The Best American Short Stories 2021 edited by Jesmyn Ward

When an short story anthology calls itself “the best” without specifying which genres it is (e.g., horror, fantasy, romance, western, etc.), you know it’s got to be literary fiction, which doesn’t consider itself a genre, even though it is.

Colson Whitehead once joked about writing stories of upper middle class white people who get sad sometimes. Most of the protagonists in these stories aren’t white (the characters are very diverse), but there are a few stories about privileged people getting sad sometimes.

A pattern I noticed is many of the stories feature first person narrators who are reluctant to tell us their names for some reason. Some of the stories are slice-of-life stories in which not much happens plot-wise. I think this is the main way literary fiction separates itself from speculative fiction. Speculative fiction almost always has a clear problem for the protagonist to solve and they either solve it or they don’t. In literary fiction, you can just watch a character go about their normal daily routine, listening in on their thoughts. It can be nice to live inside someone else’s head for a while even if nothing monumental happens. There doesn’t even have to be any character growth.

On the other hand, many of these stories actually do contain fantasy elements and could easily be classified as science fiction, fantasy, or horror, even if they tend to be unresolved at the end.

“To Buffalo Eastward” by Gabriel Bump is about a bookish person who feels sad sometimes who does drugs with some people he meets in a bar. It’s a slice-of-life story in which not much happens, but I loved the fun dreamlike imagery.

“The Miracle Girl” by Rita Chang-Eppig is another highlight. A girl in Taiwan is jealous of her sister getting all the attention because she has stigmata. I really liked it, but it was unresolved in the end. The story critiques colonialism. People have to convert to Catholicism for food and schooling. The story questions religion, but the miracles seem real. It raises questions without answering them, which I think is a hallmark of great fiction.

“Playing Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain” by Jamil Jan Kochai is written in the second person with run-on sentences. The video game features the narrator’s father and uncle as characters and seems to be supernatural in some way. Another favorite from this collection.

“Clementine, Carmelita, Dog” by David Means is told from the point of view of a lost dachshund. It does a great job with olfactory details.

“Love Letter” by George Saunders is written in the form of a letter and takes place sometime between 2025 to 2029. (He plays coy and lists the date as 202_). It’s a dystopia in which Trump not only wins reelection, but his son gets elected after him. We’re told there’s no point in expressing your opinions because it won’t change anybody’s mind. (If this is how he feels, why bother writing this story?) There’s nothing a regular person can do to stop fascism. There’s no point in making any empty gestures as that will only get your family in trouble. It’s better to keep yourself out of trouble and just be kind in your daily life. Not one of my favorite stories, but it was interesting.

I really liked “A Way with Bea” by Shanteka Sigers in which an unnamed teacher worries about one of her students.

“Biology” by Kevin Wilson is another favorite from this collection. A student befriends an odd teacher who challenges kids to basketball games for money. The kid creates an interesting-sounding game called Death Cards. Each card has a different life event on it and the goal is to draw four cards from each stage of life without getting a death card. I really liked it.

“Little Beast” by C Pam Zhang, about a girl being horrible to her father because she thinks it will get her friends in school, was quite disturbing.

I didn’t like all the stories in this collection, but that’s usually the way with multi-author collections. Overall, it is worth reading.

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