THE INAUGURAL ANTHOLOGY OF LITERATURE'S MOST PROMISING NEW VOICES
"A welcome addition to the run of established short story annuals, promising good work to come." —Kirkus Reviews
Many writers who are household names today got their start when an editor encountered their work for the first time and took a chance. This book celebrates twelve such moments of discovery. The first volume of an annual anthology, launched alongside PEN's new Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers, it recognizes writers who have had outstanding fiction debuts in a print or online literary magazine.
The winning stories collected here—selected this year by judges Marie-Helene Bertino, Kelly Link, and Nina McConigley—take place in South Carolina and in South Korea, on a farm in the eighteenth century and among the cubicles of a computer- engineering firm in the present day. They narrate age-old themes with current urgency: migration, memory, technology, language, love, ecology, identity, family.
Each work comes with an introduction by the editor who originally published it, explaining why he or she chose it. The commentaries provide insight into a process that often remains opaque to readers and students of writing, and showcase the vital work literary magazines do to nurture contemporary literature's new voices.
About the Author
NINA McCONIGLEY is the author of the story collection Cowboys and East Indians, which won a 2014 PEN Open Book Award. She was born in Singapore and grew up in Wyoming. She holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Houston, where she was an Inprint Brown Foundation Fellow. She also holds an MA in English from the University of Wyoming and a BA in literature from Saint Olaf College. She currently serves on the board of the Wyoming Arts Council. She teaches at the University of Wyoming.
MARIE-HELENE BERTINO's debut novel, 2 a.m. at the Cat's Pajamas, was a Barnes&Noble Fall 2014 Discover Great New Writers pick and a Best Book of 2014 at NPR. Her debut collection of short stories, Safe as Houses, received the 2012 Iowa Short Fiction Award and was named an Outstanding Collection by the Story Prize. She is the recipient of the O. Henry Prize, the Pushcart Prize, and fellowships from the Center for Fiction, Sewanee, the MacDowell, and Hedgebrook writers colonies. She teaches at New York University and in the low-residency MFA program at Institute of American Indian Arts, and lives in Brooklyn, where she is an editor at large for Catapult.
Kelly Link is the author of the collections Stranger Things Happen, Magic for Beginners, Pretty Monsters, and Get in Trouble, which was a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. She and her husband Gavin J. Grant have co-edited a number of anthologies, including multiple volumes of The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror and, for young adults, Monstrous Affections. She is the co-founder of Small Beer Press. Her short stories have been published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, The Best American Short Stories, and Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards. She has received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Marie-Helene Bertino is the author of the novel 2 a.m. at the Cat's Pajamas and the story collection Safe as Houses. Her awards include the O. Henry Prize, the Pushcart Prize, and the Iowa Award for Short Fiction. She is an Editor-at-Large for Catapult magazine.
Nina McConigley is the author of the story collection Cowboys and East Indians, which won a 2014 PEN Open Book Award. She was born in Singapore and grew up in Wyoming. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Houston, where she was an Inprint Brown Foundation Fellow. She also holds an MA in English from the University of Wyoming and a BA in Literature from Saint Olaf College. She currently serves on the board of the Wyoming Arts Council. She is at work on a novel and teaches at the University of Wyoming.
Read an Excerpt
"Best" is a funny label to put on any piece of art; it requires contesting. Whenever a jury of more than one person gathers to choose winners for a prize anthology like this, it's typical to hear how embattled the selection process was, how hard it was to come to a decision. So it's surprising, and interesting, that for this inaugural edition of PEN America Best Debut Short Stories, our three judges agreed on the final twelve stories easily. "I don't think I can emphasize enough how similarly minded we were," Marie-Helene Bertino wrote. "It was the most satisfying judging experience ever."
This doesn't mean the other stories they considered—150 of them, nominated at the end of last year by the editors of print and online magazines around the world—were not worthwhile. "Every story was good," Nina McConigley wrote. "A lot of people talk about how so many short stories are becoming too workshopped, too MFA, too a certain kind of story. All I can say, after reading all the entries, is they are wrong."
But what made the judges stop and single out the works collected here? I think the word "stop" is important, actually. It's an idea that came up a few times in their comments. These were stories that caused an interruption; they arrested. Here's Marie-Helene:
When I read, I'm always (like it or not) guessing what's going to happen at the end of the line, the scene, on the plot level. The stories we chose were those that forced me, a relentless overthinker, to stop thinking.
