Friday, May 2, 2008

PEN World Voices: Short Stories

Tall and striking in an elaborately figured dress or robe, Radikha Jones of the Paris Review began this session with a spirited defense of the health of the short story, noting that her own magazine receives 1,200 submissions a month. But the short-story authors on hand quickly undermined her position. Ingo Schulze noted that his publisher didn’t want the word “stories” on the cover of one of his books. Etgar Keret said that the fragmented nature of reality in Israel caused readers to avoid short fiction and bury themselves in epic novels. Abdourahman Waberi said he was encouraged to write whatever he wanted, so long as he called it a novel. Only Young-ha Kim reported that he comes from a country – Korea – where the short story is held in high regard. An annual prize of $10,000 goes to the best short story, and writers must show prowess in that form to be taken seriously. There are four Chinese characters, he said, that refer to murdering someone with a very short weapon, and that’s the challenge of a good short story. Keret put it a little differently: a short story that works is like killing someone with a toothpick rather than an atomic bomb. The titles of these authors’ collections were irresistible: 33 Moments of Happiness by Schulze, The Girl on the Fridge by Keret, and The Land Without Shadows by Waberi. (Young-ha Kim had also published a novel called I Have the Right to Destroy Myself.) I was especially happy to see Waberi, who is the first author from Djibouti whose work I’ve been able to find in English. He read from a story called “The Seascape Painter and the Wind Drinker.” I bought his book after the reading and chatted with him a bit as he signed it.

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