The Must-Read Debut Short Story Collections of 2023

A diverse new wave of writers are transforming the literary landscape

A woman browses the shelves at a book store
Photo by quokkabottles via Unsplash

I seldom promote binaries, but I think it’s safe to say that there are two types of stories at work in 2023’s astounding selection of debut short story collections: those set in far-away realities, and those grounded in our immediate world. 

Travel to the Appalachians, Soweto, Port Harcourt, Bangalore and listen closely to the local dialects of the characters. Or perhaps venture to a town grown on the back of a whale, a multiversal rave, or various impending dystopias. Wherever the story takes you, watch as the absurd becomes familiar, and the mundane turns fantastical. Listen as modern anxieties bubble to the surface. 

Below are the short story collections written by debut authors that you don’t want to miss:

Welcome Me to the Kingdom by Mai Nardone

Bangkok is a vast and viscous city in Mai Nardone’s Welcome Me to the Kingdom. Spanning decades and shifting perspectives, this collection of seventeen interconnected stories focuses on three families: an Elvis impersonator and his daughter, a group of orphaned boys grifting their way to the top, and a Thai family abandoned by an American expat. While these characters appear to have little in common, they are united by the 1997 financial crisis, the devastating aftermath of which haunts the characters for decades. Featuring Buddhist cults, skin-whitening routines, sex tourism, and the occasional cock-fight, Welcome Me to the Kingdom holds no punches in exposing the brutal city that lies beneath the glamorized “land of smiles.”

Innards by Magogodi oaMphela Makhene

Innards. The title itself conjures to mind the grim, the grotesque, and an intense intimacy, all of which you will find in Magogodi oaMphela Makhene’s debut collection. Set in Soweto, South Africa, Innards features everyday Black South Africans navigating a society haunted by apartheid: a girl discovers a burning body; a fake freedom fighter becomes a fake PhD; a woman running high on a get-rich-quick scheme soon runs out of luck. In one instance, a story is narrated by a house. Intensely immersive in both imagery and dialect, Innards takes readers to a South Africa steeped in violence and tenderness, decay and life. 

The Sorrows of Others by Ada Zhang

What happens when we leave home? What happens when we don’t? Ada Zhang’s debut collection, set in New York, Texas, Arizona, and China in the years following the Cultural Revolution, features a cast of characters who must confront these questions. In “Knowing,” a woman discovers an unexpected connection between her mother and math tutor. “The Subject” follows an art student grappling with new and unsettling knowledge she has learned about her grandmother. The titular “The Sorrows of Others” portrays an unconventional yet serendipitous arranged marriage. Though the characters in Zhang’s stories range in age and identity, location and history, they are united by their status as outsiders, whether that be from their neighbors, friends, or very own family. 

Uranians by Theodore McCombs

How to describe Uranians? Think queer, multiversal, apocalyptic space opera. “Toward a Theory of Alternative Lifestyles” brings to life a world in which one may witness alternate lifetimes at a local rave. “Laguna Beach” delivers a climate-ravaged San Francisco. The titular “Uranians” is straight up set in space, featuring a cast of queer artists and scientists invited to be a part of a generation ship on a “planet B” type voyage. Five stories long, Theodore McCombs’ Uranians is an extensively researched, expertly crafted fever-dream delight. 

Boomtown Girl by Shubha Sunder

Nine short stories set in Bangalore, India, Boomtown Girl traces the minute changes that occur as a backwater town rapidly transforms into a bustling tech hub. Tweens confront their own blooming desires and ambitions as adults struggle for footing in an ever modernizing landscape. Though each story orbits a countrywide shift in economics and culture, the focus nevertheless remains on the everyday worries and dreams conjured by the grounded cast of characters that reside on each page. 

Let’s Go Let’s Go Let’s Go by Cleo Qian

As the information age progresses, more and more stories wade into the dark waters of technological crisis. In her debut collection Let’s Go Let’s Go Let’s Go, Cleo Qian focuses particularly on the impact technology, consumer culture, and media have on the lives of Asian women. Eerie yet compassionate, the stories venture into the speculative: a 22 year old woman fends off her loneliness on fellowship by playing a dating simulator; a teenager having undergone double eyelid surgery begins seeing telling marks on other’s bodies; ex-classmates reunite on Japan’s Mount Haruna for a social experiment that results in a disappearance. Wildly imaginative yet unnervingly real, Let’s Go Let’s Go Let’s Go fronts the anxieties and lonesomeness of twenty-first century Asian women. 

A Manual for How to Love Us by Erin Slaughter

Feminine grief runs through the pages of poet Erin Slaughter’s debut short story collection, A Manual for How to Love Us—though, to be clear, you will find no beautifully tragic widows content to weep in the background. Instead, women consume raw meat, work at frat houses, and peddle dubious medications on the internet. They are unchecked and impulsive, pursuing their whims in the wake of great sorrows. With a poet’s lyricism, Erin Slaughter crafts a debut collection that is speculative, dark, and thoroughly feral. 

