Have I mentioned lately how much I love short stories? I mean, I adore a good novel too, obviously, but novels get a lot of love, whereas short stories and the writers who are so talented at writing them get the short shift a lot. Someone told me once that short story collections apparently tend to not sell very well and it’s very hard for writers to make a living writing only short stories, with some obvious exceptions like Alice Munro. (I’m sure this is a complex issue someone in publishing could explain; if you have insights, let me know!) Mostly I’m upset because I love reading short story collections and it always seems like there could be more of them around, especially by queer Canadian authors. Short stories especially great if you don’t have much time to read or don’t know when you’ll have time again. Read one short story in an hour or two and get complete satisfaction! The following books are some of my absolute favourite, favourite short story collections; they’re all also queer and Canadian, obviously.
Falling in Love with Hominids by Nalo Hopkinson
This collection of speculative fiction is my favourite Nalo Hopkinson book (with her other short story collection Skin Folk being a close runner-up). I also love many of her novels, but short stories, for whatever reason, seem to really shine in showcasing Hopkinson’s totally wacky, unique imagination which Junot Diaz said is “an imagination that most of us would kill for.” The best word I can come up with for describing these stories is mind-expanding. They give me a trippy, awed, uncanny kind of feeling as if I am seeing the world from a different perspective for the first time, as if I’ve encountered something completely unique but also strangely familiar. Falling in Love with Hominids is full of ethnically and racially diverse queer characters (men and women) and quite a bit of genre diversity: moving from horror to science fiction to fairy tale re-tellings to completely uncategorizable. A little taste: post-apocalyptic Toronto where puberty triggers zombism; God is human, and she’s a Black tomboy girl who rides a skateboard; a bullied fat girl turns into a dragon and gets revenge; a ghost is forced to live in the mall he died in. Read my full review here.
Canary by Nancy Jo Cullen
Canary is perhaps the very best kind of realist fiction there is: rooted in the everyday and ordinary, but finding the very weird in that life at the same time. It also feels achingly like real Canada, rooted in specific places, ways of speaking, and rural ways of life. The stories in Canary take place in the homes of Vancouver hippie yuppies, in trucks driving west from Fort St John, in the Okanagan as the 1976 eruption of Mount St Helen’s looms, in gentrified neighbourhoods populated by 60-year-old homophobic straight men and hip 30-year-old gay men, and at big backyard birthday parties where old grudges emerge and some people get too drunk or high in front of family. While many of the characters are queer, none of the stories are about being queer or coming out, which is so refreshing. For example: one story is about a married Catholic merchandise salesman who’s a closeted gay man; another is about a dissatisfied queer stay-at-home mom; another features a marriage breaking up when the woman unexpectedly leaves her husband for a woman. Cullen’s ability to draw such rich characters in the small space of a short story is admirable, as is her ease at capturing everyday Canadian vernacular. Read my full review here.
Out on Main Street by Shani Mootoo
This collection of short stories was Shani Mootoo’s first book, before she went on to write her incredible first novel Cereus Blooms at Night. There are some really remarkable stories in this early book, investigating the complex reality of being an immigrant in Canada. Mootoo especially focuses on the identities and intersections familiar to her: being Indo-Trinidadian, being a woman, and being queer. The titular story in particular is a wonderful, nuanced exploration of all those issues. Set in Vancouver’s Little India area on South Main St, the “out” in the title is relevant in more than one way. A butch Indo-Trinidadian woman narrates the story in Trinidadian accent—“Another reason we shy to frequent dere is dat we is watered-down Indians—we ain’t good grade A Indians”—as she and her girlfriend shop for Indian sweets. The story brilliantly shows as the women flip from being insiders and outsiders with the other Indian: allies against racist white intruders in shop, bonding with other Indian women over sexism, but also othered as queer people and as “watered-down Indians.” Out on Main Street is a beautiful book examining the inbetweenness of being a (queer) woman of colour immigrant. Full review here.
A Safe Girl to Love by Casey Plett
I read this collection almost exactly a year after reading Canary and it blew me away in a very similar way, where I was astounded at how unbelievably real and true it felt. I love Plett’s writing because it shows such an uncanny ability to really see her characters in all their flawed and complex glory. She paints them with compassion and empathy but also fierce, even ruthless, honesty when necessary. Most of the characters are trans women, from Annie, a cynical hilarious dyke who hates New York dyke culture to Zeke, who’s going home to visit her Mennonite grandpa but can’t go as a girl. A lot of the relationships the stories focus on are also between trans women. Zeke asks her friend Carla, who’s also trans, to accompany her on the homecoming trip and pretend to be her girlfriend; their friendship, bonded by their shared love of books, is beautifully drawn. “Annie and Lizzie” is an achingly lovely, sad, and sexy love story between two trans women. In “Winning,” a mom and daughter who are both trans clash over their very different understandings of being trans. These stories can be the emotional equivalent of a punch in the face but also a tiny, stinging paper cut. At the same time, there’s something so healing and cathartic about their honesty, in their insistence that you’re not alone in your pain. Also, for something completely different, one amazing story has a talking cat. See my full review here.