This Week in Short Fiction


With the Senate Intelligence Committee’s online release of their Torture Report summary and Melville House’s announcement last week that it will publish a bound copy of the summary report at the end of this year, torture has been in the air. Even before that, though, the murmurings of what has been going on at Guantánamo Bay since the early 2000s has undoubtedly been at work in the collective creative subconscious. On Tuesday, The Normal School released one powerful, fictional short story offshoot of that subconscious, “The Fifth Category,” that explores the culpability of those who sanction torture.

The story, written by journalist, cultural critic, and fiction writer Tom Bissell, rests in a close third-person perspective of “John,” which The Normal School invites readers to interpret as John C. Yoo in their tweet of the story. Yoo was one of the actual primary authors of broad interpretations of the Geneva Conventions and the infamous “Torture Memos” that fueled much of the Bush administration’s post-September 11th intelligence response. In particular, Yoo’s contributions included legal definitions and interpretations that essentially justified the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” such as waterboarding, without fear of US officials being charged as war criminals.

Possible realistic elements aside, Bissell’s story is equally compelling and horrifying, humanizing and calculating. Bissell invites us to wonder what might happen should a writer of such legal “torture memos” agree to travel outside of the US to a conference in Estonia. Who might take advantage of such a situation? When laws have been bent to near-breaking points, what justice might others exact of John in such a situation? And how does a person who has justified the use of torture to himself and the powers that be make peace with such a justification in his daily living?

Bissell answers with the surreal image of John awakening to a once-full plane-in-flight completely empty of all passengers but himself:

Before him spanned thirty darkened rows of unfilled seats. Out of shock he took a single step forward. He reached for his iPhone, sensing its absence before his hand even touched his pocket. Despite the darkness, he saw a few crude shapes on the first row of seats: paperbacks, newspapers, a briefcase. It grew darker the deeper into the rows he walked, as though he were entering a synthetic jungle.

In “The Fifth Category,” Bissell imagines the troubling fate that awaits those who have severed ties with their humanity through their own verbal manipulations. His story suggests that John cannot write a definition of torture free from real-world context, that eventually John will be called in to witness and participate in a field study. Ultimately, the story serves as a cold reminder of the reasons we create human-rights protections in the first place. Namely, that overstepping the rights and protections of others in order to protect ourselves leaves all of us unsheltered in the end.


In a year such as this has been, the dregs of torture are best chased with a refreshing burst of solidarity. Canadian writer Joseph Boyden has gathered together fifty-plus fellow writers, musicians, artists, and social activists within the bindings of one book, Kwe: Standing With Our Sisters. Kwe is an Ojibwe word meaning “woman” or “life-giver.” Boyden spearheaded the book in response most recently to the brutal attack of a Winnipeg teenage girl in November and a longstanding history of sexual attacks and violence against First Nations women in Canada. According to Boyden’s description of the book project, which was released on Tuesday by Penguin Random House Canada, “Aboriginal women in our country are three times more likely to face violent attack and murder than any other of their gender.”

All proceeds from sales of the book and tickets to its release party Thursday at musician Jason Collette’s 8th Annual Basement Revue in Toronto will benefit Amnesty International’s No More Stolen Sisters Project and a Toronto initiative, No More Silence. The book features a gorgeous cover and contributions from Sherman Alexie, Margaret Atwood, Yann Martel, and Michael Ondaatje, among others. Major distributors are also selling Kwe in several e-book formats for $2.99.

Jill Schepmann's stories have been read on NPR and have appeared in Parcel and Midwestern Gothic, among others. She worked as a fiction and nonfiction editor at Nashville Review while getting her MFA at Vanderbilt. She lives in San Francisco and tweets @jillypants. More from this author →