A short story I recently read

‘Bottles of Grief’ by Eva Shelton

This story is one of the winners of The Insider Prize 2021. You can read it here (scroll down) in about 10 minutes.

Thinking about story focus and characterisation…

The narrator is attending a group grief counselling session. They (gender unknown) watch as the other attendees share their stories. Each attendee is given one paragraph – this keeps the focus on the other characters, and the narrator’s character is built up through their reactions to the grief of the others.

Ol’ Man Farmer talks about his daughter dying of cancer. He says ‘I lost her bit by bit’, and our narrator imagines this literally, with the daughter’s body parts vanishing one at a time. Our narrator’s sympathy seems to lie with the daughter, rather than the father, as they imagine her experiencing ‘the turbid feeling of not knowing where the bits of you were going.’

Jane Wilkins lost one son to war, and one to drugs. Or narrator tells us ‘People in town would whisper how one was a hero and the other was a piece of shit. I’m not sure which they thought was which’; this seems to be a comment on the nature of town gossip, and how it doesn’t tell the whole story, as the narrator’s knowledge of the two men contradicts the expected narrative of heroic solider and piece of shit junkie.

Sara’s husband of thirty-six years died of a sudden heart attack. Our narrator imagines, with emotionless clarity, this woman’s new, lonely world, and how she’ll probably follow her husband to the grave soon enough as her heart has ‘nothing left to beat for’.

Nancy’s sister is not dead, but in a coma. Here, we see the narrator’s anger; she resents Nancy’s presence, wants to scream at her to come back when her sister is actually dead. Her anger is because ‘Nancy can still dream, she can still apologize for whatever she needs to apologize for, she can still say I love you and hope one day the words are said back’, which suggests some of the guilt the narrator, and the others, feel.

Other attendees have lost their parents to murder-suicide, multiple unborn babies, and their entire family in political unrest in their home country.

The final paragraph is about the narrator’s grief. The author successfully uses narrative gaps here – who died, their relationship to the narrator, and how it happened, is not told to the reader, but it doesn’t matter, because the grief the narrator and other characters share is universal.

A controversy I recently read

Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me, by Kate Clanchy

You can read the first part of Chapter 1 here.

Thinking about authors using racial, religious, and other stereotypes…

Kate Clanchy is a middle-class white woman. Her parents were English. She was born and raised in Scotland, where she attended an independent school in Edinburgh. She then attend the University of Oxford. She’s now a secondary English teacher and a writer. Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me is a nonfiction book about some of her experiences as a teacher over 30 years or so. Clanchy has been accused on Goodreads and Twitter of using racial and religious stereotypes, making classist comments, negative comments about neurodiverse students, even fat-shaming, throughout the book. If you’re unaware of the controversy, you can read about it here.

If we analyse the first part of Chapter 1, stereotypes are evident from the third paragraph, as Clanchy seeks to point out the differences between the ‘multi-racial London pupils’ she taught during her teacher training year, and the white Scottish pupils she taught the following year. She refers to the London students as having ‘Somali height’, ‘Cypriot bosoms’, and ‘stiff Japanese hair’; of her Scottish students she says: ‘I was having difficulty, as Prince Philip said he had with Chinese people, in telling them apart.’

Now, these descriptions are, by definition, stereotypes: Clanchy is expressing set ideas about what she thinks Somalian, Cypriot, and Japanese people all look like; she is reducing her students to racial stereotypes, which are based purely on physical attributes. (Also, she teaches children aged 11-18, so the mention of ‘bosoms’ is doubly inappropriate.)

Prince Philip infamously made the racist comment that all Chinese people look the same. Why would Clanchy reference that in her book? Perhaps she thought she was being amusing in applying this to her own race, but regardless of her intentions, by taking his words, and saying she has the same problem with white people, she’s belittling the racism in Phillips’ original comment, accepting it, and normalising it. She’s also distancing herself from the Scottish children in her classroom; she doesn’t look like them, even though she’s of the same race, because they’re the kids of impoverished miners (which she draws attention to in paragraph 1).

