Recipients of the Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers, Anthologized

by Christopher John Stephens

3 August 2017

The common thread in Pen America Best Debut Stories 2017 is a simple and succinct style and a desire to tell a good story free from the bells and whistles that sometimes scream “MFA”.
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PEN America Best Debut Short Stories 2017

US: Aug 2017

In her introduction to PEN America Best Debut Short Stories 2017, editor Yuka Igarashi admits that the notion of “Best” is a peculiar conclusion to make about any piece of art. It’s an endless argument, and these volumes of annual “Best” anthologies can sometimes be overwhelming. No matter how strongly any series of editors might want to claim their allegiance to subjectivity, they all come from a particular prejudice and perspective. Often there is no difference between the political and personal.

This is a vital truth that can find a home in deep pockets of “Best Of” anthologies and it should only thrive as the world’s socio-political condition becomes more dangerous. Likewise, some of these volumes will never not be too precious, too dependent on legendary recognizable authors and monolith publishing entities, too insistent on gazing so deeply into the belly of their insufferable characters petty concerns that their very existence each year satisfies only in its predictability.

Each of the 12 selections in this slim yet significant inaugural volume is a Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize honoree. The award, $2k and publication in this book from Catapult Press, serves to honor work from emerging young writers published in North America. The difficulty in approaching this type of collection, as opposed to the more established perennials, is not in the separate selection of material so much as the arrangement of it, the motivations behind the choices, and the objective of the editors. What do they want their readers to understand? Igarashi quotes one judge, Marie-Helene Bertino, as saying that the process of sifting through these submissions was “the most satisfying judging experience ever.” That might bode well for those who first sampled the goods here, but it’s no guarantee of satisfaction.

The mission statement for this series seems to be centered in another quote from Bertino. “The stories we chose were those that forced me, a relentless overthinker, to stop thinking.” Igarishi follows by noting that once the reader is willing to surrender to this material, the resulting feelings can sometimes be surprisingly different. A good story should challenge and confront. The recurring theme in this collection is one of journeys both literal and specific. If a reader’s satisfaction is in the minimal and mundane, there’s nothing here that will meet their needs.

Igarishi writes, “I think of this collection as a celebration of editors as much as it is of the new writers they published…” That really is essential because in many ways editors Marie-Helene Bertino, Kelly Link, and Nina McConigley can be seen as eager celebrants of something different, something new. They’re delivering these babies into the world and setting them in a crib for all to see.

Emily Chammah’s “Tell Me, Please”, which opens this volume, is particularly strong and wisely positioned as the starting hitter in what proves to be an interesting thematic portrait of place and time. Each story is introduced by the editor that nominated it, and the reader gets a good sense of the agenda in great 21st century fiction. A young Jordanian teen girl named Amal is smitten with her cousin Omar and dealing with the fact that while she is surrounded by love, she still feels out of place. When she finally reunites with this object of her attraction after a long absence, she sees “…that his fingers have been chewed to the quick.”

Katherine Magyorody’s “Goldhawk” is a small jewel of a story that deals with brief moments, things in the shadows. Dinara is the only woman in her IT office, a Russian émigré, who finds peace in the possibility that the Goldhawk outside their window will return, make her life complete, free her from the drudgery. “She loved the sky…Each of her choices was monitored, analyzed, catalogued, and stripped of mystery.” By the end, Dinara wins and continues to keep secrets to herself.

In Angela Ajayi’s “Galina”, a woman near the fictional site of a nuclear accident plant outside Ukraine takes account of things that have happened. “One. Two. Three. Four. The number of times she had miscarried her babies.” These stories only need simple facts. Flowery embellishment only serves to clutter the bottom line.

While the common thread for these stories is a simple and succinct style and a desire to tell a good story free from the bells and whistles that sometimes either scream “M.F.A.” or just leave the reader with a sense of precious minimalism, the highlight of this volume has to be Samuel Clare Knights’s remarkable “The Manual Alphabet”. A set of parents is teaching their child American Sign Language, and we see a series of right hands in position, trying to form ideas. “I learned to speak from a map and a kind neighbor,” the boy says shortly into the first page, and we enter a world where all motion is description and expression. Take this wonderful image of the narrator remembering his sister:

“When my sister Jill was born I remember her arms and legs spelling endlessly. She looked like every letter at once.”

There is humor here in this volume, which is a welcome relief from the sometimes overbearing tendency for contemporary short fiction to substitute unearned gravity and profundity for meaning. In Amy Sauber’s “State Facts for the New Age”, a woman introduces herself to us by definitively stating, “Dr. Hura is a therapist I will never see again.” Bekah is a newly single eighth-grade teacher dealing with her options, trying to avoid crying in front of her students, and not failing to note that death is usually always around the corner: “A pigeon pancakes into the window and probably dies.” She’s furious, but she’s also determined to get through this transition in her life.

While this is an interesting and at times profound volume that reaches sublime levels with Knights’s story, and Crystal Hana Kim’s “Solee”, an examination of the effect a handsome stranger has on a rural South Korean family, as a whole (and it’s barely over 200 pages) the stories can take time to appreciate. What it accomplishes is to introduce great writers to a reading public that may or may not be receptive. Less precious and insistent than perennials like “Best American Short Stories” can be (and the status of that series seems to have been eclipsed by “Best Non-Required Reading” series), PEN America Best Debut Short Stories 2017 is a welcome, diverse, and compelling collection short of content but rich in context.

PEN America Best Debut Short Stories 2017


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