In short story, as in fiction at large, I am attracted to testimony and witnessing: the slow and sincere witnessing of ruin and ruination, of violence both real and uncanny, of what goes on within the hidden, private, and often startling recesses of our complex psyches. I am attracted to unsentimental and bare prose, to clean and bony sentences, to plot which is strung tightly and confidently, without pretence, without calling attention to itself.
My personal anthology is personal to me. These are not the twelve best short stories I have read. They are not even alike, ranging from texts of some historical significance to ones that are just irreverently funny. These stories don’t share a theme, place, style, mode, form, genre, or address—the stock that makes anthologies possible. Mine is an anti-anthology, for as I have argued elsewhere, anthologies can often function like walled, exotic gardens, and really the only way to encounter a short story is in its great historical wilderness.
Coal miners die with dusty lungs, flowers wilt in acid rains, and a writer, lost to us too early, stands here witness to the wreckage and depredation of industrial violence in the ‘chemical valley’. Set in the Appalachian coal country of West Virginia, the stories of Pancake—a small but scintillating oeuvre—is full of raw and throbbing prose, sentences teeming with feeling and tactility, and painful impressions of loss and decay. They constitute difficult material. ‘First Day of Winter’ is the last one in Pancake’s only collection, a deeply resonant and moving story of Hollis and his way of coming to terms with his ailing, aging parents.
I was pointed to the story by a friend in 2019, after a screening of Ellen Page’s heart-wrenching documentary There is Something in the Water (based on a book by the same name by Ingrid Waldron). I have since become interested in the ways we depict industrial wreckage and degradation, across all media.
First published in The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake, Little, Brown, 1983
This short story, part of the collection of stories by the same name, is monumental for contemporary Adivasi writing in India, and Indigenous literatures globally. The collection was banned in 2017 by the state government in Jharkhand in India on flimsy charges of ‘indecency’. The ban was lifted after widespread protests by writers, artists, and academics. Each story in the collection bears witness to the plight of India’s Indigenous tribes, but it is this final one that ends with a message of hope and solidarity. The story of Mangal Murmu is the story of a long Adivasi struggle against the neoliberal, industrial Indian nation. An Adivasi who does not dance terrifies the state.
First published in The Dhauli Review, 2014, and collected in The Adivasi Will not Dance, Speaking Tiger, 2015
When Manto, the mercurial Urdu writer now deified against his wishes on both sides of the India-Pakistan border, died, he left behind an epitaph for his own grave: “Here lies Manto, and with him lie all the secrets of short story writing. Beneath the ground he lies, wondering who the greater short story writer is, him or God” (…woh ki Khuda). ‘Fundanen’ (translating to ‘Tassels’) is often ignored by editors and translators of Manto’s work, perhaps because it destabilises the image of Manto as a writer of only overt or graphic violence.
In this story, to which I was introduced by Veena Das in her extraordinary Life and Words, Manto is working at the limit of language. Like his ‘Toba Tek Singh’, which is perhaps the most anthologised short story in India, ‘Fundanen’ uses nonsensical syllables, as well as contortions of the body, to signify pain and trauma that is internalised, made invisible. There is not much in the way of a plot—disjointed sentences reveal to us an anonymous woman playing with her hair in the mirror, struggling to give her experience any shape or speech. This afsana, which is Urdu for the short story, must be read in the backdrop of the genocidal and deeply gendered violence of the Indian Partition in 1947.
