I often get to the end of a novel and think Now I know where it’s going, I’d love to read it again. But, as a book blogger reading around 150 contemporary novels a year, I rarely do. But short stories are different. There’s always time to reread those we particularly admire and perhaps discover something new.
With my own anthology of short stories on the theme of identity on the brink of publication, I reread some of my personal favourites to see what they might have taught me about the someone we become. If you’re not familiar with these authors perhaps you’ll be tempted to give them a try.
Baglady by AS Byatt
Daphne Gulver-Robinson has reluctantly accompanied her husband on a business trip to the Far East. Now, along with the other corporate wives, she’s been shepherded by the wife of the chairman to spend the morning at the Good Fortune Shopping Mall. Separated from the group, with whom she has little in common, Daphne gradually loses her bearings, her money and her passport until, long after the rest of the party have left the complex, she’s ejected to the no man’s land outside, doubtful she’ll ever get home.
In a few short pages, this simple tale of a woman’s unravelling sends a shiver down my spine far stronger than any ghost or horror story. Poor Daphne is doomed long before she sets foot in the mall. Older than the other wives, and less elegant, she’d rather be in England with her animals than with these women buying souvenirs she doesn’t want or need. Out of her element, she’s rapidly unmoored. As could any of us be, if pushed into the wrong “box”. The line between secure and insecure identities might be more permeable than we like to think.
In Attendance by Paula Rawsthorne
June is another Englishwoman withdrawn from the world, although the underground public lavatory where she works, and now lives, is as much a refuge as a prison. She rationalises her situation as a kind of downsizing, now her husband’s dead and their daughter’s been estranged for years. Her seclusion doesn’t feel a sacrifice if it enables her to maintain the fantasy of a happy family but, alone at night, the memories come flooding back.
June isn’t so unusual in depending on denial and/or delusion to shore up a damaged identity, although most of us don’t take it to such an extreme. There are no lavatory attendants in my short story collection, but a few characters who struggle, to varying degrees, to confront the reality of the person they’ve become.
A Visit from the Footbinder by Emily Prager
A world away from English public toilets, Pleasure Mouse races, leaps and darts through the extensive grounds of her family’s mansion in Imperial China, telling everyone her news. So excited the foot-binder is finally coming, the little girl doesn’t realise that her long-awaited initiation into womanhood means she’ll never run again.
As in most coming-of-age stories, Pleasure Mouse must be disabused of her illusions and innocence in order to take her place in the world. But her initiation into her assigned role in society is particularly cruel. Like the bones in her foot, she must be broken, robbed of her vitality for what seem, from a contemporary perspective, minimal gains.
While foot binding is fortunately obsolete, bodies are still bent or broken to fit some internalised or societal standard of femininity. Even today, women can’t move freely in their gladrags, but totter, pain shooting up their calves, in stiletto heels. Fiction can provide a fresh perspective on practices considered normal and natural within the particular culture, but rendered strange when viewed from outside.
We don’t only try to tailor our bodies to our assigned or desired identities; the bodies we inhabit also effect who we are. We’re all transformed by puberty; some must adapt to other bodily changes, or to congenital differences from the norm. I’m fascinated by how the body interacts with identity as some of the stories in my collection confirm.
What Feels like the World by Richard Bausch
Brenda hasn’t the body for gymnastics, but she’s determined to clear the vaulting horse at her fifth-grade class’ demonstration at this evening’s PTA. Her widowed grandfather, her sole carer since her mother’s death just over a year before, watches, with a mixture of admiration and anxiety, her continue her self-induced programme of exercise and dieting for one last day. Will she be disappointed or will she achieve her goal?
In this gently poignant story, both adult and child face, in different ways, striving and failure and the pain of letting go. Neither is quite the person they’d like to be, but love, compassion and mutual acceptance keep them going, despite the grief lingering in the air.
President Daisy by Leone Ross
Although her age isn’t given, Mary seems even younger than Brenda when her aunt, with whom she’s been living since her mother left for America, sends her alone from Kingston to Montego Bay. She’s not looking forward to living with an uncle she doesn’t know and who might not even bother to meet the train. When a tall man with a daisy on his hat sits beside her and entertains her through the journey, the reader fears for Mary. Didn’t her mother tell her not to talk to strange men?
Don’t worry! This is a lovely story about embracing difference and not judging by appearance, as sweet as the tamarind balls the man buys for Mary, without being sentimental at all. It’s the perfect counterbalance to “Baglady”: if only Daphne Gulver-Robinson could have had a President Daisy to take her by the hand!
As in these five of my favourite short stories, there are a range of perspectives on identity in my anthology. As with the ordering here, we’ve tried to show a process from dark to light with the main character’s increasing confidence in, and comfort with, who they really are. I hope readers will enjoy my stories as much as I’ve enjoyed these.