As a child, I was drawn to stories, especially to the voice of a good storyteller and to the rhythm of a well-crafted story. I was captivated by all sorts of stories—be it by my Nigerian father who preached from a pulpit on Sundays, knowing how best to sprinkle his sermons with engaging anecdotes, or my English grandmother who told her grandchildren dramatic World War II stories at bedtime. Listening to those around me inspires me as a writer, and often fragments of an overheard story form the basis of one of my own short stories. When I write, I’m constantly reading my stories aloud, listening closely for how they sound. It is because the sound of a story is so important that I’ve included in this list a story from film and music. A few years ago, when I had the unique opportunity of meeting and interviewing one of my favorite writers, Toni Morrison, I was thrilled to hear her say: “I like the act of reading my works because I measure their value in terms of how they sound.” This is how I think about writing, too. Morrison was the master storyteller and a wonderful reader of her own work. Here are twelve of my favourite short stories that I particularly loved hearing read aloud and enjoy revisiting.
I remember my mother’s soothing voice as she read this story to me as I sat on her lap, one summer holiday, in the garden of her childhood home in York. A few sentences in: “One Sunday morning the warm sun came up and—pop!—out of the egg came a tiny and very hungry caterpillar.” This caterpillar proceeds to chomp its way through a variety of foods that fascinated me—chocolate cake, ice-cream, and cupcakes that I knew to be delicious while other foods like pears, plums, pickles, Swiss cheese, salami, and cherry pie were foreign to me at the time (coming, as I did, from Nigeria in the 1970s) yet sounded so good. Years later I would read this story to my child and to other people’s children, fingering the cutouts in the pages—my version of the Proustian madeleine.
First published by the World Publishing Company, 1969 and widely reprinted. Hear it read by the author online here
Imagine a story told almost entirely as a series of questions. Here is one such story in which we learn, indirectly, about a bodyguard’s life and the life of his employer, “the principal”. Plot is subtly interwoven into this story. Salman Rushdie was the writer from whom I first heard of this story when he read it for The New Yorker podcast. Years earlier, in the 1990s, one of my first jobs after leaving university was with Penguin Books, publishers of many authors including, as it happens, Eric Carle, Donald Barthelme and Salman Rushdie. While I never met Carle or Barthelme, I did occasionally see Salman Rushdie. This was at the time when Rushdie lived under the death threats of his fatwa. Rushdie had to have bodyguards and there was extra security at our offices which made Rushdie’s reading of the story particularly poignant.
I had just begun my first novel, InDependence, when I found this gem of a story which would later become the title story of the author’s debut collection of short stories. I was so taken by the depiction of character, setting, and social class in this story of a young man, Raju, who works as a driver for the rich Mrs. Choudhary in Bangalore, that I read it aloud to myself, pausing at various points trying to figure out the magic that went into crafting the story. Years later I included this story in literature classes that I taught to undergraduates. Ever an advocate for the joy of reading aloud, I would read parts of this story to my students.
First published in The Atlantic, and available to read online here. Collected in The Red Carpet, Dial, 2005, and more recently in digitlal form by Tinder Press, 2016
The story of Mrs. Sen centers around a lonely woman, known to most as the “professor’s wife”. She relies on letters from home and on food preparation to feel at home in a foreign land. Mrs. Sen doesn’t have a child of her own but she looks after someone else’s child and, perhaps because I was pregnant at the time of reading it, I felt the character’s loneliness quite viscerally. It was the summer of 1999, while on a holiday in Kingston, Jamaica that I read this story as well as the others in Lahiri’s Pulitzer Prize-winning debut collection, Interpreter of Maladies. I was so enthralled by the stories that I began reading them out loud. Food in ‘Mrs Sen’s’ serves as a metaphor for the condition of migration and diaspora and the culinary descriptions were what struck me the most as I rolled the words around on my tongue. Mrs. Sen “… took whole vegetables between her hands and hacked them apart: cauliflower, cabbage, butternut squash. She split things in half, then quarters, speedily producing florets, cubes, slices, and shreds. She could peel a potato in seconds. At times she sat cross-legged, at times with legs splayed, surrounded by an array of colanders and shallow bowls of water in which she immersed her chopped ingredients.”
First published in Salamander magazine. Collected in Interpreter of Maladies, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1999/Flamingo, 2000
When I began writing, I looked to other texts for guidance. I wanted, amongst other things, to know how best to write about history in the context of fiction and ‘The Shawl’ became one of my teachers. This harrowing story, told in very few words, is about a mother, her baby, and her niece who live through the horrors of the Holocaust. Rosa, too starved to produce milk, feeds her child on her shawl:Magda took Rosa’s nipple, and Rosa never stopped walking, a walking cradle. There was not enough milk; sometimes Magda sucked air; then she screamed. Stella was ravenous. Her knees were tumors on sticks, her elbows chicken bones.This is one story that I have never actually heard read aloud yet it feels as though I have, as both silence and sound lie at its heart.
