Tag Archives: short stories

Why Fiction Haunts Us: Pulitzer Prize Winner Viet Thanh Nguyen on His Ghosts

(Photo by Primo Barol/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

In a profile at New Republic, Josephine Livingstone talks with Viet Thanh Nguyen about the ghosts that inhabit his life, his writing, and his birthplace in Vietnam. Nguyen’s book, The Sympathizer won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

The ghost is an apt figure for the war that is fought a second time. It is a metonym for the memory of a living person, as well as the vocalizing embodiment of death itself. The ghost is a kind of walking death-in-life principle. “I don’t think I have ever seen a ghost,” Nguyen told me. “But I do know people who have.” He believes in them “as a figurative sign of haunting, given everything that [he] experienced growing up in the Vietnamese refugee community.” Back in Vietnam, Nguyen explained, “I had an adopted sister that we left behind.” He only knew her by a black and white picture that belonged to his parents. “So I grew up literally knowing there was a missing person in the family, and not really understanding why. That is a kind of a haunting.”

In a way, the novelist’s role in the culture is similar to a ghost’s within a family. A work of fiction haunts us: It watches over the shoulder, inspires memories, encourages reflection. Viet Thanh Nguyen’s books are almost overwhelming in their capacious embrace of a war that was so very, very big. But Nguyen’s career is evidence that patience and memory are intertwined parts of the brain. Sometimes a writer must wait and remember, until the voice of memory emerges. Then, like a ghost, it can never die.

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‘Because pretending was sometimes the only way to get through the day.’

an empty playground, in black and white
Photo by Eric Vondy via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

In a piece of short fiction in the Nashville Review, Paul Crenshaw brings us a teacher helping her fidgety students pass a rainy recess indoors with a familiar childhood game — don’t touch the floor, it’s lava! — who finds that the ability to pretend takes on an unexpected gravity when violence visits the school. The story is sweet and sad, nostalgic and timely, dreamy and painfully realistic.

Then Jeremy slipped from his seat on the radiator and Joel jumped from the coat hooks, not quite making it to his desk, both their feet touching the floor, and the other kids called for them to be out. In the back of the room Hannah and Jody were pretending to be statues where they stood on their sleeping mats, which Ms. Young supposed was technically off the floor. She looked at her watch. The rain still fell down. There was still 23 minutes left in recess and another hour left in the day and it was too early for anyone to be out. They’d had no recess since before noon, no time to run and throw their arms up and scream, and Jeremy would sulk and perhaps storm if he were forced to sit out, so she told them that lava sometimes cooled slightly on top, and if you were quick as a hiccup you could touch it—slightly, children, ever so slightly—as you went from place to place.

Which of course sent them swinging around the room. Clinging to the backs of chairs, flinging themselves from wall to wall. A game of it. Because it was dark with the flickering lights. Because children needed to play, to let their imaginations explode. Because pretending was sometimes the only way to get through the day.

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The Trump Story Project

Big Brother is Watching You stencil graffiti
Big Brother graffiti from Donetsk, Ukraine via Wikimedia Commons

Slate is running short stories by contemporary writers based in an imagined “Trump’s America.” This one, by Saladin Ahmed, left me hopeful and breathless at the same time:

Some of the djinn enjoyed walking like men—the slowness of it. Qumqam had never been one of them. He had never understood why the flapping bags of flesh were first in God’s eyes. They tore at each other like dogs at any chance. They starved each other to sit on piles of gold. Most unforgivably, they had taken this astonishing garden—this jagged half-paradise of leaf and ice and mountain and flower that God had made for them—and they had filled it with shit and poison.

Sidebar: If you’re on Twitter and you’re not following Saladin Ahmed, you can fix that here.

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10 Outstanding Short Stories To Read in 2017

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Photo credit: Chris Borland


Below is a guest post from Mumbai-based writer-filmmaker—and longtime #longreads contributor—Pravesh Bhardwaj (@AuteurPravesh).


