I can think of different ways to introduce you to the stories in this collection—twelve chosen for the Dau Prize, out of hundreds nominated, by Danielle Evans, Alice Sola Kim, and Carmen Maria Machado, all by writers who had never published fiction before 2018. I could describe the interesting things that happen in them: a “good black girl” climbs the flagpole in front of the capitol building in South Carolina to take down its Confederate flag; a woodcutter loses his way home and meets a man wearing a mask made from a taxidermied wolf. I could focus on the playful and daring stylistic choices—one is written in the form of panels for a manga, and another includes incantatory poems and fragments from Audre Lorde and Sun Tzu. I could discuss the ways they engage with “issues” I care about, such as postpartum depression, sexual violence, immigration, mass incarceration, and rural poverty. I could try to explain why the stories set in seventeenth-century France and in Beijing after Mao Zedong’s death and during a tornado on an Oklahoma farm in 1956 seem as current as the stories that take place in the present, how every one of them feels to me as though they could only have been written today.
While all this might encourage you to read what follows—I hope it does—I find myself wanting to be more specific. I want to get you closer to how I experienced these stories. What moves me when I read, what I remember best, tends to be smaller than plot, structure, theme, or setting. It’s often a sentence or a detail. Or it’s more elusive. Here are a dozen moments, one from each piece, when something rose up from the page and entered my mind to become a feeling.
In “Today, You’re a Black Revolutionary” by Jade Jones, when the narrator finds herself at the top of that Confederate-flag-bearing pole:
How many different people control you? The flag is rough and flaps wildly in your grip. You thought it would be made of better material. Silk or satin or something.
“Ma’am!” a gruff voice shouts below. “Come down, now!”
“In a moment,” you answer.
What a funny, polite thing to say while engaged in the most rebellious act of one’s life; how fitting that one would contemplate the texture of a piece of fabric while confronting the country’s history of racial oppression.
From “The Rickies” by Sarah Curry, told in the collective voice of four women who meet at a campus potluck for rape victims and become friends when they’re the only ones to call bullshit on “survival”:
That semester after study abroad, freshmen girls with Bibles in hand-knit cozies were the worst. Anytime they saw a girl alone on campus, they invited her to Bible study: Free soda! Hot Christian guys! We patted their heads. They were wide-eyed Yorkies in a puppy mill and didn’t know it. We said,
Sorry, we are atheists of everything. But it troubled us. Atheists sounded too positive. Nihilists was too descriptive. All -ists too reductive.
There are so many layers packed into this passage: the pain and disillusionment behind the words “after study abroad” (and the shock of recognizing what happens to many women during their college summer travels); the sense of superiority toward freshmen that quickly gives way to uncertainty and unease; the women’s refusal to be part of any group, as victims or as anything else, in contrast to the obvious solidarity they feel with one another.
The transporting opening lines of Kelsey Peterson’s “The Unsent Letters of Blaise and Jacqueline Pascal,” which immediately changes my perception of nature, math, shapes, and the universe:
I saw a perfect circle today. The yellow disk at the center of an anemone bloomed early and whose white petals had curled back in the wind. I marveled at its humble perfection, springing forth from some superabundance of the unrelenting spring. I am curious if there is an equation for such a flower, the formula to project its arcs and angles, its radii and planes.
The ending to “The Manga Artist” by Doug Henderson, in which a drawing of a mouse and a hamster encapsulates all the complexity of the human love story that precedes it:
Panel 115: Alfonso and Hamuchan have left the school. They are running down the wide front stairs, fear and excitement in their eyes.
A portrait of a marriage in three sentences, from Laura Freudig’s “Mother and Child”:
John is tall enough to stand behind me and rest his chin on my head. He likes to do this. I do not know how I feel about it: cherished or pinned down.
In “Without a Big One” by JP Infante, about a boy and his slippery relationships with the adults around him—his mother, Mary; his absent stepfather; and his beautiful babysitter:
That morning you realize the Chinese doctor was flirting with [Mary]. You make a mental note to tell your stepfather when he calls from school. He’s only called a couple of times since he left because the apartment phone is always being cut off and there are never minutes on Mary’s prepaid cell phone.
Your babysitter, Nilda, calls you Ray Ray… Nilda is taller than Mary and has a fat ass. Whenever you hug her, you touch it and she doesn’t say anything. Nilda is in love with you. You don’t tell her you know because she has a boyfriend.
These paragraphs remind me that growing up often seems like an initiation into secrets—not just learning them, but understanding which ones to share and which ones to keep.
A few words in Tamiko Beyer’s “Last Days 1” that create an entirely new world:
There were five of us in that small apartment, hauling water, coding and decoding, soldering metal, constructing strategies, drafting poems. I lifted heavy objects and learned to stitch up an open wound.
