The Best Short Stories of Leslea Newman by Leslea Newman

[19 June 2003]

By N. A. Hayes

Building Us

The family has been called the ‘giant shock absorber of society’-the place to which the bruised and battered individual returns after doing battle with the world, the one stable point in an increasingly flux-filled environment.
— Alvin Toffler, Future Shock

Leslea Newman spins strands of identity. These strands of sexuality, ethnicity, and religion are woven so tightly together that their characteristics blend. Newman culls these themes together, bridging the gap between the sex in sexuality and, the ethnic in ethnicity and the humans these ideas never fully define. Since The Best Short Stories of Leslea Newman spans her career, the weave changes from talent to skill. She maintains her original concerns as the work develops; however, her characters, who are always human (sometimes transparently to the point of autobiography), deepen.

The challenges throughout the lives of her characters are stellar—coming out, relationships, motherhood, disease, growing old—and never conveniently overcome. Sometimes, they are beautifully bizarre, as well. Newman’s prose is comfortable and competent, at times a little too quirky and cute, and the titles often contain the excess of her word play. Take, for instance, “Eggs McMenopause” (as great as the story is, the title takes a moment to forgive) and “Keeping a Breast”.

The act of family building is central in this book, whether it involves one’s relationship with parents or trying to conceive a child with a turkey baster. What is so beautiful about family building is that it, in itself, is slippery. Family building is complicated even for those who want to build a legally recognized family, but Newman only deals with the more complicated scenarios. The interaction between the families of choice (lesbians and gay men taking care of each other, babies brought to the world through a fertility underground, etc.) with the families of birth can be explosive—children disowned, parents abandoned, lives ignored.

In the shadow of the Defense of Marriage Act, non-traditional families have, in most places, only themselves to rely upon to keep them together. There is no weight from the law (even where there is such weight, a move across a border and the legal bond evaporates.) That is why the meditation on this connection and the quirks that bring people together is a fascinating one, and Newman handles it expertly.

Throughout the creation of families, the question of choice, of decision, is central. There are women who choose not to have children, awakening to menopause forced to face the finality of their decisions with remorse. There are those that sacrifice their bodies and desires to have a baby. Preferential treatment is not given to either. The individual struggle is respected, and given to us in tender ways that ease the emotional weight onto us.

If, at times, the human fabric Newman gives us is uneven, it is forgivable because we are ourselves uneven. Life most often consists of the simple everyday struggles and desires that pull us together, containing the knowledge that what attracts us to each other also complicates our relationships. Newman, in her honesty, is gracious to her characters, acknowledging their flaws, but seeing the good that is just beyond the surface.

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