I have always been an avid fan of the short story, both as a reader and as a writer. Thank you, Jonathan for letting me choose my favourites!
A short story contains multitudes of possibilities, of lives lived and worlds imagined- a veritable smorgasbord of ideas and form to savour and reflect upon. I always begin reading them with a sense of anticipation.
I do not have an academic take on them; what I am looking for is not just technical brilliance but an ability to show vulnerability and attention to the minutia of life.
During the recent lockdown, I started going on long walks and would often listen to the New Yorker Fiction Podcast where a writer chooses a story by another writer and discusses it. It was a wonderful way of reacquainting myself with masters of the form such as V.S Pritchett, Franz Kafka or Katherine Mansfield.
Looking back at my choices, I am struck by how heavily slanted they are towards American writers and the preoccupation with relationships, identity and loss. I suppose I explore similar themes in my own stories in Mrs Pinto Drives to Happiness. Displacement whether emotional or geographical is a predicament of our times and it features heavily in my own stories. We are more interconnected yet lonelier than ever before.
I need to read this story at least once every few months and it never fails to move me each time. ‘Signs and Symbols’ is about an elderly Russian couple who have emigrated to America and live in straitened circumstances. They visit their mentally unstable son in a sanatorium and return without seeing him. They take him a modest birthday gift, a selection of jams. At first glance, the story seems a quiet meditation on old age, parental love and the sorrow of the exiled, but it has so many layers and depth to it. We learn that the son suffers from a rare mental illness that makes him hallucinate. He has attempted to take his life a few times. The elderly parents live a frugal life, Nabokov lingers over the details of their straitened circumstances, the mother looking through the photograph albums, longing for the home she’s left behind, and the father’s embittered gratitude towards his more successful brother who has brought them over.
Hanging over their nightly rituals is a sense of impending foreboding and doom. Yet this is not a sentimental story. The ‘signs’ and ‘symbols’ of their predicament are presented in carefully crafted sentences, without a single superfluous image or sentence.
That Friday, their son’s birthday, everything went wrong. The subway train lost its life current between two stations… During the long ride to the subway station, she and her husband did not exchange a word, and every time she glanced at his old hands, clasped and twitching upon the handle of his umbrella, and saw their swollen veins and brown-spotted skin, she felt the mounting pressure of tears.
The ending is deliberately ambiguous. The couple receive two misdialled phone calls from a girl who is looking for someone called Charlie and the story ends when the phone rings for a third time. The reader never knows whether it is another wrong call or whether it is the hospital, ringing to say their son had succeeded in committing suicide.
First published – as ‘Symbols and Signs’ – in The New Yorker, May 15, 1948, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in Nabokov’s Dozen, Doubleday, 1958 and Collected Short Stories, Knopf, 1995. Also in the Penguin 70 Cloud Castle Lake, 2005
As someone who has led a peripatetic multicultural existence with an upbringing that spans India, Italy France and Britain, I am instinctively drawn to stories about displacement and belonging. I have a special affinity for this particular book and my PhD thesis was based on an exploration of nostalgia and belonging within Lahiri’s work.
Jhumpa Lahiri’s debut collection of stories, published in 1999, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the Hemingway/PEN Award in 2000, and several of the stories appeared in The New Yorker. The title is taken from one of the stories in the collection, which, like the other stories, examines the lives of diasporic Indians starting a new life in Seventies America when India was still very much an exotic entity and Asian groceries or communities a novelty. Lahiri writes powerfully about the immigrant experience and the difficulties of uprooting and assimilation.
I could have happily chosen all the stories in this wonderful collection, but the one that highlights the tug of war between rooting and uprooting has to be ‘Mrs. Sen’s’. Mrs. Sen, the main protagonist in this story finds it impossible to integrate in America. Her almost petulant and childish refusal to learn to drive for instance is emblematic of her distress. A small American boy who she looks after, whilst his mother is at work witnesses her loneliness and pathetic attempts to recreate India in her new surroundings. Lahiri draws parallels between the boy’s own solitary childhood, devoid of family love with Mrs Sen’s predicament. Mrs. Sen’s home is a shrine to her Calcutta life and Lahiri skilfully expresses this through the objects in Mrs Sen’s home. Her kitchen knife, the tape of her family’s voice, the aerograms, and her saris exist in stark contrast to her American world.
