Edwidge Danticat’s Krik? Krak! (1996)
Drawn from a number of literary magazines and publications (including 1994’s Pushcart Prize collection), these tales were gathered together to satisfy the readers who yearned for more, after Breath, Eyes, and Memory (1994).
Readers might catch a glimpse of a faraway place, just as journalists might crane their necks to see a half-buried head of hair in the fenced-off lot in Port au Prince where the “disappeared” reside.
Almost halfway through, with “Between the Pool and the Gardenias”, readers recognise that many of the stories are interconnected, not only voices of a community but voices of a family.
But even before that, there is a sense of connection, rooted in the lyricism of the prose, with the unexpected slice of an unforgettable scenic detail.
In another writer’s hands, what might seem like an overreach for melodrama is commonplace in a country where truth-speakers are not tolerated.
Resistance requires a particularly strong spirit.
“Sometimes we would play half the night, coming up with endless possibilities for questions and answers, only repeating the key word in every sentence. Ma too had learned this game when she was a girl. Her mother belonged to a secret women’s society in Ville-Rose, where the women had to question each other before entering one another’s houses. Many nights while her mother was hosting the late-night meetings, Ma would fall asleep listening to the women’s voices.” [from Caroline’s Wedding]
Contents: Children of the Sea, Nineteen Thirty-Seven, A Wall of Fire Rising, Night Women, Between the Pool and the Gardenias, The Missing Peace, Seeing Things Simply, New York Day Women, Caroline’s Wedding Epilogue: Women Like Us
Julio Cortazár’s Blow-Up and Other Stories (1963; Translated by Paul Blackburn 1985).
Originally published as End of the Game and Other Stories, this collection landed on my shelves thanks to an assignment in English class years ago. The teacher had photocopied “A Continuity of Parks” and the test was based on that single-page-long story.
I’m not sure that I even knew that a short story could be that short. But even if that alone was not amusing enough, I absolutely loved the story.
With its main character a reader and the action both playful and menacing (yes, it seemed so) I kept that photocopied sheet for years (I probably still have it, tucked away somewhere) and made copies of it to send to my friends (who might have thought I was slightly mad).
The first story in this collection is also somewhat playful (“Axolotl”), but with a layer of sadness. Something wonderful happens, but it results in a character who was once feeling a little lonely becoming permanently consigned to the role of observer, inhabiting an out-of-touchness that is a world apart from his solitary existence.
Indeed, in the context of the collection, “A Continuity of Parks” becomes more about the menacing and tragic bits and less about the playfulness, more about the cleverness but less about the celebration of it.
These stories are filled with wonders and although it took me more than twenty years to read beyond “A Continuity of Parks” (there is a small joke there, if you know the story), I am now not only a fan of the story but a fan of the storyteller, keen to read more. (Hopscotch is next.)
Contents: Axolotl, House Taken Over, The Distances, The Idol of the Cyclades, Letter to a Young Lady in Paris, A Yellow Flower, Continuity of Parks, The Night Face Up, Bestiary, The Gates of Heaven, Blow-Up, End of the Game, At Your Service, The Pursuer, Secret Weapons
Margaret Laurence’s The Tomorrow-Tamer (1963).
Such a tremendous variety of settings and voices in Margaret Laurence’s The Tomorrow-Tamer! Whether in a fishing village on the “salt-steaming west coast” or an inland town with a hairdresser and his assistant, the details of everyday life are rich and meticulously observed.
Whether considering a man small enough to spend years living inside a box, or a man whose ego is large enough that he believes his belief system should apply to everybody, she approaches their stories with understanding and compassion.
“My father thought he was bringing Salvation to Africa. I do not any longer know what salvation is. I only know that one man cannot find it for another man, and one land cannot bring it to another.”
Laurence was a visitor to the continent, so she understands this position, and also understands its shortcomings. At least one character discovers that where he believed there was an intimacy and a purity in his relationship with natives, he was not fully embracing the complexity of the world he thought he knew.
“To reject the way of a lifetime is not easy. It must have been hard for Kwabena, and now in another way it is hard for me. But at last I know, although I shall never be able to admit it to him. It was only I who could afford to love the old Africa. Its enchantment had touched me, its suffering–never. Even my fright had stopped this side of pain. I had always been the dreamer who knew he could waken at will, the tourist who wanted antique quaintness to remain unchanged.”
For these are complicated countries (the settings vary but Laurence’s experience was primarily in what is now called Ghana). There are multiple forces, from without and within, each seeking dominion.
“The Homowo festival was absorbing the energies of the Ga people as they paid homage to the ancient gods of the coast. A touring faith-healer from Rhodesia was drawing large crowds. The Baptists staged a parade. The Roman Catholics celebrated a saint’s day, and the Methodists parried with a picnic. A new god arrived from the northern deserts and its priests were claiming for it marvellous powers in overcoming sterility. The oratory of a visiting imam from Nigeria was boosting the local strength of Islam. Allah has ninety-nine names, say the Muslims. But in this city, He must have had nine hundred and ninety-nine, at the very least. I remembered Brother Lemon’s brave estimate–a thousand souls within six months.”
Despite the fact that her experience in the country was related to her husband’s work in development, or perhaps because she had that insight into the mechanisms and infrastructure of that process, Laurence was clearly on the side of independence.
“Africa, old withered bones, mouldy splendour under a red umbrella, you will dance again, this time to a new song.”
