I have received my copy of The Best American Short Stories: 2016, edited by Junot Díaz. Truth to tell, I was not expecting a great deal. Anyone who has read my blog over the past several years know that I do not admire the work of Junot Díaz. Named one of Newsweek’s “new faces of 1996,” Díaz got a six-figure contract for his first collection Drown. The Boston Review called Drown one of the very first serious chroniclers of the Dominican Diaspora in English-language fiction, introducing a slice of heretofore-unrevealed life to most American readers. Díaz appealed to the trendy focus on multicultural, social, immigrant issues.
Well, I have read all of Díaz's fiction, including his Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao and his last book, the collection This is How You Lose Her. I found the stories self-indulgent and careless, lacking any serious significance. If you wish, you can read my comments on his stories, including the award-winning "Miss Lora" by searching Díaz by name in this blog.
Although I did not expect much from the twenty choices Díaz made from the 120 stories Heidi Pitlor sent him, I must admit I was impressed by Díaz's introduction to BASS 2016, for he seems a genuine admirer of the short story as a form, calling himself a "true believer," adding that the short story is the genre he feels most protective of. Whenever someone says he or she does not read short stories, he finds himself "proselytizing like a madman," sending favorite collections to the person in question. Here is what Díaz says about the short story.
I am as much in awe of the form's surpassing beauty as I am bowled over by its extraordinary mutability and generativity. I love the form's spooky effects, how in contradistinction to the novel, which gains its majesty from its expansiveness, from its size, the short story's colossal power extends from its brevity and restraint….
Short stories are acts of bravura, and for a form junkie like me, to read a good one has all the thrill of watching a high-wire act…few literary forms can match the story at putting a reader in touch with life's fleeting, inexorable rhythm. It's the one great benefit of the form's defining limitation…
To me this form captures better than any other what it is to be human—the brevity of our moments, the cruel irrevocability when those times, places and people we hold the most dear slip through our fingers…my lie has always worked better when understood as a collection of short stories than anything else.
Díaz himself would say, "That's good shit." However, I have not found his own stories to be examples of the form's beauty, and spookiness. Now that I have read half of the twenty stories in the BASS 2016 collection that Díaz chose, I am pondering whether they are examples of what Díaz calls high-wire acts of bravura.
Many of the stories fall within the category of "multicultural," a trend that I thought had peaked and was receding in favor of aesthetic excellence and complexity rather than political and social "relevance" and "context." I have talked about this issue visa a vis before on this blog. If you are interested, just type in "social issues" in the search line to the right of these comments.
What I want to focus on in three of the stories in the 2016 BASS is the relationship between their cultural background/context and their characters and themes. I think the two stories in which the cultural background is highly foregrounded are Mohammed Naseehu Ali's "Revalushan," which takes place in Ghana, and Meron Hadero's "The Suitcase," which takes place in Ethiopia. Kirkus Reviews said about Ali's collection of stories, The Prophet of Zongo Street, (2005) that he "shows an almost anthropological interest in his characters, and that his book is a "richly rewarding cultural study." Although the comic tone and focus of Hadero's "The Suitcase" is quite different than the horrors of "Revalushan," it could also be called a "cultural study" of "anthropological interest." Neither, in my opinion, are more than that.
The best indication of "Revalushan's" dependence on its cultural context is that the story itself is simply a graphically detailed dramatization, in the same prose style, of the background Ali provides in his "Contributor's Notes." He says the story is based on the three-month coup of June 4, 1979 in Ghana in which a "War on Corruption" was waged against wealthy people suspected of hoarding, smuggling, or profiteering.
The story is told by an unnamed narrator who lives in the neighborhood known as Zongo Street. Although his age is not mentioned, his sanguine acceptance of the initial violence seems to suggest he is young, although the story is told from an adult perspective, e.g. "We felt that the tranquil, naïve state of our lives was about to be altered in a way and manner we couldn't have ever imagined."
The writing is often careless, e.g. the redundancy of "way and manner" and the wordiness of "none of the newspapers made mention of the march or the attack." The language is clichéd, e.g., "The inauguration of the Zongo Street PVC ushered in an era of social upheaval in our small community." After one businessman is brutally beaten by the soldiers, the narrator says they "sped off, leaving behind a cloud of red dust and a trail of sorrow and tears on Zongo Street." This is less a story than a description of an horrific historical event.
