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Powerful Testimonies and Unique Perspectives in ‘PEN America Best Debut Short Stories 2019’

PEN America Best Debut Short Stories brings readers a dozen new voices and some relief, for a while, from the darkness of these troubled times.

PEN America Best Debut Short Stories 2019
Yuka Igarashi, ed.
Aug 2019

Things start to happen once a reader enters the world of a modern short story anthology, especially one filled with debut appearances from writers that are beginning find their land legs after swimming in the private pools of exclusive literary journals. The jaded reader will skim through the contents to see if they recognize names. After that, the journal titles start materializing: The Rumpus, The Iowa Review, Conjunctions, and more. Are these stories coming with an agenda? Should we proceed with caution?

Once we understand that everything comes with a perspective that may or may not be understandable or relatable upon first encounter, the experience of these new stories starts to wash over the reader. These writers have walked out of the exclusive pools and entered a vast ocean of images, ideas, themes, and plot development. The waves might not always be steady or clean, and the shores might not always be covered in a blanket of smooth golden sand, but the reader quickly understands this body of water is deep and wide.

PEN America Best Debut Short Stories 2019 continues its tradition of compelling and meaningful explorations of themes that might not immediately resonate in collections featuring more seasoned writers. Again, the dozen stories in this collection are all winners of The PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for emerging writers. As noted in my review of the 2018 collection (PopMatters, 26 Nov 2018) while these stories might not necessarily have a Hemingway aesthetic, they work best in their distinctive voices, consistent moods, and complex implications about the entanglements of modern lives and relationships.

Series Editor Yuka Igarashi notes in her introduction the difficulty of concisely and effectively introducing these stories to the public:

“I could focus on the playful and daring stylistic choices…the ways they engage with ‘issues’ I care about…how every one of them feels to me as if they could have been written today.”

That is the best way she could have summarized the elements all these stories share with each other. They jump through major naturalistic wrinkles in setting, time, theme, and structure, but they work best in the smaller details. Writing about JP Infante‘s “Without a Big One”, Igarashi notes how the story (about a young boy’s life) “…reminds me that growing up often seems like an initiation into secrets…understanding which ones to share and which ones to keep.” These stories all share a sense of necessity and urgency, and the reader trying to sense a steady voice in this PEN anthology (still very young compared with the Pushcart Prize, OHenry, and “Best American” series) will find it in the care displayed by each of the teditors that introduces their story choice.

Overall, the stories here are strong. Jade Jones‘s “Today, You’re a Black Revolutionary” (from The Rumpus), is told in second-person point of view, which is not always the best or easiest choice of voice, but Jones flawlessly pulls it off. “You walk by the flag twice every day,” we read. Our heroine is experiencing the sort of benign racism so familiar to people of color in South Carolina. “The good intentions coat the racism like the casing of a pill.” Our heroine decides to make a statement by climbing the flagpole displaying a Confederacy Flag and vows not to come down without it in hand. Reporters gather at the base of the pole and ask her questions:

“…You only answer questions from the liberal news outlets. One of them asks, ‘How did you become such a strong woman?’ You’re not supposed to be insulted by that,

‘What, you mean physically?’ You say.”

Whether or not our heroine succeeds is beside the point. She has staked her claim and made a stand.

Sarah Curry’s “The Rickies” (from Nimrod International Journal), is a brutal testament to survival told in a collective voice brewing with righteous anger. Four women, whose names are variations of the story’s title, meet at a rape survivor’s support group. None are convinced about the veracity of the word “survivor” as applied to their communal experience. It’s about college life, a study abroad semester, and things that happen that cannot be erased:

“…the Rickies keep us…alive…The Rickies live under my bed. They tame the ugly things. They are the ugly things.”

In Kelsey Peterson’s “The Unsent Letters of Blaise and Jacqueline Pascal” (from Conjunctions), everything changes. The style, mood, and structure imagine the famous Pascal siblings having a dialogue about the origins of knowledge and spirituality. Should we keep searching for God? Should we still fear something if we’re told to fear nothing?