Eliot’s mother nodded …looking around the room. “And that’s all…in India?”
“Yes,” Mrs. Sen replied. The mention of the word seemed to release something in her. She neatened the border of her sari where it rose diagonally across her chest. She, too, looked around the room, as if she noticed in the lampshades, in the teapot, in the shadows frozen on the carpet, something the rest of them could not. “Everything is there.”
First published in Salamander magazine. Collected in Interpreter of Maladies, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1999/Flamingo, 2000)
Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book is not strictly a short story collection, but rather a novel with carefully drawn vignettes of different lives lived in a small fictional community in Crosby on the coast of Maine, a quintessentially New England town. Uniting them all is the formidable figure of Olive Kitteridge, a school math teacher and the wife of a pharmacist. A larger-than-life character, she is at the centre of several stories and peripheral in others.
In ‘The Piano Player,’ Olive and her husband are peripheral to the central story, which is about Angela O’Meara, a piano player in a local cocktail lounge. She has a faded beauty about her and a drink problem. Strout has a cinematic way of describing the setting and the characters. She paints a wonderful visual portrait that distils the spirit of the place and the person. The Bar with its “sprawl of couches, plump leather chairs, and low tables… where the piano was not so much ‘background’ music as it was a character in the room.” Angela’s “jawline is gone soft and uneven, and the wrinkles near her eyes were quite pronounced. But they were kind wrinkles; nothing harsh-it seemed had happened to this face.” And yet the reader knows that Angela has lost her way in life because of a doomed love affair. She is a nervous pianist, aware of her audience and uses vodka to calm her nerves. Angela plays without a break in order to avoid making small talk and arrives at work on a Friday night about a week before Christmas smelling of alcohol and mint. Angie recognizes a man sitting in the corner, and his presence opens up painful memories about her past.
As a writer, I am interested in the quiet dramas that can throw an ‘ordinary’ life off kilter, one wrong decision or choice that can alter the entire landscape of a life. In this story, Strout subtly reveals the loneliness, the heartbreak and the disappointments that lurks beneath Angela’s suburban gentility and bravado. One moment we are in the cocktail bar listening to Angela, playing a request from her former lover, the next moment we are inside her head, reliving her anguish at meeting him after a break of so many years.
She knows that loneliness can kill people – in different ways can actually make you die.
First published in Olive Kitteridge, Random House, 2008. It is also an HBO TV Mini-series starring Francis McDormand in the title role
James Salter understands the human psyche, its needs and its frailties, and he describes them in clear, matter-of-fact prose that shows subtlety and allusion. This particular story tackles several difficult themes such as the ethics of assisted suicide, faith and the disintegration of a marriage under the pressures of an extramarital affair. The setting is suburban and the third person narrator describes the events leading up to the wife’s last night. The wife in question has persuaded her husband to help her die, but before this can happen, they go for a final meal at a fancy restaurant with a young woman who is helping them with the garden. Salter paints an exquisite picture of the restaurant scene where death hangs over the tinkle of glasses and murmur of polite conversation. He uses flashbacks to reveal the events that occurred before the beginning of the story or in the historical past of the story.
They ate dinner in silence. Her husband did not look at her. her face annoyed him, he did not know why. She could be good-looking but there were times when she was not. Her face was like a series of photographs, some of which ought to have been thrown away. Tonight it was like that.
His characters may be haunted by death and disappointment, but Salter never judges them, never even pretends to round them. They remain elusive, shadowy figures, as mysterious to the readers as to themselves. The reader seldom has any extraneous details and sometimes I wasn’t sure where the story was taking place or even the decade. Endings were sometimes so subtle I had to reread to see if I’d missed some clue.
As one of the protagonists says in this story, “You think you know someone, you think because you have dinner with them or play cards, but you really don’t. It’s always a surprise. You know nothing.”
First published in The New Yorker, November 2002, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in Last Night, Knopf, 2005 and The Collected Stories, Picador, 2013
The narrator of ‘One Minus One’ addresses his former lover about not just the death of their love but also his mother’s death six years before. He remembers a pivotal moment from his childhood when he and his brother were left with his aunt for an entire summer, without any explanation. There was nothing in that house, “– no love, no recognition, no attention – a place of emptiness and of being emptied”.
This childhood episode haunts the narrator and shapes his subsequent relationships.
