Writing the Political: Lessons from Best American Short Stories 2018

As a millennial reader, the question of how fiction can address social issues has often gnawed at me, boring into the already large chasm between my generation’s understanding of and actual participation in our political system; an exposure to information that leaves many of us feeling simultaneously all-powerful and powerless. Political corruption and hate-mongering have been the dish of the day throughout any millennial’s lifetime. How do we relay the realities of our contemporary moment when the truth evades us? How do we convey urgency without sounding preachy or pedantic? In an era in which we are waterlogged by the everyday spillage of the political swamplands, what can we write to counteract the chaos?

The answer, according to Best American Short Stories 2018, is simple: we write about our lives. The 20 striking stories chosen by Roxane Gay unearth the political in personal moments of revelation and growth. Through specificity, fiction opens up other portals for learning — for synthesizing current events and finding our place within them, and for teaching us about experiences other than our own. One may turn to fiction not to evade an issue, but rather to see it from a different angle. Best American Short Stories 2018 suggests that what one consumes — which vantage points a person seeks — can be an act either of political complacency or resistance. The diversity of this collection highlights the gaps in any reader’s consumption patterns, exposing the stories we either consciously or willfully choose to ignore, in art and in life. In a world in which the news is farce, can fiction writers be the real truth-seekers?

Best American Short Stories 2018 suggests that, at the very least, they can be our friends. We can seek solace in their words, through humor, authenticity, aspirational imaginings, and unbridled rage. The details in this collection both affirm and deny the universality of human experience. At times they reach back to the past to make sense of the present, as if the wisdoms of youth can help us cope with quotidian atrocities. Writers in Best American 2018 paint startling portraits of our contemporary moment that expose the greatest contradictions of our time — the millennial obsession with aesthetics over ethics, false claims of a post-racial America, family “reunification” centers at the border. But whether fantastical dystopia or class field trip, a years-long odyssey or a particularly illuminating afternoon, each of these stories grapples with the nag of human interdependency — how the need for others can either make or break you. In the collection, writers wield human connection as a search light over social ills.

Coming-of-age stories abound in this series, revealing a collective fascination with the alchemy of personhood. Perhaps in this age of apocalypse we resort to the nascent grasping to understand ourselves in order to make sense of the world. Maria Anderson’s “Cougar” features Cal, a young man stuck in the in-between of his 18th year, whose father has just disappeared. He is cared for by the love of his Great Pyrenees, Koda, and an ailing landlord obsessed with picking up women on the internet. The tale’s world is measured in personal rituals like cigarettes smoked. Throughout the story we are led through all the ways that people exercise or exorcise their loneliness, from online dating to watching for the flicker of light from the opposite trailer. Anderson pays acute attention to physical manifestations of grief and anger, and the lengths we go to remind ourselves of our own humanity. “Cougar” houses profound insights to the ways in which people mourn and self-determine, and the visceral effects of emotional pain. For example, after his father mysteriously disappears, Cal scratches all of his mouths off of his school pictures. Cal takes comfort in observing the grotesque material of animal death, re-affirming his existence and a tie to all beings. Even as his support systems erode we are left with a sense that the imprint of care persists. Somehow we still have hope that Call will be okay. These glimmers of love down a dark and lonely life path may not cure the afflictions of our time, but perhaps they can help us survive them.

In Danielle Evans’s “Boys Go to Jupiter,” Claire, a white college girl, faces the consequences of a thoughtless photo taken on a lazy summer afternoon. Amidst accusations of racially-charged aggression, Claire painfully revisits but refuses to foster a sense of responsibility for a teenage tragedy she was the catalyst of. The further one reads the more swept up one becomes in a tidal wave of events that escalates from page to page, leaving the reader dripping with implication: the effects of a warped kind of touching when the chance for empathy is ignored.

Jamel Brinkley’s “A Family” renders the enduring thumbprint of one man’s most important relationship. Upon being released from prison, 30-something Curtis obsessively seeks to connect with the wife and son of his deceased former childhood best friend. We feel the decade-long reverb of this formative friendship as Curtis traces back the origins of his biggest mistake, desperately jostling the handle of redemption while struggling to start a new life. The piece is uncomfortable and deeply moving in its vulnerability between male characters, offering the reader alternative versions of male bonding.

Stories like Emma Cline’s “Los Angeles” echo with a startling lack of human empathy. Pinned between a craving for witness and pleasure of acknowledgement, “Los Angeles” protagonist Alice, an employee at an American Apparel-like clothing store, finds herself waist-deep in the economics of erotica. Her business selling used panties to eager male customers quickly sours when the reality of sexual violence comes into sharp relief. “Los Angeles” speaks, still in 2019, of the near impossibility of untethered female sexuality and the fear of its consequences. “Los Angeles” performs the terror of bodily harm that so many women push to the back of our minds when we go for a jog after sundown or speed walk to our cars after a concert. It reminded me of the question Danielle Muscato posed on Twitter for collective social input: “What if men were given a 9pm curfew?” How would this change the way women moved about at night? The most staggering answer to which was, “Open the front door without fear.”