The stereotypes continue in the next paragraph, as she talks about ‘Turkish girls who, halfway through a test or a telling-off, stroked your jacket and asked where you got it; multilingual, super-sophisticated Ugandan Asians who would raise their hands to answer any questions with a full paragraph; Jewish ‘becks’ with swathes of curly hair…’. Again, Clanchy describes her students purely in terms of their race and/or religion; this focus creates a sense that she has encountered, for the first time in her life, people who are different from herself, so finds it necessary to study and categorise them. One reason writers use slang is to show how aware or ‘street’ they are, so by using the Jewish slang ‘becks’ (meaning materialistic young people), she seems to be showing off that she knows the term and is able to identify the people it would apply to, which reinforces my opinion that she’s studying and categorising.

Skipping ahead, in the next part of the chapter, now writing of students in Essex, Clanchy says these students can’t connect with texts like Othello because they don’t understand what racism is. She then says ‘I was baffled when a boy with jet-black hair and eyes and a fine Ashkenazi nose named David Marks refused any Jewish heritage’; I’m not sure why she felt the need to ask a student if he’s Jewish, and why she doesn’t believe he isn’t, but in this description she’s reducing Jewish people to the pantomime characteristics of dark hair and hooked noses. Clanchy is trying to make a point about her Essex students denying their ancestry, but she doesn’t delve into why they’re doing it (if they actually are); ironically, perhaps it’s because of people like Clanchy wanting to assign race and religion to everyone they meet, and the students rejecting that; the comment is also ironic as it’s in opposition to her statement in the previous paragraph that only her multi-ethnic London students understand racism.

In these examples, which are only from the first few pages of the book, Clanchy describes her students purely in terms of their race, ethnicity, or religion, rather than as individuals, and she uses stereotypes to do this. She isn’t saying overtly negative things about these races, ethnicities, or religions (at least, not in these examples), but her use of stereotypes is harmful because she’s reducing her students to what she perceives as the characteristics they share with other members of their race or religion, and in doing so she is othering them – drawing attention to them as different from the white ‘norm’; she, in fact, seems to find her ‘multi-ethnic’ students much more interesting, which fetishizes them.

Many people, especially those the stereotypes refer to, have found them to be offensive, but these opinions have been discounted by Clanchy’s supporters, some of whom have used aggressive and racist language to do so.

Stereotypes perpetuate ideas about people; they are backwards ways of thinking; they are offensive, even if the person writing them doesn’t intend them to be. The fact no one involved in the book’s publication thought there was a problem with the use of stereotypes, and that the book won awards, indicates how deeply racism is embedded in our country. The fact Clanchy’s fans (and Clanchy herself, for some reason) initially denied the quotes came from the book, even though they’d read it, shows how casual racism isn’t even noticed. The fact Clanchy’s (white) author friends belittled the concerns of the people who found the comments offensive, shows an arrogant disregard for the reality and impact of racism, and the people it targets.

Be an ally, like I’m trying to be: do not produce this type of writing yourself; do not be an apologist for this type of writing; call out stereotypes where you see them.

The Death and Life of Mrs Parker

The wonderful Jupiter Jones…


My novella-in-flashThe Death and Life of Mrs Parkerwillbe published by Ad Hoc Fiction on September 10th. It’s available now to pre-order at a 25% discount. (code: JJ1009)

Pre-Orders | Ad Hoc Fiction

“A theory expounded by Heidegger is that time is a series of ‘nows’, each one always already the subject of a flash of experience, and all hurtling towards the finitude that defines experience.”

When Mrs Parker begins to feel most peculiar, an ambulance is called, and as the paramedics set to work, she wonders if that will be the end of her, there, at The Oriental Dragon surrounded by strangers forking up their fried rice specials.  As her life hangs in the balance, she considers her heart and reviews some of the ‘nows’ of a life richly lived and almost always taken for granted.

