Story-Wallah: Short Fiction from South Asian Writers – Shyam Selvadurai (ed.) (2005)

book416After having fully immersed myself in authors and writing by African-American writers during February, I thought it would be fun to continue reading other POC authors and writings from around the world, so browsing through the TBR shelves (go me!), I came across this title and thought it would fit the bill perfectly.

I’m not sure where I ended up hearing about this title, but the stickers on the book lend credence to the fact that it’s probably used as a textbook in a world literature class somewhere or other, and regardless, this was great fun to read.

As the whole book title reads, Story-Wallah: A Celebration of South Asian Fiction, this was an anthology of writings and authors from Southern Asia and featured a wide range of writers from the well-known (such as Salman Rushdie and Zadie Smith) to the slightly less well-known (at least to me). They were all originally written in English (I think) and all fiction, and the range of the short stories was quite astounding. I loved it. It was like eating candy in a pick-n-mix as you (I) never really knew what was coming once I’d finished a story. There wasn’t a bad one in the whole anthology, and I adored almost every page that I read.

As Shyam Selvadurai writes in his introduction, “The stories jostle up against each other . . . The effect is a marvelous cacophony that reminds me of . . . one of those South Asian bazaars, a bargaining, carnival-like milieu. The goods on sale in this instance being stories hawked by story-traders: story-wallahs.”

Edited by Selvadurai, it’s a perfect read for a monkey mind (comme moi right now), and I thoroughly enjoyed almost every story, even taking notes of a few favorite authors to dig into at a later date as their included short stories were so strong.

Authors ranged from locales across the Southern Asia diaspora, from Sri Lanka, India, Great Britain, USA, Trinidad, Fiji and others, and explored (as GoodReads says) universal themes of identify, culture and home. I fairly gobbled this read down, and am going to keep it on the shelves for another read at another time. Yes, it was that good.

Naturally, some authors were more favorite than others (as is typical in a wide-sweeping anthology), and I made notes to make sure that I track down more work by Salman Rushdie, Monica Ali, Zadie Smith, Farida Karodia, Hanif Kureishi, and Shani Mootoo, but there are loads more from which to choose.

It’s a big book (>400 pages), but it’s extremely readable and I thoroughly enjoyed the whole thing. Highly recommended in almost every metric. 🙂

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(Above) – This is what is generally accepted as Southern Asia, but the book travels more widely than this…

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Merle and other Stories – Paule Marshall (1983)

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Picking up another Virago (from this shelf), this was a collection of short stories and one novella by African-American author Paule Marshall. I have had this title on the shelf for decades, but this one made the cut when I was searching for books for Black History Month. I am so glad that I finally read this one, as I think I’ve discovered a new favorite author. I’m delighted about this.

There are several stories in this collection, all with the same entrancing writing in them. Marshall is an artist in her writing, in her turns of phrase, and how she crafts her sentences. Truly a joy to read for me.

The common theme between all the stories was one of a state of imbalance and of power. Who had it? How was it handled? What upset it and what was the impact of that? Several stories dealt with a narrative based on the dichotomy of older man/younger woman and the issue of who had the power over whom. Each story was focused on this set up, but each story was very different from the others so it wasn’t pure repetition.

As I read each story and met the characters, I watched the balance of power change from one to the other. At the start of the story, it was clear who was in charge, but then some catalyst would occur to offset the balance, and then your view shifted – who had the power really? All this is very subtly approached and it’s very shadowy so you, as the reader, aren’t really aware of these undercurrents until afterwards, when you’re thinking about the story. Marshall is a really good at this structural formula here without being obvious.

So what  does the power struggle between the two characters represent? Does it reflect the struggle between old and new? (There were significant age differences for several characters in the stories.) Was it male vs. female? This was a silent power struggle and so did it represent the changing power of feminism vs. the established world?

It’s an interesting debate and with no clear answer which makes this a really provocative read. Loved it, and will definitely pick up more Marshall. (I just happen to have a couple more on the Virago shelf…)

Part of JOMP’s Black History Month recognition.)

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The Shell Collector – Anthony Doerr (2002)

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This was a collection of short stories that was pure joy to read. (I know! Short stories and I don’t usually get on very well.) Author Anthony Doerr is a well-established fiction writer and has been widely published, and from this offering, it’s absolutely clear why he is. He is a sickenly perfect writer in every stretch of the imagination, and I just thoroughly enjoyed every story and every page.

My experience with short stories is mostly composed of reading short stories that end too soon with reference to their endings or sometimes don’t even finish. Sometimes I feel that the typical short story only tells half a story (and that authors use Po-Mo as an excuse to explain that) or it feels unfinished in some way. But that was not this experience at all.

Doerr’s stories are perfect in every way. (I know – high praise.)  As in any collection, there are some pieces that are stronger than others, but even the weaker ones were great. (It was a question of tiny degrees, I think.)

Look at this writing:

“[The young girl] trembles at the idea of ocean nearing. Fidgets in her seat. The energy of a fourteen-year old piling up like marbles on a dinner plate…”

And this description of a fair ground:

“At the fairgrounds, we saw them in the parking lot inhaling the effluvium of carnival, the smells of fried dough, caramel and cinnamon, the flap-flapping of tents, a carousel plinking out music-box songs, voluptuous sounds bouncing down tent ropes and along the dust of the midway. Wind-curled handbills staple-gunned to telephone poles, the hum of gas-powered generators and the gyro truck, the lemonade truck, pretzels and popcorn, baked potatoes, the American flag, the rumblings of rides and the disconnected screams of riders – all of it shimmered before them like a mirage, something not quite real…” (p. 97, “For a Long Time This was Griselda’s Story”)

Just look at the lusciousness of some of those phrases: “effluvium of carnival”, the “plinking” of the carousel, the curled staple-gunned handbills, the “disconnected screams” of the riders. Swoon. It’s not often that you get to enjoy this high quality of writing…

The stories are diverse, but seem to have a common theme of living with the natural world: a man who lives on an island studying shells who becomes a reluctant healer, a lady who had an experience in her younger life and becomes a spirit healer of sorts, a group of US fishermen compete in an international fishing competition… There was also an ongoing theme of water (sea, lake, snow, river) and the creatures who live in it. Each story was down-to-earth and each story was so exquisitely written that it was a joy to read.

I don’t mean to sound hyperbolic, but this really was a great collection to read. I highly recommend this title if you’re looking for fantastic fiction writing with good plots. Stories were as long as they needed to be and the plots were compelling. This was great.