In “Good Hope” by Enyeribe Ibegwam, as the narrator arrives at a building in Washington, D.C., to see a favorite uncle for the first time since he left Nigeria decades before:
A teenage girl with flowing multicolor hair, wearing black harem trousers and a yellow top that bared her midriff, raced up the stairs behind me and stopped to flash me a letter. Before I could look at it, she screamed, “I got accepted,” and continued past me, tears slick on her brown face.
The girl never appears again; she’s a splash of color that illuminates the uncle’s home in a way that a straightforward description of it never could.
From “Tornado Season” by Melinda Manalokas, a portrayal of sex that seems especially powerful and unexpected for being from the point of view of a fourteen-year-old farm girl in the 1950s:
The first time he asked her to be on top, she was embarrassed at first, but then something else happened, a connection made between being with him and the way she would rub herself against her bed at night. She started concentrating, gathering the threads of it, and then there it was—dizzying, boundless, like air or water or light.
It’s better if I don’t explain why this exchange in Pingmei Lan’s “Cicadas and the Dead Chairman” delights me so much; it’s part of a theme that quietly recurs and gathers meaning as the story progresses:
“What’s your name, little girl?” The driver looked at me through his rearview mirror.
“Shut up,” I said.
I could pick almost any section in A. B. Young’s “Vain Beasts,” whose interweaving of ancient motifs reminds me of a fugue:
The wolf tells the woodcutter, “In exchange for stealing my rose, you will bring me your most beautiful possession.”
The woodcutter trembles. He wishes he had not left his axe back among the tree stumps. He could split the wolf into equal halves, had he enough force behind his swing.
The wolf says, “My vanity makes me patient, woodcutter. I have
waited many years for beauty.”
The woodcutter lies through his sharp teeth. “I have no beautiful possessions. I am a poor woodcutter.”
“What?” says the wolf. “No wife? No daughter?”
Finally, in “Bad Northern Women” by Erin Singer, a paragraph I’ve thought about many times since I first read it, in which the narrators seem to break through the story’s walls to address the reader directly, demanding to be acknowledged:
Before we die we’ll slick your Teen Burgers with Teen sauce, make chicken salad on a cheese bun and keep your kids from drowning in the public pool and we are jolly bun fillers of submarine sandwiches and we ring up your Trojans and Lysol and scented candles, and we shovel your snow and push your babies on the swing set, pare your grandpa’s toenails, harvest your honey, detail your urinals, hold the papery hands of your dying, nestle newspapers in the rungs of your mailbox and ladle gravy on your French fries and we push logs through your sawmill, bring you size-ten Sorels, then size eleven, then size ten and a half, and climb onto our mattresses at night with gasoline on our hands and dog bites on our ankles, chicken fingers on our breath, cigarette smoke in our hair, ringing in our ears and our men’s hands snaking up our thighs.
A list like this will probably mean more to you once you’ve read the book. The extracts here aren’t meant to represent the stories, because of course one passage can’t represent a story, whose effect is always cumulative. And of course every reader’s list will be different; my own list might be different on a different day. The list only represents the possibility of infinite lists like this—infinite moments within these pages by which we might find our way to an infinite variety of emotions.
This anthology is in its third year. Its previous contributors have signed with agents, published stories and books, inspired other writers. Compared to other annual best-of collections, though, it’s still young. The first volume of Best American Short Stories came out in 1915; The O. Henry Prize Stories started in 1919; The Pushcart Prize is a little over forty years old. As with those prizes and series, I think the influence of this prize and series on its winners, and the influence of its winners on literature, will only become clearer as years and decades pass.
For now, I want to make two observations. There are a handful of magazines that have impressed our judges each year with the debut writers they’ve discovered. The Rumpus has had a piece in every edition; Black Warrior Review, Epiphany, The Baltimore Review, and Conjunctions have all contributed multiple stories. It seems to me that anyone interested in the future of short stories would want to pay special attention to these publications. I’ve come to think of them—and all twenty-nine magazines that have appeared in these anthologies—as bright places in the “literary landscape” that I’m glad to know and glad I get to visit. To further push this metaphor, the editors of the magazines who originally published these stories, and whose expert commentaries introduce each piece, are the innkeepers and hosts, hanging their welcoming lights; the judges are the explorers who find and forge paths to them.
The other observation is about pleasure. Sometimes when I’m talking about contemporary writing, I hear—and find myself using—words like “necessary” or “urgent.” This may doubly be true of short stories, which have been seen as necessary not just for readers but for writers as well, a kind of career stepping-stone. Often anthologies also address a need or fill a lack. This particular one arose because the Dau family, PEN America, and Catapult found there was nothing else like it, no book that showcased fiction by debut writers. It’s supposed to serve as motivation to read and publish unfamiliar names; it’s a yearly argument for risk and novelty. I do think these stories, and this series, offer something that no other writing does. And yet I feel the need to insist that you don’t need to read them. Nobody needs to write, or read, any story. But then what a joy—a triumph, a small miracle—that we can.
Excerpted from PEN America Best Debut Short Stories 2019. Copyright © 2019 by Catapult.