By Laura Gallon
The short story is an international form with various traditions and migrant authors are at the forefront of the current ‘short story revival’
Over the years, the ‘show don’t tell’ aesthetic has come to be accepted in the West as one of the timeless, universal hallmarks of ‘good short story writing’. The dictum is often traced back to Anton Chekhov’s ‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass’, associated with Ernest Hemingway’s iceberg theory, and connected to Raymond Carver’s minimalist writing. Those authors’ influence on the contemporary short story in English is clear and indisputable: their stories continue to be taught in creative writing modules across the Northern hemisphere and to predominate in short story anthologies, companions and handbooks.
But in its reliance on the unsaid and leaving readers to come to their own conclusions, the ‘show don’t tell’ aesthetic makes a number of cultural presumptions. It assumes that writer and reader share the same aesthetics and cultural references. It is, in other words, wholly dependent on the writer’s privileged and unchallenged sense of belonging; their confidence that they will be intelligible to the reader.
For short story writers from marginalised groups, matters are complicated by the fact that they are dependent on an overwhelmingly white, middle-class and Western publishing industry. They are often presented and marketed as ‘native informers’, their stories read for their socio-cultural content rather than their ‘literariness’. Drawing from a different pool of knowledge and cultural assumptions, these authors may even be pressured into providing some extra contextualisation or translations, at a time when minority literature is ‘in’. In other cases, as Viet Than Nguyen argues, authors whose identities and cultures have historically been sidelined may write with ‘the desire not just to show, but to tell’. And if they do incorporate extra information either as an activist gesture or simply to be more widely intelligible, many of their stories are then dismissed as lacking universalism and doing too much telling.
As I argue in my upcoming book, Migrant Women Writers and the Habitable Short Story in North America Since 1980, internalised aesthetic standards such as ‘show don’t tell’ actually work to marginalise and silence the stories and voices of minorities. While (or perhaps because) debates around inclusivity and literature have tended to focus primarily on the novel, the short story canon continues to be very Western and white, comparatively speaking. When I began my research a few years ago, to judge by the available anthologies, literary criticism and publishing trends, the short story form still appeared to be the realm of a select group of white authors – authors whose racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds posed no challenge to a certain ethno-cultural understanding of the nation state and, by extension, its literature. Aside from a handful of studies, minority authors were very often footnoted, quite literally – if they were discussed at all.
In one striking example, these literary standards enabled an entire class of white students in an MFA workshop to tear Edwidge Danticat’s “Children of the Sea” (1995) to shreds for being too sentimental and drawing on ‘overwrought’ and ‘vague and meaningless’ metaphors. I am not saying that the story is above criticism, but rather that this analysis says more about than the critics than the text. In fact, the story becomes much more powerful when the reader has an understanding of Haitian history, oral traditions and storytelling, of Caribbean women’s literary canon, and of the cultural, literary and linguistic influences of French both on Haitian culture and on Danticat’s writing. By approaching the story from an American perspective (and as it happens a slightly sexist one), the students’ assumption here was that unfamiliar forms of writing which do not adhere or assimilate to local literary codes, that are ‘not American enough’, are of little value. Of course, in this specific instance, there are social dynamics at play too, with burgeoning authors bolstering their own confidence by criticising the work of others. At the time this happened, Edwidge Danticat wasn’t quite as famous as she is now. But the example is still representative of a widespread form of literary criticism which aims to safeguard literary borders rather than humbly welcome certain forms of difference. I suspect this cultural bias accounts for the lack of inclusivity in short story theory and mainstream anthologies.
The careers of migrant writers who skilfully adhere to Western literary codes follow quite a different path. Jhumpa Lahiri, arguably the most famous American migrant short story writer, is an example on point. In Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, Cathy Park Hong highlights Jhumpa Lahiri’s adherence to the “MFA orthodoxy of show, don’t tell” and suggests, like many other critics, that Lahiri’s unusual rise to fame after the publication of her Pulitzer-winning short story collection debut, Interpreter of Maladies (1999), no doubt has a lot do with her embeddedness in Western culture. Her writing is indeed full of intertextual references to Anton Chekhov, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ovid to name but a few, her Bengali American characters are educated, cosmopolitan, and fluent in Italian and French, and her style has frequently been compared with Raymond Carver’s and Alice Munro’s.
I have been collecting data and tracking publications of short story collections by migrant women in Canada and the U.S. for several years now. When I started out, I was curious to see whether migrant short story writers were really as rare as short story scholarship suggested. And I wanted to know who they were, what they were interested in writing about, and how they went about it. Hours sitting at my desk, browsing the internet and the WayBack Machine internet archive, skimming through literary encyclopaedias and receiving daily Google Alerts have so far turned up over 450 short story collections and cycles published since 1980. The number keeps rising every day. It is harder to find information about collections published before the internet age or released by short-lived small presses. But this gives some indication of how popular a form the short story is, and long has been, among migrant women. It hints at all the formal innovations and powerful stories that might be hidden away in the pages of a 1920s newspaper, somewhere in an archive. It points to all the work that still lies ahead of us.
In the six years I have been working on my book, the situation has improved dramatically and recognition has grown for the contributions of contemporary migrant authors to the short story form. In 2020, migrant and minority women were shortlisted for all the ‘big’ short story prizes, and well represented among the winners. With the expanding awareness that the short story is an international form with various traditions, short story writers from marginalised backgrounds are increasingly being taught on creative writing courses and short story theory modules. Migrant authors are at the forefront of the current ‘short story revival’ and innovations in its form, from Ben Okri’s ‘stokus’, Teju Cole’s twitter stories (and arguably Rupi Kaur’s ‘instapoetry’), to Jennifer Makumbi’s rewriting of Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners in her 2019 cycle Manchester Happened. The short story’ malleability, its lack of any defining feature apart from its brevity, and its hybrid roots in oral cultures across the world make it a powerful form with which to experiment and bring cultures together. After all, as Sarah Shun-lien Bynum recently put it: ‘That’s part of what’s lovely about the short story. That you can make up the rules anew with each one.’
Laura Gallon is a Research Associate at the University of Sussex. She previously undertook a research placement with the American Collections at the British Library to evaluate their holdings of migrant literature and has presented her research on migrant short fiction at national and international conferences. She works in publishing at Bloomsbury Academic and as editor-in-chief for Excursions Journal. She is a member of the ESNFR and of the Contemporary Women’s Writing Association (CWWA).