A Reading List of Short Story Collections by Black Women Writers
Camille Acker, author of ‘Training School for Negro Girls,’ on brief but spectacular stories by writers who aren’t white men
Black women novelists have won the Nobel Prize (Toni Morrison), garnered the Pulitzer Prize (Alice Walker), and conquered the New York Times bestseller list (Tayari Jones) but black women short story writers aren’t always as visible. When readers think of masters of the short form, they most likely draw from a canon of writers who are white and those who are male. 19th-century African-American writers were masters of nonfiction in the form of slave narratives and persuasive essays arguing for the liberation of their community but they were also capturing the dailiness of black life in short fiction.
Through the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement to the contemporary landscape, black writers have shaped their sentences to detail the impactful moments of their characters’ lives. I wanted the stories in my collection, Training School for Negro Girls to highlight the effects of racism, sexism, and classism on black girls and women and those stories now join a legacy of black women writers who wanted to see themselves on the pages of journals and on the covers of books.
You might know Roxane Gay’s short story collections or regularly return to the work of ZZ Packer, but below are seven other black and female short story writers you should be reading. The novel might be the more lauded form but in the hands of these women, the short story more than holds its own, brief but spectacular.
Miss Muriel and Other Stories by Ann Petry
Ann Petry is probably best known for her debut novel The Street, which expertly detailed the struggles of Harlemites Ludie Johnson and her son, Bub, and went on to sell more than a million and a half copies. Petry’s discerning eye for the weight of the quotidian on her characters is just as evident in her short stories. Originally published in 1971 from stories written from the 1940s to the 1960s, her collection, Miss Muriel and Other Stories, was reissued last year. Themes of the black community’s relationship with the police and the inescapable realities of structural inequality are prominent in Petry’s work, meaning her stories are as relevant now as they were then.
Gorilla, My Love by Toni Cade Bambara
When Toni Morrison and Alice Walker broke through to the mainstream literary scene in the early 1970s, Toni Cade Bambara was right there with them. Her essential anthology, The Black Woman, highlighted the work of black women writers across genre. She was also writing some of the best short stories to come out of the Black Arts Movement. Her 1972 collection, Gorilla, My Love, includes her much-anthologized story, “The Lesson”, about a group of black kids taught a painful lesson about class and race in one afternoon. Bambara was unabashedly radical and feminist and her work shows it. In the decades to come, Bambara would also become a master of the novel with The Salt Eaters and Those Bones Are Not My Child but if you want to witness her sharp, unflinching eye in its purest form, read her short stories.
White Rat by Gayl Jones
The personal history of Gayl Jones is as complex as her fictional work, intertwined thematically by black male and female relationships, trauma, and historical legacy. Read about her personal life if you choose but don’t neglect to get familiar with the brilliance of her fiction. Her novels, Eva’s Man and Corregidora, were hailed by Maya Angelou and James Baldwin and her short fiction is as dynamic when it comes to form and voice. Jones painstakingly renders the rhythms of black speech and was ahead of her time in representing the spectrum of sexual identity and giving voice to those who are mentally ill. Try “The Women” or “Asylum” from her collection White Rat and see if Jones’s work doesn’t stay with you long after you’ve left the page.
Falling in Love with Hominids by Nalo Hopkinson
Rest assured: black women writers aren’t only writing realist fiction. Octavia Butler and Nnedi Okorafor both have bodies of work that include short stories in addition to the speculative worlds of their novels. Likewise, Nalo Hopkinson builds worlds on the large scale of the novel and on the small scale in her short story collections Skin Folk, Report From Planet Midnight, and her 2015 collection Falling in Love With Hominids. Hopkinson remixes canonical texts, from fairy tales to Shakespeare, and infuses them with an Afro-Caribbean perspective. Adults become monstrous consumers of flesh and a free society of former slaves is infused with magical realism. Samuel Delany once noted that science fiction is particularly important “for those who are oppressed, because if they’re going to change the world we live in, they — and all of us — have to be able to think about a world that works differently.” Hopkinson is doing just that.
In the Not Quite Dark by Dana Johnson
Stories about the black experience are often focused on east coast urban centers or the South but Dana Johnson’s work explores the African-American experience on the west coast, specifically Southern California. In her first collection, Break Any Woman Down, and In the Not Quite Dark, her 2016 collection, Johnson sets her characters on seemingly innocuous paths until the import of the friend they’re with or the destination they’ve reached lands its full literary impact. Socio-economic class and the imprecise discomfort of being the only black person in a predominantly white space often recur in her work, all under the glare of the California sun.
The Loss of All Lost Things by Amina Gautier
The most prolific short story writer on the list, Gautier has written three collections so far, Now We Will Be Happy, At-risk, and The Loss of All Lost Things. For her mastery of the genre, Gautier has been honored with the PEN/Malamud and Flannery O’Connor awards and it’s easy to see why from her stories. Black and Puerto Rican, Gautier makes literary art of both tostones, Puerto Rican fried plantains that become an entry point for a character’s narration, and the oceans of loss many of her characters experience. Couples have children go missing, lovers break up, and characters are forced to re-imagine themselves in a new place under the watchful eye of Gautier’s prose.
Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires
Want to see where the short story genre is headed? Look no further than Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires. Recently long-listed for the National Book Award, Thompson-Spires suffuses her stories with humor and the surrealism of the digital age. The title reaches back to the 19th century but the plot turns and character descriptions teeter between now and next. Intersectional is an understatement in Thompson-Spires’s hands where class and race and disability all gather in the pages of the collection.