Meron Hadero's "The Suitcase" is also completely dependent on background—this time the cultural conventions of Ethiopian people determined to send aspects of that culture back to America. The central character, Saba, is twenty and has come back to Addis Ababa, the place of her birth, for the first time. Her visit has been marred by her failure to adapt to the conventions of her birth culture, but they are relatively minor conventions—the stuff of comedy, not tragedy. For example, when she is unable to cross a busy intersection and has to take a cab across, she is convinced she is unable to take a walk on her own. "What she thought would be a romantic, monumental reunion with her home country had turned out to be a fiasco; she didn't belong there."
We know immediately that the purpose of the story is to redeem Saba from this sense of being a "stranger in her homeland, but to do so in a humorous, if not sentimental, way. This is achieved by the device of the suitcase, which gives the story its title.
Saba has two suitcases—one for her clothes and personal possessions, and another which is to be returned filled with gifts from relatives and family friends. Of course, there are too many gifts, and the second suitcase is just too heavy; thus, inevitably, most of the story must be devoted to a comic interchange of the family and friends as they try to determine which gifts--all cultural gifts of food and drink that will remind the Americans of their home—can be packed. There are loaves of bread, a porridge fed to women after childbirth to give them strength, and of course doro wat, a famous Ethiopian chicken stew, which the maker has frozen to make the trip.
What the story must do is find a way to fit all the stuff in the suitcase, for they are all items to make the American relatives remember them and their country. And, of course, since the young woman has tried for a whole month to learn the culture and fit in, she must be the one to solve the problem by making a sacrifice of kindness equal to their kindness to her. And, of course, she does. You will not be surprised, although you might be moved, when she dumps out her own suitcase of her favorite possessions. It is a pleasant story, but culturally bound and thematically easy.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's "Apollo" is less culturally bound. "Apollo" takes place in Nigeria, but Nigeria is not really important in this story; it is merely a place where the event takes place—a story about a young boy who loves but betrays the family houseboy. In " The New Yorker's "This Week in Fiction," Adichie said she was drawn to endings that stun you and make you reconsider the beginning; she said she thought of Okenwa's attraction to Raphael as a certain kind of "first love," which is "that thing filled with an exquisite uncertainty because it does not know itself and cannot even name itself." Because the story is about the mystery of first love, it leaves the nature of the young boy's love unnamed and unacknowledged, even by the grown-up narrator who tells the story.
The introit to the story is a description of how the young man's parents, now in their eighties, have changed: they seem shrunken and they look more and more alike, as if they are blending into each other. Most importantly, they have what the narrator calls a "baffling patience for incredible stories," folklore tales of the supernatural. Fifteen years earlier, he says, they would have scoffed at such stories. Now they seem to have a kind of innocence, a new childhood of old age. Significantly, they ask the narrator when he will get married and give them a grandchild. One the stories they tell him, one without a supernatural element is of an armed robbery in which the ringleader is their old houseboy, Raphael. The narrator says with the mention of Raphael, "My mind had been submerged in the foggy lull of my parents' storytelling, and I struggled now with the sharp awakening of memory."
In the narrator's tale of his childhood, he says he felt like an interloper in the house, for he did not like the things his parents liked. When Raphael is hired, he finds someone who shares his interest in kung fu, and they do Bruce Lee routines together. He feels that it is only with Raphael that his "real life" begins. When Raphael gets conjunctivitis, which the family calls "Apollo," the narrator attends to him in secret, putting the medicine in Raphael's eyes, even though Apollo is highly contagious. The narrator says Raphael looks at him with a wondrous look, for he has never felt himself the subject of admiration. He says he feels "haunted by happiness."
When the narrator himself gets pinkeye, he sees Raphael flirting with a young woman. When he asks Raphael why he did not come to see him, he feels injured that Raphael has not repaid his kindness. When he accidently falls, he says Raphael pushed him, and his father discharges the young man. The story ends with the narrator saying he knows he could have spoken and said it was an accident. "I could have taken back my lie and left my parents merely to wonder."
And indeed, the story is more about wonder, the mystery of motivation—what makes things happen—than about the culture of Nigeria. Although the narrator's story may indeed be about early suggestions of homosexuality, such terminology is not important. The story holds together formally by the repeated motifs of what is seen and not seen, whether causes are natural or, supernatural, what is felt but not articulated, how the past conditions the present. It is a universal story that could happen anywhere; it just happens to take place in Nigeria in Adichie's story.