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A short story I recently wrote

‘Vengeance’, by Mina Ma

My short story ‘Vengeance’ was performed by professional actress Josie Charles at the Liar’s League summer event last night (10th August 2021); the theme was Women & Girls. You can watch the performance here. Josie read it beautifully – thank you Josie!

Watch Liars’ League on YouTube here, or check out their website if you’d like to attend future events or submit a story for a future theme.

A short story I recently read

‘How to Talk to Your Mother’ by Lorrie Moore

Read it here in about 20 minutes.

Thinking about motifs…

I’m a sucker for nostalgia. Having a short story/novel look back into the past, especially after a character has died, gets me every time. The opening line of this story tells us someone has died: ‘Without her, for years now,’; the title tells us it’s the narrator’s mother, and my sentimentality is immediately triggered.

This story uses a backwards chronology. The reader can see this right away, as the years are listed, in bold font, like bullet points, down the left-hand side of the page. There’s one paragraph per year, although some years are missing – why is that? Did nothing happen? Or too much?

Many of the paragraphs include real-world events, such as ‘1972. Nixon wins by a landslide’ and ‘1967. … The first successful heart transplant is performed in South Africa’ – I like this technique; it adds realism, and brings us out of the narrator’s personal life for a moment, before throwing us back in.

As we read, we see motifs – recurring images – babies/children, the kitchen and domestic activities, hearts, the confusion between love and sex. As the story progresses, we can see the same mistakes being made over and over again by the narrator.

When we reach the end of the story (the chronological beginning), we can perhaps understand why these motifs are significant to the narrator, although we can’t figure out, just as she can’t, what went wrong for her. The backwards chronology works because of this; we see the end of the story first, then we move backwards in time to see how she got there (but not why). We also see that, although the narrator did not have her own child, in caring for her mother as she aged, did she not become a mother, of sorts, after all?

The story is circular, beginning and ending with dreams and babies, and a child trying (but not really) to talk to a mother who does not understand her.

A short story I recently read

‘Fable’ by Ethan Rutherford

Read it here in about an hour.

Thinking about using stories within stories…

A husband and wife have dinner with an old friend, meeting his new wife for the first time. The three friends reminisce; the narrator tells the reader they share stories about their shared pasts, but the reader isn’t shown these stories. We learn the host had an accident that prevented him from having children, while the visiting friends have a babysitter watching their own children at that very moment. Over the course of the evening, the friends realise some of the people they knew are now deceased, due to accident, illness, and so on.

As the evening approaches its natural end, they feel guilty for neglecting the new wife, Karen. Karen is a translator of stories – fables, she tells them – so they ask to hear one. She then proceeds to read a story she’s translated, about a fox that abducts a human baby, and lies to his wife about it because she desperately wanted a child. We aren’t told what language or culture this original story comes from.

Karen’s embedded tale begins with the classic “Once upon a time,”. As she proceeds, the narrative style changes. Karen’s tale is more fluid, more descriptive than the factual narration that came before: ‘It was Saturday night and the four of them were sitting around the dining room table at Sasha’s house,’ becomes ‘in a tall, thick forest that grew next to a northern village, a small fox lived with his wife’.

Karen’s tale is slower, stretching time out; the previous part of the evening would have lasted hours, but it takes up far less space on the page than Karen’s tale.

Every so often, the tale is interrupted, which pulls the reader (and the three listeners) out of it; Karen clears her throat at one point; Anna asks a question about the forest; Sasha fiddles with the fireplace – it’s snowing outside, and they’re in the middle of nowhere, isolated, much like the foxes in the story. The way the audience members behave during the telling reveals more of their personalities.

The tale ends, not with a traditional happy ending, but with acceptance, and death. Then Karen tells them three alternative endings.

Karen’s tale has the usual qualities of a fable: a forest, anthropomorphised animals, magic, and a moral.

At the end of Karen’s tale, and the story, there’s a power cut. As the three old friends scramble around in the darkness, Nils and Anna have epiphanies, realising time is passing, the past can no longer be grasped, one day they will no longer even be able to grasp each other.