The moon hangs low over Texas. The moon is my mother. She is full tonight, and brighter than the brightest neon; there are folds of red in her vast amber. Maybe she is a harvest moon, a Comanche moon, I do not know. I have never seen a moon so low and so full of her own deep brightness. My mother is six years dead tonight, and Ireland is six hours away and you are asleep.
‘One Minus One’ echoes the themes present in the entire collection. These are stories about people who have left Ireland and the comfort of the familiar in search of something new. They are tinged with regret and melancholy. The domestic landscape with its warm hearth and comforting mothers is intertwined with the rain and windswept sweep of the Irish countryside where people suppress memories and desires.
Tóibín’s skill lies in blending the two so that the characters never quite escape the haunting pull of the land they have left behind. When they do return home, it is to attend a funeral or to end a relationship. Ireland and more specifically County Wexford where Tóibín grew up, becomes a setting for endings and soul searching.
First published in The New Yorker, May 2007, and available for subscribers to read here. Collected in The Empty Family, Viking, 2010
The central character of ‘Cosmopolitan’ is Gopal Maurya, an Indian immigrant living in New Jersey. His wife has left him and gone back to India to seek enlightenment from an ashram. His daughter has left to live with her boyfriend in Germany. He becomes a recluse, longing for any kind of intimacy. He is a man who would “fantasise about calling an ambulance so that he could be touched and prodded.” The appearance of his neighbour – Mrs Shaw – into his life, sparks in him a type of yearning, not only for her love, but also as a re-invigoration after his wife has left him.
Armed with Cosmopolitan magazine as his bible, he embarks on a quest for suburban romance. Reading articles on topics like “what makes a woman a good lover,” the man is “reminded how easily one can learn anything in America.”
The romance between Gopal and Mrs Shaw drives the narrative, even though it is clear Gopal is far more invested than she is. I love Akhil Sharma’s portrayal of Gopal, a hapless individual muddling his way through life, well intentioned yet doomed to failure. Like the other characters in this book, he is flamboyant, self-deluded yet capable of tenderness and heroism.
Akhil Sharma’s writing, like Lahiri’s earlier work, explores what it feels to live a translated, transplanted life. His focus, like hers is on the lives of first and second-generation Indian immigrants to the US, but the similarity ends there. Whilst Lahiri’s stories have a meditative and reflective quality to them, focussing as much on the interior as the exterior landscape of her characters, Sharma employs a more playful and ironic take in his character portrayals. The eight stories in this collection are set in contemporary America and India and the setting is often the domestic, familial space. Sharma’s writing is direct and clear without any linguistic pyrotechnics. Yet this deceptively easy prose reveals the depths and shallows of life in all its Chekhovian technicolour glory.
The title is ironic as the protagonists in these stories try desperately to carve out a life of middle class aspiration and respectability.
First published in The Atlantic, January 1997, and available to read here. Collected in A Life of Adventure and Delight, W.W. Norton/Faber 2017. Also available as a Faber Single, 2019
The exhausting, unrelenting burden of motherhood is brought out brilliantly in this story, in which a woman with two small kids has a meltdown in a supermarket aisle. A bystander, a pregnant woman, tries to soothe her.
‘Excuse me,’ I said tentatively, hesitant and self-protective as only a woman expecting her first child can be, ‘Pardon me, could I just get through,’… She gripped the handle of her empty cart and said, ‘There is no end to it.’ It was spoken so simply and undramatically, but with such honest conviction that for a moment I thought she was referring to the aisle of the supermarket. Perhaps it was blocked ahead of us, and she couldn’t move up farther. But then she said, ‘I have tried and tried, and there is no end to it. Ask Harold. Ask anybody, ask my mother.’
The woman gets more and more distressed, and other people, including the store manager, get involved. Eventually, the woman’s husband turns up, grabs her arm and bundles her off, and the narrator finds her empty pocket book on top of her own in her empty trolley.
We understand the feelings of both women in this story, and Wolitzer captures the narrator’s own confusion, helplessness and distress: ‘When my husband came home from work I was sitting in the bathtub and weeping.’
I was instantly drawn to this book because of its title and cover. The childlike lower-case font and the cheerful yellow jacket cover are playful yet intriguingly deceptive. Wolitzer dissects American suburbia with wit and bite. These ironical stories are poignant, funny and leave a lot unsaid. She famously asserted in an interview that “I don’t believe there’s such a thing as ordinary life. I think all life is extraordinary.” These are domestic dramas set typically in the 60s and 70’s America and they shed light on the status of woman as wife, mother and individual. She is never preachy or judgmental but leaves the reader to draw his or her own conclusion. Wolitzer has a light, breezy conversational style of writing that presents the anecdotal vignettes of daily life but hints at the darker turbulence beneath.
