For me, reading a collection of short stories is like being at a party and having multiple short conversations with people I don’t know well. Striking up a conversation and getting to know them requires a degree of effort. Some of them may confront my beliefs and assumptions with disturbing violence. I find sinking deep into a long novel much easier, like entering into a relationship with a degree of trust: a relationship in which you can freely pick up again where you left off, at whatever page. Nevertheless, some of the most memorable interactions in one’s life may be with strangers at a party.

Under normal circumstances I tend to read a lot more novels than short stories, but since the pandemic hit, I have been mainlining surreal Japanese short stories, the quirkier the better. I’m sure there are an infinite number of stories out there I have yet to discover, and I am excited to do so, but my available head space now resembles a London studio flat.

‘Nudes in the Twenty-first Century’ by Jill Varani

This story breaks my heart over and over, but it does so with such exquisite irony and attention to sensory detail, I prefer it broken. I still feel the pain of the slow reveal of the narrative, in which the overlooked or fetishized scars of motherhood are laid bare.

It begins with the protagonist posing for a life drawing class.

When it’s over, she scans the drawings. It’s always a shock. Narcissus at the lake. She sees herself anew. Through their eyes, two dimensional. The odd length of her torso, the smallness of her hands. And the scar. Lightning from her cheek, along her chest to her tummy, forked like flames. Drawn in silver or deep purple or grey, smudged charcoal. It looks like a tattoo on some of the pictures. Stuck on, an afterthought. But she finds it most disconcerting when the artists have chosen to leave it out. As if they had tried not to see it. Instead smoothing her out, cleaning her up.

Nothing is smoothed out, nothing is cleaned up here.

First published in the Sunday Star Times, December 2019. Winner of the Open category of the 2019 Sunday Star-Times Short Story Awards, available on Stuff

‘Careless’ by Hiroko Oyamada, translated by Lucy North

A man and his wife have moved into a cheap apartment building which is infested with insects. This story captures the creepiness of reproduction, real estate, and (im)moral proximity in the 21st century. I think this piece of dialogue sums up the malaise of self-preserving willed ignorance and disconnection that haunts modern lifestyles:

…The best way is to just take no notice. We’ve been living here for well over four years, and they haven’t done us any harm. If anything, once you start paying them attention, it only makes it worse. There’s no controlling them. You have to will yourself not to see them. They’ll stop bothering you once you do that. It’ll be like they’re not there.

Translator Lucy North is one of my personal heroes, and this is incredibly well translated: I can’t find a single clunky sentence, odd word choice, unclear meaning, or anything else that jars or makes it obvious that this is a translation, and the text as a whole sings. 

From Oyamada’s short story collection Niwa (Garden), published in March 2018. First published in English translation by Granta in September 2019 and available online here

‘Kepa’ by Patricia Grace

I read this story when I was a child who played bullrush (known as ‘bulldog’ in the UK) until it was banned at our school after a student’s arm was broken, and although I’m not tangata whenua, it shocked me to read a story that looked more like my actual life than any I’d read before. The paddock and the children in it looked a lot like my school playground, minus the cowpats. This story stayed with me and changed how I thought about stories: the idea that one could write about how things actually were in one’s day-to-day reality, cowpats and all, and that not all stories happened in a fantastic world, like Middle-earth or far-off London.

First published in The Dream Sleepers and Other Stories, Longman Paul, 1980. Collected in Collected Stories: Patricia Grace, Penguin, 1994

‘Cat Person’ by Kristen Roupenian

This is a graphically explicit tale of contemporary girl-meets-older-man. The protagonist grapples with digital intimacy and disconnection, desire and bad sex.

In this story the young and female experience is lifted up and given literary heft and importance. I believe that we may often find it easy to dismiss such a perspective as “trashy”, “chick lit”, and inherently unworthy, so it made me very happy to see this in The New Yorker.

It was a terrible kiss, shockingly bad; Margot had trouble believing that a grown man could possibly be so bad at kissing.

First published in The New Yorker, December 4, 2017, and available to read online here. Collected in You Know You Want This, Jonathan Cape, 2019

‘The Woman Dies’ by Aoko Matsuda, translated from the Japanese by Polly Barton

In this beautiful translation, which captures the rhythm of the source text so artfully, the woeful fates of female characters in fiction and the way our real life experiences are shaped by them are explored with humour and pathos.

