“Well, they’re…short,” said my friend.
I had asked a couple of non-writer friends how they would define the short story. I’d asked non-writers because I didn’t want academic or theoretical bahaas, debate or discussion, to muddy my question; I wanted to know what readers thought about them.
I understood the slight uncertainty my friend—an avid reader—showed. The name itself places length as the defining element; however, how short is too short? How short isn’t short enough? Obviously, a short story should contain the usual elements of character, setting, plot, theme, but is there anything other than length that makes it not a novel?
A short story is a robust yet fragile creature—the length demands a gutsy notion that can only be realized through delicate choices. Because it delivers a total narrative experience within a quite short period of time, say, the duration of a meal, every choice made by the writer needs to be honed and intentional in the effect it means to evoke. A novel will settle itself into its world, claim space to construct expansive fictional realities which a short story will and can do with subtle, sometimes near invisible, choices. A sublime example of this is Aamina Ahmad’s story Punjab in this issue; what she doesn’t tell us about the protagonist is perhaps more important than what she does.
But why compare short stories to novels anyway?
At a literary event many years ago, when I was a much younger writer, I heard one of the speakers pontificate, “Short story writers are wannabe novelists.”
I no longer remember who the speaker was, or even the details of the event itself, but the moment is etched into my psyche in other ways: I remember the feel of the chair I was sitting in, the half-open window right beside me, letting in a sweet breeze but also street sounds sometimes making it difficult for hearing-impaired me, and the slight jolt of near-shame I felt, which I carried for a long time without knowing I was doing so.
At the time I had begun to write short stories myself, and I remember thinking to myself, Oh, so this is supposed to be my gateway drug. These short stories are my whetstone for the longer project (i.e. novel) I should come up with some day.
It took me years to truly appreciate that short stories weren’t mere steppingstones to a different, larger, better path. They were their own big and bright boulders, studding the literary shores alongside all other sorts. I wrote them because I love the form. They were indeed my gateway drug—not to a novel, but to the act and art of writing itself.
We’ve all heard this piece of conventional publishing ‘wisdom’: novels sell, short stories don’t. I’ve wondered whether this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The fear that they won’t sell pushes short story collections to the back of the line, which reduces the choices readers are presented with. Talk to any writer who has pitched a short story collection to an agent or a publisher, and the majority (including myself) will tell you that if they like your work, they invariably ask, Where’s the novel?
Yet every few years, there are collections or individual stories that break through. One that wins a coveted award or makes it to the top of lists. Or it makes literary news because the writer was given an enviable advance. And every few years the tired narrative is trotted out by some outlet or other—the short story is enjoying a renaissance! It lives!
As if it had ever died. Because in the meantime, writers keep ‘em coming. As M. Lynx Qualey writes in her non-fiction piece You Never Know What You’re Going to Get, “…the shadows can also have their benefits, and one is that there is more room for taking risks.”
When Shuddhashar/Freevoice approached me to put together a short story issue, I was delighted. Here was a chance to dive into waters that were known and unknown. And so, we have stories from multiple countries, multiple languages, and multiple literary traditions. In this issue, Kim Chinquee and Torsa Ghosal explore toxic relationships. Mir Arif and Nadeem Zaman focus on cultural dissonance. Rahad Abir imagines a world we share with tiny hominids, while Neerav Patel (in Gopika Jadeja’s translation) explores caste-oppression and artificial intelligence, and Mashiul Alam’s narrator is taken with horses—flying, dying, or galloping down broad avenues. Displacement takes frontstage in the stories by Mark Stevens, Khine Soe Lung, Omar Khalifah (translated by Addie Leak), Anita Agnihotri (translated by Arunava Sinha), Amiya Sen (translated by Bhaswati Ghosh), and Guka Han (translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman). Loss finds space in the stories of Deborah E. Kennedy, Shubhankar Kulkarni (translated by Keerti Ramachandra), Kim Namil (translated by Jeon Seung Hee), and Preeta Samarasan. And Ranbir Sidhu, M. Lynx Qualey, and Sarah Anjum Bari write about short fiction.
We hope you, the reader, derive as much joy in reading this issue as we had in bringing it into being: a showcase for short fiction in its beauty and its breadth.