No one knows exactly where the finish line is in a short story competition – except according to the stories that got over it. The sample is usually small and the criteria qualitative. What is surprising then is that one can spot trends or tendencies at all.
In November 2019, we announced a spontaneous short story competition, on a short leash – the deadline was just two weeks away. We thought it would be nice when we launched our new site in the new year, to give Southasian fiction an early and prominent place on it. Our Himal-stalwart colleagues told us to expect around 60 entries. We got 319. Some writers even told us they’d quickly written a story to submit. Six members of the Himal editorial team – all of us in fact – were drafted to discuss and decide.
We were right and proper about our criteria – nothing prejudged; form and content prized reciprocally, not alone; a readiness to argue equally for perfect polishes and imperfect experiments; bravery noted; questions of taste acknowledged but submitted to thoughtful scrutiny. All as you would expect – an insistence that we knew why we were choosing the stories we chose to highlight. It is considerable tribute to the shortlisted stories that they did get over an exacting imaginary line and no discredit either to those that did not, this time.
Are we sometimes writing out the smaller conflicts of our societies, while the biggest hold their tongue?
At the longlisting stage every story was read by two people, at shortlisting stage, by all six of us. As we read in different corners of our office, we sometimes called out to each other repeated features we’d noticed across stories, often finding others had come across them too. One of our editors commented that in the process of reading the stories she learnt to spot familiar pitfalls in her own writing. Here follows an irregular and incomplete list of questions, clichés, curiosities, challenges and reflections that arose from our reading, all gathered in a spirit of self-reflection on our storytelling habits, grateful to 319 writers who made us think.
We want to know why ‘beautiful’ is considered enough to describe a woman? Why do we wrap feudal relationships in soft folds of nostalgia? Why do dead grandmothers exert more influence than dead grandfathers? Grandmothers, parents and degrees came up with almost equal frequency (a lot). The premeditated killing of cats, almost as often.
We’re curious that so many of the stories we received from Sri Lanka were told almost completely through dialogue (we had noticed that even before this competition, had you?). We were happy to find growing numbers of stories about the generation immediately over 65, active retirees portrayed engaging reflectively with their present lives.
We noted so many stories set around weddings, so many bad marriages, so many school stories. We read a seemingly countless number of stories about the brief romantic relationships of affluent and globalised young Southasians – which offered some relief to older members of our team that our own pasts were better hidden, allowing us the privacy to outgrow them.
If we treat the Southasian as an exotic creature in an exotic context, using ourselves for ‘colour’, are we surprised that publishers elsewhere demand the swish of silk and the scent of jasmine?
It seemed proportionately rare that we read stories that were funny or irreverent – when we did, it was disappointing that from a lively start they proceeded almost surely to gratuitous violence. Indeed, many stories seemed to demand of themselves a dramatic ending, when the short story form lends itself as well to gentleness. It would seem we expect of ourselves a measure of swagger, melodrama, machismo. On the other hand, we read many stories that were expository, truly beautiful descriptions struggling for plot.
Short story competitions (especially in English where it is a language of relative social privilege) can be demoralising for the degree to which they dam up insulated middle-class social norms. We read many meticulous portraits of societal anxiety – often written with an evident intention to call out or bring down those social constructions. Yet the effort was sometimes betrayed by an excessive obeisance paid, time and effort spent on bourgeois detail – an unfair charge given the precision it takes to write a good short story but leaving the reader with a slight feeling of dissipation.
Are we sometimes writing out the smaller conflicts of our societies, while the biggest hold their tongue? We were struck to see active struggles against ‘fairness’ prejudice (for example) – and rightly so – while writers leant on familiar gender norms (for example) to give their stories structure; when the shape and progress of a story depended on automatic behaviours in its characters. It’s a fine line. When a domestic worker in a story silently furnishes it with cups of tea, that is verisimilitude but it can also be another acceptance of our hierarchies. Occasionally, by no means always, it can seem as though fathers object to career choices and mothers to boyfriends simply because it requires less effort to tell a story that way. Incidentally, we know our parents play a disproportionate role in our lives but what a reminder these stories were; reminding, after all, one of the most potent roles literature plays in our lives.
We would be taken into a world so particular, so richly depicted, that we felt we had never been to such a place before, able to feel the texture of its surfaces and its behaviours.
Overall, we were impressed that the 319 stories kept us on our feet, moving from fable to science fiction, from omniscient narrator to unreliable witness. More impressive still was the range of subjects tackled – from experiences of migration to communal tension to gaming, from detailing the manufacture of mobs to the minutiae of bureaucratic process. To cat-killing, admittedly. When you are reading 319 stories, it would seem impossible that any should stay in the mind and yet our minds are now peopled by your characters, landscapes and crises.
We were occasionally despondent about our own orientalism – if we treat the Southasian as an exotic creature in an exotic context, using ourselves for ‘colour’, are we surprised that publishers elsewhere demand the swish of silk and the scent of jasmine? We are one of the more populous and varied regions of the planet, with disasporas flung right across the earth, in a world of some global communication and crossover. We want to know who we think we’re writing for when we describe our food as ‘spicy’ and italicise a word like ‘dhal’?
Then again – once in particular – we would be taken into a world so particular, so richly depicted, that we felt we had never been to such a place before, able to feel the texture of its surfaces and its behaviours. Naturally for short-story readers, we perhaps appreciated above all the nuance of human relations portrayed in these stories, sometimes in a single emblematic choice made by a character, a hesitation, an incident that may or may not have taken place.
These stories were read, as you can see, by a difficult bunch, as irrational and idiosyncratic as any other. It is a credit to the stories submitted that we enjoyed the process immensely and that so many of them made us forget our role as selectors and read, as we should, just as readers. Looking at our final shortlist after we had made it (the stories were not considered against each other but alone) we were pleased to find how much it varied in tone and character. We found that we had selected stories that were confident in their storytelling voice, stories we felt were being told to us with assurance, stories that were whole in themselves and didn’t prompt us to ask what happened before or after. But let us not spoil our readers’ pleasure in turn by giving too much away. Over the coming weeks we will publish all of the shortlisted stories, with ink and charcoal illustrations by Arati Kumar-Rao. Here they come.
Read the winning entry of the short story competition, ‘Milk’ by Mashiul Alam, translated from Bangla into English by Shabnam Nadiya.
From the shortlist of the short story competition:
‘Chudail in love’ by Shivani Kamal Bhasin
‘A cold heart’ by Dur e Aziz Amna.