Details of first publication in Urdu is unknown, likely confiscated by the then new Pakistani government which held Manto in court on charges of obscenity (fahashyat, see The Crown vs Minto). Collected in Alok Bhalla’s Stories from the Indian Partition (3 Vols), Indus/Harper Collins, 1994, and My Name is Radha: The Essential Manto, Penguin India, 2015.Also made available in both Urdu and Devanagari scripts by Rekhta
Eventually part of the Miles Franklin winning 2007 novel (is it a novel?) Carpentaria, ‘The Serpent’s Covenant’ is where Alexis Wright introduces us to Normal Phantom, the black Serpent, the Afghan brothers, the Southern mining executives—the characters, so real and alive, that inhabit her compelling and storm-swept imagination. For me, Alexis Wright is a writer with the greatest literary vision, a vision of a self-governing literature. Her work is utterly uncategorisable and dismantles the categories and values by which we appraise literature in the West. She speaks through silence, keeps time without the ‘ticking clock’ so central to Euroamerican temporality. It is in fact time—a radical notion of the way time passes in Indigenous life—rather the fact of its brevity, which defines the short story in the Aboriginal context.
First published in A Sea Change: Australian Writing and Photography, ed. Adam Shoemaker, Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games, 1998; also collected in Australian Women’s Short Stories: An Oxford Anthology, OUP, 1999, and Skins: Contempoarary Indigenous Writing, Jukurrpa Books, 2000. It also forms part of Wright’s novel Carpentaria, Girmondo, 2006, which is where I read it
Short stories are so important to literary life in Palestine that contemporary Gazan writer Atef Abu Saif commented how “Gaza was an exporter of oranges and short stories”. Ghassan Kanafani, one of Palestine’s, and indeed the Arab world’s most renowned writers, wrote ‘The Land of Sad Oranges’, which has today become an enduring and powerful metaphor of the pain of Palestinian exile and Naqba. Written plainly and rendered through a memory of a child, the text is a living testimony to not only the affective power of the short story form, but also its ability to contain, despite (possibly because of) its constrained and breviloquent spaces, a great, mythical imagination. In Kanafani’s story, the imagination is that of an exiled family tied to their homeland through oranges, the groves of which “follow them along the road”.
First published as ard al-burtuqal al-hazin, 1963. Collected in English translation in Palestine’s Children: Returning to Haifa and Other Stories, Lynne Riener, 2000
Reminiscent, in a way, of Munshi Premchand, the doyen of Hindi prose fiction, Daniyal Mueenuddin renders the senses and colours of rural Pakistani life with such veracity and wit that it makes In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, the collection which opens with ‘Nawabdin Electrician’, excellent, edge-of-the-seat-reading. When I first read him, I thought Mueenuddin was like a rogue Premchand, subverting moral codes and high-literary customs with an almost Chekhovian sensibility. I am choosing ‘Nawabdin Electrician’ over the other stories in the collection out of a personal affection for the poor electrician. Among my own powers as a boy growing up in rural India was to slow down the revolutions of electricity meters in return for a little change (which I would then use to buy video-game cassettes). Ah, life as a petty criminal! Still less stressful than academia.
First published in The New Yorker, 27 August 2007 issue, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, Bloomsbury, 2010
When working on the writing of Indian Partition, I was drawn into reading literatures of partitions and apartheids elsewhere, in Ireland, South Africa, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and, in an odd way, French-Algeria. I’d read a paper about the impossibility of translating literatures of Partition, literatures that dwell, inevitably, in the in-between, in the impossible space between languages, cultures, and competing national imaginaries. I picked up Assia Djebar’s collection after encountering a quote from her… which I can no longer find… something about her interest in sounds: limpid French and perfect Arabic. The way Djebar renders speech itself as an anti-colonial, anti-patriarchal act in the titular story is what draws me to this story, of Anne and Sarah’s female friendship, again and again. To those with academic curiosities, it is also provocative the way Djebar subverts the famous Eugene Delacroix painting by the same name in re-rendering the women of Algiers outside the mythical logics of Oriental France.
First published in French in Femmes d’Alger dans leur Appartement, 1980. First published in translation in Women of Algiers in their Apartment, University of Virginia Press, 1999
If you want a chronicler of modern life, a life in perpetual motion, look no further than Chris Power. Every short story in Mothers, his first collection, is technically accomplished, swarming with fleshy characters and deep, intersecting plotlines. What attracts me to Power’s writing is his ability to capture, in the very pulse of his prose, the unsteady nature of experience itself. His characters are suspended in a state in which neither the past is distant, nor the future ceasing to loom. Place, or a sense thereof, is not a stable referent in his stories, but a fleeting junction. I wouldn’t give much away, but I have chosen ‘The Colossus of Rhodes’ over other brilliant texts in the collection because it demonstrates the kind of literary intimacy one can achieve by looking deep into the self and tapping into its fears.