We can wonder if the story was a metaphor – Karen touches her stomach several times during it, so is she the Fox’s wife, filled with the loss of something she never had?

The end of Karen’s tale contains the line ‘This is the end of your life’, which Karen then repeats, staring out of the window; is this a prophecy? Sasha goes into the kitchen to find candles, and the final, ambiguous line of the story tells us ‘They waited, but he never came.’

A short story I recently read

‘And Later, His Ghost’, by Sarah Hall

Read it here in about 30 minutes.

Thinking about imagery as plot…

I recently read Hall’s short story collection Madame Zero, in which this story features. It’s an unusual collection; the first and last stories seem to be about the same characters and event, but one takes a magical realism perspective, while the other uses realism. This story stands out, because its plot comes through imagery rather than action.

By ‘plot’, I mean the events that are presented to the reader, and the order they’re presented in.

The action: a man crosses a dangerous post-apocalyptic landscape in order to find a book to gift to a woman (like something from Greek mythology).

The plot: the opening of this story features a great deal of imagery relating to the destructive force of the weather – we have negative feelings (‘cold’, ‘sore’, ‘damp’), ominous sounds (‘creaking and hawing’, ‘sang and moaned’), noisy and violent verbs (‘lash’, ‘topple’, ‘splintered’). Even the imagery in the protagonist’s dream reflects the weather outside the house (‘Helene being swept away’). The inside of the house, in comparison, is hardly mentioned; all the focus is on the weather, outside.

The strength of the weather is beyond normal – this is obvious from its behaviour, and the effect it’s had on the protagonist and Helene. We’re not told what’s happened to create this apocalyptic setting – it’s only hinted at, through the imagery (stockpiling supplies, the town physically destroyed, people dying).

As the story progresses, we go outside. Here, our protagonist meets our antagonist: the wind. The dangers he faces are many – shrapnel flying though the air and injuring him, stone walls falling and crushing him, being picked up by a gust and thrown against the ground or a building. He must protect his hands and eyes, at all costs, because without them he’ll die.

Throughout the story, the ramifications of this terrifying new world are alluded to, and built up over time; not just in terms of physical danger, but through the changes to the characters, within their desperate circumstances. For example, the protagonist used to live in the same abandoned building as a man called Craig, but ‘Things had turned bad. He [the protagonist] got out as soon as he could and wasn’t sorry.’ Later, we’re told Craig died of a broken skull. And Helene was found by the protagonist next to two dead men in a cathedral, but ‘She wasn’t praying or crying.’

The character change is reflected in the final paragraph. Our protagonist has been lucky today; he made it into town, hunted high and low, and finally found a house with some intact books in its library, as well as the rotted corpse of the house’s owner. Before leaving, our protagonist looks in a mirror and wonders if he’s still human, before returning to Helene with the book he found.

A short story I recently read

The Man I Killed, by Tim O’Brien

Read it here in 10 minutes.

Thinking about structure and effects…

O’Brien’s use of structure is amazing throughout the collection The Things they Carried; many of the stories spiral around events, revisiting them, reconsidering them, which I think reflects how memory works, especially in relation to trauma.

The collection is metafictional – there is a character named for the author, who is not him in an autobiographical sense, but represents him and his experiences as a soldier in Vietnam, and who narrates most of the stories. This story explores the aftermath of this character killing an enemy.

The story returns, again and again, to a description of the body. All the little details suggest how closely the narrator looks at it, how long he sits and stares. He’s shocked by what he’s done. The jaw, the star-shaped hole, the ear lobe, every time the narrator returns to the body he zooms in, seeing something else, something new.

The name of the body is unknown, so the narrator repeats ‘the man I killed’, as though this is his name. The narrator gives the dead man a backstory. He uses the third-person and close psychic distance to imagine his life, his hopes and dreams. Tim chooses not to see the man as an evil enemy who needed to be killed, but as a patriot who accepted his fate but didn’t deserve it. This sympathetic portrayal suggests the narrator’s guilt; it would have been easier to paint the body in a negative light, to feel validated, vindicated.

