10 Outstanding Short Stories to Read in 2020

Stories by Edwidge Danticat, Etgar Keret, Valeria Luiselli, and more.

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. It’s a habit now: Before sitting down to write — my Hindi language ten-part Audible Original Thriller Factory is up and running, written and directed under series director and presenter Anurag Kashyap’s stewardship with narrators including Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Tabu — 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 Kristen Roupenian’s The Good Guy, to Etgar Keret’s Pineapple Crush, I posted 297 stories in 2019. Here are ten that I enjoyed the most:

The Pinch by Dina Nayeri (The Yale Review)

Four siblings of the Amirzadeh family plan to get together in Niagara falls to meet their elderly father who is traveling from Iran.

Parvin and Suraya rented a small but comfortable Niagara Falls cottage kissing the American border, just as their older sister Goli had instructed. Their father, Baba Ardeshir, had managed only a Canadian visa, so he wouldn’t be able to cross over to see their homes in Pompano Beach and rural Georgia. Instead, he would stay in Toronto with Goli, self-appointed matriarch since that 1972 day when their mother vanished into Holland or Germany, leaving Baba Ardeshir alone with four teenagers in Tehran–this was years before the Revolution, so Maman’s departure was no spectacle: no midnight Jeep ride into Turkey, no crossing borders under utility blankets. This was curled hair, the good suitcases, in-flight meal. (Just run-of-the-mill, ordinary abandonment, Suri said. Be kind, Pari begged her sister.)

“Maybe we can get a photo of all of us,” Babak suggested. The last time all four had appeared in a photo with Baba Ardeshir had been as young children. In black and white, their parents looked hardly out of their twenties. Every detail was professionally arranged, all six smiling obediently, except one: in the left side of the photo, Goli’s fingers on Suri’s forearm, her fingers closing together in a secret pinch. Over the years, the photo had become Amirzadeh family legend. They had all seen it once or twice, but despite attic searches and calls to Iran, no one could find a copy.

The Revenant by Edwidge Danticat (Granta)

The story is set in strife-torn Haiti, the native country and muse of Edwidge Danticat.

Doctor Berto came with a new stethoscope to check Victoria’s heart. He was shocked to learn that she had died.

After examining Rafael, the surviving twin, he sat with Señor Pico in the parlour, while Señora Valencia took her infant son upstairs with her for a siesta.

‘I don’t understand it,’ Doctor Berto said as I served them each a cup of coffee. ‘She was gaining weight, getting bigger.’

‘What about Rafael? How does he seem now?’ Señor Pico asked about his son. ‘When I look at him, I see a sadness that a child shouldn’t have.’

‘There is nothing physically wrong with him.’

‘I tell you, there is this sadness. I saw it yesterday.’

‘Perhaps he misses his sister. They grew in the womb together.’

‘Will it go away, his sadness?’

Pineapple Crush by Etgar Keret (Electric Lit)

(Translated from Hebrew by Jessica Cohen.) Etgar Keret is my favourite contemporary short-story writer. His new collection, Fly Already, is out now.

The first hit is the one that colors your world. Save it for the evening—and any piece of trash flickering across your TV screen will be riveting. Puff it at midday, before you get on your bike, and the world around you will feel like one big adventure. Smoke it as soon as you wake up in the morning, before your coffee, and it’ll give you the energy to crawl out of bed or dive back in for another few hours of sleep.

The first hit of the day is like a childhood friend, a first love, a commercial for life. But it’s different from life itself, which is something that, if I could have, I would have returned to the store ages ago. In the commercial it’s made-to-order, all inclusive, finger-licking, carefree living. After that first one, more hits will come along to help you soften reality and make the day tolerable, but they won’t feel the same.

The Migration of the Stork by Ismail Kadare (Asymptote)

(Translated from Albanian by Ani Kokobobo.) Ismail Kadare was the winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2005. I love his novel The Palace of Dreams, but this short story is very different from that.

“Hello, how are you?” he said, shaking my hand.

“Hello, how are you?” I repeated, without bothering to hide my lack of interest.

Bastard! I thought to myself. Why can’t you understand the misery you cause? The most maddening thing about this man was precisely his obliviousness to the vexation he provoked in people, a vexation that many displayed quite openly.

If you yourself know how you are, why bother going out? (And if you don’t know, that is worse yet.)

“So, anything new,” he asked for the third or fourth time in a row, while I kept thinking: How can such a person be alive; how can the ground hold him up?

“Nothing much, anything new with you,” I said.

“Nothing much, just the usual.”

Villain! I wanted to scream. What terrible stroke of fate put you in my path, on a day as hopeless as this, when I so desperately need the antithesis of monotony.

“Well, see you,” I said with the same droning voice, surprised at how the sentiment “I hope never to see you” could be so calmly translated into its opposite.

“See you,” he replied and shook my hand, after which I almost groaned in his face.

I had already advanced several steps when I heard him calling me. I spun around as if someone had shot me in the back. I could not believe my ears—could this evil really be so insistent?

My dismay was so grossly apparent that he couldn’t help but ask, “What’s wrong?”

What’s wrong with you? I almost yelled. But he, cheerful as always, continued:

“I forgot to tell you. Did you hear? Lasgush Poradeci has been having an affair this summer.”

Paper Menagerie by Ken Liu (io9)

If you plan to read one story from this list, then please make sure you read this one. You might need a drink or two after reading it. Had to make do with two shots of coffee.

Dad had picked Mom out of a catalog.

One time, when I was in high school, I asked Dad about the details. He was trying to get me to speak to Mom again.

He had signed up for the introduction service back in the spring of 1973. Flipping through the pages steadily, he had spent no more than a few seconds on each page until he saw the picture of Mom.

