Congratulations to Edwidge Danticat and Deborah Eisenberg for being awarded MacArthur Awards (so-called “Genius” grants) this week. They are the only two authors among the twenty-four winners. Each will receive $500,000 over the next five years, to, as the Los Angeles Times puts it, “do with as they please.”
I am pleased that both authors are well known for their short-story collections. Danticat’s first, Krik? Krak!” was very well reviewed, and Eisenberg’s several collections, including her most recent, Twilight of the Superheroes, place her among the top half dozen short story writers currently practicing that underrated art.
The short story’s lack of room to ruminate about so-called “big” socio-political issues is one reason the form is not popular with so-called “serious” critics who prefer genres that generalize. The kind of complexity that fascinates masters of the short story is not captured by using more and more words but by using just the right ones. Good stories, like good poems, don’t pontificate
The best stories of Deborah Eisenberg, who has been called a master of the form, reflect her continuing conscientious effort to provide a structure and a syntax for feelings unspeakable until just the right rhythm makes what was loose and lying around inside clench and cluster into a meaningful pattern.
In “Some Other, Better Otto,” in Twilight of the Superheroes, the central character is so self negating, so full of doubt and dubiousness that you just want to smack him. But you know he can’t help it, that of all his possible selves he cannot quite seem to find that other, better one that would make his life full and complete. However, what great short story writers like Eisenberg wisely know is that there is no unified self, only rare moments of recognition, evanescent contacts of communication.
South African writer Nadine Gordimer once said that the novel is often bound to a consistency that does not convey the true quality of human life, “where contact is more like the flash of fireflies.” Short-story writers, Gordimer says, “see by the light of the flash; theirs is the art of the only thing one can be sure of—the present moment.”
In “Like It or Not,” also in Superheroes, a divorced Midwestern high school biology teacher visits a sophisticated friend in Italy and is expertly guided about by a polished and knowledgeable European man. Like a delicate Jamesian romance, nothing much happens but much is immanent. Its not just that the man feels he is getting older or that the woman feels insecurely empty, but, rather, as the man tells a young woman they encounter in a hotel, “It’s quite mysterious, what attracts one human being to another.” This is the kind of mystery that great short-story writers, such as Chekhov, have always struggled with. As the central character of his brilliant story “Lady with the Pet Dog” inchoately understands, people have two lives, one open and known by all who cared to know, and another life, running its course in secret.
Eisenberg is indeed a master of the short story. She succeeds much more often than she fails because she brilliantly exploits what the form does best. It’s only when she seems to be seduced by the public demand for the novelistic that she breaks faith with the great masters who have preceded her.
After earning enough money by driving cab and working as a laborer, Edwidge Danticat’s parents brought her to the U.S when she was twelve. Her first book Breath, Eyes, Memory, a novel about four generations of Haitian women, was published in 1994, when she was twenty five, after earning an undergraduate degree at Barnard College and a Master of Fine Arts degree at Brown University. Widely praised, it was picked by Oprah Winfrey’s book club and stayed on the bestseller lists for a short time. Krik? Krak! was nominated for the National Book Award in 1995.
The title of Edwidge Danticat’s first collection of nine stories, mostly about young women growing up under an oppressive regime in Haiti and trying to create a new home in America, comes from an African storytelling call-and-response tradition recounted in the first story, “Children of the Sea.” Someone asks Krik? which inquires if the audience wishes to hear a story, and the listeners emphatically answer Krak!, which means, “yes.”
A central theme in Krik? Krak! focuses on storytelling as a way to heal past psychic injuries and to create a sense of community. The refugees on the boat in “Children of the Sea” tell stories to help them cope with the possibility of imminent death, and the townspeople in “Wall of Fire Rising” sit around a blank television screen after the authorities have turned off the state-sponsored newscasts and tell stories. The mother tells her son stories in “Night Women” to help him deal with his fear and her prostitution.Danticat has said that she hopes that the female storytellers she grew up with will tell their stories through her. “Epilogue: Women Like Us” is a meditation about women and writing. In the world she came from, the narrator says, women who write are called lying whores, and then raped and killed. Writers are politicians who are sent to prison, covered in hot tar and forced to eat their own waste. She concludes that her book is a testament to the way that these women lived and died and lived again.
If you have not discovered Danticat and Eisenberg, I recommend both very highly. They are quite different writers, in style and focus, but they are both very fine short-story writers.