Rumpus Exclusive: The Intro to PEN America Best Debut Short Stories 2018
The stories in this anthology are by writers whose fiction appeared in print or online for the first time in 2017. They were selected for publication, out of thousands of submissions, by magazine editors who likely had never read the writers before. They were then chosen for the PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers, from 150 nominations, by three judges who have recently written their own award-winning story collections. They represent the newest fiction being published today that has made the most lasting impression on a chain of careful readers. Ezra Pound wrote that literature is “news that stays news”; these stories bring us the latest news.
Each piece included here is surprising and unique in approach and effect. Still, when read collectively, certain themes emerge. I noticed that there are a lot of performers in these pages. Some are in costume: Jeremy, dressed as a Hercules mascot at Magic Kingdom in Ernie Wang’s “Stay Brave, My Hercules”; the couple in Maud Streep’s “The Crazies,” who play a corset-wearing whore and a chaps-wearing cowboy in a ghost town in Montana. There are singers and dancers, vulnerable and triumphant and memorable: in Lauren Friedlander’s “Bellevonia Beautee,” two young “beautees” practice kicks and shimmies and vocals for what is supposedly a singing group led by a man named Andy; in Cristina Fríes’s “New Years in La Calera,” a young “campesina” in a remote valley in the Andes dances to cumbia while guerrilla soldiers point guns at her.
Even characters who aren’t playacting or putting on a show are concerned with scripts, with hitting the right notes. “Zombie Horror” by Drew McCutchen is narrated by a caseworker for the recently undead. He doesn’t have much experience with zombie counseling, so he relies on pamphlets and weekly training emails from his department to tell him what to say to his dirt-covered, half-decayed clients to help them readjust to being alive. (“You must talk to them quietly. They’ve been used to quiet for so long.”) He does intake in front of a one-way mirror so his colleagues can watch his technique—his audience.
Three pieces frame migration as a performance. Ava Tomasula y Garcia’s “Videoteca Fin del Mundo” is about migrants detained at the U.S.-Mexico border while escaping violence in their home countries. In many cases, they are incarcerated in “hieleras” (freezers) and “perreras” (doghouses) and offered no legal help as they face their asylum hearings. The piece came out of the author’s real-life work with the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project, where she saw firsthand how individuals are made to “audition for the part of Refugee.” “Can you play the character they are looking for at your Credible Fear interview?” Tomasula y Garcia writes. “This is the only time your humanness will be based on your dehumanization, so barter for it and say only what they want to hear.”
In “Six Months” by Celeste Mohammed, another “illegal” finds himself auditioning to stay in the country. After losing his engineering job and running out of options for supporting his common-law wife and two sons, Junior flies from Trinidad to New York to live with a cousin and work at a supermarket. When he notices that Becky the cashier has a crush on him, he embarks on an ethically compromised, strategically dubious plan to seduce and marry her before his temporary visa runs out—all while keeping her a secret from (and continuing to provide for) his family back home. If the refugees in “Videoteca Fin del Mundo” are required to display the correct kind of desperation, Junior’s act is about concealing desperation—being the blank slate we often want our immigrants to be. “You just have this gut feeling things will go better for you, in America, if you hang a fuckin’ sign round your neck: come in. i open… to everything.” The immigrants in Megan Tucker’s “Candidates” also invent more acceptable, less precarious versions of themselves for the world, though they do it by adding to rather than subtracting from their family. The story is told from the point of view of two sisters who are waiting at home for a man to come over and buy a used crib. Their mother has turned the TV on in the empty den and closed the door, to make the buyer believe there’s a father in the room.
We typically think of a performance as something that happens within a limited time frame—an intake interview, a furniture sale. It’s a heightened state, set apart from “ordinary” life. But what’s most interesting in these stories is the way a performance seeps into life. The frame blurs and the stage dissolves. Back at Magic Kingdom, when Jeremy-as-Hercules makes friends with a wheelchair-bound Make-A-Wish kid, he’s thinking about his partner, dying of cancer at home; when he smiles and flexes and repeats Disney-approved messages to “be strong” and “be brave,” he’s also talking to himself. Once summer ends, the ghost-town cowboy and whore from “The Crazies” settle down in a house in the mountains and continue their reenactment for each other: “I had wanted to be the kind of wife who’d bring down an elk one day and cook it the next, in lingerie and a flannel shirt,” the narrator says.
Another character in a wife costume appears in Lin King’s “Appetite.” Shortly after her twenty-fourth birthday, Mayling’s mother demands that she find a husband from among the “optometrists, patent lawyers, accountants, chemical engineering PhDs” that make up her family’s social circle in Taiwan. She fi- nally chooses Shutian, a dentist. On their wedding night, she’s in a crisp white nightgown like “a heroine from a Gothic novel”; she tries kissing her husband “as she had seen kissers do in countless Hollywood films.” The soft rock piping through the couple’s home obscures the lack of conversation; soon enough, children arrive, and decades pass as Mayling dutifully plays the roles expected of her in her marriage and her family.
Mayling’s lifelong costume does eventually show its seams, just as the “Dale Evans drag” starts to slip for the narrator in “The Crazies.” If the stories here reveal how we become the selves we perform, they also reveal the instability of that becoming. The self is an ever-changing construction, continually attempting and faltering at coherence. There is a visual manifestation of this in Alex Terrell’s “Black Dog”: the protagonist, Io, is followed around wherever she goes by other phantom Ios—Io-Leather-Skirt, Io-in-Jeans, Io-in-Red at a rooftop party; Ios dressed in white as she wanders into the woods. Elinam Agbo’s “1983” describes a different kind of fractured self. The story begins with the narrator walking through fog, squinting at a hazy figure down the road. She’s in a village in Ghana during a famine, and she vaguely remembers a husband, work in the city, a missing aunt—but the holes in her mind prevent her from knowing any more about who she is.
But there is freedom and possibility in not knowing. “Brent, Bandit King” by Grayson Morley is narrated by something called a Facilitator—the artificial intelligence of a computer program that adaptively responds to the actions chosen by players of a role-playing video game. The Facilitator is aware of all the branching story paths and outcomes available to the players inside the game, but it is limited by what [Brent], its player, wants to do—and [Brent] only wants to pick up weapons and kill other bandits. Of all the characters and performers within this book, the Facilitator is the only one that can’t, and doesn’t, ever deviate from script. All it can do is keep reminding [Brent] that [Brent] can: “I was hoping that, together, we might break free of the likely actions. We might traverse a less probable narrative path, find ourselves an [Uncommon Ending].” In one way or another, every story in this collection is reminding us of this too. I’m grateful to the Dau family, to PEN America, to our judges, to the original editors of these twelve exceptional works, and, finally, to the writers themselves, for helping to deliver this good news.
Excerpted from PEN America Best Debut Short Stories 2018. Copyright © 2018 by Catapult.