‘At the Heart of Things’ by Vanessa Onwuemezi

One of Vanessa’s strengths are in the meticulous ways that she writes about the varying pressures upon us. There’s this great line, “The city demands a certain kind of contact only. It demands suspicions.” There are so many layers in her writing and she isn’t afraid to take risks. Her debut short story collection Dark Neighbourhood is about to be published in October 2021.

First published in The White Review and collected in Dark Neighbourhood, Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2021

‘Kong’s Garden’ by Hwang Jungeun, translated by Jeon Seung-He

From the author of one of my favourite novels, One Hundred Shadows (2010), Hwang takes us into a socially bleak alternate Korea where education no longer holds utmost value and the markers that society are measured by begin to take a U-Turn. There is something matter-of-fact and gripping about the way we read about bored clerks, girls getting refused cigarettes and men going missing.

Part of a collection of pamphlets called YEOYU, Strangers Press, 2019

‘I’d Love You To Want Me’ by Viet Thanh Nguyen

This is a moving story. We meet a character who struggles with their memories ‘gradually stealing away’. Mr and Mrs. Khahn know a lot about each other, but there are huge gaps between them too.  

First published – as ‘The Other Woman’ – in Gulf Coast 20.1, Winter/Spring 2008, and collected in The Refugees, Little Brown, 2017

‘Bloodchild’ by Octavia E. Butler

I was always intrigued by Octavia E. Butler’s exploration of the posthuman. Something that makes ‘Bloodchild’ really great is the way that it doesn’t shy away from anatomical language and the intricacies of new species being made. I think Octavia’s writing is a master class in writing about the complications and potential of motherhood too. 

First published in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction, June 1984. Collected in Bloodchild and Other Stories, Seven Stories Press 1995, and numerous anthologies

‘The Running Man’ by Jorje Consiglio, translated by Cherilyn Elston

I think that there is an abrasive quality to the narrator in ‘The Running Man’ that makes me think twice. An intentional discomfort. There’s a fascinating line in the story about a man who dedicates his life to communication. Small details like that remain with me. A great way to start on your journey into ‘the Consiglian logic of story-telling’ – part of a collection of near imperceptibly linked stories.

Collected in Southerly, Charco Press, 2016

‘A Bet Is Placed’ by YZ Chin

I love the vantage point of this story. It opens with an old man looking at young people ordering munch in KFC. There’s such a cinematic quality to YZ Chin’s writing. This story lingers on the idea of growing into modernity. 

First published on LitHub in April 2018 and available to read here, and collected in Though I Get Home, Feminist Press, 2018

‘Supermarket Blues’ by Hazel Campbell

The late Hazel Campbell shares socio-political histories with us in a way that returns to the heart of the matters seamlessly. ‘Supermarket Blues’ looks towards another level of scarcity, to searching shelves for food – problems beyond the money stretch. 

First published in Woman’s Tongue, 1985. Collected in Jamaica On My Mind, Peepal Tree Press, 2019

‘Dog in a Fisherman’s Net’ by Samuel R. Delaney

There is something incredibly atmospheric about this story. You can feel sea salt on you while you read. You can often tell in Samuel R. Delaney’s SF writing that he is a well-travelled man but I’d say this collection brings us closest to some of his memories of places he has felt fond for. Especially when comparing the language in this to his journals. 

Collected in Aye and GomorrahAnd other short stories, Vintage, 2003

‘No Place for Good People’ by Ottessa Moshfegh

I feel like I’ve rolled into a point in my life where Moshfegh’s writing really really does it for me. I love the detail of her writing. In ‘No Place for Good People’ we are introduced to the care home Offerings and its habitants, those passing through and those living there. She manages the logistics of the environment while making us care for a large swathe of characters. Mostly, I enjoy her unlikeable narrators.

First published in The Paris Review 209, Summer 2014, and available to subscribers to read here, with a free to view extract, and collected in Homesick for Another World, Vintage, 2017

Introduction to a cradle-to-grave (and beyond) Personal Anthology

My interest with literary representations of age and the aging process probably began somewhere in my late teens with the pessimistic musings on turning thirty in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Although that milestone birthday was still fairly far off, to my gauche teenage self it was also terrifyingly close and Nick Carraway’s claim that thirty would prove to be “a decade of loneliness, a thinning list of single men to know, a thinning brief-case of enthusiasm, thinning hair” did little for my (already pretty gloomy) peace of mind.

