By Angela Palm
At AWP this year, I was caught off guard when a young, white male writer said to me, “I’m surprised you’re not more well-read.” I was surprised, too — because I’m an author and editor and thus well-read through the nature of my chosen profession. Surprised, because over the course of my reading life, which is longer than his by at least a decade, I’ve read hundreds and hundreds of books. Surprised, because all day while I work in my home office, I’m surrounded by mounds of books that I’ve read or will soon read.
The young man and I had been talking about the ending of “Escape from Spiderhead” in George Saunders’ collection Tenth of December, and he brought up a short story by Ernest Hemingway to make a point about what short stories ought to invoke and how. I admitted to having read just three books from Hemingway’s oeuvre—none of them story collections, and none of them recently. That’s when he made his claim.
I walked away from the conversation stunned, without formulating a defense, and later it occurred to me that this wasn’t the first time I’d been told that I’m not well-read. Last spring, I was chatting with a white male musician about literature, and he, too, expressed similar surprise that I had not read the books that he held dear. This time, the authors were Marcel Proust and, again, Hemingway. I confess: I haven’t read Proust at all. And I’m fine with that.
When I thought about why I hadn’t read the works these men read and loved, and why they had no qualms about assessing my readership as subpar based on whether I had read these works, I realized that I hadn’t often sought out many works by white, cis, male writers since I’d been made to read them as an undergrad. It’s not that I find them problematic (though they sometimes are) or uninteresting or unworthy of reading—I’m sure I’m missing out on some great books—but I do feel I often already understand the human and worldly concerns frequently expressed in those works because I’ve been taught to consider them since I could read English. I’m hungry for other concerns, other voices, other characters. When selecting books to read for pleasure, I gravitate instead toward works by women, queer writers, and writers of color. This, to me, is being truly well-read.
I find that I most want to read contemporary stories about women, written by women who are writing right now, alive right now. Stories that are not only well-written, engaging, and full of heart, but also that inspire or influence my own writing in some way.
So, here are five short story collections by women that impressed me or motivated me in some way. Five books I couldn’t put down, a few of which I’ve read more than once.
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Every Kiss a War by Leesa Cross-Smith (Mojave River Press, 2014)
I discovered Leesa Cross-Smith’s work about five years ago via Twitter. I had come to Twitter in search of an online writing community and access to what indie lit journals were publishing. I began reading Leesa’s flash fiction online and was blown away by how she finesses a sentence, impresses a mood, a universe of joy and pain and longing, upon the reader. The way even her half-page flash stories gutted me. Her characters’ heartbreak became my heartbreak. Leesa’s work reminds me that every sentence can slay, ought to slay, and that life’s too sopping wet with intensity and love and disappointment and miscommunication and things said and not said to waste words on lightweight sentences. When Every Kiss a War came out from Mojave River Press, I bought two copies.
Almost Famous Women by Meghan Mayhew Bergman (Scribner, 2014)
I heard Meghan Mayhew Bergman read a short story from her second book, Almost Famous Women, at a reading in our home state of Vermont. Meghan had studied the lives of women who were, well, almost famous or lived lives adjacent to fame in some way but were in their own right worthy of fame, giving them new life through her stories. My favorite story in this collection is “Norma Millay’s Film Noir Period.” (Norma Millay was Edna St. Vincent Millay’s younger sister.) Meghan’s stories bring fascinating women out of obscurity and put them in the spotlight, and she inspires me to seek out and tell the unexpected tales, the stories no one has heard.
The Other One by Hasanthika Sirisena (University of Massachusetts Press, 2016)
I met Hasanthika when we were Bread Loaf fellows last year and I fell in love with her work instantly. Her debut collection moves between Sri Lanka and the states, contending with the aftermath of civil war at home and abroad, bringing to life a cultural history and trauma I previously knew very little about. Here we have characters old and young, connected and scattered, presented with humor, hope, and certain beauty as the world changes and exhales. Hasanthika writes the way I hope to write fiction: coming right up to the matter at hand, unflinching. And her stories’ endings, to my mind, are masterful examples of how to close. They seem, somehow, to contain the entire world.
Half Wild by Robin MacArthur (Ecco, 2016)
Robin and I were paired for a string of readings last fall because our first books were released the same month, were both Indie Next picks, and we both live in Vermont. Robin’s stories have a lyric, musical quality to them. When I heard her read the line, “The one who wanted something other than what she was born with, who nursed me until I was three (little titty-monkey), the one who lays her hand on my shoulder when I come home from class and says, ‘Angel, you be good. You be real good, baby-o,’” from the story “Creek Dippers,” I knew two things: we were going to get along well, and I had to buy that book immediately. Now, when my sentences start sounding too mechanical, I open to a random page of Half Wild, and I remember the way words can sing—in a manner both half wild and wholly unexpected.
Doll Palace by Sara Lippmann (Dock Street Press, 2014)
Sara Lippmann is another writer I discovered on Twitter. The short stories in her collection, Doll Palace, often span only a handful of pages but somehow manage to precisely capture the modern lives of girls and women. Sara’s writing shows me, again and again, how narrative voice can propel everything from character to plot. Take these two short sentences from a story called “Tomorrowland,” for example: “Enthusiasm is contagious. I worry my daughter will meet a nice man.” Many of the stories in this collection are written in the first person. Whenever I try my hand at that point of view, I return to the dog-eared pages of Doll Palace to remember how to say things without saying things. How to lead a story through first-person point of view without directing.
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If I could rewrite my responses to those men, I’d say, “Have you read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Mia Alvar, and Roxane Gay? Sandra Cisneros or Louise Erdrich? No? Leesa Cross-Smith or Robin MacArthur?” I’d give them this list. I have no doubt I’ll find myself in this position again—cornered by a man heralding Hemingway. Next time, I’ll be ready to reframe the accusation, quick with my response.
Angela Palm is the author of Riverine: A Memoir from Anywhere but Here (Graywolf Press), an Indie Next selection, winner of the 2014 Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize, and a Kirkus Best Book of 2016. She lives in Vermont, where she works as an editor. angipalm.com/