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A Personal Anthology, by Alyssa Harad
When Jonathan invited me to write for Personal Anthology my first impulse was to protest that I don’t read short stories. A quick glance at my bookshelves proves this is a bald-faced lie, but an interesting one. Why the resistance?
Thinking about Grace Paley cracked it for me. Paley is one of my chosen ancestors, a writer whose existence makes my own work possible. She is also, of course, famous for her short stories (and hospitable remarks). They are stories I’ve swallowed whole, stories whose ethos, music, and rhythms I’ve fully internalized, extending and revolving them in my mind, misremembering, embroidering, retelling, and living alongside them until, it seems, I no longer think of them as short stories. What are they instead? A world I visit. The sound of my own Jewishness. A guiding myth. Parables. A series of gestures contained in my body. Memories that live alongside all my other memories. (Stories that live alongside all my other stories.)
So here are twelve short stories (including a mini-anthology of Paley stories) that live in that fully internalized space in my head. They are not the only or even the best stories I have read, but an honest attempt* at excavating what stuck with me whether I wanted it to or not. The resulting list reflects the whiteness and boomer-centric bias of my Gen X era American education. I have been reading to disrupt those biases ever since but clearly I have more work to do.
‘Harrison Bergeron’ by Kurt Vonnegut (First published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, October 1961. Collected in Welcome to the Monkey House, Delacorte, 1968)
Is this story any good? Heck if I know. It was assigned reading in seventh grade and it’s been in my head ever since. Revisiting it for the first time in decades to write this I find it broad, a little weird—the hero is a good six years younger than makes sense—and startlingly prescient: the parents in the story watch a terrible personal tragedy unfold on TV but the father is unable to remember what has happened and why he is crying because a device implanted in his brain constantly interrupts his train of thought. (Do you need to check your phone? I’ll wait.) The premise of the story, that people with talent, strength or intelligence are punished in ways designed to bring them down to the lowest common denominator in the name of “equality,” strikes me as peculiarly Midwestern and a little Fountainheadish around the edges now, but when I first read it I was a loudmouth fourteen-year-old Jewish bookworm in Boise, Idaho who was regularly bullied for “using big words.” It’s not hard to see why it struck a chord.
‘To Room Nineteen’ by Doris Lessing (First published in A Man and Two Women, MacGibbon and Kee, 1963. Widely anthologized and available in the collection To Room Nineteen, Flamingo, 2002)
I first read this story, and The Golden Notebook, when I was in my early twenties. Re-reading it now I see most of it must have flown over my head. Certainly, I did not remember its analysis of an upper class intellectual mid-20th Century English marriage. But Susan’s craving for Room 19, the nothing that she did there, and the absolute necessity of that solitude—a life and death necessity—have been with me continually for more than thirty years now. Perhaps it was the first time I saw my own deep need to be alone on the page and began to understand the stakes of my refusal—already clear—to pursue Susan’s kind of life.
‘The Balloon’ by Donald Barthelme (First published in The New Yorker on April 8, 1966, and still available to read there. Collected in Sixty Stories, Penguin, 1993. Also in the mini Penguin Modern Classic Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby, 2011)
I came to ‘The Balloon’ blessedly ignorant of Barthelme and his status—I think my father pulled it down for me from the shelf where all his college books lived. It’s a New York City fairytale. An elaborate metaphor for longing and desire. A gentle satire of certain forms of installation art and their critics. A loving evocation of city residents and their adaptability. The balloon, though packed away at the end of the story, goes on living in my daydreams and I have often retreated into its soft curves and colors (“muted heavy grays and browns for the most part, contrasting with walnut and soft yellows”) when the world overwhelms me.
‘The Garden Party’ by Katherine Mansfield (First published in 1922 as a three-part serial in the Westminster Gazette and later collected in The Garden Party and Other Stories, Alfred A Knopf, Inc and widely anthologized and available, including at Project Gutenberg)
It is impossible for me to think about Mrs. Dalloway without also thinking of ‘The Garden Party’ which should be recommendation enough. Mansfield’s story, like Woolf’s novel, is about death in the middle of a party, but instead of Clarissa and her middle-aged memories and longings we have Mansfield’s child protagonist Laura hovering between the worlds of childhood and adulthood, innocence and knowledge, life and death, wealth and poverty, witness, and denial. Written in prose like dappled sunlight and deep shadow.
‘I Stand Here Ironing’ by Tillie Olsen (First published in Pacific Spectator, in February 1956. Collected in Tell Me a Riddle, Dell Publishing, 1956)
“I stand here ironing and what you asked me moves tormented back and forth with the iron.” Olsen gives us everything in the first line: the never-ending work of poverty and motherhood, the single, unpartnered I, the impossibility of explaining, the impossibility of giving what is needed, the never-ending continued attempt to give it anyway. “I Stand Here Ironing” is a mother’s agonized internal monologue in response to a well-meaning social worker’s questions about her oldest daughter. How to gather the threads of history, circumstance and harm that distorted her daughter’s life? How to explain what she could have been, might still be? It’s the way the daughter shines darkly from within this lament that breaks my heart wide open. Both social worker and mother have seen “her rare gift for comedy on the stage that rouses laughter outof the audience so dear they applaud and applaud and do not want to let her go.”
