My personal anthology has twelve short stories by women. So many of the stories on this list emerged from me trying to make a snap-decision list about the short story writers I love, and seeing which stories emerged organically. I didn’t plan on making a women-focussed list initially, but it’s fair to say that the decision to harden that—as all canons are hardened eventually!—is reflective of my reading patterns. And as Joanna Russ says, “There is much, much more good literature by women in existence than anyone knows.”
Sharanya lives, writes and teaches in the south-west of England.
‘Boats on Land’ by Janice Pariat
Janice Pariat is an observant and gifted writer, in particular of landscapes and the unique forms of loneliness evoked in them. ‘Boats on Land’ is set on a tea estate in Assam. Between the dragonflies, silver-grey birches, the fading evening light and fishermen’s boats on the Brahmaputra, a portrait emerges of two lonely women, who learn in their own ways the quiet devastations that are invariably cultivated by intimacy.
Between 2012 and 2013, which is probably when I first read this story, I spent many evenings reading on a thin, worn mattress in the living room of a flat I shared with two others in Delhi. I loved living there—our building didn’t have a door, and the balconies scratched up so close that we could easily climb into the neighbouring buildings. But the walls were painted an incredible aquamarine, there was always a kite fluttering if you looked skywards, and a steaming plate of momos was never far away. I read this story at least six years ago, and have done so several times since, but even just thinking about it now takes me instantly to the rose-hued skies of Delhi, and the driftwood and lanterns of Kaziranga from Pariat’s story. Somehow, all these landscapes seem to be inseparable, and a part of the same memory lining those slow Delhi evenings.
First published in The Caravan, September 2012. Collected in Boats on Land, Random House India, 2012. It is available to be read online here
‘Amor’ (‘Love’) by Clarice Lispector, translated by Katrina Dodson
I’ve only ever read Clarice Lispector’s novels in moments of absolute joy or despair: her work sits on a spectrum that slips between those extremes without hesitation. This does mean, though, that while her novels continue to take me years to complete, her short stories are a wonderful alternative. ‘Amor’ is a very troubling, tempestuous story about a woman named Ana, who finds herself crumbling at the very limits of the world she knows—one that involves looking after her family and children—one afternoon on a train. Ana’s character has resonances with the wretched loneliness of the narrator in Elena Ferrante’s novel Days of Abandonment, but Lispector’s story is, as ever, more surreal and dissonant. I simultaneously find several bits of the story distressing, including how the blind man becomes the figure who incites her upheaval, but I am also swept by the chilling accuracy of Ana’s alienation. There’s a forest. A spider. A knit mesh bag stuck with broken egg yolks. How “her heart had filled with the worst desire to live.”
First published in Laços de Família, Francisco Alves Editóra, 1960. Collected in English in The Complete Stories, New Directions, 2015. It can be read online here
‘Lihaaf’ (‘The Quilt’) by Ismat Chughtai, translated by M. Asaduddin
I read ‘Lihaaf’ at the start of this decade, or thereabouts, and was frightened. The story felt like a giant wink, and I couldn’t cope with it. Its power is not just in the controversy that followed—a hilariously recounted obscenity trial in Lahore Court by Chughtai herself—but also in how it oozed female sexual desire, and captured the clammy desperation of a lonely woman wanting to be touched, in the most private spaces of a feudal household.
But I read the story again last year before I taught it to some third-year English Literature students, and I was surprised to be frightened again. This time, I saw the abuse, the horror of the slippery narration, and how Chughtai’s wordplay emphasises rather than elides the unknowability of life under the quilt. I had never quite appreciated how dark and funny the story was.
What I’m trying to say is: this story yields an enormous sly pleasure, both on a first read and re-reads. Enjoy it.