The woman dies so the man can be sad about it. The woman dies so the man can suffer. She dies to give him a destiny. Dies so he can fall to the dark side. Dies so he can lament her death. As he stands there, brimming with grief, brimming with life, the woman lies there in silence. The woman dies for him. We watch it happen. We read about it happening. We come to know it well.

First published in English translation in November 2018 on Granta online and available here. It was shortlisted for a Shirley Jackson Award in 2019. From the collection Wairudo furawa no mienai ichinen (The Year of No Wild Flowers), Kawadeshoboshinsha, 2016

‘The Amnesty’ by Jen Calleja

From the beginning, this story made me uncomfortable (in a good way). It seemed to be demanding a great deal of introspection and analysis of gender and power from the reader. After this initial discomfort wore off, I was drawn in by its comic melancholy, brutal bluntness, and searingly absurd images, which still linger in my mind at odd moments.They practically ruined my day because I couldn’t stop thinking about how utterly inadequate they both were to me. I went over to them, hung my bag off the shoulder of the young one and put my wide-brimmed hat on his head, and lay my briefcase on the lap of the old limp thing, popped it open, took out my newspaper and started reading it, silently defying either of them to look at me.

First published in Calleja’s short story collection I’m Afraid That’s All We’ve Got Time For (Prototype, 2020). Reproduced in The London Magazine, April 2020, and available at The London Magazine

‘Payment to the Universe’ by Annabel Banks

This story is a potent mixture of the mundane with music and the unseen and horrific. The childish internal bargains we make, the twisted ways in which we navigate moral ambiguities are mercilessly explored, and the accusatory second-person “you” is employed to great effect. 

Up some stairs, down some stairs. Blue, blue, in your ears, and you’re not allowed inside this room at all, but that’s why you come here. An accident of opportunity gave you pass, and you’re not about to give it up with any fake attempt at decency, of notions of “the right thing” so carefully primed in your childhood.

First published in matchbook, 2015. Collected in Banks’ short story collection Exercises in Control, Influx Press, 2020. Available on matchbook

‘Why Don’t You Dance?’ by Raymond Carver

The simplicity of language and action in this story encourages the reader to co-create the “more to it” that cannot be “talked out.” I imagined entire lives on this artfully blank canvas, in a frame sketched out with minimal words:

His side, her side.

First published in Quarterly West, 1978. This version first published in the Paris Review, 1981. Collected in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Knopf, 1981, and Where I’m Calling From, Atlantic, 1988

‘The Olive Grove’ by Charlotte Grimshaw

The perspective of a five-year-old child—a child with agency, who has been thrown into the foreign world of Menton, France—is captured so amazingly well in this story, which is a nod to Katherine Mansfield’s ‘The Doves’ Nest’. The casual way Grimshaw slips into the heads of other characters at various moments is dazzlingly well executed. The unfamiliar world glows with colour, the family buzzes with life.

First published in Second Violins: New Stories Inspired By Katherine Mansfield, Vintage New Zealand, 2008, and available on its own as a Kindle edition

‘Fitting Room’ by Yukiko Motoya, translated by Asa Yoneda

This was one of the surreal, magical stories that kept me going in the early days of global pandemic. I especially love the cute drawing by the author. In a Guardian review of Picnic in the Storm, Chris Power describes some of these collected stories as “like soap bubbles, several of these stories catch your eye, but the instant they are gone you forget about them.” Sometimes, soap bubbles that catch the eye—that float with airy swirls of rainbow and pop softly—are exactly what one is looking for.

First published in English translation online by Granta, as ‘Why I Can No Longer Look at a Picnic Blanket Without Laughing’, available here. Collected in Picnic in the Storm, Corsair, 2019

‘Elk Talk’ by Elizabeth Gilbert

A powerful depiction of precarity and human entitlement, with a great deal of modern resonance.

They both watched as the camera slowly pushed out the cloudy, damp photograph.
“Hold this by the edges carefully,” Jean instructed, handing it to Benny, “and see what turns up.”
There was a knock at the door.

First published in Story. Collected in Pilgrims, Houghton Mifflin, 1997

‘Bliss’ by Katherine Mansfield

This story begs the question: is ignorance sometimes best?

A grey cat, dragging its belly, crept across the lawn, and a black one, its shadow, trailed after. The sight of them, so intent and so quick, gave Bertha a curious shiver.

First published in the English Review, 1918. Reprinted in Bliss and Other Stories, 1920. Widely collected, including in the Selected Stories, OUP, 2008. Available online thanks to the Katherine Mansfield Society