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Celeste Ng’s Seven Short Story Writers

The short story might be the most “literary” form of literary fiction—okay, maybe after the novella. There’s an air of refinement around a short story collection that, for some reason, intimidates people. If a novel is like a pop track, with at least some potential for broad appeal, then a short story is often seen as a classical recording appreciated only by those in the know—or maybe a punk-rock/classical/rap mashup that’s aimed at the really hardcore.

Few short story collections become bestsellers, let alone blockbusters. Tell a non-writer that you’re reading a collection and you’ll probably get a quizzical look; tell an editor or agent that you’re working on a collection and you’ll probably get asked, “Okay, but are you working on a novel?” That’s incredibly depressing, because some of the most exciting, most inventive, most powerful work out there is in the form of the short story.

Below I’ve listed seven emerging women short story writers—not necessarily women who write stories exclusively, but women who are especially talented practitioners of the form.

I may be playing a bit fast and loose with the term “emerging” here—a number of the writers have books published, and a couple have two. But what I’m discovering is this: When I talk with non-writers and mention people whom I think of as literary superstars, the response I usually get is: who? There are many, many women writing dynamite short stories out there—Elizabeth McCracken, Laura van den Berg, Kelly Link, ZZ Packer—but I’m limiting this list to writers who I predict will be making a big splash soon. Every writer below deserves to be known not just by the literary crowd, but by a wide audience.

1. Megan Mayhew Bergman

Megan Mayhew Bergman has the ability to take what seems like a familiar topic and turn it inside out into something new and strange and startling. Her first collection, Birds of a Lesser Paradise, ostensibly focuses on animals, but it’s not a book about animals per se. In “Housewifely Arts,” a woman drives miles to see a parrot that may be able to speak in her dead mother’s voice, and as you read this story, and the other gem-like stories in this collection, you come to see that the human lives and the animal lives are inextricably intertwined. Mayhew Bergman’s second collection, Almost Famous Women, tells the stories of women on the margins of history—Beryl Markham, Norma (not Edna) St. Vincent Millay, Oscar Wilde’s wild niece—with the same lancet eye and compassionate heart. She also writes frequently for Salon on issues of sustainability and conservation, and knows whereof she speaks—she lives on a farm in Vermont with her veterinarian husband and two young daughters.

2. Mia Alvar

Mia Alvar’s collection In the Country is so assured, it’s hard to believe it’s a debut. The stories within focus on the Filipino diaspora, from the United States to Bahrain to Saudi—but as with Meghan Mayhew Bergman’s work above, this isn’t just a book about the Philippines. Alvar’s real target is the distance between memory and reality, and between homeland and home, whether that home is 1980s Boston or New York City in September 2001. In the first story in the collection, “The Kontrabida,” a doctor returns from the U.S. to the Philippines smuggling pain medicine for his ailing father—but the real story here isn’t the contraband drugs, it’s the secrets his mother keeps that, thanks to his father’s illness, are suddenly coming to light. That story grabbed me by the throat; the stories that came after pummeled me in the heart. I suspect they’ll do the same for you.

3. Danielle Lazarin

In the spirit of full disclosure, Danielle Lazarin is a friend—but I fell hard for her work long before I managed to make her into a friend IRL. We met at the University of Michigan, where I was a year ahead of Danielle in the MFA program in fiction, and though we didn’t really get to know each other while we were there, her stories just socked me. They are, I’ve come to discover, much like Danielle herself: outwardly placid, but with an undercurrent of serious badassery, and fiercely intelligent to boot. Her short story “Gone” swept me off my feet when I heard her read it years ago, and I’m thrilled that you can now read it in The Boston Review. In all of her work, Danielle talks about the big things—what it means to be a woman, what it means to have agency—in prose that slips into you like a steel blade. Recently, Danielle was named a 2015 Fellow in Fiction by the New York Foundation for the Arts, which I hope means: more fiction from her, coming our way. Lucky us.

4. Nina McConigley

Can I still count Nina McConigley as an emerging writer? Yes, her debut collection Cowboys and East Indians won the 2014 Pen Open Book Award—but in my opinion not enough people know her work, and that is a damn shame. McConigley’s stories cover the intersection of Indian + American + immigration in ways I’d never seen before. If I tell you that these stories feature a cross-dressing cowboy who longs to wear a sari, or a kleptomaniac exchange student, I hope you won’t get the wrong idea—yes, there’s humor here, but there’s also deep loneliness and profound questions of identity. These stories are more than biting and smart; they’re powerful and necessary. The title story, “Cowboys and East Indians,” was published in VQR and is a great introduction to McConigley’s work: after you read it, be prepared to need the whole book.

5. Anna Solomon

Anna Solomon has published a novel, The Little Bride, which I also recommend, but I first encountered her work through her stories. “The Lobster Mafia” was Boston’s One City One Story selection in 2012, and if you’re not pulled in by the juxtaposition of “lobster” and “mafia,” maybe you’ll be pulled in if I tell you it’s a story about vengeance, long-held grudges, and the possibility of forgiveness. In much of her work, Solomon interrogates questions of womanhood, power, and sexuality, and I have my fingers crossed we’ll get a full collection of her stories one day.

6. Hasanthika Sirisena

Hasanthika Sirisena’s short fiction has been on my radar for some time, so I did a literal fist-pump when I heard she’d won the 2015 Juniper Prize for Fiction. What that means for you: in 2016, UMass Press will publish her debut collection, The Other One, and this is a cause for celebration. Sirisena’s work combines a global sensibility with an intimate knowledge of people and what makes them tick, and she’s an expert on showing how large-scale political tensions can play out in the microcosm of a neighborhood—or a relationship. Whet your appetite with “Surrender,” in Guernica, and be on the lookout for The Other One next year.

7. Sonya Larson

Sonya Larson is a well-known figure in the Boston literary world because of her involvement with Grub Street, the city’s independent writing center: She oversees Grub Street’s annual Muse and the Marketplace conference. But Larson is also a writer herself, and she tackles race and culture—two topics dear to my heart—in one of the most original voices I’ve heard. I first encountered her fiction at a reading at local indie Newtonville Books, and I’m not exaggerating when I say I’ve been waiting for the rest of the book ever since. Recently, I’ve gotten to see much more of Sonya’s work through a writing group, and predict with confidence that she’s going to be up to big things. And in the meantime, you can read some of her short stories in West Branch and Del Sol Review.

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