Gorilla, My Love
Toni Cade Bambara
Published in the fall of 1972, Toni Cade Bambara’s debut short story collection is a prismatic homage to the lived experience of Black Americans. Perhaps a foreshadowing of the titles Bambara would later pen, Gorilla, My Love deftly examines the challenges of navigating gender, class, and race while coming of age. Through the voices of her young narrators, Bambara boldly dissects the hypocrisy of the adult world with humor, wisdom, and heart. Hazel’s self-awareness in the title story to the collection challenges Bambara’s audience to revel in their own independence and reconsider the power of a name. As a community reflects on the murder of a local woman, the aftermath of a violent act and its probable cause, “Talkin bout Sonny” highlights the uncertain nature of human closeness and trauma.With a playful, yet perceptive voice, a narrator remembers a woman who “wanted something she could not have” in “Maggie.” Gorilla, My Love is an under-celebrated and timely classic by a literary visionary.
Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self
In Danielle Evans’ skillfully written debut, protagonists find themselves at the center of many crossroads at once. Infused with compassion and satisfyingly subtle humor, Evans’ narratives offer an immersively existential snapshot of the contemporary Black experience in a fashion similar to Langston Hughes, Pearl Cleage, and Donna Kate Rushin (whose poetry inspired the title of Evans’ collection). Through her eight skillfully crafted stories, Evans depicts how an already complicated life can be irrevocably altered—sometimes for the best or the worst—by the unexpected. In “Robert E. Lee is Dead,” a cheerleader commits an act of vandalism that forces her to consider not only where her loyalties lie in the present, but what type of future she wants for herself. In “Virgins,” a pair of friends cope with the complexities of sexual intimacy, autonomy, and adolescence. Through the pages of “Snakes,” readers watch as a biracial girl and her white grandmother come to terms with the past during a transformative, although fraught, summer together. A dynamic reflection on agency, regret, and freedom, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self is a bold collection well-deserving of subsequent reads.
Leslie Marmon Silko
In the introduction to Storyteller, Leslie Marmon Silko writes, “Old and new stories are essential: They tell us who we are, and they enable us to survive.” A hybrid of memoir, poetry, and fiction, Silko’s collection dances on the borderlands of genre, resulting in an intricately lush tapestry of tales that pay homage to Silko’s cultural roots as well as her ancestral matriarchs. Whatever literary form she wields or fuses together, Silko’s stories are immediate and soul-stirring. Urgent and humming with depth, her words revel in the necessity and revolutionary nature of storytelling. A stunning testament to the value of oral storytelling, this book, much like Silko’s other works, proves that “if you don’t have the stories, you don’t have anything” and that each generation must continue the tradition of sharing their truth.
Woman Hollering Creek
Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories by Sandra Cisneros portrays the lives of Latinx women living in the borderlands of Mexico and the US. Through the voices of insightful children (“Eleven”), precocious teeangers (“One Holy Night”), and resilient women (“Woman Hollering Creek”), Cisneros cultivates an illuminating commentary on desire, devotion, and displacement. Her characters are unconventional heroines who understand that “life will always be hard” yet still dare to find love, forge friendships, revel in gossip, and make wishes. Lyrical and imaginative, Cisneros’ collection is as captivating as the women that live in its pages.
In Krys Lee’s Drifting House, suffering, loss, and yearning shape the lives of protagonists who exist at the intersection of two cultures. Heart-rending and haunting, the nine stories within Lee’s collection capture unshakable moments of despair amidst glimmers of hope. In “The Goose Father” an accountant loses themselves in a romance with a young man who believes that his deceased mother has been reincarnated into a goose. A determined mother leaves Seoul to in search of her daughter in southern California in “A Temporary Marriage,” a mission that forces her to hire a detective and cohabitate with a unconventional man who sleeps beneath a ping-pong table instead of a bed. In “The Pastor’s Son,” a widow honors a promise made to his deceased wife by marrying her childhood friend despite the weight of his grief and his bride-to-be’s unhappiness. A teenage girl questions her faith after her fanatical mother commits an unthinkably violent act in “The Believer.” However distressing they might be, the stories in this collection are brutally beautiful and compelling.
Slapboxing with Jesus
2019 marks the 20th anniversary of Victor LaValle’s debut short story collection’s publication. Comprised of twelve expressive linked stories, Slapboxing with Jesus is a relatable and heartening homage to friendship, self-discovery, and coming of age. Set in New York City, LaValle’s stories center around characters on the brink of pivotal moments in their lives, moments that will define who they will or hope to become. Through the eyes of his protagonists, the topography of the city becomes the backdrop to illuminating epiphanies and transitions. A contemporary successor to titans like James Baldwin and James Joyce, LaValle’s narratives remind us that “our lives…are important artifacts” worthy of being remembered and shared. A stunning start to what would later become a noteworthy career, Slapboxing with Jesus confirms that LaValle has always been a masterful storyteller.
In National Book Award winner James McBride’s Five-Carat Soul, a menagerie of animals telepathically communicate with a zookeeper (“Mr. P and the Wind”), a vintage toy collector hunts for a train set crafted by Robert E. Lee (“The Under Graham Railroad Box Car Set”), and a young boy declares that he is Abraham Lincoln’s son (“Father Abe”). The first collection of stories from the author whose 1995 literary debut was a New York TimesFive-Carat Soul possesses the same spellbinding vibrance that initially established McBride as part of the contemporary literary canon. From beginning to end, the worlds that McBride creates are unforgettable. A vivid meditation on racism, history, and humanity, Five-Carat Soul is an inventive and brilliant collection from an undeniably talented griot.
