International Women’s Day falls annually on the 8th March, and is day when the world is invited to reflect on the outstanding contribution of women to all walks of culture and society, celebrating and enforcing the fact that, contrary to the well known phrase, a women’s place should be everywhere: the lab, the gallery, the home, the Commons, the office, the board room, the garage, the pub, the streets at night – the list goes on.
It’s also a time to recognise the inequalities that women still face, and bring them to the forefront of the media and public’s attention, if, unfortunately, for only one day a year. For some lovely people this is still too much, and every year the cries of “but what about International Men’s Day?!” bounce around the Twittersphere like a beach ball in the wind that you can’t catch and deflate. Well, aside from the fact that everyday is basically International Men’s Day (don’t get me started), there is. It’s in November. Do your research.
Take the book world as a case in point: Experiments such as this where a woman sent in exactly the same manuscript and cover letter to agents, first as herself, then as a man, and received 15 more responses in the latter instance, shows us that there is definitely something awry. The bias towards male writers is clearly so deeply ingrained in our psyches that, scarily, we do not even realise it.*
Many people are working hard to address issues such as this. Our friends at And Other Stories have committed to only publishing women in 2018, in the hopes that it will uncover more talent that may have gone unnoticed otherwise, and encourage them to get to the bottom of industry wide bad habits. Likewise, the new Warwick Prize for Women in Translation was announced yesterday, offering a cash prize to the winner and aiming to make more international female voices accessible to British and Irish readerships.
The #READWOMEN campaign, a twitter feed dedicated to the promotion of female writers, is also doing a tremendous job of making sure that female writers are seen, heard, and shouted about on social media. Inspired by their mad tweeting, I reached out to some friends of Comma to ask them for their favourite short stories written by women, to firstly disseminate my feminist agenda on the Comma blog, and secondly (and more importantly) to showcase some dynamite women writers on International Women’s Day. A huge thank you to everyone who contributed. Enjoy!
*Other, similar experiments have also highlighted the ingrained bias towards people with English-sounding names over Asian-sounding names. Issues such as this are always inter-sectional, but that’s a blog post for another time.
‘Fruit and Words’ by Aimee Bender (from her collection Willful Creatures, published by Cornerstone)
It’s always a joy to read Bender’s surreal stories, but this one really sticks with me, it’s so visual- a woman has an urge for fruit and stops at a store that sells words. The words are like structures, each one looks different and has a unique quality, some feel light, some are almost frightening, as a writer I could really relate to that.
‘Conceptual’ by Angela Readman (audio version available online here, from her collection Don’t Try This At Home, published by And Other Stories)
A bittersweet tale of eccentricity, heartbreak and social exclusion by a wonderful staccato prose stylist. Readman fits an entire world into 5 pages.
‘Spite House’ by Alison Moore (available online here, from the anthology Poor Souls’ Light: Seven Curious Tales, published by Curious Tales)
Moore’s tense, otherworldly weird world-view is never so sharp & scratchy as it is in Spite House. This is a story about sibling rivalry, but as ever with Moore, it’s never just about that: it’s also about how the ghosts in our past will never let us go.
‘Break It Down’ by Lydia Davis (audio version available online here, from her collection of the same name, published by Farrar Straus and Giroux)
Break it Down is a story about love: how it develops, the touches and smiles, how inexplicably it builds, and then how it can suddenly leave us without us ever really knowing what happened.
‘Eating Bone’ by Shabnam Nadiya (available online here, features in Flash Fiction International, published by W.W.Norton & Company Inc.)
‘Miss Brill’ by Katherine Mansfield (available online here)
I like it for the narrowness of focus, the sparse, clean writing, and the painfully poignant final line.
‘Stone Mattress’ by Margaret Atwood (available online here, from her collection of the same name, published by Virago)
Because revenge is sweet; because this story is full of dark glee mixed with the genuinely awful; because it confirms my horror of cruise ships.
‘At the Mouth of the River of Bees’ by Kij Johnson (online here, from her collection of the same name, published by Big Mouth House)
Nobody I talk to has ever heard of Kij Johnson, so this whole collection feels like a particularly luscious, private joy. This story takes a magical idea – a river of bees – and make it real; the magic comes along later. Gorgeous writing about a freshly-imagined world, filled with deep meaning.
‘Mouse Maker’ by Margo Lanagan (from her collection Red Spikes, published by Allen & Unwin)
I love almost all of Margo Lanagan’s stories, and she is under-read in the UK (hailing from Australia). I also love mice, and the idea of being able to make a pot full of them, and unleash them on a bigoted farmer’s crops, hooked me in. It gets more grisly. I don’t get on with horror at all, but Lanagan makes me wriggle just enough.
