short story

READ THE WORLD – Vietnam: Night, Again edited by Linh Dinh

A collection of short stories by over a dozen different authors. These stories are about relationships, family, and show a side to Vietnam that’s not just the war.

Like with a lot of short story collections, I found Night, Again to be a bit of a mixed bag and unfortunately in this case I wasn’t grabbed by many of them. I thought the writing in them was generally good, and they each were like a slice of life for often very normal people. There were a few I really liked though.

One of them was “A Marker on the Side of the Boat” by Bao Ninh. This story was about a soldier who was saved by a woman, but then the pair of them are caught in a bombing. This was a fast paced and engaging story that pulls you in in such a short number of pages.

“Gunboat on the Yangtze” by Tran Vu was an unsettling one as it was about a brother and sister who have an incestuous relationship. It’s an uncomfortable read really as to begin with even though their relationship is obviously unhealthy, there’s an almost innocence to their relationship that it seems actually supportive and good for them. That strange feeling doesn’t last for long, as events quickly take an even darker turn.

A lot of the stories in Night, Again were dark or depressing. Even the ones that were lighter in tone had a sense of melancholy about them as the characters often had a bittersweet moment of realisation about their circumstances or who they were. I did get a bit of whiplash going from story to story as while a lot of them were pretty gloomy, there was the odd story like “Scenes from an Alley” by Le Minh Khue, which was a darkly funny tale.

All in all the majority of stories in Night, Again weren’t that memorable, but I’m pleased I read some stories that weren’t just focussed on a war, but often instead dealt with the everyday tragedies. 2/5.

READ THE WORLD – Algeria: The Tongue’s Blood Does Not Run Dry by Assia Djebar

Translated by Tegan Raleigh.

A collection of short stories that were written in 1995 and 1996 – a time when, by official accounts, some two thousand Algerians were killed in Islamist assassinations and government army reprisals.

This collection of short stories is split into two parts. The first is titled “Between Desire and Death” and the stories are equal parts romance and the horror of death and violence. The second is titled “Between France and Algeria” and centre on characters who are pulled between the two countries and may not feel they fully belong in either of them.

Even though they were more shocking and tougher to read, I preferred the stories in the first part of The Tongue’s Blood Does Not Run Dry. They are little snapshots into a character’s life as they deal with the threat of violence and assassination for their beliefs or heritage, or its about what happens after a loved one is killed. The stories focus on women and how they struggle to deal with the changing cultural landscape in Algeria. There’s some liberation but then there’s those who fear liberation and want to kill those who they feel don’t have the correct values.

There’s an underlying feeling of grief through all of the stories in The Tongue’s Blood Does Not Run Dry. Grief for a loved one who is assassinated, grief for the loss of naivety, grief for the loss of a culture, a home, or a language. A lot of the stories feature characters who were born and raised in Algeria but then moved to France as they got older. With that move came the issue of identity, whether they saw themselves as Algerian or French or a mixture of both, and perhaps guilt or fear over what was happening in Algeria, especially if they were removed from it and seemingly safe.

Once again, reading a book for my Read the World Project has led me to do more research about a certain moment in a countries history that I knew nothing about. These short stories came about from conversations between the author and fellow Algerians who lived in Paris, so there’s truth behind the fiction which makes these stories even more wrenching. The Tongue’s Blood Does Not Run Dry is a collection of short stories where each one is impactful as the last. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Eritrea: African Titanics by Abu Bakr Khaal

African Titanics follows the adventures of Eritrean migrant Abdar as he journeys north speeding through the Sahara and crawling under barbed wire fences to make it to the coast where he must await news of a calm sea.

One thing I’m enjoying about my Read the World Project is how it’s opening my eyes to different cultures and periods of history that I had little to no knowledge of before. There is a migrant crisis happening in Europe right now, and has been happening for almost a decade, and so when I read the blurb of African Titanics I thought it would be set now-ish but that wasn’t the case. African Titanics is set in the late 1990s or the year 2000 and perhaps I was naïve, but I didn’t realise that people from different African countries were trying to make the journey to Europe for a better life then as well as now.

Having the story from the point of a migrant, hearing about all the things they go through to get to the coast, avoiding the police, escaping bandits, learning which smugglers you can trust to not just take your money and leave you stranded, makes something that’s often a footnote in the news feel more real and personal. These are people who are pushed to take dangerous risks and Abdar and his friends know how deadly the sea can be, but they still want to take that chance – even when they know of people who have died at sea.

African Titanics doesn’t just cover the dangerous journey, but the people Abdar meets along the way. He meets so many different people from different countries and their camaraderie transcends language barriers. The migrants form strong bounds as they have to rely on one another, and the men they have given money to to get them across the water. This adds humanity to an otherwise bleak story.

The writing in African Titanics is beautiful. It keeps Abdar’s story, and the story of other migrants he meets along the way, very matter of fact but that doesn’t stop you feeling for him and the other characters. There’s also vivid description of the different landscapes Abdar travels through and the sea is described both a new frontier and a deadly obstacle.

African Titanics is a short yet compelling story. Throughout the hardships Abdar faces there’s moments of levity and joy as he and his fellow migrants laugh and tell stories together. The combinations of the real and almost dreamlike sequences as Abdar thinks of what the future could hold makes it a thought-provoking story. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Slovenia: Mere Chances by Veronika Simoniti

Translated by Nada Grošelj.

