NFA Column: Five Stories – Lucy Caldwell

Award-winning author Lucy Caldwell is one of the judges of this year’s BBC National Short Story Award, the prize’s 15th anniversary. She was shortlisted for the BBC NSSA in both 2012 and 2019. Lucy is the author of three novels, several stage plays and radio dramas, two collections of short stories (Multitudes, 2016, and Intimacies, 2020), and is the editor of the anthology Being Various: New Irish Short Stories (Faber, 2019).

The 2020 BBC National Short Story Award shortlist will be announced on the 11th September on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row. You can pre-order the shortlist anthology from Comma Press.

Ahead of the BBC NSSA 15th anniversary shortlist announcement next month, Lucy shares five of her most recent favourite short stories for anyone looking to get started reading or writing short fiction.

Lesley Nneka Arimah, ‘Who Will Greet You At Home’, from What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky (Riverhead Books, 2017)

Prizes can be a wonderful way of drawing attention to writers, and the Caine Prize for African Writing has a particularly strong track record – the winner this year, in fact, was my fellow judge Irenosen Okojie for her wonderful story ‘Grace’. Lesley Nneka Arimah was last year’s winner, for her powerful, unsettling story ‘Skinned’, about a world in which women must be naked until they are claimed and clothed by a husband. Start here, then read my favourite story of hers, “Who Will Greet You At Home”, written in the same haunting, subversive, fabulous vein: a world in which would-be mothers weave babies out of yarn, or fashion them out of mud, or hairballs, and their own mothers must bless them in order to bring them to life.

Bette Howland, ‘Blue in Chicago’, from Blue in Chicago (Picador, 2020)

If prizes can be a good thing for writers (and readers), that was sadly not the case for mid-century Chicago writer Bette Howland, who won the MacArthur ‘Genius’ Award and never wrote again, fading from public view almost completely. Her stories were recently collected and lovingly re-issued by Picador, in a volume called Blue in Chicago, and the title story has it all, from that gorgeously melancholy title, to the wry, cynical, confiding and suddenly-soulful voice that will undoubtedly put you in mind of Lucia Berlin, in the best possible way, but is entirely of its city, and its own.

Yan Ge, ‘How I fell in love with the brief and well-documented life of Alexander Whelan’, from Being Various: New Irish Short Stories (Faber, 2019)

The Irish short story is incredibly strong at the moment: a new generation of Irish writers are overturning all we have taken for granted, and all that the short story can be or do. Yan Ge is something of a literary superstar in her native China, who moved to Ireland after she married an Irishman. I was proud to publish her story ‘How I fell in love with the brief and well-documented life of Alexander Whelan’ in the anthology I edited for Faber last year. It’s one of the most exhilarating and contemporary stories I’ve ever read, and it yields more and more each time you read it. It’s narrated by twenty-something Xiaohan, who has gone by the name of Claire Collins since her Chinese-born mother married an Irishman. The story has a lot of sharp fun with the awkwardness of the thousand daily micro-aggressions that Claire/Xiaohun must negotiate. But it pulses deeper. At a Foreign Films No Subtitles night in a random Dublin flat, the narrator meets and feels an instant connection with the titular Alexander Whelan – who takes his own life the next day. We watch her stalk the traces of his digital life for the rest of the story as she tries to work out what happened and why. The gut-punch comes when we realise what we’ve really been privy to is her weighing up whether or not her own life is worth living. If the main question of the story is why?, it remains one of the best examples of how we live now, a truly twenty-first century story in all senses.

Oein DeBhairdiun, ‘The three sisters and the crow, Siska siskar a gretin gut’, from Why the moon travels (Skein Press, 2020)

I could have picked any of the tales in this beautiful collection of tales from the Irish Traveller community, written down by Oein DeBhairdiun and illustrated by Leanne McDonagh. DeBhairdiun’s introductions to the stories are as moving and evocative as the fables themselves, and I particularly like this, which weaves together the harsh realities of a childhood in poverty, where there was barely the work for two thumbs, let alone two hands, with the transformative magic of receiving a chemistry set at Christmas and the discovery of an injured crow in a box in the hallway. When the folk tale itself begins, of three mistrusted sisters with healing powers, and the ways they save Ireland, the magic of one world informs and infuses the other, boundaries blurring. This landmark publication by Skein Press, bringing Mincéirí tales to the wider public, will enchant and enrich us all.

Bryan Washington, ‘Shepherd’, from Lot (Atlantic, 2020)

I am a huge fan of Amy Bloom’s short stories – ‘Sleepwalking’ from the collection Where the God of Love Hangs Out, is one of my all-time favourite stories, and one that never fails to make my heart stop when I re-read it. ‘Shepherd’, from Bryan Washington’s debut collection Lot, which won this year’s Dylan Thomas Prize, had the same effect on me. I’m not going to say another word about either story – read them both, and remember to breathe.


Filed under: Written & Spoken Word