Peterson’s letters take a while to understand, and the format might seem impenetrable, but the audacious approach is ultimately successful. Jacqueline asks her brother: “Are you still trying to measure the air?” Later, she offers proof of her activities as she remains on a quest for something: “I lift myself…I adjust…I quench…I sprinkle…I grind…I suck…I throw…” The concentrated approach about philosophical issues concerning God and purpose reminds the reader of Alan Lightman’s brilliant jewel of a small novel Einstein’s Dreams (1992) and it sets a foundation for even more brilliance from Peterson.

Doug Henderson’s “The Manga Artist” (from The Iowa Review) takes the form of its title art form, with each paragraph representing one (or a series of) panels comprising an imaginary Manga illustrated book. Early on, the reader feels assured that Henderson is completely controlling this trip and his voice is compelling:

“Panels 2-5: The teacher is speaking, but there are no word balloons. What he is saying isn’t important…To watch him move…is reason enough for the class to meet three times a week.”

It’s a West meets East love story that goes through 115 Panels (19 pages) and effectively demonstrates the power of an art form where text meets image to create something wonderful, but sometimes (as is the case with this story) the text is strong enough to give the reader an equally potent experience.

Laura Freudig’s “Mother and Child” (from The Sun) is one of those rare jewels that frightens the reader with its honest immediacy without feeling cheap and exploitative. A woman’s voice assures us that even her husband calls her a good mother. “Sometimes I answer my husband in what he calls a ‘truthful’ way. I tell him what my baby did, how long his naps were, how much he ate.”

Later, as she brings us through the narrative, she speaks to the attraction of negativity: “It’s like a drug, the adrenaline of disaster, I picture falling down the basement steps so clearly that it can’t be a dream…” Freudig powerfully paces herself through the course of this story as we reach the inevitable nearly fatal conclusion. What works best is her brutal remembrance of giving birth:

“When Clint was born, I screamed in a voice that had never come out of my throat before…It was my mother’s scream…I couldn’t seem to stop screaming. Everything plagued me…the number of objects in my house that were perfect for bashing in his tiny melon head.”

Erin Singer’s “Bad Northern Women” (from Conjunctions) starts with an assured confidence that is usually only seen in the stories of more seasoned writers: “We are Tockers, descendants of thirty-six feet of long lean Saskatchewan women: six Tocker sisters, six foot tall, exemplary ax-women all, so says our mom.” That she keeps this confidence consistent through the course of this story is less surprising than it is simply proof that something different is happening here, something special.

The Tocker women live in Tocker Town, a hard Saskatchewan life that offers no promises and few rewards save for the absolutism of a singular vision amongst all these women:

“Before we die we’ll slick your Teen Burgers with Teen Sauce, make chicken salad on a cheese bun and keep your kids from drowning in the public pool…”

It’s a remarkable paragraph that elucidates everything these women do in and for this community without ever feeling the love reciprocated. It’s another story told in a collective voice, but we can sense the life of this narrator: “In the morning Dad…asks us who we want to be. We want to be this one chick at school, the setter on the volleyball team who buys all her clothes in the city.”

More so than most stories in this volume and many stories that surface in the lonely pools of journals (online or otherwise), “Bad Northern Women” is a self-contained universe that could very well implode from what might seem to be unwarranted self-confidence. It’s the voice here and in many of the other stories that will stay long after the reading experience is over.

Not all of the entries work as well as the others, but that’s the risk taken in any annual literary anthology, debut or otherwise. Marilyn Manolakas’s “Tornado Season” (from Alaska Quarterly Review) takes us into the sex life of a teenaged farm girl in the 1950s. Enyeribe Ibegwam’s “Good Hope” (from Auburn Avenue) brings us into the life of the Nigerian narrator seeing a favorite uncle in Washington DC after many years apart.

What consistently runs through all 12 entries in PEN America Best Debut Short Stories 2019 is the promise of clear new voices, powerful testimonies, and unique perspectives to assure us that even in our current dark times there will always be the short narrative to take us back into the light, if only for a while.

RATING 8 / 10