First published in Adab-e Latif, 1942. Collected in The Quilt: Stories, Penguin, 2011. Read it online here
‘Eight Bites’ by Carmen Maria Machado
I’m obsessed with writing about eating disorders. The narrative reliance on measurements, the questions about self-image, the illustrations of control and the literary gymnastics required to circumvent all of these characteristics and, of course, tired writing about women’s bodies—all of this fascinates me. The sub-genre of the ED short story though (inasmuch it can be said to be one) involves some degree of tight creative self-awareness about the tropes that plague the disorders themselves. And so when I read ‘Eight Bites’, I went very quiet and happy and immediately re-read it, because Machado’s story is a tender ghost story about having to live in a body and having to live with what we put into them and wreck out of them. I don’t know if it’s a short story about eating disorders or not, but what I can say is that it is a story about desire. I think about it constantly, and in particular this scene in a restaurant involving a bucket of cold, stirring oysters. I have never eaten oysters, but it makes me want to.
First published in Gulf Coast, Summer/Fall 2017. Collected in Her Body and Other Parties. It’s online—read it here
‘Ezekiel Solomon’s Shoe’ by Kuzhali Manickavel
This is the funniest and saddest story I’ve ever read, and it’s by a writer I have adored for years, not least because no one else I know does hilarity and distress in short fiction with such alchemy. The brevity is devastating, but the story is not devastating merely because it is brief. This story ostensibly centres on a single shoe, the very eccentric and unassuming Ezekiel Solomon’s shoe—and tie, and watch, and a banana spider, come to think of it—which shows up outside our man Seshadri’s bakery in Chennai. Seshadri recognises his friend’s shoe, and tries to get rid of it, but cannot, as it reappears every time he tries. There are so many ghostly stories in my personal anthology, but Manickavel’s remains a sparkling little gem amidst them all.
First published in Insects are Just Like You and Me Except Some of them Have Wings: Short Fiction, Blaft Publications, 2008
‘Lifelines’ by Kathleen Collins
The real pleasure of reading a Kathleen Collins story is encountering the raw sheen of her filmmaker’s eye. Her sentences are as tightly wound as a montage skip, and this is despite the exclamation marks and ellipses. It’s fantastic! It makes me laugh! ‘Lifelines’ is the story of a woman who is trying to leave behind the nagging epistolary presence of her—occasional—husband. The story is almost episodic, but so lightly touched by a sadness that remains in the aftermath like a warm scent. But really, it’s the story of a birdlike hairdresser who gifts this woman a dream. I love it.
First published in Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?, Ecco, 2016
‘Let me See you Smile’ by Lucia Berlin
This was the first ever Lucia Berlin story I read, and for a long while after, I didn’t read another. This story is a smooth cinematic saga, about three characters—Maggie, her boyfriend Jesse who is disconcertingly younger than her, and their lawyer Jon Cohen whose own marriage fades when he witnesses and becomes embroiled in the dangerously magnetic pulse of Maggie and Jesse’s love. The story is a saga in the coffee and long drives and cigarettes and drugs and cops and hot searching love sort of way, and reading it gave me a long arc to dwell in; long enough to feel sorrowed by the splinters of Berlin’s carefully plotted mixed-voices narrative, and long enough to thrill at the light-headed rush acquired by following lives lived to their fullest bloom.
First published in Where I Live Now, Black Sparrow Press, 1999
‘Amundsen’ by Alice Munro
Alice Munro is nearly everyone’s favourite short story writer, and she is mine too. I’ve tried to delay finishing everything she has written by limiting myself to a collection a year. I haven’t finished all of Dear Life yet, but I read ‘Amundsen’ some years ago, and now when someone asks me what Alice Munro story I would recommend, I say ‘Amundsen.’ For a while, I was not entirely sure why—it is hardly her best short story. Minutes later I will think—should’ve said ‘Runaway.’ Or ‘Miles City, Montana’.