A collection of singular and strange stories about characters struggling to maintain their identities as they cross physical and linguistic borders.

The themes of the stories in Mere Chances where very interesting as they cover belonging, identity, and the difficulties in making yourself heard in a new place. However, the actual plots of a lot of the stories aren’t as compelling as their themes. It’s like a lot of them are trying to be bigger and more important than they are, with surprises that don’t feel earned and characters that aren’t developed enough. Obviously, short stories don’t have the same space to give characters a full backstory but a good short story can give you a good characterisation to be interested in, even in just a few pages.

There are a few stories that are truly great and powerful. “Portugal” is about a young woman with a terminal illness who decides to make the trip she’s always wanted to before having to deal with the reality of her health. The escapism is great as she makes her way to her destination, talking to locals and letting her thoughts wander.

A couple of the stories are about the war in the Balkans and trying to find where the bodies in the mass graves belong to return them to their families. Those stories are like a shock to the system after the stories that are bland and unaffecting.

Mere Chances is a short story collection that has a lot of good ideas and themes but unfortunately the majority of the stories don’t have good enough characters and plot to make them more than interesting in theory.

READ THE WORLD – Austria: Maybe This Time by Alois Hotschnig

Translated by Tess Lewis.

A collection of nine short stories, each about loneliness and identity.

This was an engaging and eerie short story collection. Each story ranged from 3 pages to 15 pages long and the majority of them pulled you into the story no matter how short they were. The stories themselves were varied in terms of character and plot, but they all are rather unsettling.

Two stories really stood out to me. The first was “The Same Silence, the Same Noise” which is about someone who becomes almost obsessed with their neighbours. It’s weird because the neighbours keep to themselves, but it is their distance that the narrator finds so fascinating. The second was “Then a Door Opens and Swings Shut” which is about a man who meets an old lady who has created a doll that looks just like him. Dolls are pretty creepy anyway but the way the protagonist becomes enamoured with his lookalike doll is disturbing.

I’ve read a few short story collections for my Read the World Project, and Maybe This Time is probably my favourite (so far). The stories all had the same theme so even when the content was different, as I read each story, I got the same sense of uneasiness. Things just felt off in these stories. Characters were either alone and captivated by someone or something else, or they might even seem to start to lose themselves as they become enthralled by whatever or whoever has caught their attention.

Maybe This Time is a very weird and unnerving collection of stories, and it is a collection that has certainly left an impression on me. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Guatemala: Trout, Belly Up by Rodrigo Fuentes

Translated by Ellen Jones

Six interconnected short stories that provide glimpses into the life of Don Henrik, a good man who is constantly struck by misfortune as he confronts the harsh realities of farming life.

The majority of the short stories are told in the first person and you are given very few clues to figure out who this character is and what their connection to the other stories and characters are. Characters, or at least their names, pop up in multiple stories and the stories aren’t exactly in linear order. They jump around in Don Henrik’s life. Sometimes he is the focus of the story while other times he’s only mentioned or appears for one page and that’s it.

There are no speech marks used throughout the stories and this took a little time to get used to. There’s often large paragraphs where someone talks multiple times, as they are moving or taking a swig of beer, so I needed to pay attention so I could follow what was speech and what was action.

The stories paint a lovely picture of the Guatemalan countryside, with the fields, forests and rocky outcrops, but it never glosses over the difficulties of rural life. There’s the problems with crops failing to grow, water not flowing where it should but then there’s also the threat of violence from merciless entrepreneurs and hitmen, who will do anything to get what they perceive is owed to them.

At 97 pages, Trout, Belly Up is a short story collection that I read in one sitting. I think it works better that way as you see how each story or snapshot is a part of someone’s life and how the characters relate to one another. I believe this is the first short story collection I’ve read where the stories are interconnected and I liked that form of short stories more. Even though the stories are between 10 – 30 pages long each, because they’re connected, they paint a richer picture of the setting and the characters you follow.

READ THE WORLD – Mozambique: Every Man Is A Race by Mia Couto

A collection of 18 short stories that look at a range of issues including civil war, colonialism and corruption against the backdrop of post-independence Mozambique.

These short stories range from three pages long to no more than fifteen pages. Each of them features very different characters, though some of the issues they face are quite similar. A lot of the stories are about or feature outsiders, whether it’s a man who has a lot of birds in “The bird-dreaming baobab” or a Russian woman who has come with her husband to run a mine in “The Russian princess”. There are different types of outsiders, the Russian woman is a white woman so has a level of authority but has no equals or friends, in other stories, the outsiders are black people who are seen as different by the rest of the villages.

Some of the stories are very real, showing peoples lives in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and how they were blending the traditional with the new. A lot of the stories are bold though and have magical realism elements. A few of the stories seem like fables while others are just weird. It’s this combination of contrasting stories that makes Every Man Is A Race such a quick and fascinating read.

One of my favourite stories was “The rise of Joāo Bate-Certo” which is about a young man who wanted to live in a city but came home to his village and built a ladder to the clouds and appeared to find a whole new place up there. So many of the stories leave you with more questions than answers or give you a lot to think about.

Every Man Is A Race is a short story collection where there weren’t any short stories that I really disliked. They a vibrant and magical but also often sad and thoughtful. 4/5.