The same solider characters circle throughout the collection. Their personalities are maintained between the stories. Some of them meet their own fates.

The dialogue here is brilliant – Kiowa speaks to Tim, our narrator, trying to ease his guilt. You had no choice; it was you or him, it was his decision to walk on the trail today, etc. He tries to persuade Tim to leave. Tries to make Tim talk to him, to get the emotions out. But Tim never replies.

We know time is passing, or elongated by shock; Kiowa’s sentiments are repeating, we see the same dialogue over and over, and we’re told ‘Later, Kiowa said…’; ‘Then later he said…’; ‘Then he said…’. We know the body is changing, the blood that was initially ‘spreading out across his shirt’ stop, then turns black. A butterfly comes and goes. Gnats arrive. Finally, Kiowa covers the body.

At the end of the story, the description of the body seems to wind down; shorter descriptions, but no less vivid. Perhaps Tim is ready to stand up and move on, but only in the physical sense; the memory and guilt will last a lifetime.

A short story I recently read

The Man on the Stairs’ by Miranda July

Read it here in about 10 minutes.

Thinking about time and characterisation…

I love this story.

In the opening, the narrator wakes to hear someone on the stairs outside her bedroom. We have this repetition and extension of things she can hear and feel, which demonstrates her panic, reflects the way sleep dissolves into concrete reality, and builds tension: tiny sound / human sound; I held my breath / I tried to whisper; I squeezed Kevin’s wrist / I was squeezing air.

Then we have a digression, which pauses the tension. Rather than continuing to focus on this terrifying intruder, the narrator tells us about her character flaws: ‘That is my problem with life, I just rush through it, like I’m being chased’ she says. This must be the fear taking over, we reason; seeing one’s life flash before one’s eyes at a moment of danger.

Then, we begin to doubt her: ‘I would forget the danger for whole moments at a time, and almost slip back in to sleep’. How can the man on the stairs be real, if she’s able to fall back to sleep as he advances?

She says she can’t wake her boyfriend, because his voice would signal to the man ‘how vulnerable we were’. Vulnerable; we can read this in two ways – are they vulnerable, or is their relationship?

More character flaws are revealed: ‘There are three main things that make me a drag’ – our narrator is selfish and fake, and feels guilty about it; she’s not happy with her friendship group; she wants to change her life; have a fresh start. What does this mean for her boyfriend?

Things take a disturbing twist. She reveals she had a crush on Kevin when she was twelve, and he was twenty-five. Another reveal: she was his student. Ok, we’re revaluating this narrator now; her relationship, her choices, the power dynamic. We may revaluate why Kevin tells her who he fantasises about; it this just annoying, or controlling?

We have a flashback to the narrator’s first date with Kevin, and how she thought the teenager who cleaned the car windshield was a more appropriate boyfriend for her. Lack of self-esteem, or reality?

Another hint about the relationship, about how different these two people are: ‘My eyes are open too. Kevin’s eyes are shut, he is so far away and he always will be.’

She confronts the man on the stairs, and rather than seeing some nightmare vision, he is ‘an ordinary man’ who breathes out ‘the bitter air that makes women doubt everything’, while she breathes out ‘everything I had destroyed with doubt’. Okay, so this is about the narrator and her relationships, with other people and with herself, not about a real man on the stairs?

Final paragraph. The flashback to the first date continues. She is difficult on their date. Kevin makes jokes, and she refuses to laugh at them; ‘I would rather die than laugh’, she tells us.

‘I didn’t laugh, I did not laugh. But I died; I did die’ she says in the final line. Wow. So, we can read this in lots of different ways: Rather than giving in to Kevin’s silly jokes, she has given in to him in some other way? Has the self-doubt she feels destroyed her? Is this a deeply unhappy woman looking for a way out? Or is the man on the stairs real?