My favourite short stories, or rather my favourite short story collection is The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter (published by Gollancz). I love this gnarly and grotesque twist on a classic book of fairytales, the way she combines dark comedy with re-imagining familiar narratives in light of a new feminist era. I think it’s one of those collections everyone should read.
‘Passing’ by Rania Mamoun (my translation, from The Book of Khartoum, published by Comma Press)
This beautiful meditation on the death of a father is utterly absorbing. It comes from Mamoun’s collection Thirteen Months of Sunrise, which I was recently awarded a PEN/Heim grant to translate, so look for the full collection soon.
‘Scenes from the Life of an Autocrat’ by Basma Abdel Aziz (my translation, available online here)
This dystopian short story dovetails nicely with Basma’s debut novel The Queue, and offers a darkly satirical take on authoritarian reality that resonates just as much with political reality in the US and UK as it does with contemporary Egypt.
‘The Apartment in Bab el-Louk’ by Donia Maher (my translation, excerpt available online here and forthcoming in full with Darf Publishers later this year)
This illustrated short story / “noir poem” lets the reader into the mind of a strange recluse in downtown Cairo. Ganzeer and Nady’s illustrations build on Maher’s eerie prose, for a fabulous genre-crossing work.
‘In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried’ by Amy Hempel (available online here)
A short story I read and re-read, for it’s darkly humorous and moving take on friendship and death, it surprises me every single time.
‘Between My Father and the King’ by Janet Frame (available online here, from the collection of the same name, published by Counterpoint)
This is really flash fiction, less than 1000 words, and oh my does it pack a punch. I use it in writing workshops as a masterclass in how little you need to say to devastate your reader. Everything, all of life, is here.
‘The Egg Pyramid’ by Nuala O’Connor (from the collection Mother America, published by New Island Books)
This one under 500 words and also a story I go back to again and again, for its voice, its rhythms and its power. Beautiful.
‘The Debutante’ by Leonora Carrington (available online here)
It’s the centenary of her birth this year. She was an incredible surrealist artist and writer who was born and brought up in Lancashire.
‘Butcher’s Perfume’ by Sarah Hall (available online here, from her collection The Beautiful Indifference, published by Faber & Faber)
Sarah Hall is a master of the erotic, and her particular talent for capturing the unbridled character of rural Cumbria shines through in this stunning depiction of a young woman and her relationship with the notorious Slessor family. Out of all the stories in the collection this one resonated the most in my mind for its sensuous writing and compelling portrayal of the north – its people, the landscape, and the language of violence coursing through every line.
“Gracia” is a beautifully atmospheric story which concentrates on a loving, evocative recreation of a particular neighbourhood in Barcelona. It is also a stark, fierce and powerful warning about the future we are busily creating for ourselves, a combination of science fiction and horror story that feels very, very real.
Although her husband thinks it is too dangerous, Gracia insists on going to visit her grandmother and attend a funeral in the Barcelona neighbourhood of Sants. Through marriage she has joined the comfortable middle class, but she still feels more at home there. The story is set in the near future, and the author vividly builds up a picture of the many ways in which society has changed for the worse, and at last we understand that even her wealth cannot insulate Gracia from the unthinkable horrors that are part of this brave new world.
‘Bad Dreams’ by Tessa Hadley (available online here, from her collection of the same name, published by Penguin Books)
Tessa Hadley’s short story ‘Bad Dreams’ was a recent discovery for me, and it showcases this compressed form beautifully. It is a story of such depth and texture: poignant, troubling, yet with such a sense of humour too.
I am obsessed with Zoe Gilbert’s ‘Thunder Cracks’ (available online here, from the anthology Spindles: Stories from the Science of Sleep, published by Comma Press) right now. I was so transported, I forgot where I was – everything but the storm disappeared. I love how visceral it is, like a fever dream that leaves you exhausted on waking.
‘To Do’ by Jennifer Egan (available online here)
This story is a terrific example of being grabbed by the scruff of the neck by a form that flatly refuses to be defined.
Likewise, Lavinia Greenlaw’s ‘The Darkest Place in England’ (except available online here), shortlisted for the BBC Short Story Award last year is a remarkable piece of storytelling; lyrical, elegant, disturbing – I read it, go back to the beginning, read it, go back to the beginning – and every time something else socks me in the face.
And an all time favourite is the doyenne of the short story Alice Munro and ‘Corrie‘ (available online here). Read it now. Immediately.