I continue to say ‘Amundsen’, because it has all the thematic elements I love best in Alice Munro’s writing: the optimism of a young woman, arbitrary acts of kindness, characters who grow on you despite not appearing for a significant chunk of the story, and heartbreak. What is there to say, life presses on, heartbreak after heartbreak, and really, nothing is the same after the first heartbreak, but heartbreaks are always the same every single time. “It still seemed as if we would make our way out of that crowd, as if in just a moment we would be together,” writes Munro. “But it was just as certain, also, that we would carry on in the directions we were going, and so we did.”
First published in The New Yorker, August 27, 2012. Collected in Dear Life, Vintage, 2013. Read it online here
‘Who Will Greet You at Home’ by Lesley Nneka Arimah
Ever since I first read—and loved—this story, I have googled it at random moments just so I can be struck by the first line: The yarn baby lasted a good month, emitting dry, cotton-soft gurgles and pooping little balls of lint, before Ogechi snagged its thigh on a nail and it unravelled as she continued walking, mistaking its little huffs for the beginnings of hunger, not the cries of an infant being undone.What an opening, and what a world.
Nneka Arimah’s assurance with fantasy is frankly just delightful to witness, and part of that delight is at the sheer grace and ambition of the story in its centering of radical reproductive futures, storytelling-as-prophecy, and hair. Hair! I continue to marvel at the compactness and elegance of the story.
First published in The New Yorker, October 26, 2015. Collected in What it Means When a Man Falls From the Sky, Tinder Press, 2017. Read it online here
‘Girl’ by Jamaica Kincaid
This is how to love a man, and if this doesn’t work there are other ways, and if they don’t work don’t feel too bad about giving up; this is how to spit up in the air if you feel like it, and this is how to move quick so that it doesn’t fall on you; this is how to make ends meet”Damn, how Ms. Kincaid swung this story about, and how each time I’ve read it I never see the end coming or know if it’s a monologue or not, but I always feel better about giving up on household chores immediately, and how this story never fails to feel like a warm breeze on the back of your neck when you’re speeding on a motorbike. ‘Girl’ is an adventure ride, and its boldness is in every semi-colon, every em-dash. Girl, this is how you live.
First published in The New Yorker, June 26, 1978. Collected in At The Bottom of the River, FSG, 1983. Read it here
‘Mott Street in July’ by Xuan Juliana Wang
The soft, fable-like quality of the narration of a loving but dysfunctional Chinese-American family in ‘Mott Street’ disappeared when I read these lines, a few paragraphs into the story: They had yet to question why the bones of a fish could look like the bones of a kite. They had not known to wonder how far to look back in history for the connection. Instead, the three children raced up the stairs to the window to count the black cars that lined Mosco Street for funerals four times a week, because Pinetree said that the more black cars there were, the more that dead person was loved.Xuan Juliana Wang tunes the once-ancient and untouchable aura of family life involving young children into a register that is at once more foreboding and astute in its detail. The rest of the story follows suit, and includes an unexpectedly poignant detour into the Asian Carp crisis.
Juliana Wang’s voice is unforgettable. If I ever made my own version of Sei Shonagon’s list of ‘things that quicken the heart’, I would include this story without a thought.
First published in Gulf Coast, Spring 2019. Collected in Home Remedies, Hogarth, May 2019. Read it online here
‘Rafe’s Coat’ by Deborah Eisenberg
Deborah Eisenberg has far too much fun writing short stories. I don’t mean that peevishly—it’s just that her investment on the paragraph and structure levels is admirable, and that her short stories are such comedies! They’re full of idiosyncratic sad people who treat each other carelessly but love each other very much. The gut punch in Eisenberg’s stories always lands reliably, and oh, what a comfort that is. Take ‘Rafe’s Coat’ for instance, a story for which I have much affection—it starts with the divorce proceedings of our narrator who is a close friend of Rafe’s, and includes long expositions on the intricate plot-twists of ‘This Brief Candle’, a fictitious show in which Rafe’s girlfriend stars. It’s a magnificent story. It’s a hell of a ride.
First published in Transactions in a Foreign Currency, Penguin, 1986. Collected in The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg, Picador, 2010