When I began writing, I imitated. I didn’t know what writing involved, but if it was a craft, then imitation seemed an intuitive place to begin. I approached composing a short story the way I might cook dinner.
The process involved timing, taste, intuition, and some theatrical flair. But what was served up never looked anything like the originals. I practiced with the scale of an Annie Proulx story, attempted Jhumpa Lahiri’s method of letting the story quietly unravel, and channeled Sandra Cisneros’s playful metaphors. Admiring what other writers are doing is still the only way I know to write, but over time I’ve found new archetypes set outside the English-speaking world. These collections were closer to what I was trying produce about Thailand. So in the course of writing Welcome Me to the Kingdom, these are the story collections I learned from.
North America: The Middleman and Other Stories by Bharati Mukherjee
Any globetrotting story-collection list must begin with Bharati Mukherjee’s The Middleman and Other Stories, which I bought over a decade ago knowing nothing about Mukherjee or the collection. I went purely on the opening of the first story. And then the opening of the second story. I should just list here first sentences, because Mukherjee’s beginnings are all aces. To read its cover, it’s a collection about immigration, but I was not prepared for the range of experiences, languages, and boundaries crossed. Mukherjee runs the gamut of North American migrant origins: India, Italy, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, and more. She gets away with this because of the confidence and verve of her writing, evident in a first sentence like this one from “Fighting for the Rebound”:
“I’m in bed watching the Vanilla Gorilla stick it to the Abilene Christians on some really obscure cable channel when Blanquita comes through the door wearing lavender sweats, and over them a frilly see-through apron.”
Pakistan: In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Muenuddin
I love the sense of periphery in Daniyal Muenuddin’s story collection, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders. The stories revolve around K. K. Harouni, a declining patriarch of Pakistan’s old landowning class, which is fitting given that the collection is also a lens onto the country’s changing feudal system. We see how this system is tapped by wily servants or infiltrated by outsiders hoping to improve their stations. Declarations in an early story (“you came with nothing, you leave with nothing”) echo into a later one, as if we readers were, as the collection’s title suggests, drifting from room to room on the failing estate, among characters waiting for their time to come.
Nigeria: What it Means When a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah
In her collection, What it Means When a Man Falls from the Sky, set in Nigeria and the US, Lesley Nneka Arimah masters time. She collapses it, as in the opening story, the threateningly titled The Future Looks Good, in which an entire family history is unspooled in the time it takes for a character fumble with her keys at the door. In Second Chances, Arimah rewinds time, allowing the narrator’s dead mother to step from an old photograph into the room. But my favorite use of time is in how the father in Light hoards the time—a single moment, really—he has left with his daughter, who will soon leave Nigeria, and him, behind.
Haiti: Krik? Krak! by Edwidge Danticat
Edwidge Danticat’s collection skillfully retells a period of Haitian history. In Children of the Sea, a boat of refugees stranded between Haiti and the US becomes the vehicle a love story between a fleeing dissident and a lover left behind. The woman in Nineteen Thirty-Seven visits her mother in prison, who survived a mass killing of Haitians in the Dominican Republic only to be rounded up in a witch hunt. By the end of the collection, we feel we’ve walked the political landscape of François Duvalier’s brutal regime, passing historical landmarks, moving from Port-au-Prince to the fictional country town of Ville Rose, from the “Massacre River” on the Dominican border to a churchyard where dissidents murdered by the new regime have been buried.
Japan: The Diving Pool by Yoko Ogawa, translated by Stephen Snyder
The Diving Pool was Yoko Ogawa’s first collection (three novellas) to be translated into English. It’s a study in control. All three stories are narrated by women, and all three narrators share an uncanny detached voice, as if the narrator were not in the story but observing from the same distance as the reader. By taking control of this distance, Ogawa draws us readers in slowly, holding back enough to lure us into an uneasy empathy. By the time we realize what’s happening, we’re already aligned the narrators, implicated in their cruelty, as if to show us what we’re capable of. One of the narrators describes this tension thusly: “As the tip of his finger ran over the inside of my mouth, I fought the urge to bite down with all my might.” Which becomes what the reader feels: the want to bite, the will to hold back—initially, anyway.
Across countries: The Boat by Nam Le
Nam Le’s story collection exists in counterpoint to Mukherjee’s—where I started this list. If Muhkerjee’s is a collection about the world coming to the States, then Le’s is about writing away from the US into the world. The opening story finds a fictional Le in an MFA program, facing down a visit from his Vietnamese father while deciding whether succumb to the book market’s appetite for “ethnic lit.” The story opens the door for the collection’s ethnic wandering. Le’s sentences have the daring and energy of Mukherjee’s, but the stories take place in Colombia and Japan and Iran. Le channels Medellín gangsters, Hiroshima orphans, and an Australian schoolboy before finally coming full circle to a story about Vietnamese refugees.
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