First published in Mothers, Faber, 2018
The most unheimlich you can get, really. The new Angela Carter, I told a friend. Far better, she replied. I read it in 2018 after it won The White Review short story prize and wished immediately—in a way you do when you come across a great piece of writing—that I had first struck upon this lush idea of an insomniac plague of dissociative, wraith-like creatures. I doubt, all the same, that there is anyone else who could have written this story with the kind of imaginative gusto that is Julia Armfield’s rare gift. It works through echoes and resonances, revealing, through what Armfield calls in an interview “a wolf on the dining table”, the many wolves we have on each our dining tables, lurking in our rooms. For a few days after reading the story I got into a habit of imagining what good my sleep, were it to step off my body “like a passenger from a carriage”, would be up to at cafes, libraries, lecture halls, by my bed at night. One day, I swear, I think I even saw it—sitting on my desk, marking exam papers.
First published in The White Review in April 2018, and available to read here; collected in Salt Slow, Picador, 2020
A progressively chaotic story—I’ve read it so many times, sent it to so many people. I don’t know what I can say without giving it away. Written with such confidence and such rare propulsive motion that it will leave you in splits. It is unpredictable, surprising at every turn, with an ending that leaves you stranded right upon that Gogolian overcoat that now stands in for the exemplary irresolution of the short story form. This is what the short story can do—capture by the fragment the absurdity of life that is so difficult to capture in its totality. If you know anything else the author has written, please do send to me. From time to time, I scour the internet for more.
First published in The White Review in April 2019, and available to read here
Ever since I committed to writing, I have spent equal time and energy thinking about that one, most beastly of fears, which comes uninvitedly in tow: fraudulence. Imposterism. Paralysing fear in your own ability. So paralysing, in fact, that when you do muster any belief at all—be it scanty and tied up in knots—you wonder if it is all just an illusion? A spell of false comfort? C Pam Zhang—easily one of the most talented young writers at work today—pulls the ground beneath that question in this ingenious, incandescent short story with a gut-punch of an ending. Is all art, in fact, a delusion? Something ‘slant’, only a way of looking beyond which everything, indeed everything, is just ordinary. I don’t know how to describe or summarise short stories like this, but ever since having read it, I tell my friend—my ‘write club’ member—that all we need to write is ‘a three-minute study of light changing on a wall’. Read the story to find out if you agree or not.
Published in The Cut on January 17, 2020, and available to read here)
From the great literary continent of Africa, from one of Africa’s greatest ever writers, perhaps the world’s most translated, anthologised short story, it would be difficult indeed to overstate the power of Ngūgī wa Thiong’o’s ‘The Upright Revolution, or Why Humans Walk Upright’. Written as a fable, in Kikuyu, ‘Ituĩka Rĩa Mũrũngarũ: Kana Kĩrĩa Gĩtũmaga Andũ Mathiĩ Marũngiĩ’, this is a story about how and why the humans began to walk upright. If you read this one, read it alongside Ngugi’s Decolonising the Mind, in which Ngūgī writes about the politics of language, and the violence of English. I have always read each body part in the fable as an African language, and the fable’s enduring refrain, that each body part must learn to walk with each other, as a call to Africa’s shared continental heritage. The Upright Revolution.
First published in Kikuyu as ‘Ituĩka Rĩa Mũrũngarũ: Kana Kĩrĩa Gĩtũmaga Andũ Mathiĩ Marũngiĩ’. Published in English in Translation Issue, Jalada Africa Trust, 2016, and available to read here. Indian publisher Seagull published an illustrated edition in 2019