What a provocative, multi-faceted, gifted fiction collection for the Spring! For each issue, with suggestions from our fine readers, we collaborate on which pieces to accept. Then we edit and proof certain stories. This time, Lee introduces you to four riveting pieces, each coincidentally dealing with crime and its impact on the survivors, while Anjali introduces you to four immersive stories that tease out nuances around the themes of love, belonging, and being on the outside.
Lew McCreary’s “Visiting Hours” is haunting narrative of parents grieving for their daughter, raped, then withdrawing into a silence. They stood and listened for signs of animation. Not hearing them, sometimes they cracked the door and looked in to make sure she was still there with them, on this earth. She lifted her head and stared. She was like an injured animal, a thing with feelings beyond their reach. Yet, the story gathers to offer its own fraught redemption.
We find a distinctly different treatment of daughters in Shubha Sunder’s “Boomtown Girl,” the title story of her forthcoming prize-winning collection, set in Bangalore, India. More than a coming-of-age story, this mesmerizing piece delves into class, cultural identity, a missing child, and possible death. Against the moving clouds the summit glided, black and solid as a ship, and the girls felt themselves gliding with it, borne along, as if the earth itself were carrying them forward . . . Inside, the staircase had no bannister. Koo ran to the landing and up the steps, oblivious to the sheer drop alongside. Mal followed. Her feet moved as if through mud. She shied from the naked edge.
In John Blair’s “Fish,” an unrepentant ex-convict does not shy from the naked edge, but instead, in his idiosyncratic, aggressive voice, tells how he returns to his criminal ways. So what the trout would do, was hang out in the cool eddies until their time came, taking whatever floated their way, doomed from the start and not giving a rat’s ass one way or the other. Slackers, waiting to die, making the best of a completely screwed-up situation. It was a picture Lee liked: relaxed and resigned, mellow as hell, death right there in bed with you, as inevitable as the sun coming up on the first blazing morning of summer.
Although not trapped in a totally screwed up, life or death situation, the gay protagonist in William Gaythwaite’s “Unlike Some People” struggles to make sense of his love life while being offered spiritual guidance from his aunt, convicted of embezzlement, but converted to Buddhism. My aunt was coming for a visit. We were about to be neighbors, in fact. It was the summer she’d been released from prison . . . This must have been 2005. Martha Stewart had recently come back into the world after her own little incarceration and my boyfriend Ian was trying to draw some dumb parallels.
Shastri Akella’s “The Ghost that Shaped the Skin,” set in South India, is a powerful story full of unspoken layers and tensions that run just below the surface, reminiscent of the frozen lake that features at a critical moment. Full of unexpected imagery and featuring two outsiders who are outside in different ways and therefore don’t exist fully in the same space, it is an exploration of caste and privilege, power dynamics, and cultural belonging. “You did it for money?” Aarti asked, fixing him with a disbelieving glare. “When you lie your smell goes from Orange to Lemon.” Sahdëv frowned and tried to think of oranges. Aarti leaned closer and whispered, “Be an Orange. Don’t be a Lemon.”
The theme of belonging and feeling an outsider to what others perceive as one’s culture is reflected in “Fishy,” by Wendy Tong, in which a mixed-race young woman struggles with her appearance and her Chinese heritage. But fishy wasn’t always good. Smell was the only sense that bypassed the thalamus, connecting directly to primordial parts of the brain. Memories threatened to resurface. Elementary school. Pointed fingers. The cruelty of young children, eager to root out differences that mean nothing but also everything. Identifying only with the parts of that heritage that have caused her difficulties, it is eventually through food—rendered so vividly that the reader experiences its textures, smells and tastes—that she reaches a new understanding of herself, and her relationships.
In “About Face,” Andrew Furman also focuses on food and cooking, this time to express what a father cannot say to his grown daughter with words. The ancient incandescent fixtures I ought to have replaced years ago sprayed a dull, uriny light about that made our small kitchen seem smaller, made the challenge of Ellen seem closer. She was never good about gauging physical distance, and volume, and tone. I could smell her dirt-smells and green-smells from Gil’s nursery, where she now worked, above the saline odors of the halibut fillets I was trimming. With deft handling of dual points of view, Furman illustrates the delicate dance father and daughter perform around their relationship which, while fraught, is full of love.
Love is conspicuously missing in “The Elpenoriad,” in which Chris Huntington treats us to the trials and tribulations of Elpenor, a minor character from The Odyssey who died by unceremoniously falling from a ladder. Never loved but longing to be remembered, Elpenor relays to us with wit and pithy observations (The body is a clumsy envelope for the letter it holds inside) his experience and interactions with Odysseus. With warmth and humor, this piece rides the line between fiction and poetry as it muses on war, death, love, and other lofty themes.
By sharing snippets of these compelling voices, we hope we have lured you into these diverse worlds, whether criminal or redemptive, active or contemplative, where identities and relationships can be shaped, misshaped, reshaped, reborn.
Lee Hope & Anjali Mitter Duva