And as gauche teenager became gauche twenty-something and that dread “decade of loneliness” crept ever closer, I would be constantly on the look-out for a fictional character with whom I shared the same age – to measure myself against (be it enviously, bewilderingly, thankfully) – and to keep me company for those twelve months before stepping aside for next year’s model. At some point mental notes turned to scribbled jottings, and a very personal and private obsession drifted into the realms of an objective project. And I began to wonder if it would be possible to find a different male and female representative in literature for each year of a person’s life. The result would be, I hoped, a kind of anthology which, when read from start to finish, would give a sense of the passage of time as viewed through the prism of literature: the miniscule changes wrought upon our minds and bodies as consciousness blooms, experience accrues, hopes rise and fall, options expand and then retract. 

I decided early on to toe to Biblical line and take my cue from the King James Bible, Psalm 90:1. (“The days of our lives are threescore and ten.”) In doing this I am well aware that I am blithely ignoring scientific advancements, life-style choices, etc. that have extended the human life-span into the high-nineties and beyond. (I am also conveniently ignoring the Psalm’s caveat that “if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.” But let’s not get into that.) This decision has nothing to do with any deeply-held religious beliefs. Instead, seventy years presents, in my view, a nicely symmetrical arc: one that can be summarised by Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man with approximately a neat ten years allocated to each stage between mewling infant and mere oblivion: childhood, adolescence, young adult, middle age, old age.

For my Personal Anthology, then, I thought I’d try to do with twelve short stories what Three Score & Ten is trying to do with hundreds of literary characters, and have chosen twelve stories that, when read in sequence, should give an impression of one’s progress through life. I’ve chosen stories with a male and female protagonist for each stage, with male authors writing the male characters and females authors writing the female characters. This is mainly for consistency, but also because, as Angela Carter observes in her introduction to her short story anthology, Angela Carter’s Book of Wayward Girls and Wicked Women

“On the whole, women writers are kinder to women.” 

Three Score & Ten or Like Ice Under a Terrible Fire lives at http://livesinlit.com/.

‘The Basement Room’ by Graham Greene

Childhood…

All his seven nursery years vibrated with the strange, the new experience…

When his parents set off for a fortnight’s holiday, seven-year-old Philip Lane is left at home in the care of the butler and housekeeper, Mr and Mrs Baines. Philip takes the absence of his parents in his stride. He is giddy with his new-found freedom and more than happy to exchange the familiar confines of his nursery of the for the strange new world of the Baines’s titular basement room. Indeed, throughout this story Philip seems to be on a quest to expand his experience even further and explore the world beyond the walls of his parents’ “great Belgravia house.” (“This is life,” he tells himself again and again, the phrase running throughout the story like, well, like a stick of Brighton rock.)

But as Philip pushes against the boundaries of his childhood he discovers that life beyond the nursery is beset with incomprehensible adult concerns. And Philip soon becomes unwittingly entangled in Mr Baines’ extramarital affair – something that has terrible consequences for all concerned; consequences that go far further than the realisation that Philip’s beloved Mr Baines has feet of clay; consequences, indeed, that will reverberate down the years, and colour Philip’s own adult life. (And colour, perhaps, L.P. Hartley’s 1953 novel, The Go-Between, which seems to be a development and expansion of Greene’s brilliantly compact short story.) 

First published in Town & Country, 1936. Collected in Nineteen Stories, William Heinemann 1947 and Collected Stories, Penguin 1986

‘Superman and Paula Brown’s New Snowsuit’ by Sylvia Plath

Childhood…

The year the war began I was in the fifth grade at the Annie F. Warren Grammar School in Winthrop, and that was the winter I won the prize for drawing the best Civil Defence signs…

More lost innocence and more feet of clay are dealt with in Sylvia Plath’s ‘Superman and Paula Brown’s New Snowsuit.’ A young girl growing up opposite an airport spends her nights dreaming that she can fly, like Superman “in his shiny blue suit with his cape whistling in the wind, looking remarkably like my Uncle Frank who was living with Mother and me.” But when she is blamed for something she didn’t do (pushing over her schoolmate Paula Brown and spoiling Paula’s brand new snowsuit) she is dismayed to discover that her inherent assumptions regarding ideals such as fairness and rightfulness are really quite useless when put up against the actual cruelty of other children and the fallibility of adult judgement:

The silver airplanes and the blue capes all dissolved and vanished, wiped away like the crude drawings of a child in colored chalk from the colossal blackboard of the dark.

First published in Smith Review, 1955. Collected in Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams and Other Prose Writings, Faber & Faber 1977