It's also important that what these three readers felt when they stopped thinking was not immediately pleasant. Marie-Helene was "roundhoused" by some of the stories; Nina mentioned being "upset." Here's Kelly Link:
When I sit down with a short story, I'm hoping to be surprised, or unnerved, or waylaid. The best stories are almost otherworldly in their dimensions, as if I have opened a suitcase left on my front door, only to find three geese, a small child, a jewel thief, and her mother emerging.
Just as I am by the contents of Kelly's suitcase, I'm waylaid by what I find inside this book. Each story starts by taking me somewhere vividly specific and, each in its own fascinating way, precarious. In Emily Chammah's "Tell Me, Please," it's a city in Jordan where a teenager is secretly Facebook-messaging a cousin she's in love with. In Amber Caron's "The Handler," it's the woods of New Hampshire where a man, his daughter, fifty-seven dogs, and their handler are training for the Iditarod. In Angela Ajayi's "Galina," it's an exclusion zone near a nuclear power plant in Ukraine where a woman and her aging mother sit in a kitchen drinking tea, looking at the enormous leaves of an irradiated cherry tree.
They go on to reveal unsettling depths. Missing fathers haunt the postwar landscape of Serbia (Ruth Serven's glancing, evocative "A Message") and of eighteenth-century New England (Ben Shattuck's exquisitely detailed "Edwin Chase of Nantucket"). In two masterful stories, two women—Dinara in Katherine Magyarody's "Goldhawk" and Anu in Grace Oluseyi's "A Modern Marriage"—conceal reserves of strength and cunning beneath their self-effacing exteriors.
These are debuts that ask a lot of their reader: to sense what's unwritten in the time gaps between scenes in Jim Cole's disquieting "The Asphodel Meadow"; to accept that memories can be pickled in jars like vegetables in Laura Chow Reeve's mournful "1,000-Year-Old Ghosts"; to see language in an entirely new and beautiful way in Samuel Clare Knights's "The Manual Alphabet," the only story I've ever read told partly in American Sign Language.
Even the more straightforward-seeming narratives offer their own challenges. They leave room for mystery. "Solee" by Crystal Hana Kim inhabits the instantly endearing point of view of a young girl with a crush on a family friend—but what do we really know about that family and that friend? "State Facts for the New Age" by Amy Sauber follows a sardonic, recently dumped middle-school teacher as she inexorably and very entertainingly unravels, and yet it's hard to tell whether she's saved or doomed in the end.
There's much more to say about how each story accomplishes its singular disturbance, but I think it's the original editors of the pieces who have the best insights about that. They are the ones who first discovered and published these stories in their own magazines, and then submitted them to this prize. Their comments about why they made their choices are included with the stories, and to me these notes are themselves arresting, revelatory.
Every editor will tell you that the most rewarding part of her job is reading a writer she's never read before and being moved to share this stranger's work with others. Somehow, though, getting to this moment involves patient, private hours of doing other things, and also of resisting the constant call to do other things—for example, to read writers she already knows, writers that someone else already knows, or writing that leaves her with more familiar feelings. To not be disturbed. I think of this collection as a celebration of editors as much as it is of the new writers they published, because in different ways they are engaged in the same task, which is to gather together and put a frame around some small part of the world. Look at this.
It sounds like a simple task, but it isn't. There are many things to look at and time is limited, for every one of us. It's not always easy to decide what to pay attention to, what to value—in other words, what to love. I am grateful to our collaborators at PEN America, to the Dau family, to our judges, to the magazine editors who brought us these twelve writers, and to all editors and writers for stopping to do this work. And I'm grateful to you, the reader, for doing it too.
Table of Contents
Introduction Yuka Igarashi, series editor vii
Tell Me, Please Emily Chammah 3
From The Common
Goldhawk Katherine Magyarody 41
From The Malahat Review
Galina Angela Ajayi 49
From Fifth Wednesday Journal
1,000-Year-Old Ghosts Laura Chow Reeve 63
Edwin Chase of Nantucket Ben Shattuck 75
From Harvard Review
A Message Ruth Serven 95
The Handler Amber Caron 103
From Southwest Review
The Manual Alphabet Samuel Clare Knights 127
State Facts for the new age Amy Sauber 139
From The Rumpus
The Asphodel Meadow Jim Cole 157
From The Summerset Review
Solee Crystal Hana Kim 167
From The Southern Review
A Modern Marriage Grace Oluseyi 183
From Boston Review
About the Judges 201
About the PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers 203
List of Participating Publications 204