It’s no secret that I love the Best American Short Stories series. In the classic Simpsons episode, “You Only Move Twice,” Homer confesses his secret goal to his kids. It gets a predictable response:
My secret goal as a writer has always been to get a short story in BASS. As such, I always look forward to this time of year when the anthology is released. I love scanning the list of 100 distinguished stories for names I recognize. I always try and fail not to skip ahead to the contributors’ notes so I can glean some insight into how the process works for these fabulous successes. But most importantly, I love reading the stories.
Sure, the collection draws a little too heavily from The New Yorker, but it’s also how I discovered great short story writers like Roxane Gay, Stephen Millhauser, Rebecca Makkai, Steve Almond, and Adam Johnson. It’s how I found lit mag gems like Hobart (who you should definitely check out on Nov. 4, when they’ll be publishing my story “Tribulation”), Fifth Wednesday Journal and One Story.
Every year, when I read BASS, there are some stories I love and some I can’t imagine how they got selected. There are some I feel are within reach of my talents, some that showcase literary skill I couldn’t ever hope to attain and some that make me feel like they should have taken one of my stories instead. So I figured it’d be fun to blog each story in the collection and see what we can learn.
Introduction – Junot Diaz
I’m a big fan of Junot Diaz’s writing. He has such a kinetic style. It’s slangy and hip, but never strikes me as solipsistic or too clever for its own good. His introduction is a love letter to the short story form. “Give a short story a dozen pages and it can break hearts bones vanities and cages.” Goddamn right.
Apollo – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Coincidentally, I’m also currently reading “Americanah,” Adichie’s much-lauded novel about Nigerian students and the dichotomy of influences in America and their homeland. “Apollo” has a similar feel of the early chapters of “Americanah” in that they present a land with a strictly composed social hierarchy that always asserts itself into the lives of the characters who inhabit it. I really liked this story for its brevity (a trait that “Americanah” definitely lacks) and Adichie’s ability to conjure such fully developed characters and plot into 12 short pages. The relationship between Okenwa, the protagonist and Raphael, the houseboy is immediate and intense, anchored around love of kung fu and a bout of pinkeye. Yet the thematic elements are never overstated. It’s exactly what I love to see in a story: let the reader do the work, but don’t allow for excessive ambiguity. Great start to the collection.
Ravalushan – Mohammed Naseehu Ali
This story did not quite click for me. It’s about a village in Ghana during a coup d’etat. The townspeople who aren’t beaten or killed are cowed into submissive passivity by the brutal dictatorship. I think my problem is that the story is told in first person plural, and this was a case where that didn’t work for me. The POV is necessarily distant, and I never quite latched on to a narrative arc. While the prose was vivid and richly detailed, the narrative arc felt too inevitable to me. War is bad, humanity is brutal. As callous as it is, that extreme amount of narrative distance means I can’t help but shrug my shoulders. That’s humanity for you–we’re collectively a bunch of assholes. I didn’t feel what was at stake, so the story left me cold. That said, the last few pages focused on a town outcast in charge of cleaning the latrines, and while the symbolism felt a little too on the nose for me, I’ll admit it was an image that stayed with me.