What to Read When You’re a PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize Winner


The PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers recognizes twelve emerging fiction writers each year for their debut short story published in a literary magazine or cultural website last year and aims to support the launch of their careers as fiction writers.

Each of the twelve winning writers receives a cash prize of $2,000 and the independent book publisher Catapult will publish the twelve winning stories in an annual anthology entitled The PEN America Best Debut Short Stories, which will acknowledge the literary magazines and websites where the stories were originally published.

Click here for additional information, including submission guidelines, for the award.

Below, 2018 winners share books that have inspired them in their journeys as writers and/or have helped to shape the work they do. The PEN America Best Debut Short Stories 2018 is forthcoming from Catapult on August 21, 2018.


Elinam Agbo recommends:

What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi
The theme is “keys,” but don’t let that limit you: doors/keys/locks here do not always do as they are told. And why should they? The stories in this collection defy our impulse to categorize, and instead ask that we enter each one as we would a stranger’s room: stripped of assumptions, and cautious of what we are bringing with us as we are of what we may find. I have been searching for a place to fit (as a person and a writer), and Helen Oyeyemi’s work reminds me that I can throw that question out the window and play and wonder and be as big and limitless as I want to be because fitting inside any one room is not as realistic as the world would have us think.


Lauren Friedlander recommends:

The Dream Life of Balso Snell by Nathanael West
I first read Nathanael West at sixteen when a writing teacher gifted me the nickname “Miss Lonelyhearts,” which, as far as unsolicited nicknames go, is pretty much tops. The second novella of West’s that I encountered was The Dream Life of Balso Snell, written in 1931, a surreal, Semitic romp through the literal “posterior opening of the alimentary canal” of a Trojan Horse. Balso’s absurdist journey, filled with didactic weirdos (think of a more scatological Phantom Tollbooth), was a touchstone for me in its dark humor, language in equal parts lyrical and depraved, and ecstatic confrontations with the least sexy aspects of the body’s responsibilities.

Read Lauren’s award-winning story here at The Rumpus!


Cristina Fríes recommends:

Things We Lost in the Fire: Stories by Mariana Enríquez
This collection hypnotized me with the cadence and starkness of its sentences, and by the way the stories, written in the tradition of horror and the macabre, depict the grotesque not as spectacle but as something both violent and graceful that should by now be expected of this world. Enríquez’s stories are haunted by Argentina’s Dirty War of the 1970s and 80s, in which thirty thousand dissidents and ordinary civilians—los desaparecidos—were tortured and disappeared by the military. This history seeps into the narrative backdrop of each story like an oil spill—a luminescent horror that distorts one’s sense of reality, and that is impossible to extract from today’s life in Argentina. Here there are stories about disappearances, violent women, drug addicts, foul children, repulsive husbands, haunted buildings, and venerated skulls. I am captivated by the prisms of both anxiety and hope the ghosts of the desaparecidos leave behind when Enríquez casts into harsh relief the political corruption, violence, and economic inequality that remain in their wake.


Lin King recommends:

Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea by Teffi
These vignette-memoirs by Teffi, a humorist writer who rose to fame despite both living through the Russian Revolution and being a woman, contextualized her country (in both its imperial and later iterations) for me more so than any of her canonical male counterparts. Teffi’s prose is crystal-clear and infused with a joie de vivre that finds small marvels and delights even while fleeing from a beloved, forever-changed motherland. In our politically fraught time, Teffi’s remembrances bring nuanced perspectives on what it means to be a writer without a home, a Russian without a Russia, a woman refugee in war, and a funny person in times of sorrow.
This is both a recommendation and a desperate call for more English translations of the gems that Teffi left for us!


Drew McCutchen recommends:

Man V. Nature by Diane Cook
Diane Cook leverages wonderfully weird worlds and settings in this collection of stories, blending humor and darkness. The bizarreness here enthralled and dislocated me, setting me up to be floored by the raw humanity waiting at the end of each story. It immediately inspired me to create my own off-kilter worlds where everyday characters try to cope with being alive or maybe dead for that matter.