I’ve never seen this picture. Dad described it: Mom was sitting in a chair, her side to the camera, wearing a tight green silk cheongsam. Her head was turned to the camera so that her long black hair was draped artfully over her chest and shoulder. She looked out at him with the eyes of a calm child.

“That was the last page of the catalog I saw,” he said.

The catalog said she was eighteen, loved to dance, and spoke good English because she was from Hong Kong. None of these facts turned out to be true.

Lois and Varga by Lisa Taddeo (Granta)

Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women, a journalistic account of the sex lives of three women, made waves in 2019.

It was a regular old bar, except there was a stripper pole in an unremarkable corner of the room. The reason for its existence had a lot to do with how Al lost his wife. The other thirty percent of the reason was that the stripper who lived in the town, Varga, had suggested it to Al. She said it would be good for the economy of the island, that it would be interesting and fun for regulars and, during the high season, it would bring in a load of business. But most of the time, Varga said, it would be super chill. Most of the time nobody would even know it existed. The regulars would drink Pabst and casually glance over from time to time.

This is not, she said, about selling sex. I’m just going to season the room with it.

It was only topless. Varga kept thong panties on. She wore a regular rotation of panties in primary colors with girlish and white eyelet scalloping, which the regulars joked was a good way of knowing what day it was if they hadn’t read the paper that morning. She did about four stripteases a night. Each dance lasted two songs, one of which was almost always a Springsteen.

Tiger Bites by Lucia Berlin (Lithub)

The horrors of a backstreet abortion clinic in Mexico come alive in this moving story.

The train slowed down outside of El Paso. I didn’t wake my baby, Ben, but carried him out to the vestibule so I could look out. And smell it, the desert. Caliche, sage, sulphur from the smelter, wood fires from Mexican shacks by the Rio Grande. The Holy Land. When I first went there, to live with Mamie and Grandpa during the war, that’s when I first heard about Jesus and Mary and the Bible and sin, so Jerusalem got all mixed up with El Paso’s jagged mountains and deserts. Rushes by the river and huge crucifixes everywhere. Figs and pomegranates. Dark-shawled women with infants and poor gaunt men with sufferer’s, savior’s eyes. And the stars at night were big and bright like in the song, so insistently dazzling it made sense that wise men couldn’t help but follow any one of them and find their way.

My uncle Tyler had cooked up a family reunion for Christmas. For one thing he was hoping my folks and I would make up. I dreaded seeing my parents… they were furious because my husband, Joe, had left me. They had almost died when I got married at seventeen, so my divorce was the last straw. But I couldn’t wait to see my cousin Bella Lynn and my uncle John, who was coming from L.A.

Slingshot by Souvankham Thammavongsa (Harper’s)

Souvankham Thammavongsa won the O. Henry Award in 2018 for this short story.

“There’s no such thing as love. It’s a construct,” Richard told me one day when I went over to his apartment. I had gotten a package of his in my mail. “You know anyone who is in love?”

I thought of Rose, who always said she was in love whenever she met a new guy and then would wait by the phone all day, crying. Then I thought of my friends and my own experience. We had all known it, but it was something that happened a long time ago, not something we sat around thinking about. It happened, and when it’s happened, there is no need to think too hard about it.

“Maybe,” I said, “you haven’t had much time to know a range of people.”

He told me he knew a lot of people. Thousands was the number he gave me. I got the feeling that what I wanted to say to him was about the quality of closeness, not what he was talking about. A few minutes passed between us, and he said, “People say that they are in love all the time, but they’re not. I don’t believe them. They think they should say it because it’s what you say. Doesn’t mean they really know what it is.”

Lulu by Te-Ping Chen (The New Yorker)

Te-Ping Chen’s story charts the destiny of two siblings whose lives follow different paths although they are born just a few minutes from each other. I look forward to her short story collection, Land of Big Numbers.

Dr. Feng had operated on our mother as a favor to our uncle, his old classmate. Otherwise we would have been born in the hospital down the street, where a woman had bled to death after a botched Cesarean the previous year. The family had been in the waiting room for hours, and at last the father-to-be pounded on the doors of the operating room. When no one responded, the family pushed them open to find the lifeless woman on the table, blood pooling on the ground. She was alone: the staff had stripped the medical certificates that bore their names from the wall and fled as soon as the surgery went wrong.

From the start we were lucky, not least because we had each other. As twins we’d been spared the reach of the government’s family-planning policies. For the first few weeks of our life, our skulls had matching indentations from where they’d been pressed against each other in the womb, like two interlocking puzzle pieces. Later in life, when we were apart, I used to touch my hand to the back of my skull when I thought of her, as if seeking a phantom limb.

Shakespeare, New Mexico by Valeria Luiselli (Guernica)

(Translated from Spanish by Christina MacSweeny.) The Mexican-born Valeria Luiselli’s highly rated Lost Children Archive was on the longlist of the 2019 Booker prize.

At times, as we progressed through this enormous country, their father told them stories—also thinning and wavy, uninspiring. When it was my turn to provide some entertainment, I didn’t tell them any stories because I don’t know how. Instead, I set them riddles I’d learned so many lives ago that I couldn’t even remember the answers:

A cowboy goes into a saloon. He’s soaked through. He asks for a glass of water, and the bartender hands him a pistol. Then, the cowboy says, “Thank you,” and leaves the saloon.

“That’s it?” asked the eldest.

“That’s it,” I confirmed.

“That’s the end of the story?” said the little one.

“Yes, my love, that’s the end of the riddle,” I said.

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My story picks from 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016 and 2015.