy Caldwell

  • Picked by Pragya Agarwal

I love the line “It is the best summer of our lives”: summer, when everything seems possible, surmountable, within our reach. There is a feeling of time rushing past but also slowing down that Lucy captures so masterfully, and the claustrophobic nostalgia of moments that were filled with possibility but also out of reach. This story captures perfectly in such a few words the summer of young love that was filled with so much happiness but also pain, and an acute observation of how we stigmatise love in many forms that do not fit our norms, and what it does to young people, and the weight that people have to carry all their lives of what could have been, and never was because of societal expectations. Everytime I read it, I expect it to turn out differently- I hope it would- and then it stays with me for many days and nights.

First published in Granta 135, 2016, and available to read online here. Collected in Multitudes, Faber, 2016)

Pragya Agarwal is the author of (M)otherhood: On the choices of being a womanSWAY: Unravelling Unconscious Bias and Wish We Knew What to Say: Talking With Children About Race