Each fall, I eagerly await the appearance of two short story collections published by the University of Iowa Press. The Iowa Short Fiction Award and John Simmons Short Fiction Award winners are annual sources of pleasure for the lover of short stories. I have been reviewing the winning books for several years now, and I am seldom disappointed.
I first became aware of the awards in 2000, when I reviewed Thisbe Nissen’s outstanding collection, Out of the Girls’ Room and Into the Night. I was sent the truncated version of the book as published by Anchor a full year after the Writers’ Workshop grad had garnered the John Simmons Short Fiction Award for the complete collection.
I was so taken by Nissen’s stories that I immediately rustled up a copy of the original book because I didn’t want to be cheated out of any of the author’s efforts. To date, it is still my favorite of all of the award-winning collections I have read over the subsequent years (and I believe it is Nissen’s strongest work, as well, surpassing both her novels and the quirky collaboration entitled The Ex-Boyfriend Cookbook).
Even so, 2009 is a strong year for the ongoing series, offering two excellent collections that are worthy recipients of the awards.
Kathryn Ma is well aware that our personal past can derail our present. That thematic thread runs through All That Work and Still No Boys (University of Iowa Press, $16, 147 pages), Ma’s collection of short stories that has earned her the 2009 Iowa Short Fiction Award.
Ma, who is a first-generation American of Chinese descent, builds many of her stories around the experiences of Chinese immigrants and their offspring. In a story called “The Scottish Play,” one of the collection’s best, Ma explores the blending and bending of cultural etiquette and superstition as two widows vie to maintain their pride and position.
But Ma is equally able to delineate the powers of the past in stories featuring characters who do not (at least explicitly) share her heritage. The young women at the heart of “Dougie” and “What I Know Now”—each struggling with unpleasant sexual memories—are among the collection’s most memorable, even though the latter piece is a fairly run-of-the-mill college story.
“Prank,” which (along with the title story) is in the top tier of the Ma’s pieces, boldly investigates what “inscrutability”—a concept long used to stereotype those of Asian descent—might actually mean. The story features one truly inscrutable high school student and the guidance counselor charged with helping him.
The story features sharply drawn characters navigating the treacherous streams of expectation, aspiration, and acceptance. The story stands out in part because there is no back story on offer that adequately explains the young man’s behavior. He seems to willfully reject the kind of haunting that afflicts many of Ma’s other characters.
Jennine Capó Crucet has a striking ability to draw her reader into the world of her stories. In her short story collection How to Leave Hialeah (University of Iowa Press, $16, 169 pages)—2009 winner of the John Simmons Short Fiction Award—she doesn’t invite so much as induce her reader to join her in the Cuban exile community in Miami.
Often, she accomplishes this with confident, readable prose and great storylines. For example, “El Destino Hauling” features memorable characters, a brilliantly executed surprise, and a hint of humor leavened by true tragedy and personal desperation. Crucet achieves something similar in the equally strong story “Noche Buena,” in which family traditions and irreconcilable facts collide.
In three stories, however, Crucet isn’t satisfied to allow the reader a passive role. The collection’s first story, “Resurrection, or: The Story behind the Failure of the 2003 Salsa 98.1 Semi-Annual Cuban and/or Puerto Rican Heritage Festival,” seeks to shape how the reader thinks about him- or herself in relation to the story. When Crucet writes, “and you know how lazy you can be, how else do you find time to read stuff like this?” she takes a risk, but one she is gifted enough to carry off.
In “Men Who Punched Me in the Face,” she implicates the reader among the group named in the title, a bold stroke that she, again, carries off impressively. In the collection’s title story, which closes the book, the reader is, in one sense, cast as the main character. Put another way, the main character talks to herself as though she were an individual to whom she is giving instructions. This, too, is a difficult narrative move, but Crucet never missteps.