Contents: The Drummer of All the World, The Perfume Sea, The Merchant of Heaven, The Tomorrow-Tamer, The Rain Child, Godman’s Master, A Fetish for Love, The Pure Diamond Man, The Voices of Adamo, A Gourdful of Glory
Toni Cade Bambara’s Gorilla, My Love (1972) has been on my TBR since I discovered Alice Walker, which happened with The Color Purple (for as amazing as the film was, the book was even better).
It’s a vibrant collection of stories ranging from a few pages to a couple dozen in length.
Like Katherine Mansfield’s stories, sometimes they simply end, rather abruptly. Like Z..Z. Packer’s, sometimes they are all about voice and the saying of things.
Particularly prominent in the collection are the voices of young girls and young women, who are often frustrated by the limited possibilities they see ahead for themselves.
“It was a rough place to get along in, the center, but my mother said that I needed to be be’d with and she needed to not be with me, so I went.”
But this kind of frustration isn’t limited to young characters.
“And I ain’t never been souther than Brooklyn Battery and no more country than the window box on my fire escape. And just yesterday my kids tellin me to take them countrified rags off my head and be cool. And now can’t get Black enough to suit em.”
The settings are vivid and recognizable.
“And Isabele Rider ran one of those time immemorial stores – love potions and dream books andstar charts and bleaching creams and depilatory powders, and mason jars of ginger roots and cane shoots. A girl of about sixteen was sitting on a milk box, reading a comic book and eating a piece of sweet potato pie.”
Although for every stereotyped idea, there is another clamouring to be heard.
“I don’t sing no cotton songs, sister,” he said, picking up a knife. “And I ain’t neer worked in the fields or shucked corn. And I don’t sing no nappy head church songs neither. And no sad numbers about losing my woman and losing my mind. I ain’t never lost no woman and that’s the truth.”
Sometimes the stories have a melancholic tone, but sometimes they are laugh-out-loud funny. “Climbing into bed with that one, she’d say, was like climbing into bed with a dining-room set.”
And sometimes the language is just gorgeous. “Somebody has opened a wet umbrella to my chest. And I shudder for me at the preview of things to come.”
Contents: “My Man Bovanne” “Gorilla, My Love” “Raymond’s Run”, “The Hammer Man”, “Mississippi Ham Rider”, “Happy Birthday”, “Playing with Punjab”, “Talkin Bout Sonny”, “The Lesson”, “The Survivor”, “Sweet Town”, “Blues Ain’t No Mockin Bird”, “Basement”, “Maggie of the Green Bottles”, “The Johnson Girls”
In her later collection, the stories are longer and usually more complex: Toni Cade Bambara’s The Sea Birds Are Still Alive (1982).
Some of the scenic detail remains, as in “Christmas Eve at Johnson’s Drugs N Goods” (possibly my favourite from this collection, also the last).
“If you look like you ain’t buckling under a weight of work, Mrs. J will have you count the Band-Aids in the boxes to make sure the company ain’t pulling a fast one. The woman crazy.”
Voice remains of importance, and the tone of discontent seems notched upwards slightly.
“I am negative. I guess that’s why I’ve been teamed with Naomi. She views everything and everybody as potentially good, as a possible hastener of the moment, an usherer in of the new day. Examines everybody in terms of their input to making revolution anirresistible certainty.”
In her earlier collection, the frustration seemed to be directed at individuals and situations, here the frustration is as deeply rooted as the systemic injustice and inequity.
In the city: “So many forced for so long into something or other and can’t afford no trouble, no encounters with cops, can’t afford to make a human response.”
And, in the country: “The lovely atoll that was home devastated by two decades of atomic, then hydrogen, blasts. For years, with no compensation money, they waited for an unseen needle on an unknown gauge to record the radiation level and announce it safe to return home. They waited,complied, were rerouted, resettled at this camp or that island, the old songs gone, the dances forgotten, the elders and the ancient wisdoms put aside, the memory of home scattered in the wind.”
And, everywhere, the effort to make things make sense. “I write for a whole hour in my diary trying to connect with the future me and trying not to hear my daddy snoring.”
Contents: “The Organizer’s Wife”, “The Apprentice”, ‘Broken Field Running”, “The Sea Birds Are Stil Alive”, “The Long Night”, “Medley”, “A Tender Man”, “A Girl’s Story”, “Witchbird”, “Christmas Eve at Johnson’s Drugs N Goods”
Taking Julia’s recommenation to read Edith Pearlman’s stories seriously (because she mentioned Munro and Gallant in the same breath), I started with How to Fall.
Pearlman won the 2003 Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2014 and has been included in some O.Henry and Pushcart anthologies too.
Like Gallant and Munro, she focuses on the everyday, on ordinary people going about their business, though mostly in the small town of Godolphin, Massachusetts, “on a leafy wedge of Boston”.
“They talk, sometimes getting it muddled, of the past: the illness, the death, the recall. Mostly, though, they talk about other things.”
Her approach is often playful, but sometimes one catches a glimpse of what one imagines to be the astute observer behind-the-scenes, the ever-alone-if-not-always-lonely chronicler of other people’s affairs.
“Maiden lady that I am, I believe solitude to be not only the unavoidable human condition but also the sensible human preference.”
Some of the stories are quite short (like “Vegetarian Chili”, which is really the length of a recipe, with all the footnotes you might imagine) but most are 16-18 pages long, easy to read in a single sitting, and so consistently so that this is a delightful volume to enjoy alongside a morning tea or coffee ritual.
Which suits the storyteller just fine: she even seems to be joining you. The stuff of Toronto falling away, Massachusetts settling in.
What about you? What short stories have you been reading lately?
Which of these collections do you think you might enjoy?