Review: Pen America Best Debut Short Stories 2017


Pen America Best Debut Short Stories 2017

by Yuka Igarashi (Editor)

Today’s most acclaimed writers all got their start when an editor encountered their work for the first time and took a chance. This anthology celebrates twelve such moments of discovery, and is the first volume of an annual collection–launched alongside PEN’s new Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers–that recognizes outstanding fiction debuts published in North America.
The dozen winning stories included here–selected this year by judges Kelly Link, Marie-Helene Bertino, 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 ancient themes with current urgency: migration, memory, technology, language, love, ecology, identity, family. Together they act as a compass for contemporary literature; they tell us where we’re going.
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 aspiring writers, and offer a chance to showcase the vital work literary magazines do to nurture our boldest and most exciting new voices.

My new job has a few ARCs for us to read in our break room, so my first one I picked was this set of short stories. Which I read on my slow moments at the library. And it was a great for a first choice for the most part. All in all, I found a lot of these stories great from diverse voices, or at least my favorite ones were. This is my break down for each story and thoughts.

“Tell Me, Please” by Emily Chammah

This story was pretty great and hooked me instantly. The MC finds her cousin on Facebook and a crush of what used to be develops (yes, first cousins. Despite being ick, you have to remember the culture and the fact it seemed common for her sister married a cousin), remember their friendship as kids. It’s about the reconnecting through social media, of one-sided love, and the memory being tinted with rose colored glasses. It’s falling in love with a memory. I think we’ve all done this, remembering the past and falling in love with a person in your memory, not who they are now. It ended up being very one-sided when she meets with her cousin and see’s there’s nothing there anymore. It’s heartbreaking when you remember things as one way but it’s no longer there. We’ve all found someone from our past on facebook or other social media and wanting to reconnect, but it not actually happening. It’s a really great story, well written, and unbearably relateable.

“Goldhawk” by Katherine Magyarody

One of the shorter stories in this collection. Sadly, it starts slow and doesn’t really catch your attention until near the very end of it, at which point it’s already over. I would have loved to see more about the Main character, about her job, the hawk that the story is named after, and more in general when things started to get interesting. I believe this story was just a page or two away from being great. It’s about a woman working in a privacy company where she is a bit of mystery to her coworkers. A hawk appears at the window of her office building where people start talking about it. It becomes a bit of an obsession for her and the fact she’s sure it’s a goldhawk, which she’s told isn’t real. She is convinced it is. And that’s basically it.

“Galina” by Angela Ajayi

This is a story that deals with the nuclear fallout in Ukraine (though it doesn’t specifically say its Chernobyl) and how the Main Character’s mother refuses to leave the fall out zone and her home. It’s about a mother-daughte relationship and returning home after a long period away and watching your home become something dangerous. It’s an emotional story about the daughter leaving her husband who just happens to marry another woman without her knowledge. She returns home only to see it as poison. It’s full of omenous images and foreshadowing when it comes to swallows. On her trip she hits one of the birds, leaving a dark shadow on her that fills her with fear. It leads to her finding out an older woman had died in the zone. She becomes convinced its her mother and starts a frantic search for her, only to find her in her fields, having sprained her ankle. The swallow returns when it hits the window, which foreshadows the mother’s death after all. It’s insanely emotional and a story that I enjoyed a lot. It did everything really well and gets you caught up in the story quickly.

“1,000 Year-Old Ghosts” by Laura Chow Reeve

Another great story that has magical realism mixed into the story. It switches between the past and present, between the perspective of the grandmother and granddaughter, though is about the three generations of women in the family, even if the mother is only featured briefly. It’s about choosing to forget and choosing to remember, using jars to store memories that the grandmother chooses to forget due to a painful marriage. She only chooses to remember small details about her husband, just enough to tell her granddaughter about him. After the mother dies, the granddaughter is faced with dealing with the fact her grandmother is choosing to forget too much and is struggling to remember simple things such as who her granddaughet even is. All in all, I loved this story 10/10. It’s about family and choosing what to remember and what to forget and the effect that has on the people in your life. It’s also a story about immigrants and wanting to fit in in their new home and when you don’t and living in between your old home and your new home.

“Edwin Chase of Nantucket” by Ben Shattuck

The first story in the collection I disliked with a passion, despite it being historical fiction, which is kinda my thing. I highly recommend just skipping it due to the fact it’s drawn out and boring and doesn’t actually lead to anything. The small details of it annoyed me to no end, such as the Main Character calling his mother by her first name, almost posessive, while calling his dead dad by dad. Which was completely creepy for. Basically, it could have ended after the first paragraph or two and amounted to the same thing. His father died. Two visitors appear at their house after. The Main Character acts like his mother is possession and makes her business his with zero right to it. The story is very much a story written by a man who isn’t trying to be creepy, but completely is and makes any woman creeped out by the way he talks about women.

“A Message” by Ruth Serven

The idea for this story was interesting, but completely confusing that now I can’t fully remember the plot after finishing the whole book, nor do my notes actually seem to know either. But I do know it’s all written in notes to someone, about family and trying to find it and how a friend takes a step to helping her friend find her father, even if that friend isn’t sure she wants to meet him. It’s not overly clear if it’s one person telling the story in the notes or two. At times it felt like two perspectives, but it might have been one person telling about another person’s perspective. I really wish this one had been clearer.

