I confess: I don’t always have the energy or wherewithal to read a novel… I just don’t. So I forgive anyone who still has mine in the pile or on the nightstand. I’m right there with you.
Maybe I don’t want to linger or wait. I don’t want to be left hanging. I don’t want the commitment. I don’t want the book to remind me I should be standing up with it on the treadmill for an hour instead of sedentary with it for much longer. Or worse, curled in bed trying to take my mind off work. And God knows I’ve read enough novels in my life, and will continue to do so, so I’ve decided that’s okay. I know I will finish what I should.
Here is where the short story enters.
I wrote about how black women are not given credit for the form, with most English classes I’ve taken in school or universities stuck on Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” and that’s it for us. Toni Morrison’s lone short story, “Recitatif” made it in once. (Read it here!)
So “Black Woman Gossip” listed my favorite black women story collections, including Alice’s In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women. In particular I noted the transfer of African oral tradition to the printed word, with the necessity to shortcut African-American speech for varieties of oppressive reasons leading to virtues of expression and cadence, and, of course, secrets.
Since then, today’s publication of Deesha Philyaw’s The Secret Lives of Church Ladies (West Virginia University Press, 2020) pinched me like a church lady would, to tell me it’s time for an update. I already know, from the three stories listed on the author’s website, this is going to be a new favorite.
I knew of the author from her co-parenting work I shared with some couples in that position. It was a beautiful surprise to see she has fiction to offer the world. For a sneak peak of that incredible offering, check out the superb “Snowfall” in Baltimore Review. The story sparked memory of my Illinois winters youth and the snow dictating everyone’s moods silently, like a hypnotist.
So I am even more excited than I already was to one day teach and see Black Women & The Short Story as essential to English and American Studies. In addition to the 10 classic collections I already outlined, from the likes of Gayl Jones and Toni Cade Bambara, these collections are superior, evidence those masters of the story form will have no shortage of inheritors. Please collect one if you have none or re-read the ones you do.
1. Everything Inside: Stories by Edwidge Danticat (Knopf, 2019)
This collection won the 2019 National Book Critic’s Circle Award for Fiction. Edwidge is one of my favorite writers of all time, across many genres, whom I’ve seen out and about or heard speak, and was lucky to spend time with at the Haitian American Museum of Chicago last year for a simple lunch her owner friends gave. She didn’t even mention a new book, just talked about wanting the best for Haitians today and how I should cope with the profound writer workload including far more than the writing. My favorite story, “The Gift,” intersects moments of the Haiti earthquake onto tranquil life back in America, in Brooklyn and Miami, with a main character who pays with more than an eternal prosthetic for his amputated leg, and a woman who loves him.
2. Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?: Stories by Kathleen Collins (Ecco, 2016)
Like Philyaw, my introduction to Collins’s stories came by other means than her fiction. Her film “Losing Ground” is an essential masterpiece of Black and women’s cinema studies. Her fiction is similarly meditative, even and assured with outbursts of action not always from the characters’ bodies, mostly from their minds. Ecco Press gathered her stories written between the 70’s and 80’s, starting with the title story. It probes Collins’s signature spaces of intellectual life, artistic domesticity and lovers’ dynamics and is available on Granta. It reminds us the quandaries of race and chaos based on skin color were just as baffling several decades ago as they are still today. I would go beyond the title question to ask “Whatever Happened to Interracial Reading?”, which the collection’s praise from Zadie Smith and Miranda July urges everyone on board with.
3. Know The Mother by Desiree Cooper (Wayne State University Press, 2016)
This collection is a revelation of what it should to be a woman, far beyond the digital age empowering hashtags and endless blogs on the subject, even mine. Recalling Margo Jefferson’s work, Desiree Cooper’s stories feature mostly black women but also white women in simple daily lives she complicates. Sometimes she omits racial iconography altogether, leaving us clues in the names or idioms. Whether they are wives, mothers or daughters and even grandmothers, Cooper upturns their normal days with miscarriages and secretly resentful husbands and racism encountered just by trying to get a room in “Duty, 1959.” I came away from a simple book of stories with refreshed respect for the word ‘mother,’ as in the continuation of generations of humanity we forget mothers are.
4. In the Not Quite Dark: Stories by Dana Johnson (Counterpoint, 2016)
Johnson’s sense of place is startling in every setting and her acerbic, sometimes staccato style makes very long stories go far faster than they should. Johnson does almost the opposite of Cooper in “The Story of Biddy Mason,” in tracing the lineage of men, as she plays with voice to keep “you” on your toes. Sometimes the writing feels like Flannery, the namesake of the Flannery O’Connor Story Prize Johnson has won, and at others it feels like Borges, where it’s hard to keep up with if you are in or out of the characters’ minds. Above all, what she adds to American literature is the same reality beyond fantasy of California life to present its everyday people and mores as Joan Didion continues to do.
5. Of Love and Sound Mind: A Short Story Collection by Lisa B. Dubois (Amazon/KDP, 2016)
I have many “We met in a bookstore!” tales with writer friends. In this case, it was Brooklyn’s Greenlight Bookstore for Akashik’s presentation of its recent writers including Bernice McFadden for The Book of Harlan. My third novel was also out so it was an unforgettable time living in Harlem, where my next novel would sprout because of it. Lisa was part of that. We locked eyes while waiting to get our books signed and lively conversation revealed her story of leaving corporate America to pursue her writing dream. Thank God she did. This collection from the former Hurston/Wright Foundation writing fellow and leader of The Sable Pen Writing Workshop is as valuable a text on grief as I’ve ever read. DuBois wrote “Did You Eat?” and her mother’s actual “Eulogy” for a deceased mother stricken with mental illness, gone too soon and sorely missed for all those things daughters may not see their mothers giving at the times.
Read my in-depth interview with Lisa, “Tales from a Women-Activated Universe,” here on negression.