16 Nov / 10 Diverse Debut Story Collections [in The Booklist Reader]
Short-story collection The Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri’s first published book, won the Pulitzer Prize. Phil Klay’s debut collection, Redeployment, got him the National Book Award. Even Tom Hanks got in on the short story game with his debut book, Uncommon Type, out last month.
Right now, eyes are on NBA finalist Carmen Maria Machado and her debut collection, Her Body and Other Parties. As we wait for tonight’s National Book Award ceremony, why not peruse a few of the following diverse collections?[Last night’s NBA results are here.]
For more diverse fiction, here’s my list of recent debut novels.
The Accusation by Bandi, translated by Deborah Smith
Initially published in South Korea in 2014, The Accusation is the first literary work smuggled out of North Korea. Bandi – whose pseudonym is derived from firefly, a nod to the insect’s small light amid vast darkness – shockingly remains a prominent writer in his repressive homeland. Written between 1989 and 1995, these seven stories share a common, reverberating theme: that survival – already threatened by starvation, betrayal, and brutality – can hinge on details as absurdly trivial as a crate of rice seedlings, the timing of closed curtains, the placement of an elm tree, or a travel pass. Deborah Smith translates Bandi’s subversive prose with nuanced grace. The afterword explicates the manuscript’s remarkable journey out, with a note from the South Korean activist who enabled the precarious north-to-south crossing.
In journalist Hua’s intriguing 10-story collection, each of her protagonists is caught between multiple cultures and countries and never quite grounded. Each hide beneath layers of deceit, clinging to lies that enable survival. In “For What They Shared” and “Accepted,” protagonists set literal fires, hoping to conceal their deceptions in the flames. In “Loaves and Fishes” and “The Deal,” two fallen men of God attempt desperate tactics to recover their flocks. While chicanery destroys relationships in “Line, Please” and “The Shot,” betrayal threatens marriages in “What We Have Is What We Need” and “Harte Lake.”
Difficult Women by Roxane Gay
Some stories are complicated: identical twins switch places in “The Mark of Cain,” and a daughter remembers her Saturday trips with her father in “In the Event of My Father’s Death.” Others are horrific: two preteen sisters are sexually enslaved and tortured in “I Will Follow You,” and a girl is brutally gang raped in “Strange Gods.” Some resemble fairy tales, like the waterlogged, almost love story of “Water, All Its Weight” and “The Sacrifice of Darkness,” a story about losing the sun. Some, like “Break All the Way Down,” about dealing with the loss of a child through inciting violence, and “La Negra Blanca,” about falling victim to repugnant white privilege, are numbingly tragic. Unrelenting, unrepentant, unflinching, these Difficult Women never disappoint.
Her Body and Other Parties: Stories by Carmen Maria Machado
Part fantasy and sci-fi, celluloid culture homage, dystopic apocalypse, and even farce, Machado’s eight stories relentlessly defy labels. Women’s physical beings get shrunken in “Eight Bites,” and erased in “Real Women Have Bodies.” Women lose agency in “The Husband Stitch” and “Difficult at Parties.” A woman must face sudden parenthood in “Mothers.” A worldwide fatal plague gets parsed through an “Inventory” of a woman’s lovers. Twelve seasons of Law & Order: SVU get pixelated into 272 “Views” in “Especially Heinous.” And a writing residency turns horrific in “The Resident.” No body is safe.
Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang
Lena Dunham – creator of HBO’s iconic series Girls – and her writer/producing partner, Jenni Konner, launched their Lenny imprint at Random House earlier this year with Zhang’s Sour Heart. The collection features seven loosely linked, Chinese American immigrant stories told predominantly through the voices of, not surprisingly, girls. Some are Chinese-born transplants, some are American by birth, all have parents who left everything familiar to start new lives on the other side of the world in New York City boroughs. Beyond the diverse details of each story is a universal shared experience: a longing for home, and a reckoning with the challenges –economic, social, familial, cultural – to finally getting there.
Sugar, Sugar: Bitter-sweet Tales of Indian Migrant Workers by Lainy Malkani
London-based journalist Malkani refashions her already successful radio documentary series, “Sugar, Saris and Green Bananas,” for BBC Radio 4 – inspired by her own Indo-Caribbean roots – into an intriguing 10-story debut collection that covers a century-plus of diasporic Indian migration. From a pregnant enslaved laborer attempting to save her unborn baby in 1885 South Africa to a hotel worker on “present day” Mauritius who is the self-appointed protector of multiple generations of family heirlooms, Malkani’s stories travel across islands, continents, cultures, and histories, offering glimpses of lives in transit searching for safety, belonging, and a sense of home.
Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishnan
Although the cover claims, “A Novel,” Unnikrishnan’s debut is more accurately a collection of (very) loosely interlinked stories, set in the United Arab Emirates, the country where he grew up, but can never claim as ‘home.’ He gathers the tales of these temporary people who live as perpetual foreigners, disposable workers with precarious futures. Combining surreal symbolism and linear narrative, wordplay and lists, family history and mythic retellings, Unnikrishnan uses fiction to “[illuminate] how temporary status affects psyches, families, memories, fables, and language(s).” Temporary People is an antidote to border politics, serving as both testimony and oracle to be read with grave urgency.
Presenting her dozen stories in six interlinked pairs, Rao uses the savage 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan as her narrative center, with reverberations moving outward beyond borders, cultures, countries, and generations. A 13-year-old’s would-be widowhood spent in a refugee camp is the best part of her difficult life in the titular tale, while her fellow refugee experiences international adventures in “The Merchant’s Mistress.” The British officer in “The Imperial Police” returns decades later as a New York doorman in “Unleashed.” A prostitute in “Blindfold” reveals her tragic matricidal sacrifice in “The Lost Ribbon.” A massacre survivor in “Kavitha and Mustafa” has his mourning granddaughter visiting Italy with her British husband in “Curfew.”
Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? by Kathleen Collins, foreword by Elizabeth Alexander
Filmmaker/playwright/writer/activist Collins was a multifaceted, multitalented pioneer who died at 46. In 2014, indie distributor Milestone Films reintroduced her groundbreaking 1982 movie, Losing Ground, one of the first films directed by an African American woman. Beyond the celluloid, this posthumously published 16-story collection should make Collins’s work accessible to all readers. Collins confronts the disintegration of relationships in “Interiors,” disconnects from communication in “How Does One Say?,” pays the price of activism in “Conference: Parts I and II,” and explores the barriers of race in the title story.
What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah
With growing attention and multiplying awards, the UK-born, Nigerian- and U.S.-raised Arimah has justifiably been named one of National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” (along with Machado). In “Wild,” two teenage cousins – one American, the other Nigerian – are forced to spend a summer together. A family is splintered by opportunity and distance in “Light.” In “Who Will Greet You at Home,” motherless women create phantom babies. Feuding gods populate “What Is a Volcano.” Resignation drives an untethered mother and daughter in “Windfalls.” Detachment goes awry in the titular story, as a mathematician attempts to convert humanity into numbers.