7 Short Story Collections That Draw From Setting to Build Characters 

Ada Zhang, author of "The Sorrows of Others," recommends books where place is an essential part of the plot

People walk down a busy street lit with neon in Shanghai.
Photo by Hyunwon Jang via Unsplash

One of my favorite short story writers, Eudora Welty, once said: “Whatever our theme in writing, it is old and tired. Whatever our place, it has been visited by the stranger, it will never be new again. It is only the vision that can be new; but that is enough.”

Place, or setting, is something I thought a lot about while writing my first book, The Sorrows of Others, and something I started to notice more keenly in other short story collections while I was writing. Setting seems to recede to the background of most of our craft conversations, and yet stories are rarely placeless.

In each of these short story collections, special attention is paid to setting, resulting not only in satisfying descriptions of the physical world but in unforgettable characters who define themselves within the constraints of where they are. Settings range from New York to Nigeria, from Jamaica to China to the England coast—places that come alive thanks to the author’s vision, a particular way of seeing, revealed through the characters in each story. 

An achievement of these collections is that over time, they’ve become their own destinations in my mind, places I can return to and that occupy emotional territory in my heart. I recall them the same way I recall the real places I have lived: with feeling. 

Stories from the Tenants Downstairs by Sidik Fofana 

The linked stories in Fofana’s debut are set in and around Banneker Terrace, a building in Harlem that comes under the crossfires of gentrification. When new ownership takes over, the threat of eviction looms, and the lives of long-term residents are thrown into question. 

We meet an aspiring gymnast in 21J; a hairdresser with a penchant for luxury in 14D; in 24M, a boy who dances on trains. Fofana creates a mosaic out of these apartments, an image of Harlem that is beautiful despite its cracks, sacred for no other reason besides that it is home to this unlikely community. Fofana’s characters must pay the rent to survive, but that doesn’t keep them from seeking their own pleasures; it doesn’t stop them from wanting to live. 

Other People’s Love Affairs by D. Wystan Owen

Set in a village on the coast of England, Owen’s collection unfolds patiently, like a dress out of a box, each story a crease in the larger story of Glass itself.

A close reading reveals motifs that recur across stories, markers of setting that string the book, and these lives, together. An old ribbon shop. A movie theater called The Gem. Shops and cafes. The promenade and the sea. One gets the sense that time might sweep this small village away completely one day, and it’s this urgency, the way time marches forward, that contrasts with the slowness of life in Glass and with the quiet intensity with which these characters pursue or refuse to pursue their longings. 

How to Love a Jamaican by Alexia Arthurs 

Arthurs approaches setting from different points of view in this heartbreaking, heartwarming, and often hilarious collection of stories exploring the lives of Jamaican people, both stateside and in their native country. The various configurations include leaving Jamaica, returning to Jamaica (for a grandmother’s death in “Mermaid River”), visiting (with friends who are not Jamaican in “Island”), and never leaving but hearing stories of those who did and vice versa for immigrants in the US. The dotted line between Jamaica and America can be felt in all the stories, family members and friends who must speak across that distance if they’re to speak at all, home for the diaspora being both here and far away. 

Arthurs shows how our feelings toward a place can change as we change, and the opposite: how where we have been can change who we are. 

A House is a Body by Shruti Swamy 

What is so interesting about this book is its spareness when it comes to physical description. And yet, or perhaps because they are rare, the details of setting that we do get flood the stories with feeling. I’m not sure how Swamy pulls this off, but I suspect it has to do with her sentences, which are as hardworking as they are mesmerizing, revealing the interior lives of wives, husbands, mothers, artists—people from our world and worlds that are like ours but different.  

No matter where these twelve stories are set—India, San Francisco, a place out of ancient myth—they all share an ethereal quality, and it’s this, to me, that makes this collection unlike any other. A book that dwells in liminal spaces, posing the question of what’s real and not real and whether it matters. 

God’s Children Are Little Broken Things by Arinze Ifeakandu 

Contemporary Nigeria comes to life in this stunning and brave debut about queer love. Set in rural and urban environments, Ifeakandu’s characters meet in hotel rooms and dorm rooms and other illicit places, carving out private worlds to escape the harsh and frequently violent gaze of their larger society, in which being queer is a punishable crime. Those forced to exist in the margins have a unique way of seeing, and I was shocked in this book by how beauty and ugliness live side by side, and by how much love these characters have for a place that fails to protect them. 

A book that asks: Is love worth its pain? These ten stories answer in chorus: Yes

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin 

This astonishing linked collection proves what Eudora Welty says about place and vision. The stories all center around a farm on the outskirts of Lahore, Pakistan, but in each story the farm appears new, depending on who is telling the story. Some stories are from the point of view of servants and managers, people who depend on the once formidable K.K. Harouni for their livelihoods. Other stories are from the point of view of Harouni’s political ties and family members who operate from seats of privilege and power. The landowner’s old age is a subtle throughline in the collection, creating tension as everyone from above and below in the feudal order wonders what will happen to them when the farm turns over.

Mueenuddin demonstrates an essential truth about storytelling: that what we say can never be conclusive. We have only our vision, but that can enough to create something new if we’re willing to look closely. 

Gold Boy, Emerald Girl by Yiyun Li

It would be easy to label Li’s second collection as being about contemporary China, but what’s truly remarkable about Li’s work is how she balances the precariousness of an emerging country with the even more precarious matter of human life. These are strange, unexpected stories about people who resist change, who are all in some way clinging to something, whether it’s an old soviet apartment building in “Number Three, Garden Road” or solitude in “Kindness,” the opening novella. 

Place is subject only to time, and in that way our settings can move only in one direction, toward the future, whereas our memories, which can grow more potent over time, grant us passage to the past. What does the world look like, filtered through memory? And can the future ever really feel new after something privately extraordinary has been lived through?

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