I’ve been doing this for some time now — seeking out short stories from free online resources, and sharing them on Twitter (#fiction #longreads). It’s now a habit: Every night after dinner, before I start writing (screenplays), I look around for a story and read it.

Starting with Upmanyu Chatterji’s “Three Seven Seven and the Blue Gay Gene,” from Open magazine, and ending with Callan Wink’s “Off the Track” from Ecotone, I ended up reading and posting 292 stories in 2016. Here are ten of my favorites, in random order. Read more…

The Summer People of Shirley Jackson and Kelly Link

Shirley Jackson and Kelly Link
Shirley Jackson and Kelly Link. (Link: Copyright 2014 Sharona Jacobs Photography)

Black Cardigan is a great newsletter by writer-editor Carrie Frye, who shares dispatches from her reading life. We’re thrilled to share some of them on Longreads. Go here to sign up for her latest updates.

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There’s a wonderful, creepy Shirley Jackson story—you may already know it—called “The Summer People.” It’s about a couple from New York City who decide to stay at their little cottage on the lake for a month past Labor Day instead of returning as usual to the city right after the holiday. The story starts out with Mrs. Allison, age 58, doing her shopping in the nearby village and announcing her and her husband’s change in plans. The first person she tells is the grocer: Read more…

10 Outstanding Short Stories to Read in 2016

Yiyun Li
Yiyun Li (Photo by Don Feria/Getty Images for The MacArthur Foundation Awards, via Wikimedia Commons)

Below is a guest post from Mumbai-based writer-filmmaker—and longtime #longreads contributor—Pravesh Bhardwaj (@AuteurPravesh). Read more…

Honeymooning with Elizabeth Taylor, and Crying All the While: The Fiction of Margot Hentoff

The Harper’s digital archive is a small and unsung national treasure, at least as far as I’m concerned; I’ve spent countless hours sifting through old issues, scanning for early work from familiar names and tracking down forgotten gems from authors whose bylines have largely faded. One such writer is Margot Hentoff, whose short story “Where Do the Detectives Eat?” (paywalled PDF, February, 1968) caught me completely off-guard when I downloaded it on a whim. The writing is strikingly contemporary: its cynical humor, thematic threads, and first-person, present-tense prose style all feel fresh.

“Where Do the Detectives Eat?” is deceptive in its brevity; in only three pages, it contains sharp observations about the pains and rejections of motherhood, the disappointments of friendship and marriage, and aging’s small shocks. (“This morning, Sally, my friend of longest standing, called to tell me she had taken a lover. Twenty years old, she said… But I can see Sally at twenty, and tonight I am appalled that we age in our own skins.”)

The story opens with a gesture toward Hollywood glamour and romance, then swiftly delivers a jab to the chest:

A long time ago, when I was very young, Elizabeth Taylor and I got married – each for the first time and in the same summer. We traveled in Europe that July; she with Nicky Hilton, I with my then husband, both of us visiting essentially the same places, she usually leaving an area some days before I arrived. I knew where she was because the European press kept following her, and I read the stories with an interest born of identification. What the papers didn’t tell me was how she felt about being married, so I never knew what Elizabeth Taylor did; but all that summer, I cried and cried and cried.

I wept in Paris cafés, in English bookshops, and in Swiss trains going over the mountaintops. But most of all, I wept on my twentieth birthday in a room in the Golf Hotel in St. Jean-de-Luz. I sat, that day, at a window overlooking the Bay of Biscay and beyond that, the Pyrenees. The sky was blue, the trees green. There were flowering bushes in the gardens, and striped tents on the beach below. The more I looked, the lovelier it became, and the lovelier it was, the more I cried, knowing that not only was all Europe my jail, but that New York, where we lived, was not going to be any better because I was married now, and I was twenty years old, and everything had passed me by.