Drinking Coffee Elsewhere
A finalist for the Pen/Faulkner Award, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere is a notable debut collection from the ingenious ZZ Packer. Throughout the eight short stories that appear in her collection, Packer fuses humor with social commentary and searing wisdom. “Brownies” follows an all-black troop of Girl Scouts during their time at Camp Crescendo and their growing feud with the microaggressive members of Troop 909. In “Speaking in Tongues” a teenage girl questions her religious faith as she sets out to find her absent mother on the streets of Atlanta. A driven young man reckons with his fractured relationship with his father as they travel to the Million Man March in “The Ant of the Self.” Kindred to Kathleen Collins, Dorothy West, and the unparalleled Zora Neale Hurston, Packer’s collection is an excitingly innovative and impeccably crafted, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere is an extraordinary addition to the postmodern Black canon.
Sabrina & Corina
Throughout Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s collection Sabrina & Corina, readers bear witness as Latinix and indigenous women navigate life in the American West. Eclipsed by the violence of poverty, gentrification, and intergenerational trauma, Fajardo-Anstine’s heroines manage to find pockets of joy and solidarity despite the difficulties they face. In “Remedies,” a great grandmother teachers her descendants how to heal what a prescription from a doctor or a trip to the drug store cannot. A young girl wrestles with her grief over her mother’s absence in “Sugar Babies” while two cousins face the uncertainties growing up and the damage that men can weild in the collection’s title story. Stirring and masterfully written, Sabrina & Corina is an applause-worthy offering by an indisputably gifted storyteller.
Sorry Please Thank You
Via an array of impossible and probable worlds, Charles Yu investigates the implications of selfhood via an expressive mosaic of imaginative narratives. Explorations of identity and embodiment reoccur within the pages of Sorry Please Thank You, each story urging Yu’s audience to contemplate their own place in the universe. A fusion of science fiction and allegory, Yu’s fictive vision seamlessly threads dystopian landscapes with existential introspection. Reminiscent of Black Mirror, Octavia Butler, The Twilight Zone, and Ursula K. LeGuin, stories like “Human for Beginners,” “Designer Emotion,” and “First Person Shooter” unapologetically survey the limitations of technology, the sinister nature of capitalism, and the resilience of humankind. Sorry Please Thank You is an enthralling read from start to finish.
Xuan Juliana Wang
In Juliana Xuan Wang’s Home Remedies, characters grapple with the tradition, delayed hopes, and the uncertainty of the future. Divided into three parts—Family, Love, Time and Space—Wang’s collection includes a catalogue of ways to cure “non-life threatening ailments,” an account of a family’s brush with luck, and a young woman whose life is changed by a strange device and a feline. A meaningful exploration of tradition, history, and belonging, Home Remedies is a remarkable read that is inarguably filled with wonder. The perfect title to revisit again and again, Wang’s stories deserve to be cherished
In the Country
Mia Alvar’s In the Country is a compilation of nine nimbly crafted stories give voice to the experiences of Filipinos across the globe. Set in the Philippines, New York City, the Middle East, and elsewhere, Alvar’s tales instantly transports readers into the lives of characters who coexist between cultures. In “The Kontrabida,” a young man returns home to visit his mother and ailing father in hopes of easing this father’s suffering. During the months leading up to 9/11, a cleaning woman contemplates her purpose and begins a romance with a businessman as a way to combat the monotony of job and dissatisfaction with life. In “The Miracle Worker,” a young woman navigates a complicated relationship with the family who hires her to teach their daughter. In the Country is a poignant depiction of people in search of solace, liberation, and home.
Written with intention and astonishing prose, Guadalupe Nettel’s slim yet powerful collection revels in melancholy and the unexpected. A gripping rumination on the vulnerabilities of the human body and its relation to the world that surrounds it, Nettel’s stories are beautifully chilling in a viscerally lasting way. A celebration of intimacy, longing, and grief, Nettel’s characters lives are strange yet familiar at once. In “Ptosis,” a young man who considers his father’s profession “parasitic” takes photographs of patients before and after they undergo eye surgery. In “Bonsai,” a man caught in the midst of a disintegrating marriage befriends a gardener who teaches him invaluable lesson about the nature of plants while a young woman searches for the “undesirable paradise” of “True Solitude” in “The Other Side of the Dock.” An exhilarating homage to mortality and autonomy, Bezoar and Other Unsettling Stories is an immaculately executed collection.
You Are Free: Stories
Much like the protagonists in her debut Caucasia and the more recent New People, the characters within Danzy Senna’s You Are Free aren’t always likable, but they are always memorable. Through each story, Senna offers readers a series of profoundly riveting portraits of young women in search of themselves. An interracial couple with an infant cope with the demands of parenthood while enduring the microaggressive ignorance of their neighbors. Old friends Ramona and Livy reconnect after years of separation in “The Care of the Self,” an occurrence that makes both women question what it is that they want most out of life. On the heels of a breakup a woman finds an egregious outlet for her rage within “The Land of Beulah.” A provocative critique on gender, race, and desire, You Are Free is a reminder of Senna’s breadth as a storyteller.
In Toni Morrison’s latest essay collection The Source of Self-Regard, the Nobel winning visionary urges her audience that “literature… is an unblinking witness to the light and shade of the world we live in.” A mirror reflecting back to us experiences, familiar and unknown, the written page has the power to affirm, confront, and transform the worldview of generations of readers. Stories—old and new alike—can spark change, but only if we are willing to turn the proverbial and literal page and lose ourselves in the visions of authors whose experiences and histories vary from our own. By embracing the work of marginalized writers, we as readers gain a deeper understanding of the world we live in and our place within it. Their work reminds us that decolonizing your bookshelf isn’t just a way to revitalize your reading habits. It’s your duty as a literary citizen.
Featured image: @kdmcnaught15 via Twenty20