NO ONE WAY WORKS, it will take all of us
shoving at the thing from all sides
to bring it down.
– Diane di Prima
This selection churns together exposure, influence, and recommendation. As everybody since Harold Bloom knows, influence can be a mutually antagonistic bond – some of this work it is formative only in a negative sense. Growing up, I was exposed mostly to a local breed dubbed the Irish Short Story, which I found, and still find, to be treated with undue reverence. MY selection sets up a few constructive adjacencies, from afrofuturism to ‘Irish short story,’ from comedy to contemporary ruination, to name two. At least one of these texts would not self-identify as a short story, but the term is only useful insofar as it is vague. I would like to have more than twelve slots to fill – I would have added some Rosie Šnajdr, Ba Jin, and Amiri Baraka. I hope you find the below a heady mix.

‘Foreword’ by Danny Hayward

I first read this in 2013 and it has been important to me ever since. I read it again near Kwai Chung dock in 2016. This throws me back to the student movement of 2010 and the uprising of 2011 and my two years in Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. The text is a dense, quasi-collective bildungsroman and allegory. The narrator and the angel Nuriel have a discussion in Kwai Chung, while workers demonstrate in the background. Nuriel predicts that change is coming, and the discussion turns to social “atoms” as the setting turns to defeat. Valves punched out of the poet’s nose deliver the counter-argument. Their debate is a necessary read for any contemporary writers who hope to grip the unity that our separation must entail. At its end, the narrator descends into the hell of the present.

In PeopleMountain Press, 2013

‘Guests of the Nation’ by Frank O’Connor

The setting is Ireland, during the War of Independence. A small flying column has become too friendly with their English prisoners; the narrator (Bonaparte) notes that like weeds they take root wherever they are put. The flying column justify the impending execution to their prisoners, Belcher and Hawkins. Hawkins pleads, offers to join the Irish cause, defiantly claims that he won’t be killed because his Irish “chums” are not “tools of any capitalist.” But neither pleas nor denial work. Hawkins is shot, and then the other guest of the euphemistic title, Belcher, notes that he isn’t properly dead yet, so requests that Hawkins is shot again. Then Belcher is “plugged.” However fatigued I might be with the idea of an epiphany™ or the equally glib mirror-image, the negative-epiphany™, something of that affect overcomes me on reading this story and its brief sketch of violence in an anti-colonial struggle.

First published in 1931. Collected in Classic Irish Short Stories, Oxford University Press, 1985

‘Smote (or When I Find I Cannot Kiss You In Front Of A Print By Bridget Riley)’ by Eley Williams

I first heard this story read by the author at the launch of Isabel Waidner’s Gaudy Bauble (2017) at the Horse Hospital in London. It struck me then for its humour and tenderness and the effortless way it knitted us together as an audience. For Williams, language and love are never far apart (and that is probably already a commonplace in Williams Studies), and a love-object will always be mediated through language and seduced by that rather than, say, gesture. To read this is to entangle word and world. While the narrator overthinks a (what other’s might describe as a mere) kiss in cascades of rhythmic prose, the loved-one has leaned in and done it without thinking. You can find Williams’ Personal Anthology here.

…my hand a melting tessellation could feed you crushed Oreos and moon parings, my hand not quite in yours, but not yet quite out, the starting track at a race track when a white flag means surrender and Black Flag means punk bands formed in seventies California and I cannot tell whether you or I are leaning nor if the attendant is approaching…

First published online in The White Review. Collected in Attrib. and other stories, Influx Press, 2017

‘The Awakening’ by Daniel Corkery

A man on a fishing boat contemplates the scenery in the context of a recent and indeterminate sexual encounter. The crew are fishing by Fastnet rock. I grew up near the sea in Cork, so its appeal is personal. It is simple: a man becomes captain of a fishing boat, another man retires. What defence can one have in the face of such compelling plainness? There are a number of quasi-accurate responses, but one of those is none.

It was very dark. Everything was huge and shapeless. Anchored as she was, tethered besides, clumsy with the weight of dripping fish-spangled net coming in over the gunwale, the nobby was tossed and slapped about with a violence that surprised him; flakes of wet brightness were being flung everywhere from the one lamp bound firmly to the mast. Yet the night was almost windless, the sea apparently sluggish: there must be, he thought, a stiff swell beneath them.

Collected in Classic Irish Short Stories, ed. Frank O’Connor, Oxford University Press, 1985

‘the river’ by adrienne maree brown

In ‘the river,’ brown creates a story that advocates for socioeconomic equality and social justice movements, with a strange agent of justice – waves from the river which selectively targets gentrifiers and the upper echelons of society. The entire collection is worth checking out – no-one can afford to overlook Octavia’s Brood.

In Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements, ed. adrienne maree brown and Walidah Imarisha, AK Press, 2015

‘A Wet Night’ by Samuel Beckett

This story is important to me because it is one of my first experiences of intractable, strategic difficulty. Beckett is an influential writer for so many people that I won’t go into it here, but his early work (this was published in 1934) is somewhat under-read. I’ve made some notes to assist readers here. I restrained myself to one story from Beckett, but The Lost Ones (1970) and Imagination Dead Imagine (1965), which is described on first publication by Calder and Boyars as “Mr. Beckett’s first essay into a new kind of science fiction,” are also extremely important short works.

In More Pricks than Kicks, First published by Chatto in 1934. Now available from Faber, 2010