First published in The New Yorker, May 1980, and available to read online here. Collected, together with a companion novella, ‘Rosa’, in The Shawl, Knopf, 1989
The question of “race” comes up in much of my work and this story I found to be a brilliant take on the subject. Two young Kenyan boys set off to discover whether everybody’s shadow is black like theirs, or whether, as they suspect, white people have white shadows. This is a beautifully written story— both touchingly funny and profound in its insights on childhood and on race. To hear and see the author read this story aloud with a twinkle in his eye (as I did recently in San Francisco) was one of the most enjoyable author readings I’ve ever had the pleasure of attending.
Collected in Minutes of Glory, The New Press, 2019
Another guide for me in terms of thinking about writing history and exploring the impact of colonialism and racism through fiction came in the classic film based on the short story La Noire de (Black Girl) directed by its author. It’s the story of a domestic worker who leaves Dakar, Senegal, dreaming of a new life in France, only to arrive on the Côte d’Azur to find that her life is not at all what she’d expected. There are lines from the story that I will always remember due to the power of the main actor’s voice. One example being when she cries with excitement at the prospect of working abroad: “J’ai du travail chez les blancs!” she exclaims, only to later find that it is misery that awaits her as she is exploited by her employers.
Based on a short story first published in Voltaique, Présence Africaine, 1962. In the translated collection, Tribal Scars, Inscape, 1975, the story is translated by Ellen Conroy Kennedy as ‘The Promised Land’
Humour combined with deep seriousness is not easy to write, but one writer that does it well is Etgar Keret. While I usually prefer listening to Keret read his own stories in his distinctive Israeli accent, I first heard this story read by the actor John Conlee who reads it well. ‘Healthy Start’ is a story about the pleasure of pretending to be someone else, which is a story that particularly appeals to me as a writer. What if you went to a cafe every morning and pretended to be that person that another has come to meet— anything from a business acquaintance to a lover. This is the premise of a wonderfully imaginative and at times very funny story. The fact that the author was once mistaken to be somebody else in a cafe and considered playing along, is an interesting meta story to this story.
First published in English in Tin House, Vol 8, No. 2, 2008. Available to read online at Litro magazine. Collected in Pitʹom Dfika Ba-Delet, Zmora-Bitan, 2010, and in translation in Suddenly, a Knock at the Door, FSG, 2012. Hear it read online here.
Just read the first line of this story out loud and listen for the jazz in the variety of names that Bulawayo uses: “We are on our way to Budapest: Bastard and Chipo and Godknows and Sbho and Stina and me.” Darling, the child protagonist of this story, and her aforementioned friends are struggling to survive in a desolate land. Innovative in its language and tone— the characters of this Caine Prize-winning story leap from the page in prose that walks a tightrope between comedy and tragedy. I’ve had the pleasure of hearing the author read from this story on several occasions, perhaps most memorably at a sold-out reading in San Francisco where Bulawayo and I began our conversation about this story (which would ultimately become the first chapter in the novel We Need New Names) with music and dancing.
First published in The Boston Review, November 2010 and incorporated into We Need New Names, Chatto & Windus, 2013. Read it online here
Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of reading many great short stories by fellow Nigerian authors, including many that I read while serving as an editor on The Weaverbird Collection: New Fiction from Nigeria 2008. One of the most inspiring recent collections of short stories comes in the form of Okparanta’s stunning debut, Happiness Like Water. Okparanta writes lyrically with a keen eye for character and in her story, ‘Fairness’, two young women—one a house maid and the other the employer’s daughter—try bleaching their skin, with disastrous results. Shortly after this story was published, I had the privilege of being in conversation with Okparanta at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco where she read beautifully from a section of this story.
Collected in Happiness Like Water, Mariner Books, 2013, and in The PEN/O Henry Prize Stories, 2014
Sometimes when I’m feeling stuck with my writing, all I need is a great story to lift me up and make me feel inspired and motivated again. This is what happened recently when I heard Danticat read her story, ‘Without Inspection’, for the The New Yorker podcast. This is the story of Arnold as his life flashes before his eyes in the last few seconds of his life— a moving story of love, trauma, and migration. It reminds me in some way of Tobias Wolff’s classic short story, ‘Bullet in the Brain’as what rises to the top in those last few seconds of life is love— love, in this story, for the loved ones that the main character leaves behind.
Dianne Reeves, possibly the greatest living jazz singer today, is a storyteller at heart. ‘Better Days’ from Reeves’ album, Welcome to my Love, is a touching story about a child finding comfort and wisdom in the words of her grandmother. In the song’s refrain: You can’t get to no better days/Unless you make it through the night, listeners are transported (like the child) by the grandmother’s stories. I’ve now had the pleasure of hearing Reeves sing this song live on stage. “My Grandma took me everywhere” Reeves sings, varying the song with improvisation, as all good storytellers do, depending on the context in which she sings it. This has become my go-to song when celebrating some milestone with my writing.
Great stories take us everywhere. And if they’re really good, they lift right off the page like music.
Released on Dianne Reeves, Blue Note, 1987. Listen to it online here