Introduction

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.” 

‘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