First published in the Saturday Evening Post, March 1966, and available to read here. Collected in Today a Woman Went Mad in The Supermarket, Bloomsbury, 2021
Lucy Caldwell is a rising star of Irish literature and Intimacies is her second collection, following Multitudes (2016). The eleven stories in this collection are moving, quiet and full of empathy and compassion. Her stories aren’t about dramatic historical events or the seismic effects of war, peace or migration. Her focus in many of these stories is on the young mother, the bewilderment of being responsible for a new life and the compromises that need to be made as she suppresses her own individual dreams and needs. The language of her stories reflects the interior lives of her characters as they go about the mundane, dreary tasks of feeding, changing nappies and entertaining a child whose unending needs overwhelms them and leaves them gasping for air. As a mother, I could relate to the description of sleepless nights, the infantilazation of one’s brain and the dreary repetition of routine. In each of these stories, small children play a pivotal role in unhinging the mother, their primary caregiver.
In ‘All the People Were Mean and Bad,’ which won the 2021 BBC National Short Story Award, a young mother flies home after the funeral of her female cousin in Canada. On the plane, a kind older man helps her to care for her toddler. They both strike a rapport and understanding in the surreal intimacy of an aeroplane cabin. The story reminded me of Sofia Coppola’s film, Lost in Translation, where the main protagonist has a fleeting glimpse of a different life she could have led.
But the hollow feeling at your centre, the ache in your solar plexus, voids all hunger, and it feels somehow right to be at a light-headed remove from the world, this sense of being vague, and insubstantial, as if you could just drift on, indefinitely; as if you don’t really exist, or need to. Sometimes, you think, your daughter is the only person who feels real, because the immediacy of her needs is so urgently, incontrovertibly so.
First published in Intimacies, Faber, 2021. Also available in the BBC National Short Story Award 2021 anthology, Comma Press, 2021. Listen to the story here
‘La Madre’ or ‘The Mother’ by Natalia Ginzburg is written from the perspective of two young boys who watch their mother’s mysterious comings and goings and pine for her affection. It is a tragic social commentary of a rigid social code that denies the woman sexual or emotional independence. The ‘madre’ is no heroic figure, but an embittered thwarted woman who does not conform to the view maternal love is the only love permissible. She is an unloved mother with a yellow-powdered face who kills herself in a dingy hotel room when her exotic lover dumps her.
One day the boys see their mother at a café eating lunch with a strange man. We are not only told that they see her, we are later told that after an awkward confrontation with their mother about it, the boys decide this incident should be suppressed and not mentioned again.
They said nothing to Granny. In the morning while their mother was dressing the younger boy said: ‘Yesterday when we were out for a walk with Don Vigliani we saw you and there was a man with you.’ Their mother jerked round, looking nasty: the black fish on her forehead quivered and met. She said: ‘But it wasn’t me. What an idea. I’ve got to stay in the office till late in the evening, as you know. Obviously you made a mistake.’ The older boy then said, in a tired calm voice: ‘No it wasn’t you. It was someone who looked like you.’ And both boys realized that the memory must disappear: and they both breathed hard to blow it away.
What struck me whilst reading this story set in 1950s Italy and Lucy Caldwell’s work set in contemporary Ireland was, how little had changed in terms of the challenges facing a woman.
The story first appeared a collection by Italian writers such as Elsa Morante, Natalia Ginzburg and Francesca Duranti. The thirteen stories in the book highlight the different styles and preoccupations of these writers as they examine the status of women in post war Italy. I have read the stories in Italian, but there are critical notes in English and an extensive vocabulary.
First published in English in Italian Women Writing, ed. Sharon Wood, Manchester University Press, 1993. Also published in The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories, ed. Jhumpa Lahiri, Penguin, 2021
‘The Middleman’ is told from the perspective of Alfie Judah, an Iraqi immigrant to the U.S. who is a “middleman” for illegal arms deals to rebel armies in an unnamed Latin American country. ‘The Middleman’ focuses on several themes common throughout Mukherjee’s fiction. Alfie is an immigrant with a tenuous U.S. citizenship who has become caught up in the shadier side of American imperialism. His lust for a drug lord’s mistress is in part an attraction to a fellow ‘alien’, although they are from two completely different cultures. Alfie is ultimately a character who survives in a multicultural setting in which he always finds himself as the “middleman” in business, political, and romantic conflicts.
