Where are all the black experimental short story writers?
That is the question that has emerged for me in making this compilation. It is a genuine one, though I suspect (and hope) it betrays my own ignorance of the many wonderful black anti-storytellers out there. I hope you will show me where I can add to the single exception here that proves the rule.
My Spanish has never been up to reading this in the original, although I continue to cherish the edition of the collection that I bought in Mexico City in the late ‘90s. The humour and profundity in this story – in which the protagonist encounters, in a friend’s cellar, a point in space containing all other points; a point from which he can see everything in the universe, including you, the reader – continues to dazzle. A trip to Buenos Aire five years ago became a Borges pilgrimage, although I regret not visiting Garay Street where this story is set.
First published in the Argentine journal Sur in 1945. First published in English in The Aleph and Other Stories, Jonathan Cape, 1971. Currently available in The Aleph, Penguin Modern Classics, 2000 and Collected Fictions, Viking, 1998
I no longer have my copy of Strange Pilgrims, from which I first read this pure tale of how Toto and Joel navigate a rowing boat, complete with sextant and compass, on light rather than water, having smashed light bulbs in their crowded fifth-floor apartment. I almost always regret giving books away, and have been known to return to second hand book shops the day after to buy back my own copies. This is one certainly I must somehow retrieve.
First published as ‘La Luz es como el Agua’, in Doce Cuentos Peregrinos, Editorial Oveja Negra, 1992; and in English in Strange Pilgrims, Cape, 1993, available at the Independent)
A friend recently put me onto Diane Williams’ work, for which I am so grateful. She is one of those writers who, from the first page, I knew I must read everything. This is the pick, for me, so far of her strange insightful tales, with these lines, in particular (which close the story), standing out as somehow representative of the whole:The host called, ‘Kids! Mike! Dad and Mom!’ He called these copulators to come in to dinner. In fact, this group represented a predictable array of vocations – including hard workers, worriers, travelers, and liars – defecators, or course, urinators and music makers.
From Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, CB Editions, 2016, available at PANK
I first came across Lydia Davis in a piece on experimental fiction, although I had an uncanny feeling of having encountered her before. She resists the label ‘experimental’ (in ‘From Raw Material to Finished Work: Forms and Influences II’, from her recently published Essays), since it ‘implies that the writer had a plan to test some preconceived writing strategy and see if it would work’. She doesn’t consider her stories to be ‘in any way experimental’, then, since she prefers to start them without much of a plan or process. I take her point, but doubt there is a better term, currently, for work that subverts the form, as hers so often does.
Another essay (Forms and Influences III, on ‘Sources, Revision, Order, and Endings’) includes a fascinating analysis of the genesis (a group email) and evolution of ‘Nancy Brown will be in Town’. Here is the finished product:
Nancy Brown Will Be in Town
Nancy Brown will be in town. She will be in town to sell her things. Nancy Brown is moving far away. She would like to sell her queen mattress.
Do we want her queen mattress? Do we want her ottoman? Do we want her bath items?
It is time to say good-bye to Nancy Brown.
We have enjoyed her friendship. We have enjoyed her tennis lessons.
First published as ‘Susie Brown will be in Town’ in Five Dials; collected in Can’t and Won’t, Hamish Hamilton, 2014
I saw Claire-Louise read at the London Review Bookshop, and this was what she read. I was beguiled by the haunting strangeness of her work.
From Pond, Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2015
I first encountered the work of David Rose through Vault, his anti-novel, and have since been catching up on his shorter fiction. He is consummate, his mastery of the form remaining woefully under-acknowledged.
First published in The End, Unthank Books, edited by Ashley Stokes; collected in Best British Short Stories 2017, Salt Publishing
I first met Linda through another extraordinary writer – Gerson Nason, with whom I had attended the great John Petherbridge’s City Lit writing group. I have read many of Linda’s stories since, and never a weak one. Linda brings searing precision and empathetic passion, and always takes us somewhere new. This comes from her collection for Influx about Washington Heights, a part of NYC few tourists would visit but which Linda knows intimately.
From Above Sugar Hill, Influx Press, 2014; available online at The Learned Pig
There was a time before black British fiction, and that time was not that long ago. I am exaggerating for effect, but not by much. Courttia Newland was one of few shining early lights in that wilderness, with his wonderful novel from ’97, The Scholar. This story is like a scene from Top Boy yet all the more poignant for its temporal reversal.
First published in Sex & Death, Faber & Faber, edited by Sarah Hall and Peter Hobbs; collected in Best British Short Stories 2017, Salt Publishing
This is my favourite of the Cosmicomic stories, each of which begins with the expression of a scientific hypothesis – true, subsequently disproved or apocryphal – which is then inhabited fictionally, with absurd consequences. This particular story hinges on the fact of our evolution from the oceans, with the recalcitrant uncle of the title refusing to make the transition to dry land.
Originally published in Italian between 1964 and 1965 in the periodicals Il Caffè and Il Giorno; first published in English translation in Cosmicomics, Harcourt Brace, 1968; translated by William Weaver, collected in The Complete Cosmicomics, Penguin Modern Classics, 2010
I categorise Exercises in Style as a short story collection, though it defies classification. It is the retelling, ninety-nine times, each in a different style, of a seemingly unremarkable observation the narrator makes of a man seen first on a crowded bus and then, later, in front of Gare St-Lazare. I have long been fascinated by attempts at exhausting place through an ultimately unattainable total description, and this is a key textbook of that project.
First published in French as Exercises de Style in 1947 by Editions Gallimard; widely translated
‘A Small Good Thing’ was the first short story that showed me the transcendent possibilities of the form. I didn’t understand how Carver could create his effects with such precision and concision; I still don’t. The story of a parents’ loss of a child and their consolatory interaction with a baker, ‘A Small Good Thing’ is a devastating tale of forgiveness and kindness that continues to reverberate deep within me.
First published in the USA in Cathedral, Alfred A. Knopf, 1983, and in Britain by Collins Harvill, 1984; collected in Where I’m Calling From – The Selected Stories, Harvill, 1993
Late Beckett is the pinnacle, for me. The materials at his disposal diminish with age, through choice or disposition, as told here:
‘Out of the door and down the road in the old hat and coat like after the war, no, not that again’.
‘Five foot square, six high, no way in, none out, try for him there’.
What he discloses of the human predicament, ‘talking to himself in the last person’, extends in inverse proportion to the narrative constraints he places upon himself. Extraordinary consolation.
First published in English in 1964; collected in The Complete Short Prose 1929 – 1989, Grove Press, 1995