10 Outstanding Short Stories to Read in 2019

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

The #longreads hashtag on Twitter is filled with great story recommendations from people around the world. Pravesh Bhardwaj is a longtime contributor — throughout the year he posts his favorite short stories, and then in January we’re lucky enough to get a list of his favorites to enjoy in the year ahead.

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For many years now, I’ve been posting short stories on Twitter using hashtag #Longreads. It’s a nightly thing: Before sitting down to write (currently working on a spec screenplay — an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma set in suburbs of Mumbai), I look around for a story, read it, then share it. I end up reading almost every day, irrespective of whether I am able to write something or not.

Starting with David Gates’s “Texas” from The New Yorker, to Laura Adamczyk’s “Too Much a Child” from Lit Hub, I posted 288 stories in 2018. Here are ten that I enjoyed the most, in random order:

‘The Office of Missing Persons’ by Akil Kumaraswamy (Lit Hub)

This story is set in strife-torn Sri Lanka about an entomologist whose son has gone missing:

“These young Tamil boys always getting into trouble. They don’t know how to be proper citizens,” the officer said and scratched something on the paper in blue ink. Jeganathan remembered his younger boy, Prem, shaking on the floor as they questioned him, his eyes flushed with tears as he cut through the bond of the womb and revealed the trip Jeevan had planned that night with Amutha to the local Shiva shrine, and before then all their meetings under the neem tree by the abandoned pharmacy, the way his brother unravelled her braid, tied her hair around his hand like a bandage.

The officer asked for a description of the missing boy beyond the photograph. Jeganathan lifted his hands and attempted to re-create Jeevan for the officer, but under the dim fluorescent light, any conjuring was hopeless. In the end, the officer wrote: 17 years old, 181 centimeters, 76 kilograms, birthmark on right arm.

‘The Frog King,’ by Garth Greenwell (The New Yorker)

A vivid story that takes place during the year-end vacation as two lovers take a trip to Bologna.

I was still groggy with sleep when I turned in to the main room, and I stood uncomprehending for a moment before I realized that R. had rearranged things in the night. He had moved the table to the middle of the room, and had placed my winter boots on top of it, beside the little tree we had bought earlier that week. Sticking up from the boots were packages wrapped in newspaper, his Christmas gifts for me; he must have hidden them somewhere after he arrived, he must have got out of bed in the night, careful not to wake me, he must have been quiet as he moved the furniture. I caught my breath at it, I felt a weird pressure and heat climb my throat. I felt like my heart would burst, those were the words for it, the hackneyed phrase, and I was grateful for them, they were a container for what I felt, proof of its commonness. I was grateful for that, too, the commonness of my feeling, I felt some stubborn strangeness in me ease, I felt like part of the human race.

‘On Destiny,’ by Lee Chang-dong (Asymptote)

I love the cinema of Lee Chang-dong, and in his oeuvre, Poetry is my favourite. The Korean auteur is in the running for 2019 Oscars as his new film Burning (based on Haruki Murakami’s short story “Barn Burning”) is shortlisted for best foreign language film. No Korean film has ever been nominated in this category and we fans of Korean cinema are rooting for Lee Chang-dong to make history. (Story translated from Korean by Soyoung Kim.)

The story I want to tell you is about my strange destiny. I understand that you are a novelist, so I assume that you must have heard all kinds of strange stories about all kinds of people. But for all I know, my story is the strangest.

Do you believe in fate or fortune telling? Those who do say that a person’s destiny is predetermined at birth, no, even before birth, as if it were written on a ledger, meaning that no matter the struggle, people are destined to live and die according to their palm lines. Similarly, Christians say that there is nothing in human affairs that does not go according to God’s plans. But what those people say has never made sense to me. I mean, if it is true, how unfair is human destiny?

‘Motherland,’ by Min Jin Lee (The Missouri Review)

Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko continues to make waves and I still haven’t bought it. This story is more than a gentle reminder for me to do the needful.

That spring, she began sleeping with an old boyfriend from her freshman year in high school. He’d grown up into a handsome, mar­ried playboy who still had the tendency to talk too much. One afternoon in her tiny Nagano living room, as the playboy was getting dressed to return to his office, he bemoaned the fact that she wouldn’t leave her dull husband, who preferred the company of his work colleagues to hers. He laid his head between her small breasts and said, “But I can leave her. Tell me to do it.” To this, she said nothing. Etsuko had no intention of leaving Nori and the children. Her complaint about her husband was not that he was boring or that he wasn’t Rome enough. Nori was not a bad person. It was just that she didn’t feel like she knew him in any clear sense after ~eteenyears of marriage, and she doubted that she ever would. Her husband didn’t seem to need her except to be a wife in name and a mother to his children. For Nori, this was enough.

‘The Era,’ by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah (Guernica)

Nana Kwame’s debut collection Friday Black made it onto a lot of year-end lists and this story set in dystopian society took a while to sink in.

