By Adam Vitcavage
Literature, for so much of its history, has been dominated by white men. The non-official canon boasts the likes of Twain and Hemingway to Chabon and DeLillo. In high school, while reading Fitzgerald, Miller, Steinbeck, and so many other white men, Harper Lee was the lone female that all of my friends seemed to have read. In college, I was obsessed with Salinger, Roth, Cheever, and Updike; enough so that I not so jokingly referred to them as The Beatles of American Literature.
Over the past couple of years, I spent time shying away from the traditional heavyweight white male writers, and sought out female writers. It’s easy. So many of my recent favorites (Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad and Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, to name a few) have been by women.
In addition to seeking well-written books by talented women, I also wanted to broaden my horizon even more by reading people of color. Again, this isn’t hard. So many of the most talent writers—Colson Whitehead, Jesmyn Ward, Aravind Adiga—are people of color who have written books that blew me away.
Recently, I had the chance to interview Mariana Enriquez—an immensely talented fiction writer and journalist who is Argentinean. Her most recently short story collection was translated into English and published as Things We Lost in the Fire this month.
Enriquez’ stories are vibrant depictions of her native Argentina, mostly Buenos Aires, as well as some ventures to surrounding countries. She fills the dozen stories with compelling characters in haunting stories that evaluate inequality, violence, and corruption. Characters range from social workers to street dwellers and even venture into dark magic users. With those characters, the author explores tourists in Argentina, the rich visiting the slums, plus so many more dynamic areas of her home country.
In December 2016, The New Yorker published “Spiderweb,” a story about a bad relationship growing more difficult. The story is a prime example of how Enriquez explores political themes, as well as her penchant to focus on the horrors of life.
The collection got me thinking about other short story collections by women of color I enjoyed recently. For the sake of saving (digital) space, I limited this to five recommendations that have been recently published. But, believe me, there are plenty more.
The Man Who Shot Out My Eye is Dead by Chanelle Benz
This collection of short stories succeeds in creating visceral voices over the course of centuries. Chanelle Benz is able to engage readers in invigorating stories about a 16th century monk to a 19th century baroque piece narrated by a chorus of We. "The West of Known,” the opening story, garnered Benz a lot of recognition when it was first published in The American Reader. The story earned her an O. Henry Prize and is an astonishing piece to introduce yourself to her writing. "James III" is a modern piece about violence and family that is narrated from the perspective of a high school freshman in Philadelphia. However, what stands out about Benz's writing is not the thought provoking plot; instead, it is the voice she is able to give James. He feels so real. So do all of her other narrators. Each one is a unique human who really lived. They're not just characters in a short story collection.
What is Not Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi
Chances are you’ve read this book. It made nearly every “Best Of” list for 2016. But I’m here to make sure the rest of you who might have missed this collection why it’s great. While all of the collections I’m recommending are illuminating, I want to highlight Helen Oyeyemi’s originality and prose. Her novels are imaginative and she was able to take her toolkit and adapt them for stories extremely well. Throughout the collection, she uses keys and locks—figuratively and literally—as a foundation to hold the stories together. She’s able to produce expansive worlds in a limited space better than most writers are able to create in a full-length novel. She bends narratives’ structures until they nearly snap.
Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? by Kathleen Collins
Kathleen Collins might not be a name you recognize. She was a playwright, filmmaker, writer, and an African-American civil rights activist who died in her forties in 1988. So why is this 27-year-old white guy, whose life never overlapped with the author’s, writing about her? A collection of her stories called Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? knocked me on my ass, that's why. Her sixteen stories offer poignant insight into everyday life for African-Americans in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Collins earnestly invites readers into intimate stories like they were lifelong bosom buddies. The ease of the author’s writing balances the explosive content filling the collection, and while these stories are decades old, their themes are more relevant than ever at the close of one of the most racially turbulent years in modern history.
Difficult Women by Roxane Gay
In Bad Feminist, a collection of essays, Roxane Gay wrote eloquently about race, feminism, poverty and more in an accessible way. She continues to use her strong voice in this collection of short stories that take those same themes and waves them into stories of resilience and power. She avoids stereotypes within character development as well as plot. Her stories truly reflect modern America through the lens of black women. It is an invigorating read that is eye opening and enlightening.
In the Country by Mia Alvar
Most of these collections can almost be used in history classes to educate students on regions the writers know best. Alvar writes about the Philippines with a raw authenticity through a variety of lenses. Much like Gay’s collection, Alvar’s covers many different aspects of life in the Philippines; especially her hometown of Manila. Families deteriorate because of trust, or they grow stronger because of love. A foreign model learns the hard truths about a town. A bullied little boy finds and loses hope in an unlikely place. So many of her stories reveal the underbelly of a region not many Americans, especially white men like myself, ever think about. However, even if you’ve never read about the topics Alvar writes about, there is a familiarity to her themes and writing that is welcoming for any reader.