My work as an editor usually involves choosing—what to publish, how to publish it—but one of the annual joys of putting together this anthology is not choosing. There’s an initial choice, when we (my colleagues and I at Catapult, our collaborators at PEN America) decide which three among our favorite fiction writers we’d like to ask to judge the prize. Pretty much all the hard work after that—the evaluating of submissions, the reaching of consensus—we leave to them. What a pleasure it is to be introduced this year to new writing selected by Tracy O’Neill, Nafissa Thompson-Spires, and Deb Olin Unferth.
If I see any recurring themes in these pages, they must be accidental—or it probably says more about me than it does about the judges, the original editors of the pieces, or the writers themselves. For what it’s worth, this time around, I kept noticing money.
Like many people in real life, many of the characters in the stories find themselves doing things for money. In “Failure to Thrive” by Willa C. Richards, a couple of archaeologists with a newborn baby get paid to take a trip from Milwaukee to Florida to retrieve human skeletons. In vivid, painful detail, Richards describes a family nearly breaking under the pressure of competing needs: financial, physical, emotional, sexual. Money also drives people to extreme ends in Sena Moon’s beguiling “Dog Dreams.” The characters here are involved in an insurance scheme; as is often the case, their dire material concerns mask even more dire emotional complications.
Sometimes we talk about money when we can’t talk about feelings. In Shannon Sanders’s “The Good, Good Men,” two brothers meet up to confront a new boyfriend who has installed himself at their mother’s house. They’re convinced that the man is a penniless leech and that it’s up to them to save her. Gradually, with masterful nuance, Sanders suggests that the brothers might really be there to save themselves—to protect their own memories of their childhood and their father. “Evangelina Concepcion” by Ani Cooney follows a teenage girl in the aftermath of her mother’s death. She focuses on selling a box of her mother’s clothes, trying to be the practical, unsentimental daughter her mother asked her to be: “You will be like steel. You can cry the first few days, but after the fifth day, I expect you to get up and help your father.” The story is a bracing reminder that grief is something not everyone can afford.
The narrator of “Madam’s Sister” works as a gardener and guard and odd-job man in a wealthy gated home in Zambia. Five miles away from his employer’s place is the crowded township of dusty convenience shops and infested waterways where he lives. Mbozi Haimbe deftly establishes the contrasts of this world, and then inserts a visitor from London, who throws things into even starker relief. Mohit Manohar’s delicately funny and suspenseful “Summertime” is about a visitor to London: a college student from a “newly rich” Mumbai family goes on a date with an Englishman he’s met online. On its surface, their meeting promises intimacy and connection, and their city is full of refinement and luxury: an exhibit at the British Museum, high tea at the Savoy. Yet, from the beginning, there are hints that not everything is as it seems. In “Don’t Go to Strangers” by Matthew Vegari, a couple lingers in another couple’s home in the hours after a dinner party. They’re old friends, and between them Vegari choreographs a virtuosic four-way dance of emotional shifts and unspoken tensions. In subtle ways, money—one man’s work raise and fancy new barbecue grill—also creates rifts within their small social circle.
“Gauri Kalyanam” begins with a daughter being born and then quickly sold into marriage. “She is sold with the promise of cash and a cow,” Kristen Sahaana Surya writes. In precise lyrical strokes, the wife is portrayed escaping her husband and working as a laborer and a housekeeper to provide for herself and her sons. She refuses her fate as “a woman whose existence depends on erasure”; money becomes her ballast, giving her substance and strength. “She sews her savings into the hems of her petticoats, and when they weigh her down, she buys thick gold belts that she fastens across her broad belly. At night her eyes close and grow green: she converts belts to houses, belts to bedrooms, belts to Western toilets and marble verandas… Belts trace the shape of her waist and the length of her life, and when she feels them move under her sari she feels a deep-set satisfaction.”
Once I start looking, it’s hard not to see this theme everywhere. In David Kelly Lawrence’s “The Other Child,” an unnamed narrator visits his dying father in the hospital, where he meets an unnamed child he never knew his father had. Soon the two are roaming the parks and streets of an unnamed city, meeting only strangers—but even they, in their eerie, dreamlike world, have to wait for the monthly installment of their father’s inheritance before going to the market to buy fruit. In another disquieting and impressionistic story, “The Water Tower and the Turtle” by Kikuko Tsumura, a man has retired to his hometown in rural Japan because the rent is half of what he was paying in the city. His life, it seems, has also been reduced to a series of circumscribed pleasures: old memories, a bag of homemade pickles, a pack of beer, a new bike that costs just 50,000 yen. There’s a new bike in “Bat Outta Hell” by Damitri Martinez, too, but this one is a hardly modest Harley-Davidson driven by the teenage narrator’s uncle. When his mother confronts him about it—“You don’t have any fuckin money! What’d you buy it with?”—the uncle replies, “None ya.” This is a coming-of-age tale slyly turned inside out, where a loud motorcycle can come to represent secrecy and silence.
Valerie Hegarty’s “Cats vs. Cancer” may not mention money directly; its protagonist does buy cat food and shop online for “an aesthetically appropriate cat tower” for the kitten she takes in from the alley outside her Brooklyn art studio. She also undergoes invasive diagnostic tests for breast cancer. The particularities of pet care and medical treatment are “two things you should never talk about to the person sitting next to you at a dinner party” (as the author herself says) and still the story manages to be irresistibly witty and observant and surprising. It occurs to me that money is another supposedly impolite topic of conversation, and that it’s exactly this impoliteness that I keep finding and enjoying in these stories. There is a kind of candor that feels exciting, current. Like so much of the literature I love best, they show me something that’s been there all along, veiled by civility and pretense and timidity and habit. They lay it bare.
I’m writing this five months into 2020, when a global crisis seems to be laying bare the profound ill health of our sociopolitical structures and economies. This might explain why money—its power, its invisibility, its tangibility, its absurdly unequal distribution, the way it forms and deforms all our relationships—has been on my mind. Of course, it’s only one facet of this multifaceted collection; other readers will find other connections and insights, will be moved and consoled and inspired in different ways. I imagine, however, that every last one will be left as grateful as I am to have these twelve writers to keep us company while the world continues to unveil itself to us. A heartfelt thanks to our judges and to the editors of the magazines where these stories first appeared, and to Fernanda Dau Fisher, to Jane Marchant and Clarisse Rosaz Shariyf of PEN, and to my colleague Sarah Lyn Rogers, without whom none of these revelations would be possible.
Excerpted from Best Debut Short Stories: The PEN America Dau Prize. Copyright © 2020 by Catapult.