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Angela Carter on Myth and Deception in Hollywood

Angela Carter’s short story “The Merchant of Shadows” first appeared in The London Review of Books in 1989. Set in Hollywood, the narrator is a young, male student conducting research on a famed but mysterious director. The story bends and twists, ricocheting between dark comedy, deep camp, and Carter’s signature surreal, Gothic sensibility. Carter was an ardent fan of the movies, and “The Merchant of Shadows” is rich with cinematic conceits and allusions. (It also contains some searching, if subtle, feminist critique: another Carter hallmark.) I love it for these reasons, and for its lush, playful prose, its gentle damning of the narrator, and the overall self-awareness and exuberance that Carter brought to her work:

Aliens were somewhat on my mind, however, perhaps because I was somewhat alienated myself, in LA, but also due to the obsession of my roommate. While I researched my thesis, I was rooming back there in the city in an apartment over a New Age bookshop-cum-healthfood restaurant with a science fiction freak I’d met at a much earlier stage of studenthood during the chance intimacy of the mutual runs in Barcelona. Now he and I subsisted on brown rice courtesy of the Japanese waitress from downstairs, with whom we were both on ahem intimate terms, and he was always talking about aliens. He thought most of the people you met on the streets were aliens cunningly simulating human beings. He thought the Venusians were behind it. He said he had tested Hiroko’s reality quotient sufficiently and she was clear but I guessed from his look he wasn’t too sure about me. That shared diarrhoea in the Plaza Real was proving a shaky bond. I stayed out of the place as much as possible. I kept my head down at school all day and tried to manifest humanity as well as I knew how whenever I came home for a snack, a shower and, if I got the chance, one of Hiroko’s courteous if curiously impersonal embraces. Now my host showed signs of moving into leather. It might soon be time to move.

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‘Perhaps Lucia Berlin Will Begin to Gain the Attention She Deserves’

Lucia Berlin, 1962. Photo by Buddy Berlin, © Literary Estate of Lucia Berlin

Farrar, Straus & Giroux’s Work in Progress site has excerpted the first story from A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories, the newly released collection of short fiction by the late Lucia Berlin–who died in 2004, and was largely overlooked while she was alive. In the book’s foreword, author Lydia Davis writes, “Perhaps, with the present collection, Lucia Berlin will begin to gain the attention she deserves.”

Angel’s Laundromat is in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Fourth Street. Shabby shops and junkyards, secondhand stores with army cots, boxes of one-socks, 1940 editions of Good Hygiene. Grain stores and motels for lovers and drunks and old women with hennaed hair who do their laundry at Angel’s. Teenage Chicana brides go to Angel’s. Towels, pink shortie nighties, bikini underpants that say Thursday. Their husbands wear blue overalls with names in script on the pockets. I like to wait and see the names appear in the mirror vision of the dryers. Tina, Corky, Junior.

Traveling people go to Angel’s. Dirty mattresses, rusty high chairs tied to the roofs of dented old Buicks. Leaky oil pans, leaky canvas water bags. Leaky washing machines. The men sit in the cars, shirtless, crush Hamm’s cans when they’re empty.

But it’s Indians who go to Angel’s mostly. Pueblo Indians from San Felipe and Laguna and Sandia. Tony was the only Apache I ever met, at the laundry or anywhere else. I like to sort of cross my eyes and watch the dryers full of Indian clothes blurring the brilliant swirling purples and oranges and reds and pinks.

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House Heart

Illustration by Kjell Reigstad

Amelia Gray | GutshotTin House | December 2012 | 15 minutes (3,719 words)


We’re thrilled to share a short story by Amelia Gray, from her new collection, Gutshot. “House Heart” was published in the December 2012 issue of Tin House, and it was our Longreads Member Pick in 2013. Here’s more from Tin House assistant editor Emma Komlos-Hrobsky:

“In Amelia Gray’s ‘House Heart,’ a couple entraps a young woman in their ventilation system in a game equal parts erotic and perverse. ‘We all had our individual function,’ says Gray’s narrator, ‘and hers was to be the life of the house.’ Gray’s own writing does similar eerie work in animating uncomfortable, secret, interior spaces. Something strange and dark and distinctly human moves just beneath the cool deadpan of her authorial voice. I love this story for its wryness and subtlety, but most especially for its willingness to take me where I don’t want to go.”

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