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Our Favorite Short Stories, Part 1

It’s May, and that means it’s Short Story Month. We asked writers and editors to tell us about their favorite short stories or favorite short story collections. This is part 1 of a series, so be on the lookout for part 2 at the end of the month. Get ready to add these to your ever-growing to-read pile.

—Christopher James of Jellyfish Review

When asked to choose a favorite short story, there are several ways one could go. I could throw out a vanity pick—the obscure classic—and have you nodding your heads at my wisdom. Or I could choose something by somebody I kinda know—and win some love from my peeps. Or I could tell you about something I really love. Etgar Keret’s “Guava.” I’ve recommended this story more times than I’ve read it, and I’ve read it plenty. Flash fiction is a form that often rewards richness of language, but “Guava” offers instead richness of thought. In six hundred words it addresses life and death and peace on earth—not necessarily in that order. It makes my problems feel small, and the world feel big again. And funny—it’s so funny. Reading Etgar Keret is like listening to a smarter, funnier, older brother talking about his day with his smarter, funnier, older friends. You should all read this story, right now. And then you can give me some love and nod your heads at my wisdom in choosing it.

Sweet Talk, Stephanie Vaughn’s 1990 collection, is remarkable, not so much for its carefully observed, skillfully constructed first-person narrations about sweetly droll women and their gentle yet uncontrollable men, but for the two magnificent stories that open and close the book. Both stories are narrated by Gemma, the adult recounting her Army brat childhood served under the competent dictatorship of her officer father. The opening story, “Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog,” is about that competent father, how the unthinkable (inevitable?) happens and his authority begins to crumble. The final story, “Dog Heaven,” touches on many themes—growing up, canine loyalty, nuclear annihilation, the trendiness of winter pompon hats, ending with the literary equivalent of boxing’s rear uppercut/lead hook combination, leaving the reader sprawled on her ass, wondering what just happened. Not an image is wasted here; each one returns with dramatic effect. Sweet Talk is a testament to the power of storytelling.

—Anthony Frame of Glass Poetry Press

Rane Arroyo was best known as a poet and playwright, but during his highly celebrated career, he also wrote a series of short stories, which he gathered together in How to Name a Hurricane in 2005. Here are Arroyo’s usual themes of exile, masculinity, and sexuality, drawn from his life as a gay Latino, but now played out through the fictions of his vibrant and beautiful characters. Ever the experimentalist, these short stories run the gamut. There are traditional narratives, split narratives written from multiple perspectives, a story told through cyber communications, a sequence of 27 flash fictions, a novella in verse, and even a story modeled on the Christian Bible. For some writers, experimentation is a game, a test of one’s creative wits, but for Arroyo, and for so many marginalized writers like him, breaking the traditional rules was a necessity, a way of life, a way of survival. Arroyo’s fictions were written during a time of intense prejudice and discrimination against LGBT Americans. These were written during the AIDS crisis and during a wave of anti-LGBT legislation. It is important to remember that, a year prior to publishing How to Name a Hurricane, Arroyo’s adopted state, Ohio, passed with wide margins a Constitutional amendment forbidding him from marrying his long-time partner, poet Glenn Sheldon. So, in these stories, breaking traditional narratives is required in order to break the stereotypes and the rules that attempted to bar Arroyo from public and literary life. Add to this, his identity as a Latino, through which he became a margin within the margins, and it is easy to understand why Arroyo’s experimentations were not only useful but also vital to the literary landscape.

Through all of the ways he played with form, however, his fictions remained focused on what he saw as the central goal of writing: intimacy. His characters, whether they were the cyber conquistadors Santos and ElCidMan or Blackie Soto (of the Blackie Soto Mystery Series, a play on the Hardy Boys Series that Arroyo so loved), are all drawn with fierce compassion and honesty. It is through this intimacy, this honesty of prose, that readers from all walks of life, whether a transgendered student in Des Moines or a straight poet in Toledo, could enter the bars and chat rooms that house Arroyo’s drag queens and post-colonial superheroes, allowing all of us to break down form, break down stereotypes, and break down prejudice. Through these fictions, How to Name a Hurricane proves Arroyo’s introduction, in which he writes, “The library card, to me, is the most magical and dangerous power in the United States.” In this way, these fictions stand not only as a testament to his creativity but also to his incredible heart and his devotion to the human experiment. And they stand as a testament to what was lost when he died, suddenly, in 2010. In my copy of How to Name a Hurricane, page 35 is dog-eared. It is the page I was reading when I learned Rane had passed away. It took me two-and-a-half years to come back to this book, during which time I mourned my mentor and friend in the only ways I knew how: by reading his poems and writing my own. I’ve since read and reread How to Name a Hurricane a number of times. But I leave that page perpetually bookmarked, not only as a reminder of what was lost when we lost him but also as a reminder of the hundreds of pages of gifts he gave to all his readers.

One of the things I love most about the short story is the intensity—so much life or emotion packed into a small space. I came across the short story, “God of Ducks,” by Tina Louise Blevins in an awards compilation, and it’s one of the first times I remember a short story being so impactful that I cried. (I later learned the author had passed away, and this was her first published story. What a loss for the literary world that there will be no more stories like this.) The empathy the writer has for these characters. The life she infuses into each character with such perfect selection of detail. These people felt like family. They felt like me. And in a story where it would be easy to make a joke out of these people, she makes them painfully, beautifully human. If a short story can make me cry (this one, and a shout out to Jennifer Egan’s “Safari”) or laugh out loud (most of the stories in Lorrie Moore’s Bark), it possesses me for life. I will recommend it to anyone who will listen.

• Selections are the opinions of the respective authors. • Permalink • Tag: The Spark

1 comment:

Christopher James said...

Lori - thanks for letting me a part of this. It's a fun idea and it's already introduced me to some brilliant new writers and writing. Look forward to part 2!