Reading short stories give us the chance to dip in and out of different worlds in what can be a very intense fashion. Here are three women short story writers whose work I’ve come across recently and enjoyed for the unique worlds they present and the vivid characters who inhabit them.
I once read that a short story should only be about a single moment in time, about a single incident or perception. Of course, I disagreed with this theory as soon as I read it, and racked my brain for examples of short stories that prove it wrong: Alice Munro’s ‘The Bear Went Up the Mountain’ (and just about anything else by Munro, really), John Cheever’s ‘Goodbye, My Brother’, and Andre Dubos’s ‘A Father’s Story’ all came to mind. These short stories are remarkable for the breadth and depth of their themes, and the sheer richness of their worlds. ‘Novelistic’ is another way to describe them (though I’m wary of this term being applied to short stories, as it seems to imply that the novel is a higher art form).
I’ve now found another name to add to this list of writers who create, for want of a better word, ‘novelistic’ short stories: Rebecca Lee.
If you love stories that are a bit meta, writers writing about writing and all that, then Rebecca Lee is for you. Her work tends to be concerned with the ways that language shapes our worlds, and the ways that people use words to reveal, disguise or manipulate.
Writers who take aaages to finish a short story will take comfort in the fact that Lee says she is known for working slowly. Apparently it took her six years to complete ‘Bobcat’, the title story of her collection, ‘Bobcat and Other Stories’. It was well worth it, though. ‘Bobcat’ is one of my all-time favourite short stories and explores many of the big themes (marriage, motherhood, fidelity, friendship and, of course, writing) without ever feeling weighed down.
The story opens with the pregnant narrator, crippled by queasiness, relaying her instructions to her husband on how to prepare the terrine for their impending dinner party: he is to ‘devein, declaw, decimate the sea and other animals, eventually emulsifying them into a paste’. Off to a brutal start, then.
The guests arrive, and their interactions sway between the entertaining and the awkward:
John took to cutting the meat, and Kitty turned to Ray. ‘Meat, meat, meat, meat, meat, meat, meat, meat, meat, meat,’ she said, many more times than seemed amusing or rational.
‘Bobcat’ is one of those stories that I revisit frequently, and always find something new in (nearly every line in my copy of the story has been underlined or annotated). The rest of the stories in the collection are also fantastic, and well worth a read.
Yiyun Li, the author of two short story collections and one novel, didn’t always think of herself as a writer. After college, she emigrated from China to the United States to do a PhD in immunology, but soon turned to ‘the private act’ of creative writing instead.
Typically, Li’s stories are either set in China or follow the experiences of Chinese Americans. Her pared-back writing style and insights into character have led some people to dub her ‘the Chinese-American Chekov’.
Li has spoken about how her experiences growing up in communist China have shaped her perspective on life:
When I grew up, privacy as a concept was not present in China, and if you were hiding anything from your mother, or the party, you were in trouble. I was a very sensitive child and I reacted strongly to the lack of psychological space.
Perhaps it is no surprise then, that privacy is one of the key goals that her characters strive for. Take for example, the protagonist in ‘A Sheltered Woman’. It’s narrated through the eyes of Auntie Mei, a woman who has chosen to be as detached from other people as possible. Yet this mission seems to be in conflict with the intimate nature of her work: she is a live-in nanny who cares for infants in their first month of life. In a bid to maintain distance between herself, and the infants and their families, Auntie Mei insists on calling ‘every mother Baby’s Ma, and every infant Baby. It was simple that way, one set of clients easily replaced by the next.’
Auntie Mei’s detached persona is reflected in the dispassionate quality of the writing. Yet it’s precisely this dispassionate quality that makes the story so gripping – the reader is left to feel the emotions that Auntie Mei herself seeks shelter from.
‘A Sheltered Woman’ can be accessed online here.
Those of us who came to writing late in life will take comfort in the fact that Olga Masters didn’t start writing fiction until the age of 58. Prior to this, her time was occupied by her work as a journalist and as a mother caring for seven (yes, seven!) children.
As Masters’ children got older, many of them became involved with the arts. According to Masters, they would bring home friends such as Bob Ellis or Les Murray, and she would serve them tea while they talked about their writing and she would think to herself, ‘I can do it too.’
Masters credited journalism with influencing the way she approached her fiction writing. She said that, as a journalist,
… you’d go out for a story and it wouldn’t be much of a story, but you’d make it into a story. The lesson was that there is more in life, more in situations, than meets the eye.
Masters’ short stories tend to be set in the Depression era in Australia, and explore the dynamics of family life, poverty and the relationships between women.
One of my favourite stories, ‘The Rages of Mrs Torrens’, is about a woman who lives in a timber-mill town with her husband, a labourer at the mill, and their horde of young children. In a town characterised by abject poverty and staunch conformism, Mrs Torrens’ passion stands out. Sometimes, her passion can devolve into one of her famous ‘rages’, such as when, one night at midnight, she throws her husband’s wages (‘two pounds in two shilling pieces’) into the creek, an action she quickly comes to regret for now the family can’t even afford to buy tea. She bemoans to her husband:
O, my poor manikin! You can’t go to work with your innards as dry as the scales on a goanna’s back!
As you can see, Masters’ dialogue sings on the page, evoking a vernacular that is part Australian-bush, part fairy-tale.
Masters’ stories are remarkable for revealing both sheer brutality and the tenderness of human relationships. Their simplicity is deceptive, for these are stories that stay with you for a long time after you’ve left the page.
So these are just three examples of women short story writers who I admire. If you’re keen for more short stories written by women, you can check out this reading list that features many of the greats including Alice Munro, Shirley Jackson and Flannery O’Connor, with online links included to many of the stories.