These are books I return to again and again. It was in my MFA program at Chatham University where I fell in love with linked story collections. Some are linked by character, some by theme, but most often these books are linked by place. I love how the place becomes just as much of a protagonist and often antagonist in all of these stories. As a writer from North Carolina, I am always asking myself what it means to have ties that go back to such a fraught and beautiful place. A dear former professor, Peter Oresick, who passed away a few years ago also wrote about place and class. On a class trip to Turkey, he and I were often the first ones up for breakfast and I’ll never forget eating tomato slices, fruit, fresh cheese and bread with him outside in Olympos and how he told me the best way to write about a place is to leave it. Maybe he was right.
- Trash by Dorothy Allison
Raised by a single mom in the Carolinas, reading Bastard Out of Carolina as a college freshman was the first time I truly recognized a family that resembled my own in literature and I’ll never stop being haunted by it but as short story collections often are, this Lambda Literary Award-winning book usually gets lost in the light of her much beloved first novel. However, these stories contain all the heartache, longing, anger, resilience, and beauty of the women from her most famous work.
- In the Country by Mia Alvar
This debut collection based in the Philippines and beyond in the diaspora will bring you to your knees. As I was taking care of my dying mother-in-law, I sought out all manner of books which might help me cope. In the Country is one of the books that saved me. The opening story follows a successful unmarried doctor who has been called home to help care for his dying father. When he returns to Manila, he finds he no longer recognizes himself, his mother, or his once quite severe father. If you’re anything like me, you’ll have to put it down for a good cry after the first story, take a deep breath, make a cup of chamomile tea, and then keep reading until you finish it at 3am.
- Mattaponi Queen by Belle Boggs
Published in 2010, this collection takes place on the Mattiponi Reservation and its surrounding counties in rural downstate Virginia. The layering effect of stories both on and off the “rez” paints a landscape which oozes trauma and yet, these rural folks of both wealth and poverty, keep shooting for any shred of hope and redemption. Years later, I still think about the father dying of liver disease in his ramshackle home trying to figure out a way to reconnect with his children and the title story, which brings us into the home of a wealthy, cantankerous old woman and the nurse who cares for her who dreams of buying an decrepit houseboat and getting as far away from this place as possible. Boggs’s depiction of class differences in the modern south is aspirational.
- The Dew Breaker by Edwidge Danticat
I came to this book in a class called “Exiles” in my MFA program. I return to it often, have given it as a gift many times over, and list it among my one of my all-time favorite books. Yes, Danticat has gone on to great acclaim with novels but I believe the fragmentation, the collective grief and trauma of the Haitian experience she explores here both in Haiti and in the diaspora is exemplary and vibrates with terrible secrets even those we love can keep. When I think of this collection what resonates most is the idea that Salman Rushdie discussed in his essay, “Imaginary Homelands,” which says, “It may be argued that the past is a country from which we have all emigrated, that its loss is part of our common humanity.”
- The Circus in Winter by Cathy Day
For centuries, many cultures have had a deep fascination with carnivalesque and circus stories. Russian linguist & literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin claimed such stories worked to destabilize power structures. In this collection, Day writes about Lima, Indiana, the place where the Great Porter Circus winters from 1884-1939 and imbues both human and non-human animals, who are rarely thought of as having rich inner lives due to their station/class/oddity/bodily form, in it with such feeling, my heart still aches when I think of them. We are all connected.
Beth Gilstrap is the winner of the 2019 Women’s Prose Prize from Red Hen Press for DEADHEADING & OTHER STORIES. She is also the author of I AM BARBARELLA: STORIES (2015) from Twelve Winters Press. Her work has been selected as Longform.org’s “Fiction Pick of the Week” and chosen by Dan Chaon for inclusion in the Best Microfiction Anthology 2019. She holds an MFA from Chatham University. Her stories, essays, and hybrids have appeared in Ninth Letter, The Minnesota Review, Denver Quarterly, Gulf Stream Lit, and Wigleaf, among others. She lives in Charlotte, North Carolina with a house full of critters.
Irrevocably tied to The Carolinas, these stories tell tales of the woebegone, their obsessions with decay and the haunting ache of the region itself—the land of the dwindling pines, the isolation inherent in the mountains and foothills, and the loneliness of boomtowns. Predominantly working-class women challenge the status quo by rejecting any lingering expectations or romantic notions of southern femininity. Small businesses are failing. Factories are closing. Money is tight. The threat of violence lingers for women and girls. Through their collective grief, heartache, and unsettling circumstances, many of these characters become feral and hell bent on survival. Gilstrap’s prose teems with wildness and lyricism, showing the southern gothic tradition of storytelling is alive and feverishly unwell in the twenty-first century.