Together they’re called the Water Wars because of how the Federation Forces lied to its own people about the how the Amalgamation had poisoned the water reservoirs. The result was catastrophic/horrific. Then, since the people of the old Federation were mad because of their own truth-clouding, they kept on warring for years and years, and the old Federation became the New Federation that stands proudly today. Later on, when the Amalgamation of Allies suspected a key reservoir had been poisoned, they asked the New Federation if they’d done it. In a stunning act of graciousness and honesty, my New Federation ancestors told the truth, said, “Yeah, we did poison that reservoir,” and in doing so, saved many, many lives, which were later more honorably destroyed via nuclear. The wars going on now, Valid Storm Alpha and the True Freedom Campaign, are valid/true wars because we know we aren’t being emotional fighting them.

‘Redeployment,’ Phil Klay (Granta)

A soldier must learn to resume his domestic life after returning from the front lines in Iraq, in this story written by Klay, a US Marine veteran.

We shot dogs. Not by accident. We did it on purpose and we called it ‘Operation Scooby’. I’m a dog person, so I thought about that a lot.

First time was instinct. I hear O’Leary go, ‘Jesus,’ and there’s a skinny brown dog lapping up blood the same way he’d lap up water from a bowl. It wasn’t American blood, but still, there’s that dog, lapping it up. And that’s the last straw, I guess, and then it’s open season on dogs.

At the time you don’t think about it. You’re thinking about who’s in that house, what’s he armed with, how’s he gonna kill you, your buddies. You’re going block by block, fighting with rifles good to 550 metres and you’re killing people at five in a concrete box.

‘When the Tide of Misfortune Hits, Even Jelly Will Break Your Teeth,’ by Porochista Khakpour (Gulf Coast)

Porochista Khakpour is fighting a battle with Lyme disease and we can enlist to assist her in what has been an expensive treatment. Her memoir Sick describes her years of ill health with a mysterious ailment that took a huge emotional and financial toll. Give to her Gofundme page here.

She had no name it seemed but “The Spiritualist” which was a term he had not heard before. There was no photo, just a description of her services and the number to call, along with a simple graphic of a dove flying in a sky littered with flowers.

He called the number and a woman answered.

“May I speak to The Spiritualist?” His voice sounded off to himself, shaking as it was and somehow higher, like a child’s.

The voice that spoke back was deep and rich. Every word was deliberate and firm. “Yes, this is she, The Spiritualist. What might I help you with?”

He paused. He didn’t know what to say. “Well, I could use some help to get back on track. My life, you see. . .” He paused some more. How could he put it? “It’s all been a mess.”

“I understand,” she said.

“You do?” he said, sounding a bit too excited for his own comfort.

“Yes, I do,” she said. “It’s part of my job. People rarely come to me when all is well, after all.”

‘Memoirs of a Bootlegger’s Son,’ by Saul Bellow (Granta)

I love everything Saul Bellow has written.

‘Gott meiner,’ said my father to my mother. ‘Again no money? But I gave you twelve dollars at the beginning of the week. What have you done with it?’

‘I don’t know. It went away.’

‘So quickly . . . by Thursday? Impossible.’

‘It couldn’t be helped. Some of it I used to pay old bills. We’ve owed money to Herskovitz for I don’t know how long.’

‘But did you have to pay him this week?’

‘He’s right in the block. For two months now I’ve been coming home the long way around. I gave him three dollars.’

‘How could you! Haven’t you any sense? And what did you do with the rest? Joshua,’ he said, turning to me furiously. ‘Take a pencil and write these things down. I have to know where it all went. I bought eggs and butter on Tuesday.’

‘Cattle Praise Song’ by Scholastique Mukasonga (The New Yorker)

(Translated from the French by Melanie Mauthner.) Scholastique is a Rwandan author who lives in France and if you are planning to read just one story from this selection then I recommend that you choose this one.

My father didn’t need to count every cow in the large enclosure: he could tell at a glance if they were all there. They lay on the grass bedding that my mother and my sisters had prepared the day before, while the cows were in the pasture. My brothers were busy rousing them. A gentle tap of the stick was enough to prod the leader of the herd, and the rest then followed. My father made sure that, as they jostled, they didn’t stab one another with their horns; he went from one to the next, his staff raised, protecting the gentle cows from those who were known to be skittish or feisty (we had carefully burned the tips of the horns of the most aggressive ones). As the master, he had nothing to fear, even from the most irascible cows. He worried about the cows who seemed to balk at standing up on all four legs. He spent a long time checking them, prodding, touching, and tapping them, inspecting their ears, eyes, and tongues. He examined their dung—its color, size, and consistency; he decided what medications to administer and indicated which cows he deemed too weak to go out and graze: they’d stay in the kraal to be fed hay and fresh-cut grass gathered as the herd returned.

‘Mucci’ by Ursula Villarreal-Moura (Bennington Review)

A searing story of a crumbling marriage.

The night before they had been too jetlagged for anything beyond quick showers and sleep, but tonight Marcelo was certain they’d have sex.

Elbowing her way out of the coffeehouse, Tatum greeted Marcelo with a coffee granita. A white dash of whipped cream streaked her left cheek.

“You have no idea what you’re missing,” she said, a brief moan escaping her throat. “This is,” she added, lolling her head around, “to die for. Want a bite?” she offered, pushing the plastic cup toward him.

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Read Pravesh’s story picks from 2018, 2017, 2016, and 2015