Introduction

I never consider myself a proper short story reader nor a good short story writer. The last book I published in China, a short story collection, was remarked by a book reviewer as “a bunch of excerpts from unfinished novels”. As much as I try, I seem to remain oblivious to the esoteric and exquisite art of short fiction. Instead, I’m only able to write and read them as stories.
 
The stories on this list share one thing in common: they all made me cry at a certain point of my life. It is hard to know if my tears were the reflections of the extraordinariness of the stories or they were drawn out by the circumstances, the air, the temperature, the blue tinge at the periphery of my vision – the fleeting moment when the story and I encountered each other. 

‘Forging the Swords’ by Lu Xun, translated by Yang Hsien-yi and Gladys Yang

Lu Xun’s wild and poetic reimagining of the story Gan Jiang and Mo Ye appeared in In Search of the Supernatural, a 4th Century collection of anecdotes on spirits and immortals. 

On the night Mei Chien Chih turned sixteen, he was imparted with the truth of his father’s death – he was murdered by the king and Mei Chien Chih must take the sword his late father forged and kill the king. 
The narrative is driven by both a premodern spontaneity and a postmodern playfulness, filled with eerie, chilling and striking images. I always cry when Mei Chien Chih’s head, being boiled in a cauldron, suddenly opens its eyes and begins to sing an ancient tune: 

The sovereign’s rule spreads far and wide, he conquers foes on every side. The world may end, but not his might. So here I come all gleaming bright…

It would be well-suited for the story to climax here, but it continues to ascend until the plotline surpasses the realm of absurdism and enters the territory of the sublime. And I still cannot figure out, after so many years, what exactly Lu Xun did to transform the former into the latter or if there was no transformation, that Lu Xun was simply showing us through the story that the more absurd, the more sublime. 

Written in 1926. First published in English in Selected Stories of Lu Xun, Foreign Languages Press, Peking, 1960. Reprinted by W. W. Norton & Company, 2003. You can read it online here

‘Mister Lover’ by Wang Xiaobo, translated by Eric Abrahamsen

Wang Xiaobo wasn’t widely read by readers in China, including myself, until he died of a heart attack at the age of 41. When I entered his literary world as a teenager, inevitably, his narratives, coloured by the notion of death, unfolded with a latent sense of melancholy. Such melancholy was further enhanced by his obsession with the past, more specifically, tales set during the Tang Dynasty. ‘Mister Lover’ is from Wang’s collection Tales of the Tang, and, like lots of his other retellings of Tang, is essentially a superimposition of cynical black comedy onto intricate lyricism. 
 
I’m unable to tell what made me cry: the notion of a bygone era and a dead writer or the clear indication that under his slouchy and ironic way of telling, there is always a faint light of innocence. The light is so indistinct that, often, before you realise that it’s there, it wavers and goes out.

First published in English in Paper-Republic, 2015 and available to read here

‘No Place for You, My Love’ by Eudora Welty

I came across this story during the first lockdown under which circumstance the idea of embarking on an undirected drive with a stranger seemed luringly realistic. I was mesmerized by Welty’s interwoven prose and the narrative suspense – will anything happen between her and him? – that only yielded a figure vanishing through the revolving door.

Throughout the early summer, I reread the story so many times to the point I could almost memorise some of the paragraphs. One day as I was taking my daily walk along a densely tree-lined street, I suddenly thought of this sentence from the story:

He regarded the great sweep – like steppes, like moors, like deserts; bur more than it was like any likeness, it was South.

At the time, although my recollection was inaccurate and vague, I cried on the empty street regardless. I’m in love with Eudora Welty, I thought. 

First published in The New YorkerSeptember 1952, and collected in The Bride of the Innisfallen, 1955. Also in The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980, latest edition is from Mariner Books, 2019)

‘Last Evenings on Earth’ by Roberto Bolaño, translated by Chris Andrews

It is entirely possible that I could make another list featuring my comfort-reading and that list would include every story in Bolaño’s much-revered collection Last Evenings on Earth

The titular story, on the other hand, made me want to give it up a number of times when I first read it. There was this narrative voice, monotonously broadcasting B and his father’s lives in the hotel, day in, day out, like an old radio. Is this story ever going to end? I asked myself while trying not to skip to the last page. 

Yet this is proven to be one of the stories whose landscape is totally transformed by its ground-shifting ending. Imperceptibly, we are led to a place where the stake suddenly multiplies and skyrockets. Petrified with disbelief, we watch, via the slightly removed narrative voice, B and his father walking into a calamity that cannot be averted and then we realise that all the previous banality and tedium were so invaluable, their meanings etched in our memories like the names on the gravestones.   

For a long while, whenever I think of this story, tears well up in my eyes. “And then the fight begins.”

First published in Spanish as ‘Últimos atardeceres en la tierra’ in Putas asesinas, Anagrama, 2001. First published in English in ‘Last Evenings on Earth, New Directions, 2006

‘Words for Things’ by Lucy Caldwell

There are some writers who are just excruciatingly brilliant. And Lucy Caldwell is one of them. I first came across this story at an event, in which I was reading after Caldwell. Suffice to say that after hearing the first few pages of this story, I was mortified for whatever I was about to read. Later, having got hold of the full story in print-out (courtesy of my co-reader), I read ‘Words for Things’ on the train back to Norwich. Two mum friends, right after coming out of their babies’ swimming class, begin talking about Monica Lewinsky in a hotel lobby. It was the first time I felt a story being both deeply feminine and incredibly powerful. 

After I finished the story, I gripped the printout and looked outside the window, and I realised that my outlook as a writer had been somehow shifted. I had always only wanted to write like a writer, but at that moment I knew that I actually wanted to write like a woman writer. 