Bharati Mukherjee was one of the first Indo-American writers to move away from the expected tropes of exoticising the East. There are no snake charmers or docile damsels in her narrative, instead what you find are flawed, complex characters determined to shed their past and assume a brand new American identity. The protagonists of these stories, like Alfie, are survivors. They are fleeing oppression, poverty, military coups and arranged marriages, determined to build a new life for themselves in an idealised version of America that they carry in their heads. The reality never quite matches their expectation and Mukherjee’s strength lies in the way she exposes the dark underbelly of extortion, violence, discrimination and exploitation that coexists with the shiny shopping malls and the happy-clappy Hollywood portrayal of American life. Mukherjee writes in a robust style without sentimentalizing the narrative. Her characters are not always likeable, but they are real and empowered in the choices they make. In this title story, Alfie recounts his escapades directly to the reader in the first person, and conveys the volatile excitement of the dreams ignited in him by what Mukherjee calls “the idea of America.”
First published in The Middleman and Other Stories, Little, Brown, 1990
Narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator, the central premise of this moving story is how immigrant young adults break away from the duties and expectations of their parents. Han, the thirty-three years old protagonist, is single and a recently naturalized American who visits his mother in Beijing. He has “a brand-new American passport and an old Chinese worry.” He is a “diamond bachelor” (Chinese-born U.S. citizen) who must tell his mother to stop looking for eligible girls to marry him as he is gay.
Yiyun Li avoids self-consciously literary language and creates simple, pared-down prose to illustrate the disconnect between the mother and son. The story is also about religious dogma where the son is an atheist and his mother who has just converted to Christianity, has the fervour of the newly converted. Due to her newfound faith, the mother is insistent on converting her son as well, to which he responds more and more angrily as time goes on. While on the surface the son can be viewed as a stereotypical atheist, the story takes a deeper look behind what is fuelling his angry reaction towards his mother. Han points out that the so-called “catholic” church his mother attends is run by the government, which means that it is full of state propaganda.
The story is told from the son’s perspective. It is his thoughts that the reader gets to know intimately, and his loving, but frustrated, feelings towards his elderly, widowed mother. His closeted state related to his sexuality makes sense in the context of growing up in the 1980´s China, where homosexuality was illegal until 1997. He does not want to upset his mother who is enmeshed in the societal beliefs of this culture.
The story whilst being light-hearted in tone, is nonetheless a powerful critique of communist China and its repressive measures and stranglehold over its citizens.
Yiyun Li’s debut collection won the Frank O’Connor International short story award and the Guardian First Book Award in 2006.
First published in A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, Harper Perennial, 2006
The story won the 2016 BBC National Short Story Award. It is a melancholic reflective story set in a Buenos Aires cafe. The narrator is a retired plastic surgeon with a distinguished career who one day feels compelled to visit a museum. His loneliness and lack of direction becomes apparent early on.
What do you do when you stop? When you have been up and running for such a long time, what is it you do? When you’re used to a schedule that takes care of each second of the day? When there is no goal?
On finding the museum closed, he decides to have a coffee at a café in a nearby park where he notices the waitress. He is inexplicably drawn to her and begins to visit the cafe every morning. He is glad that his former career as a plastic surgeon is unknown to her. The story subtly alludes to the political disappearances in Argentina and the moral culpability of those who stood by and did not protest.
I thrived. It didn’t matter who was in charge- throughout the decades, through all the ins and outs, the various shenanigans our country went through.
The story is an intricate play between the protagonist’s inner thoughts and the external world. Surprised by his own desire to create a new identity as a noble doctor helping the needy, and thus win over the waitress’s admiration, the surgeon’s identity is revealed when two rich society women who know him well visit the café and disrupt his newly invented persona. Caught off guard, the tension between the life he led and this desire to create a new identity forms a pivotal moment of the narrative.
K J Orr writes in a nuanced, restrained style and the stories in this collection offer searing insights into the frailties of human nature.
First published in Light Box, Daunt, 2016, and available to read here