Celeste Mohammed recommends:

A House For Mr. Biswas by V. S. Naipaul
A House For Mr. Biswas was part of my high school reading list for English Literature class, so I must have read it around fifteen or sixteen years old. It was the first book I’d read by V. S. Naipaul but it was the book which made me want to be a writer. That someone could capture the multi-ethnic Trinidad life so accurately, capture our patterns of speech so authentically, and that the finished work could still be so readable and successful in the outside (non-Trinidadian) world—it amazed me. The mere existence of this story opened possibilities in my mind about what the world would permit under the rubric of “English Literature.” The story follows Mr. Biswas’s from his birth (“in the wrong way”) to the end where he dies as he had been born: “unnecessary and unaccommodated.” People like that are everywhere. I’ve never stopped striving to tell their stories.


Grayson Morley recommends:

Sorry Please Thank You by Charles Yu
My story wouldn’t exist if I hadn’t read Yu’s collection. “Hero Absorbs Major Damage” is smart and human fiction about video games, proving that copious references and knowing winks at the audience aren’t the endpoint for writing about digital media. Yu turns a third-person camera into an existential crisis and an RPG class system into cause for jealousy and self-hatred. The sleeper hit of the collection, though, is “Human for Beginners,” which contemplates the inherent paradoxes of cousins and great-uncles in a four-page story that is equal parts Donald Barthelme and Lydia Davis, but still unmistakably Yu.


Maud Streep recommends:

Perma Red by Debra Magpie Earling
One book I return to over and over is Debra Magpie Earling’s Perma Red. Certain images from it surface in my brain at odd times, like my own memories—and Louise White Elk, the character at its core, is so alive in its pages that she feels like someone I have known, been fascinated and frustrated and elated by, been scared for, someone I have loved. Because I experience the book like this—as something lived that I carry around with me—it’s an acute pleasure to return to the text itself, to see how Earling did it: her pacing and control of time, the power of her description. It’s currently out of print, but I’ve never had trouble tracking a copy down through Powell’s or The Strand.


Alex Terrell recommends:

Tithe by Holly Black
This book is one that I keep coming back to. I’ve been reading and re-reading Tithe for a decade now because Holly Black peels back the thin layer between our fantasy and our reality to expose the rot in both. She invites us into the space between the worlds and reminds us that in fiction mythical creatures reflect man’s greatest fears about himself. She reminds us that the only difference between us and other creatures is our ability to have compassion and empathy for one another. And there is no more dangerous a place to learn that than in the land of Holly Black Faefolk.


Ava Tomasula y Garcia recommends:

Through the Arc of the Rain Forest by Karen Tei Yamashita
It’s what I guess you’d call a black comedy, but is heart-wrenching above all else. The novel is set in Brazil, where a strange plastic desert has suddenly formed in the Amazon. Its appearance leads to the founding of cults and a new wave of neocolonial extractive business ventures. It gave me hope as much as it took it away, with a laugh.

I’m also waiting for Roseland by Rayshauna Gray to come out next year.


Megan Tucker recommends:

The End We Start From by Megan Hunter
“I have read that, when someone knows they are going to die, the world becomes acutely itself,” writes Hunter in The End We Start From. This slim, swift debut novel is an inspiring read because it is lyrically beautiful and feels acutely itself. Confronting both an entirely-imagined future and the nitty-gritty realities of new motherhood, The End We Start From reads like poetry with the satisfaction of a fully realized novel. Hunter has made a book that feels wholly her own.


Ernie Wang recommends:

Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer
I first read ZZ Packer’s story “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere” in the New Yorker, which led to discovering the eponymous short story collection. These stories inspire me to approach my own writing with courage and humor and humanity. “Geese” in particular has become my model when I seek guidance on structure, pacing, and how to end a story.