“The Handler” by Amber Caron

This is a story about a young woman who leaves her old life behind and her fiance after a fight. She ends up in New Hampshire working as a carer for a known dogsledder’s dogs. She doesn’t let go of her old life, but still writes her ex letters, begging him to visit. She meets her boss’s daughter, who happens to be deaf. There’s known hostility from the daughter, who wants to be the one her dad takes to Alaska for his next race, but it’s known the MC will be. So she tricks the MC into going sledding with her, using her dad’s team. It’s then that they’re attacked by a moose who ends up killing the head dog and injuring the others and the daughter. It’s from there that hatred melts to a sort of friendship between the girls due to the fact her dad is mad and wont talk to her. Neither end up going to Alaska with him, which leads the daughter more determined to get her team ready to go next year, with the MC as her Handler. It’s a story about lost love and lost purpose, but finding it again in a new form. It was really well written and I was surprised how much I enjoyed this one, which I wasn’t sure I did. Honestly, I wish there had been more and to see more growth between characters.

“The Manual Alphabet” by Samuel Clare Knights

The idea of this one is amazing. It adds actual sign lanuage to the story in pictures through the story, replacing words. But the story itself was confusing and didn’t make sense unless you read the short about before it, even then it doesn’t actually help this story be good or make sense. It’s about a family with two deaf parents and their hearing son and other siblings. Which the story doesn’t make clear. You know someone is deaf, just not who. I assumed it was the Main Character seeing as it says teacher assumed he might be deaf too or mute. Which he wasn’t, just quiet. It uses way too flowery of descriptions to the point of making zero sense. Yes. This is another story that calls the parents by their first names, breaking the flow completely and just making me cringe through it all. In all honesty, there was no story to me. It’s supposedly supposed to blend from the MC being the focus and becoming the parents, from the about, which makes zero sense. Another one to skip.

“State Facts For The New Age” by Amy Sauber

This one gave me total ‘ughhhhh’ face. AKA I could not like the Main Character no matter how hard I tried. My first comment on this story was actually about that. And my second… Looking back, I can’t remember too much about this one, other than the fact the Main Character has an emotional break down in front of her class. While sort of being horrible to said students. I know she takes a leave from work and gets a card from said students telling her to feel better. And that’s basically all I remember. The story was hard to get invested in. Bad characters can be a fun idea to read, but in this case, the MC was just a bad person who talked trash about her students and tried to backpeddle in just as bad of a way, then breaksdown herself. At which point I didn’t feel the slightest thing about. There’s no real growth in the character. She goes from horrible, to breakdown, to magically ‘getting better’ when she gets the card. Personally, not my favorite story and I was kinda happy when it was done.

“The Asphodel Meadow” by Jim Cole

Basically, this can be summed up as a sex scene. And not a good one. The story makes little to no sense. It reads from the perspective of the so called husband of the female character, watching her and some man go off on a hike. You get flashbacks to their honeymoon where she disappears basically because she got a phone call from a publisher. In. The. Middle. Of. A. Forest. And no, it wasn’t a cell phone, but a phone of a park ranger. It doesn’t tell how the husband is seeing this drawn out move toward sex in the middle of a forest, just that he does. At first, I was sure this was going to end in a murder, due to a lot of symbols of death such as praying mantisis, which eat their mates (it came up in the story, shocking). But it doesn’t. Which was probably the biggest disappointment of the story. It ends with them having sex, freezing in the middle due to a very insistent helocopter flying over them like three times, continuing having sex, and that’s it. Does it mean the husband was killed? Maybe. But it was far from clear or even vague enough to see from reading it. What made things worse was that the author added a lot of over descriptions to things, which made reading it more frustarting, in part because it was dragging it out. Another skip unless this oddly sounds like your thing?

“Solee” by Crystal Hana Kim

This story basically saved the end of the book for me. I loved this story and almost wish it had been a full on book. And I still wish this. It’s a story that takes place in Korea (it isn’t clear which one, but it’s assumed to be country side South Korea), and its about first love, a secret love, an unhappy marriage, and watching it all unfold with young eyes that don’t fully know how to grasp this situation or figure out what to think of it. In summary, the “Uncle” of the MC comes to visit her family. She soon develops a crush on him, but as a reader, we can see what is happening that her young eyes don’t fully understand. The uncle is in love with her mother, who also has loved him. It points to the fact he introduced her to her now husband, which she married. The issue, her and her husband don’t get along. The MC often talks about their fighting. And that’s what happens one night. A horrible fight that drives the uncle away again. Unlike the others I won’t spoil this one for you because honestly, just need to read it. It’s sad but lovely and so well written. The end is frustrating but far too real. 10/10 still waiting for a full length book. EDIT: OMG I JUST LOOKED AND SHE HAS A BOOK COMING OUT AND I HAVE AN ARC FOR IT. EXCUSE ME, THIS IS MY NEXT READ.

“A Modern Marriage” by Grace Oluseyi

This collection really saved the best two for last. This is another really great piece that I enjoyed due to the depth of this story and how one can relate to the situation despite the fact most of us aren’t in this situation, but is something we could possibly consider if forced to make that choice. The Main Character is home before her wedding day when the phone rings. It’s her cousin. Who tells her the man she’s due to marry is already married back there, with kids, that he’s using her for a green card. In which the MC hangs up the phone. And we go back to how they met, how they fell in love, and what led to the wedding. Which takes place despite this news. And man, is this good. It’s done out with full drama and grey areas, leaving you as a reader unsure what to think until the end. Something I love about this is the fact the MC might have a learning disability, but her parents never let her get tested or help for it due to a view that it’s bad. As someone with one, I can understand just how she felt and the fact she fought to graduate high school, even late. As someone who’s family doesn’t let me often mention my own and refuses to see it for what it is, a disability, it was extremely relatable and made me love her more. To the end, the MC is conflicted, and so is the reader. One second she seems almost happy about the marriage, only to wonder if the driver feels like he’s alone in a cage, which almost reflects on where her thoughts corrently are. A must read from this collection 10/10.