What to Read When You Want Short Stories


I didn’t know what I was getting into to when I decided to be the editor for Everyday People: The Color of Life—A Short Story Anthology. I knew that I loved short fiction; I believe some of the best storytelling has come out of this form. I knew I wanted to do my friend Brook Stephenson proud, since his vision was one he couldn’t proceed with due to his untimely passing. I knew there was an ever-growing list of writers of color I’d love to work with, and I recognized that reaching out to them in fall 2016 was necessary to further fill shelves with much-needed voices of color.

The stories I received in response to my call were varied and distinct, tackling subjects from consent to gentrification to the different stages of grief. These stories contained so much heart and detail in a finite amount of space (much appreciation to all the contributors for meeting the word count limit!).

Writing short fiction is not for the faint of heart. When I think about what makes for a great short story, I think about impact, precision, and beauty. The compactness of the short story doesn’t mean there is a limit to what can be tackled within it. Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain,” from her collection Close Range, feels fully formed and spans decades, illuminating the dissolution of relationships and of the self. “The Bone of Contention” by Zora Neale Hurston has one of the best opening lines I’ve read, establishing its scope in one fell swoop: “Eatonville, Florida is a colored town and has its colored interests.”

Many of the story collections listed below are debuts, so we have much more to look forward to from these authors. I promise that within these collections you’ll find stories that resonate and hold up a mirror to society, and to yourself.


What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah
Subverting the expected with elements of magic and science fiction, What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky tackles ambition, expectations placed on women both internally and externally, and how communities can not only prop us up but also inhibit our progress. Arimah wastes nary a word and creates imagery so vivid we can practically pluck it off the page.


Bad Endings by Carleigh Baker
A contributor to Everyday People: The Color of Life, Carleigh Baker’s stories are notable because of the twist she puts on the trope of “happily ever after.” Her fiction poses that the end isn’t the end; in fact the conclusion of a story leads to more decisions and more opportunities. What sets this collection apart is that those endings keep us wondering well after we’ve read the final sentence.


White Dancing Elephants by Chaya Bhuvaneswar
Bhuvaneswar’s debut unites speculative with reality, and always centers women of color. Bhuvaneswar takes on important topics like racialized violence and violence against women—that which is committed against them and they which they commit themselves. Friendship, romance, and family are the ties that bind in this forthcoming collection from Dzanc Books.


Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories by Sandra Cisneros
Named after a real town in Texas, Cisneros’s stories star Mexican Americans musing on their relationships to land beyond the Mexico-America border, and on their loyalty to Mexico. Through lyrical stories of varying lengths, Cisneros’s feminist prose zeroes in on cultural identity and dependency in establishing a sense of security for her characters.


Regrettable Things That Happened Yesterday by Jennani Durai
Durai unifies this collection around showing us how newspapers affect characters’ lives in different ways. But journalism itself isn’t at the core of these stories; cultural “norms” and decorum, defiance, and societal expectations are. The stories in this collection take place in Malaysia, Singapore, and the United States, giving a global scope to its characters’ everyday trials and tribulations.


Ayiti by Roxane Gay
Whenever I lead a workshop I make sure to include Gay’s “You Never Knew How the Waters Ran So Cruel So Deep” because the economy of words and the choice to structure the piece as a list work to capture a true loss of self in a voyage to live a perceived dream. Gay’s first collection centers Haiti and Haitians, portraying its characters’ lives in tight prose and with laser-sharp focus.


A Thousand Years of Good Prayers by Yiyun Li
Yiyun Li’s short fiction is something to get excited about, which is why I’m glad she’s part of Everyday People as a contributor. She is remarkably consistent in writing that expands on conflict in what may seem mundane yet is intricately written, all the while creating incredibly relatable characters and stories. Happiness may not be achievable for all of Li’s characters, but it’s never an impossibility.


Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer
The much-lauded debut from Packer includes stories that illuminate human experiences, and particularly Black experiences in the twenty-first century (with looks back through history as well). Packer writes about the Million Man March, budding sexuality, recognizing racism, standing one’s ground at any age, and more. Her prose, and especially her dialogue, showcases the extreme talent evident throughout this first collection.


Love War Stories by Ivelisse Rodriguez
Love in all its iterations—familial, romantic, platonic—is explored in Rodriguez’s debut collection. I’ve joked that the title makes me think of Pat Benatar’s “Love Is a Battlefield,” but there’s something to the idea of coming into the notion of love, and the reality of it, with our armor already in place ready to fight for or against it. In Rodriguez’s hands, love is not a plot point, it’s rather a universal truth.


The Other One by Hasanthika Sirisena
Hasanthika Sirisena is another contributor to Everyday People, and her debut collection aims to root characters in places they do not always understand. The Sri Lankan civil war has imprinted itself on the country’s legacy and in each story as Sirisena explores how people connect, or don’t, and why. Colonialism, immigration, and reestablishment are all examined in insightful and thoughtful prose.


Blue Talk & Love by Mecca Jamilah Sullivan
With voices ranging from the familiar to the formal, and featuring characters aiming to carve out their own sort of normalcy, Sullivan’s debut collection shows impeccable diversity in subject matter. Body image, sexuality, and Blackness compound into characters’ negotiations of worth to others and to themselves. Blue Talk & Love offers us an abundance of stories worth ruminating on.


Buckskin Cocaine by Erika T. Wurth
Including stories and a novella, Wurth’s collection employs a cinematic thread in her writing style, and in her stories that shine a spotlight on the Native American experience through a mix of monologues and prose. Complex characters, tenuous connections, and personal introspections that seem shallow yet are often intrepid makes each story unique in scope and voice.


And to close out this wonderful list, we just had to include the anthology itself! Everyday People: The Color of Life—A Short Story Anthology is forthcoming August 28, 2018 from Atria Books.  – Ed.

Everyday People: The Color of Life edited by Jennifer Baker (Atria Books, August 28, 2018)
This gorgeously wrought anthology represents a wide range of styles, themes, and perspectives on a variety of topics. The carefully selected stories depict moments that linger—moments of doubt, crossroads to be chosen, relationships, epiphanies, moments of loss and moments of discovery. Contributors include Mia Alvar, Carleigh Baker, Nana Brew-Hammond, Glendaliz Camacho, Alexander Chee, Mitchell S. Jackson, Yiyun Li, Allison Mills, Courttia Newland, Dennis Norris II, Jason Reynolds, Nelly Rosario, Hasanthika Sirisena, and Brandon Taylor.

Jennifer Baker is a publishing professional, creator/host of the Minorities in Publishing podcast, and contributing editor to Electric Literature. She has done social media for Sackett Street Writers' Workshop, the nonprofit We Need Diverse Books (where she was also a panel organizer), and presently for the I, Too Arts Collective. She has lead writing courses in fiction and nonfiction for Sackett Street; I, Too Arts; and independently. In 2017, she was awarded a NYSCA/NYFA Fellowship & Queens Council on the Arts New Work Grant (as well as their award for Artistic Excellence) for Nonfiction Literature. Jennifer is the editor of the short story anthology Everyday People: The Color of Life with Atria Books publishing in August. Her writing has appeared in Newtown Literary (for which her short story "The Pursuit of Happiness" was nominated for a 2017 Pushcart Prize), Boston Literary Magazine, Eclectic Flash, The Offing, Poets & Writers, The Other Stories podcast, Kweli Journal, and The Female Complaint anthology from Shade Mountain Press. She has also contributed to Forbes.com, Lit Hub, The Billfold, School Library Journal, and Bustle among other online publications. Her website is jennifernbaker.com. More from this author →