Thursday, December 22, 2016

you almost forget to breathe

The day after my last day of work, I woke up too early and ran under a dull sky that hid the sun until I was done. I arrived back at my apartment by 8am, the sun shining now but not giving much warmth, with the entire day before me and few plans to fill it until the evening. I called my sister, cleaned my kitchen, showered.

Then, I picked up a book of short stories. I read slowly. I let my heart catch up.

The introduction spoke of stories as a form of art capable of putting a reader in touch with life's fleeting, inexorable rhythms. Good ones can move you somewhere beyond yourself. You almost forget to breathe. Even in these first few pages, I remembered why I love short stories (short forms of most writing, really) -- the intensity, the conciseness, the simple complexity -- and knew this would be a book full of characters and stories to disorient me from what life had been and turn me about. Ready, somehow, for the new one that's ahead.

This particular compilation, The Best American Short Stories of 2016, was edited by Junot Diaz, one of my favs. He curated a notably diverse group of authors to tell all kinds of stories. I liked nearly all of the stories, but I have to admit that the ones with female protagonists appealed to me the most. The women in these stories are vulnerable yet strong, recognizing that their fates are, in many ways, at the mercy of the men and societies around them, and yet not letting those seemingly predetermined stories be all that is said about them in the end. In one story, a young Bangladeshi woman with a history that is slowly revealed works in a garment factory and agrees to becoming one of three wives as a means of survival:
Jesmin sees marriage as a remedy. If you are a girl, you have many problems, but all of them can be fixed if you have a husband. In the factory, if Jamal puts you in ironing, which is the easiest job, or if he says, take a few extra minutes for lunch, you can finish after hours and get overtime, you can say, but my husband is waiting, and then you won't have to feel his breath like a spider on your shoulder later that night when the current goes out and you're still in the factory finishing up a sleeve. 
In another, a young Ojibwe girls is rescued by a white man (or, is is that she rescues herself?) from what is essentially slavery. She never speaks to the man, never tells him her name. He calls her Flower. To him, she is beautiful and sweet. But,
That he called her Flower made her uneasy. Girls were not named for flowers, as flowers died so quickly. Girls were named for deathless things--forms of light, forms of clouds, shapes of stars, that which appears and disappears like an island on the horizon. 
And my favorite, I think, about a young woman dealing with the aftermath of a miscarriage of a baby about which she felt indifferent, who finds home in a strangers home, and the desire to mother in the grief of losing what she thought she never wanted:
All of my senses opened in recognition. The mixed scent of newsprint and butter, the muted ticking of the modern cuckoo clock on the wall, the enamel tea kettle gleaming atop the immense stove, the marmalade still sharp in my mouth: home. Here it was. Or something like it. Something homelike. Heimlich. How would the Germans say it? Gemutlich. Touchingly, where the soul or spirit belongs.
What happens to each of these women might seem like what you would expect, and yet each finds a kind of freedom: power over her body, her name, her vocation. It is only in the small entries into the women's narrations, the open window through which we hear whispers of what's really going on, that we understand this. Stories like this can ready you for a new season, ready you to look beyond what you think you know, ready you to know nothing at all.

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