Writers Read: The Best American Short Stories edited by Junot Diaz

The 2016 edition of The Best American Short Stories, edited by Junot Diaz, plumbs the multiplicity of writing within the English language – and it may be a beacon for the future of the North American canon. The stories contained within this collection represent the vast experience of writing within an “American” life, as opposed to a forced or stretched notion of “diversity”, far too frequently a euphemism for tokenism.

These stories take place in Nigeria, Ghana, Bangladesh, and Japan as well as within the continental United States, and feature characters whose families hail from China, Ethiopia, the Dominican Republic, and elsewhere. Even Puerto Rican parrots make a significant appearance, calling out against the erasure of their experience with the plaintive phrase: “You be good. I love you” (Chiang 72). Ted Chiang’s story, a “fable” about extinction is not the only story in this collection that rails against the monolith of the dominant culture and the erasure of everything outside the dominant culture. Diaz also gives us Caille Millner’s philosopher-protagonist, a woman of color trying to survive in the white-washed world of the academy; Louise Erdrich’s “flower”, a young girl who will kill rather than be erased by colonialism and sexual exploitation; and Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum’s narrator who applies the specificity of her own experience to the universality of a fairy tale (Goldilocks and the Three Bears)—you may have heard it before, but not like this. Millner ends her story with an image of falling snow: “Next to that window, she should be able to see something, even if it’s just a slow white blur. As it falls it’ll bring a gathering silence to everything outside. Covering the gold, the red, the black, the gray. If she listens closely, she’ll hear it happen” (191). This collection is the opposite of that erasure. The stories collected here are both terrifying (“Ravalushan,” “Cold Little Bird”) and tender (“The Suitcase,” “Gifted”). But always, they force the reader to stare hard down the tunnel of her own human complexity. These stories are the “best” because they wield language with a specificity that helps us recognize ourselves, even in experience that is quite different from our own. You don’t have to be a Bangladeshi garment worker to understand why Jesmin can’t go home (“Garments”). But you might think twice, or at least feel the echo of her experience, the next time you buy your mass-produced underwear.

Junot Diaz

Junot Diaz

Here, the human experience, the American experience, belongs to everyone. As Diaz himself writes in the introduction: “Querida reader, ultimately I hope these stories do for you what they’ve done for me—at the very least I pray they offer you an opportunity for communion. A chance to listen, if not to the parrots of our world, then to some other lone voice struggling to be heard against the great silence” (Diaz xx). For what is the great silence but our own human propensity to objectify, reject, and erase one another? And what a necessary time in our history for us to hear one another instead, to listen closely, to reject the great erasure, to embrace humanity in its multiplicity and collectivity.

Diaz, Junot (ed.). The Best American Short Stories 2016. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2016.

Melissa Benton BarkerMelissa Benton Barker is an MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles. A Navy brat and native of nowhere, she currently lives in a small Midwestern town where she spends her time imagining stories, wandering in the woods, and raising children-sometimes simultaneously! Her work appears or is forthcoming in the Manifest-station, Smokelong Quarterly, and Literary Mama. She serves as Lead Fiction Editor at Lunch Ticket.