Best Debut Short Stories 2020: An Exciting Peek into the Future of the Short Story 

The short story form is always one I have been fascinated by. The ability to deliver a satisfying and meaningful reading experience in twenty pages or so is no small feat. When I was younger, I would write stories about mermaids, mysteries, and hidden treasure and send them off to story contests to be judged. While I never won any prizes, I was gifted the invaluable love for creative writing. I lost some interest in writing stories during my high school years, but was fortunately able to return to it in college. After taking both fiction workshop classes at Williams, introductory and advanced, I have decided to pursue a senior thesis in creative writing. As I have been reading more fiction work in preparation for writing my own short story collection, one set of stories I am currently reading has struck me. 

I picked up this collection, Best Debut Short Stories 2020, at a bookstore in Princeton. The aim of the collection was to bring together stories from the most promising fiction writers of today. The twelve authors selected were winners of the PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers. I was struck not by eccentric characters, dazzling settings, or riveting plots, but by the authors’ ability to create extraordinary tales out of the lives of everyday characters. This collection has inspired me to reign in more of the more fantastical and theatrical elements of my own fiction writing in favor of more honest and genuine characters and stories, a pivet I have really appreciated. 

“Evangelina Concepcion,” the first story in the collection, was written by Ani Coonye and gives readers a taste of heartbreaking humor. Lila, a girl who has just lost her mother in a tragic car accident, latches onto the attention surrounding the white pedestrian who also died in the crash. While this pedestrian is written about and named in in news articles, Lila’s mother remains “the mother of two driving the silver vehicle.” She perceives the immense grief overtaking those around her as foolish, choosing instead to focus on ridding herself of her mother’s old clothing and imagining strangers walking the streets in her oversized pants. Lila views her shettered family’s anguish and despair as an observer rather than a participant, laughing at times that should be somber. The humor of some of these moments is incredibly painful, as the reader comprehends her inability to process her grief. After all, the world sees her mother as simply “the mother of two.” Another interesting element of this story is that it is written entirely in second person, a relatively rare find. 

“Summertime” by Mohit Manohar introduces us to Sandeep, an Indian student at Yale studying abroad in London for the summer. Everything in the story indicates that Sandeep is finding true love on a first date, until the story takes a turn that, while jolting and disheartening, is surprisingly satisfying. “Cats v. Cancer” by Valerie Hagarty is possibly my favorite story in the collection simply because of how the character of the protagonist is built. Without being told explicitly about some of the character’s personal struggles, the author masterfully allows us to understand her and grow to love her. When the story reveals the details of her inner turmoil, we can sympathize with her in a way we would not have been able to if we were not allowed time to get to know her on our own. A heartbreaking story interwoven with powerful motifs, such as kittens and birds, makes readers feel that intense happy/sad feeling that is so difficult to capture. 

“Failure to Thrive” is another contender for my favorite story in the collection. A couple and their newborn daughter travel to sunny, breezy Florida to collect bones for a museum’s research collection and return to a snowy Milwaukee realizing they are skeletons of their previous selves. This story is raw and does not shy away from the uncomfortable, ugly aspects of motherhood, love, depression, sex, and anger. 

Many other stories in the collection, like “Gauri Kalyanam,” “The Water Tower and the Turtle,” and “Good, Good Men” provide readers with authentic snippets of the lives of their characters, brimming with disappointment, joy, and tragedy. Each page in this collection is pleasure to read, and each story has influenced my own writing greatly. Additionally, this collection celebrates the future of the short story form by introducing authors who have recently made their debut in the genre. Rather than showcasing works by established authors, this collection generates excitement about young, rising authors and inspires aspiring writers like me to continue to pursue the craft. My childhood self who submitted her own stories to national contests is encouraged by authors of this collection. I encourage anyone who is a fan of the short story form or looking to be introduced to it to pick up this collection.