The collection most pointedly turns its eye to state-sanctioned cruelty through the inclusion of Alicia Elliott’s “Unearth” and Cristina Henríquez’s “Everything is Far From Here.” Through blistering accounts of familial loss and separation, these stories hone in on systemic dehumanization, and the startling disconnect between government policy and the lives of those affected by them. Well-circulated images of US-Mexico border child detention centers float to the front of the brain while reading “Everything is Far From Here,” Cristina Henríquez’s story about a grief-stricken mother who waits so long for her child that her mind begins to play tricks on her.

In “Unearth” we find a radical resistance to the effects of institutional cruelty in the story’s very exposure of it. We meet the story’s main character Beth, a Mohawk woman in her sixties, as she is being told that the remains of her brother, who inexplicably disappeared after enrollment in an Iroquois Residential School, have been found at the construction site of a fast food restaurant. Beth’s brother is “lost” by the school, one of many boarding schools aimed to assimilate Indigenous children funded by the Canadian government’s Department of Indian Affairs and administered by Christian churches. The school insists that there was never any paperwork to prove that Beth’s brother lived there. At the time, authorities do nothing. Beth’s mother spends ten years in jail for attacking Father Landry, the minister who convinces her to enroll her son and then conveniently disappears himself for three years after the boy vanishes. After losing her mother, Beth is enrolled in the same school as her brother, then adopted by friends of Father Landry who “liked her pale skin. Her tragedy. They liked how she forced herself to smile. She excelled in school, excelled in her career, excelled at passing, at forgetting. Beth was saved after all.”

In present day, a police officer informs Beth of the discovery. How would she like to pay for the disposal of her brother’s remains? he’d like to know. Elliott writes, “What the officer really meant was that she, Beth T…, a widow on a fixed income, could now pay for the disposal of her brother’s half-century-old remains. And no, the grave and empty casket her mother had spend the last of their grocery money on would not be accepted for use. The law had a problem with re-using those sorts of things.” Beth is uncomfortable refusing what the state packages as empathy, though it is not one she can afford. Here, we see the gains of capitalism in times of grief, the bureaucracy of the so-called salvation of law and order that glosses over the actual lives of people served.

Yet, the story ends in hope, a glimmer of possibility in the form of intergenerational understanding and vulnerability. Beth alleviates the painful memory by finally telling her daughter what happened to her late brother. After years of avoiding the reservation, Beth returns to it, and is immediately recognized as Mohawk by a young Mohawk woman. Elliott writes, “Even though she’d had her hair cut and her tongue tamed, even though she’d donned pantsuits and pearls and spoke English as well as either queen she was named for, even though she let people think she was Portuguese or Italian or Greek, enough though she’d left the scarred memories of her childhood in a dark, unattended corner of her mind — her people still recognized her. It was like they’d been here, waiting, all this time.” The final scenes of the story end in a return to collective cultural practice and ancestral knowledge; Beth stands in her kitchen making white corn mush. She thinks, fondly, of her family.

Several stories defy our expectations of what healthy relationship-building looks like. Curtis Sittenfeld’s “The Prairie Wife” at first seems like a modern story of unhappy marriage and internet obsession. We think we see someone dissatisfied with her life choices. Aimless. Repressed. We will be wrong. In another intimate portrait, Jacob Guajardo’s “What Got into Us” — a tender tale of queer adolescence — joy, friendship, and family exist amidst poverty, prejudice, and pain. Two queer teens raised by their single mothers (two best friends who share a house) fall for each other. As Guajardo writes in the book’s particularly juicy Contributor’s Notes (ripe with everything from life lessons to rules to write by), “Young, queer people of color become adept at hiding, but it’s hard to hide that you are in love.” Both the story and the author’s notes reveal the power of community in its countless constellations. Of his rendering of extended family systems, Guajardo continues, “I have always known that it takes more than a set of parents to raise kids.”

Best American Series Editor Heidi Pitlor writes that fiction authors are faced with the challenge of sustaining a reader’s attention against the greater narrative of the politics of our time. What’s more, they are faced with the challenge of overcoming, abating, and documenting the re-traumatization of a nation, the bubbling up of centuries-long grievances, and the mass displacement and despair of many. However, this collection nailed its tactic—it goes small when the rest of the world is going big. Together, these stories encompass The Great American Experience.

As Roxane Gay writes, “The world feels like it is coming apart. For many vulnerable people, the world is coming apart.” For marginalized folks, the pendulum swing of politics is synonymous with survival. Gay continues, “I am not avoiding reality when I read fiction; I am strengthening my ability to cope with reality.” In uncertain times, fiction can give us the strength to imagine alternatives. More than political writing, Best American Short Stories 2018 feels like protest writing, by way of being alive. By looking inward to produce and create, refusing to be blown to pieces by the magnitude of everyday news. The potential for social change can take place in individual and collective care — an act of radiating out instead of withering within. By continuing to tell the world — and each other — our stories.

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