The Great American Everything by Scott Gloden

The Great American Everything is a short story collection grounded in our social moment: a caregiver who charges a la carte style for their service is forced to reexamine their relationship with an elderly patient; two brothers, a soldier and a postal worker, discuss bomb threats at the post office; after his wife passes in childbirth, a man risks everything to obtain a baby. At the heart of each story is a relationship forming, burning, shifting. Scott Gloden recognizes the bizarreness of modern life and renders it tenderly and intelligently on the page. 

A Broken People’s Playlist by Chimeka Garricks

One of the great charms of 21st century fiction is the incorporation of The Playlist. Many works now come with a glossary of songs that the author either listened to or took inspiration from for their work. In the case of A Broken People’s Playlist, each story takes its title from a particular track, whether that be from Nina Simone or U2. Along with music, the stories are united by “broken” narrators dealing with romantic or familial heartbreak—a man reflects on his wife’s miscarriage; a DJ gets back at his absent father; a dying man plans his own funeral. In the backdrop of several stories is the city of Port Harcourt, the author’s hometown, which he portrays fondly and with truth. 

The Ghosts of Other Immigrants by Maija Mäkinen

In the wake of large and frequently depressing headlines regarding immigration, the smaller, more personal revelations are often forgotten. Maija Mäkinen, however, sets these little stories in the spotlight. In her debut collection The Ghosts of Other Immigrants, immigrants contend with loss of family, friends, language, and comfort foods. Circling these absences are stories of love, longing, and growing up. Each story is crafted with stunning, lyrical prose that highlight the sensory experience of entering a new country. 

Company by Shannon Sanders

Company is a family story. Spanning from the 1960s to the 2000s, set in Atlantic City, New York, and DC, and starring drag queens and law students alike, Company follows the lives of the Collins family, as well as the company they keep: brothers unite against a boyfriend; a woman prepares for adoption; a new university provost contends with heightened microaggressions. Secrets are kept, traumas heal and endure. A rich, multigenerational portrait of a Black family.

Sidle Creek by Jolene McIlwain

Set in small town Appalachia, Sidle Creek is an intimate portrait of local lives. There is Hube, a widower who lives alone and becomes obsessed with protecting a doe that visits his cabin. There’s Tiller, who glimpses the future through markings on egg shells. And, of course,  there’s Luke, who progresses from running underground dog fights to organizing far more profitable brawls between his sons. This is a collection that breaks down the misconceptions of the Appalachian region, unravels its myths and secrets, and embraces the beauty and absurdities of rural life. 

Girl Country by Jacqueline Vogtman

Mermaids, monsters, mothers. Women fill the wild, magical, and occasionally dystopian worlds of Girl Country. In the titular story, girls are farmed for live-saving colostrum, a form of breastmilk released after giving birth. In “When the Tree Grows This High,” a woman navigates first love and loss amidst the Great War. In “The Mermaid and the Pornographer”—well, a mermaid encounters a pornographer, with tragic consequences. There are no bounds to what these stories may contain, with the bizarre often arising from the seemingly mundane, but the women that populate the pages are women we recognize and are surrounded by each day. 

Nights From This Galaxy by Wil Weitzel

Nights From This Galaxy by Wil Weitzel is a merciless debut on the troubled relationships between humans and nature, humans and animals, and humans and humans. Travelers keep watch over a dying lion in the Kalahari Desert. A boy is abused by his stepfather, restrained on a leash and forced to sleep outside in rural Tennessee. A woman sacrifices herself to the wolves of the Adirondacks. Guilt and shame echo through these pages, often consuming the characters with a viscous bite. 

The Book of Disbelieving by David Lawrence Morse

A civilization develops on the back of a whale. A town gradually climbs its way up a tower, retreating farther and farther from earth. A small community establishes a tradition of fatal leaps. These are the worlds that populate David Lawrence Morse’s fantastical new collection, The Book of Disbelieving. Even in stories set in what appears to be our own world, speculative elements thrum through the pages: a recently widowed janitor finds a highly detailed account of his day to day work life, written by his late wife; a woman receives a watch from her dying father, which stops at 3:27 AM each day. The Book of Disbelieving is a collection that travels to strange and magical worlds, yet returns again and again to societal anxieties that echo our own. 

Temple Folk by Aaliyah Bilal

It can be daunting writing about a community rarely represented in fiction, but Aaliyah Bilal does so gracefully and with a keen eye in Temple Folk, a debut collection portraying the lives of Black Muslims. In “Due North,” a daughter set to write her late father’s eulogy is suddenly haunted by her father’s ghost. In “Who’s Down?” a man plots to obtain a cheeseburger after a bout of vegetarianism. “Candy For Hanif,” following a woman taking care of her disabled son, asks how long a charitable woman can go on doing unrecognized work. Both critical and understanding, Temple Folk is an intricate debut on community, faith, and imperfection. 

Dearborn by Ghassan Zeineddine

Blending humor with melancholy, Ghassan Zeineddine writes a love letter to Dearborn, home to one of the largest Arab and Muslim communities in America. Whether it’s an aspiring actor evading ICE or a cross-dressing butcher, these characters are fully fleshed in their desire, fears, and contradictions. Dearborn is a brilliant work of fiction that will undoubtedly be canon in Arab American literature.

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