First published in The Stinging Fly, February 2021, and available to read here. Collected in Intimacies, Faber, 2021

‘Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned’ by Wells Tower

I didn’t know how I felt about the story, even long after reading it. I did know that I think about it a lot. The central piece of this literary display often comes to my mind, sometimes when I’m least expecting it, and it startles me: the blood angel. Djarf, one of the Vikings, slices open the skin on the priest’s back, along both side of his spine, then he reaches his hands into the cuts and pulls out the priest’s lungs, watching them flapping and quivering in the wind like a pair of wings.
 
I love extreme scenes, they are difficult to write and when we read them, we are forced to look deeply into ourselves and ask: is this what it is like to be human? 
 
No one knows if the depictions of Vikings in the story are authentic or not because their world is so far away from ours. On the other hand, their world resembles closely this one we are living in. Everything is ravaged and burned, filled with chaos, savagery, and despair. Admittedly we don’t kill out of superstition now; we don’t yank other people’s lungs out anymore. But have we become better humans? 

First published in Fence, 2002 and collected in Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, Granta, 2009, and available to read online here

‘The Dead’ by James Joyce

I feel a bit embarrassed that I have included this story in my list, kind of like cheating an exam. All you need to know is that I read this story many times throughout the years, in Chinese, in English, in Chengdu, in Dublin. 
 
And it was in Dublin where I began to hear all the voices in the story and it was in Dublin, shortly after my son was born, I was pinned on the bed by the sleeping baby on my chest and ended up rereading the whole story. I cried when I read out, in a muted voice, the ending of the story again and again. That day, through the repetition, I saw something profound – too profound that I knew right away that I would never be able to express it with words. 

First published in Dubliners, Grant Richards, 1914. Published in the Melville House Press Art of the Novella series. Available online including here

‘October’ by Ho Sok Fong, translated by Natascha Bruce

I first heard Ho Sok Fong’s name from her translator Natascha Bruce. Bruce told me a story of Ho’s she was translating at the time: In the days leading up to the 1911 Revolution, in Malaysia, a Japanese prostitute is involved with a pirate, who’s endeavouring to build a hot air balloon.
 
Naturally, I needed to read this story and Bruce kindly shared it with me later. ‘October’, it’s called. Before I finished the first page, tears rushed to my eyes. I had never read anything like this before. Ho’s prose is so unique, vivid and eccentrically captivating. The literary world in ‘October’ is also brand new to me, multi-coloured and untamed like a painting of Pollock.
 
I often think back to the scene where Kikuko stretches out across the tatami in the newly built chapel, feeling an incredible serenity. A breeze comes in, “climbs over her ankles and skates up her calves”, eventually it reaches her thighs, and arouses the prostitute.

First published in English in Lake Like a Mirror, Granta Books, London, 2019

‘The King is Always Above the People’ by Daniel Alarcón

If my memories haven’t deceived me, this was the first story I read after arriving in America. In the university where I was studying, there was a Japanese garden and I’d go there and read by the pond.
 
‘The King is Always Above the People’ – a pompous statement that was reinterpreted in the story with a fatalistic twist. The dictator was hanged in the square and all the passers-by looked up at his dead body.
 
The protagonist was a young man who escaped from the small town he grew up in and arrived in the capital on his own. And he told, in a constrained and poised voice, about the frustration and the bewilderment brought about by his immigration. There was no surprise that I found solace in the story and began to narrate my early days in America in a voice similar to the young man’s – my real life synchronised with the fictional narrative.

Later, our lives departed from one another, the initial disorientation faded, taken over by something more arbitrary, brutal and enigmatic.

The young man went back to his hometown, working in a bank, with a wife and a child while I continued to drift, from one continent to another. Only occasionally, I think about him and his eventual departure at the end of the story, when, after attending an acquaintance’s funeral, he “escaped through a back door, into the warm evening.”
 
We were told that he never made it back home and his wife never looked for him.

First published in Granta, April 2007, and available to read here. Collected in The King is Always Above the People, Riverhead Books, 2018

‘A Rose for Emily’ by William Faulkner

Another favourite story from my previous life where one cannot get out of a literary conversation without bringing up Faulkner at least three times . In the 90s, William Faulkner was so prevalent in China that about half of a whole generation of writers was coded with his literary genes – the other half, the literary descendants of Borges. Before going to college, I purchased the complete works of Faulkner to prove that I was serious about literature. And the one story that stayed with me until today was ‘A Rose for Emily’. 
 
It was the first time I encountered First Person Plural and it was also the first time I saw a circular temporal structure. The storyline twisted like a moebius strip and ended where it began, a time-honoured trick that completely dazzled the eighteen-year-old me. 

First published in The Forum, April 1930. Collected in the Collected Stories, Vintage, 2009

‘The House of the Sleeping Beauties’ by Yasunari Kawabata, translated by Edward Seidensticker

I was shocked, when I first came to this part of the world, that not every literary person had read Kawabata. Desperately I tried to persuade everyone I know to read Kawabata so we could talk about how great he was, as soon as possible. 

The story I’d use to make my pitch is ‘The House of the Sleeping Beauties’. It probes the themes of the obsession towards youthful female bodies and the dread about one’s pending mortality and renders them into a quiet and stifling entity. 

At the end of the story, Eguchi – the old man who visited the House to admire the fresh-faced beauty – didn’t die, it was someone else who passed away. Although the death was denied by the woman of the house, Eguchi felt certain that the sleeping girl had turned into a corpse in the middle of the night. He would not be persuaded otherwise, because the truth was, this was exactly what he’d hoped to find in the House of Sleeping Beauties – the eventuality of mortality.

First published in Japanese in 1961. First published in English in The House of the Sleeping Beauties Kodansha, 2004