Tag Archives: short story

“Sisters” by Alexandra Kollontai

13 Aug

Love of Worker Bees by Alexandra Kollontai, translated by Cathy PorterI picked up Alexandra Kollontai’s Love of Worker Bees at Boneshaker Books during the AWP conference in Minneapolis. Usually, I skip a book’s introduction, dive right into the fiction, and read the introduction afterwards. Kollontai’s work is a rare look at the Russian Revolution, and since I’m also reading Dr. Zhivago, I wanted to get some background on her. This may have marred my reading experience.

The introduction made me crave reading more history, and perhaps Kollontai’s nonfiction. Her fiction served to illustrate the feminist causes she fought for, and so in reading the short story “Sisters” I felt biased against the artistry of the story, about “a deserted wife and a prostitute who find a common bond.” (Let me back up and say I think if the explicit aim of the writer is to illustrate a political cause, it would be more effective to write nonfiction. That isn’t to say fiction must be apolitical. Pretty much all art is political. I believe a fiction writer should make story primary. The politics arising out of the story tend to emerge in a more complex, satisfying way when you don’t set out to illustrate a specific agenda. Let the story drive.)

Set in the 1920s, “Sisters” is a frame story in which someone at a “delegates conference” is being confided in. The storyteller has left her husband, has nowhere to go, and fears she may have to resort to prostitution. After her daughter’s illness, she was laid off from her job. Her husband, an executive in a government trust company, has taken to coming home drunk. She would like to work and he would like her to stay home. Things get worse when their daughter dies; he brings prostitutes home. The woman is horrified, humiliated, ready to run the second prostitute out of their house–but she sees a desperation in this sad young woman’s eyes, and as they talk, realizes she is an educated young woman without money or shelter, starving, anguished. The storyteller realizes that if she hadn’t been married, she’d be in a similar situation. She leaves her husband and…is at risk at being in the same situation. The story illustrates a pressing issue that Kollontai had to fight for relentlessly, that women’s rights are an essential part of the revolution. She ended up in diplomatic exile for much of her adult life.

The story is affecting, in the way that if someone you met told you that story you would care and be concerned, and want to do something. So in this way, the story achieves a goal. However, the story is mostly told in summary, in the way that someone might relate their tale in real life, not told in scene, with the kind of sensory detail that draws you closer to the humanity of the characters. It feels one step removed. And so I didn’t love the story, and I wouldn’t press it upon anyone unless they were digging into the subject matter–the issues of feminism and Communism, the struggles of people living in Russia after the Revolution. I’ll add as another caveat that is the third piece in the book. I did not read the first two and do wonder if the book is “front loaded” with stronger stories. So take my lack of enthusiasm with a grain of salt, check it out if it intrigues you, and let me know what you think.

This series on Women in Translation continues next week with a Duras novella and will finish at the end of August with a couple surprise books of contemporary poetry, review copies I was delighted to receive in the mail.

“Raven in a Jar” in CICADA

19 Feb
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Another misty PNW place that deserves a fairy tale…One day?

I’m over the moon. My story “Raven in a Jar” is in CICADA’s “Tricksters & Thieves” issue. CICADA is a YA literary magazine, part of a family of children’s publications. I used to subscribe to Cricket. In fact, I think Cricket was the first place I submitted my work. I was in the fourth grade, and it was a poem about Ottawa, I think. Not that I’d been there, yet.

“Raven in a Jar” gestated slowly, starting with my first visit to Victoria, B.C., in my first winter of the Pacific Northwest. I knew I wanted to write something about that place, had a clear sense of atmosphere, but it took another year for the story to emerge, inspired in part by the Haida myths about the Raven Who Steals the Light, and several more years of expanding, cutting, expanding, cutting, focusing…you get the idea.

Here’s how the story begins:

Young mouth in a hard line, Lala bundled her wool coat tightly around herself as she crossed the narrow pebbled beach at the foot of the bluffs. Her pockets and boots were stuffed with provisions — crackers, tins of sardines — and she lugged an exceptionally large jar filled with her grandmother’s custard. She extracted her father’s pocketknife and cut a boat from the dock near the house, rowing away. Sea gulls squawked and whooped. Dive-bombed.

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I worked on revising this story as a part of my Made at Hugo House project, the story collection MORE LIKE HOME THAN HOME. Happy this story found a fantastic home.

“Skitter” on LitRagger

14 Oct

“Harush” by John Osgood, painted during the 24-hour art marathon at CoCA (text painted by yours truly).

I’m very happy that my story “Skitter,” first published in The Massachusetts Review and previously only available in print, is now online at LitRagger. I love their project of reprinting stories, poems, and essays so that they have an online presence. Here’s how “Skitter” begins:

Another tooth plinked into the tea glass and Harush blinked at it twice.

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Classy Talk: The Fiction Workshop at Richard Hugo House

18 Sep

Over on the Hugo House blog, my Classy Talk interview sheds a bit more light on my upcoming  fiction workshop. Take a look, sign up, and help me spread the word about it! Class meets Wednesday nights, 7-9 pm, starting October 29. I’m already excited about the story we’ll read on the first day,  a short-short by Angela Carter, which will be atmospheric and  fairy tale-ish and spooky.

“Old Boyfriends” in Propeller Magazine

2 Dec

My short story “Old Boyfriends” is in Propeller Magazine this week. Here’s how it starts:

It’s four p.m.: the sun is gone.

Sandra, a graduate student in archaeology, lurches forward with the bus along Avenue du Parc.

“This roof’s all bone,” Sandra says, rapping her knuckles to her skull.

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Back in my MFA program at the University of Washington, I took two “creative writer as critical reader” classes (my favorite classes from the program) one after the other, in poetry with Heather McHugh and then prose with David Bosworth, my adviser. Heather brought in a translation of Anton Chekhov’s story “Gusev” that she’d been working on with Nikolai Popov, a prose-bone to throw at the small contingent of prosers in her class. At first, I bristled against the story, feeling disoriented in its dark, suffocating setting. But the ending was wonderful and the more I read it, the more I loved the whole thing. I loved seeing how the story opened up with Gusev sinking in the ocean among the sharks and the pilot fish and how the light in the sky shifted to green, to violet, to gold, to rose. In David’s class, we were invited to choose a short story that we wanted to study deeply and either imitate or take its structure and themes and write a story we’d already been wanting to write within that structure or launching off of it somehow. I chose the latter, among other things making Gusev’s ship into Sandra’s city bus and kind of letting the story take over from there. Dan DeWeese, the editor of Propeller, had a couple wonderful suggestions that ultimately took the story away from the exercise and made me excited about the story all over again, since writing that first draft back in 2010.
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