‘The Debutante’ by Leonora Carrington (Originally written in 1937. Possibly published in French in a small magazine—Carrington’s publication history is complex! Collected in The Seventh Horse and Other Tales, Plume, 1988. Republished with an introduction by Marina Warner by Virago in 1993. Now available in The Debutante and Other Stories, Silver Press, 2017 and The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington, Dorothy, 2017)
"It was to escape from the world that I found myself each day at the zoo. The beast I knew best was a young hyena. She knew me too. She was extremely intelligent; I taught her French and in return she taught me her language. We spent many pleasant hours in this way." Carrington was twenty when she wrote “The Debutante.” I think of her living with Max Ernst—more than twice her age and married—in a village in Southern France in an old farmhouse bought with money cadged from her mother but registered only in his name, World War II already a threatening cloud on the horizon. I think of her painting alongside an already well-established artist and then slipping away to write these fierce, strange, little stories, making worlds only she could see. I was twenty-three when I bought the then new 1993 Virago edition of Carrington’s stories and read this feral, bloody, wildly funny story about disturbingly entitled rebellion (the poor maid!). I’ve been writing towards it ever since.
‘The Mother’ by Lydia Davis (First published in Break it Down, FSG, 1986. Collected in The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, FSG/Hamish Hamilton, 2009)
Speaking of feral little stories, this one has perhaps the most cruelty per ounce of any story I have read. I will never be able to tell you why it is a story and not a poem.
‘I Was Trying to Describe What it Feels Like’ by Noy Holland (Collected in I Was Trying to Describe What it Feels Like: New and Selected Stories, Counterpoint Press, 2017)
Woooo! Technically this story is too new to me. There was supposed to be something else here. But don’t we deserve a shot of pure joy? I walk around reciting lines, humming them, like it’s a song not a story. It might be a song, not a story. I can’t stop singing it.
‘Wants’ by Grace Paley (Collected in Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974)
“Hello, my life, I said. We had once been married for twenty-seven years so I felt justified.” A woman runs into her ex-husband on the way to return two Wharton novels that have been overdue for eighteen years. (She checks them out again after paying the fine because she read them so long ago.) They reminisce a little. “But as for you,” the ex says, “it’s too late. You’ll always want nothing.”
He had a habit throughout the twenty-seven years of making a narrow remark which, like a plumber’s snake, could work its way through the ear down the throat, halfway to my heart. He would then disappear, leaving me choking with equipment.
And she sits back down on the library steps to consider her wants. That’s it. That’s the whole story. But contained within it are a few lifetimes, a critique of state bureaucracies, a philosophy of breakfast, self-acceptance, change, continuance, and several more unforgettable lines.
‘Conversation with My Father’ by Grace Paley (Collected in Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974)
Ars poetica in the form of an argument, one I’ve often had with myself. “I would like you to write a simple story just once more,” says the narrator’s father from his hospital bed, “the kind de Maupassant wrote, or Chekov, the kind you used to write. Just recognizable people and write down what happened to them next.” And so she tries, and (according to her father) fails, due to jokes and a too firm commitment to the possibility of change. “Tragedy!” he shouts in the final lines, “When will you look it in the face?” (I sometimes walk around my house saying this to myself, but it makes me laugh so the narrator wins after all.)
‘Love’ by Grace Paley (Collected in Later the Same Day, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1985)
This story made me think it was possible to marry someone who would say, “What a good idea,” when I announced I had written a poem, and who would discuss whether government policy looks more like a floor or a ceiling. (Reader, it was possible.) I think maybe once a week, with great longing, about the scene where the narrator sees her former friend Margaret in the market and, taken off guard, they forget their enmity and smile at one another. The narrator takes Margaret’s hand as she passes, kisses it, and presses it to her cheek, a gesture of love that is not—as her husband suggests later—truly for Margaret, but for Louise, who Margaret took with her and who the narrator misses even more. How many different kinds of love can you get into one five page story? So many.
‘In This Country but in Another Language My Aunt Refuses to Marry the Man Everybody Wants Her To’ by Grace Paley (Collected in Later the Same Day, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1985)
Only two pages long, but isn’t the title already a story unto itself? The man is never mentioned. Indeed, the story is mostly about what is not there. The aunt refuses to tell the narrator about the terrible things the grandmother has seen. The grandmother and the father tell the aunt she has not lived. The horrors of war and revolution flare up in a sentence or two, go on humming in the background. I cannot separate this story from ‘Conversation with My Father.” I think of it as the matriarchal counterpoint. The final lines: “My grandmother said to all our faces, Why do you laugh? But my aunt said, Laugh!”
*With one exception: I’m sorry, I just cannot include Amy Hempel’s ‘In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried.’ Due to its inescapable presence in the late 1980s, it will be in my head for the rest of my days, and you know what? In spite of its brilliance and my sense that it is an ur-text for many other grief books including Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, I am sick of having it there. Begone sad primate.
Alyssa Harad is the author of a memoir, Coming to My Senses, and has published essays in The Kenyon Review, The Nation, Jewish Quarterly, O: The Oprah Magazine, The Chronicle of Higher Education and other venues. She is currently writing a novel featuring a singing hyena.
* You can browse the full searchable archives of A Personal Anthology, with over 2,400 story recommendations, at www.apersonalanthology.com.
* A Personal Anthology is curated by Jonathan Gibbs, author of two novels, Randall, and The Large Door, and a book-length poem, Spring Journal. His story 'A Prolonged Kiss' was shortlisted for the 2021 Sunday Times Audible Short Story Award. He is Programme Director of the MA/MFA Creative Writing at City, University of London.
* If you are interested in contributing your own Personal Anthology to the project, then please let me know by replying to this email. I’m always on the lookout for new guest editors!
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