Electric Lit’s Favorite Short Story Collections of 2021

Dantiel M. Moniz, Anthony Veasna So, and Brandon Taylor were among the 20 best of the year

If there’s one thing to note about the tremendous story collections on this year’s list, it’s the global terrain these stories cover. There’s the wide-ranging geography—from China to Florida, Argentina to New Orleans—but there’s also the questions each story asks. Diving deep into queries of desire and hunger, memory and politics, and much more, each collection blisters with stories and characters that remind us of who we are—at our best, and our worst. Electric Literature staff and contributors voted for their favorite story collections of the past year. Here are the top three, followed by additional favorites (there were many ties!) in alphabetical order.

The Top 3 Short Story Collections of the Year

Milk Blood Heat by Dantiel M. Moniz

Moniz’s debut collection, Milk Blood Heat, is about life in Florida—but more than that, it’s about life in a body. From estranged siblings reuniting to scatter their father’s ashes, to a young girl who is terrorized for resisting the church, violence and tragedy haunt these characters in their most stark moments of personal reckoning. Read Moniz’s discussion with Jennifer Baker on the connective threads throughout these stories, her creative approach to writing characters free of judgment, and her writing process in general.

Afterparties by Anthony Veasna So

Veasna So’s short story collection Afterparties explores the lives of Cambodian Americans, portraying the realities of queer and immigrant communities without sacrificing a comic voice or emotional intimacy. Hear from Veasna So in conversation with other Cambodian American writers on complicating the trauma narrative into which Cambodian diaspora literature frequently falls. 

Filthy Animals by Brandon Taylor

Filthy Animals is Brandon Taylor’s follow-up to his acclaimed debut novel, Real Life, which was a finalist for the Booker Prize. Introducing the title story, about longing, desire, and violence among a group of young adults growing up in the Midwest, Calvert Morgan writes that “Taylor’s gift is his ability to hold you in that now, like a dragster gunning against the brake until the rubber starts to smoke.” In addition to that story, you can also check out Taylor’s discussion of his affinity for the genre in his interview with Greg Mania. (Brandon Taylor is an editor-at-large and former senior editor for Electric Literature.)

Electric Lit‘s Other Favorite Collections

Eternal Night at the Nature Museum by Tyler Barton

In “Once Nothing, Twice Shatter,” an exemplary story from Barton’s fragmented, strange, and vulnerable debut collection, Eternal Night at the Nature Museum, the narrator slams a sledgehammer into a Toyota windshield. He is a desperate character seeking salvation before landing himself in an unusually tight-knit demolition derby. “I think I’m in a cult,” Barton writes. “But I still feel alone.” Recommender T Kira Māhealani Madden notes that all of Barton’s stories “…run a fever. Everyone misbehaves, but they do so seeking grace, humility. Reaching, reaching.”

Land of Big Numbers by Te-Ping Chen

The title Land of Big Numbers refers to the highly populous nation of China, and Te-Ping Chen’s stories within this collection both celebrate and critique the people and institutions shaping China throughout history. Read  Chen’s perspective on what it means to commemorate a sense of place in fiction in an interview with Mimi Wong.

Hao by Ye Chun

In Hao, Ye Chun explores migration and motherhood through the lens of Chinese women in their homeland and in foreign spaces, interrogating the power of silence and language along the way. “Ye’s writing taps into that same current of electricity, reminding you that at its best, writing can at once make you forget yourself and feel more alive to the world and its possibilities” writes Te-Ping Chen, recommending Ye’s short story “Stars” about an immigrant student suffering from a painful, pulsing brain injury.

The Dangers of Smoking in Bed by Mariana Enríquez

Featuring sociopolitical horror stories set in modern-day Argentina, The Dangers of Smoking in Bed viscerally brings madness, cannibalism, and cruelty to the page. Learn about Instagram witches, Argentina’s very real and horrific past, and passing the blame for collective responsibility in an interview with JR Ramakrishnan and author, Mariana Enriquez. 

The Glassy, Burning Floor of Hell by Brian Evenson

If you’re unfamiliar with genre-master Brian Evenson, now is the time to discover his magical, sharp, destabilizing writing in his most recent collection, The Glassy Burning Floor of Hell. Mona Awad, who is well-renowned for her own somewhat horrific short stories, turns her attention to Evenson in her introduction to “The Shimmering Wall,” featured in Recommended Reading, noting his “ability to conjure the uncanny.” These stories will terrify and haunt you, but in a good way.

I’m Not Hungry But I Could Eat by Christopher Gonzalez

Queer, fat, Puerto Rican men hunger for food and friendship alike in Gonzalez’s highly-anticipated short story collection I’m Not Hungry But I Could Eat. Read his interview with Matthew Mastricova about the relationship between identity and desire, hookup apps, and the responsibilities of personal growth.

Kink edited by Garth Greenwell and R.O. Kwon

With stories from thirteen renowned authors including Roxane Gay, Alexander Chee, Melissa Febos, and Carmen Maria Machado, Kink tackles intimacy and desire across the sexual spectrum. Read editor Garth Greenwell in conversation with Aaron Hamburger about his own novel on gay sex, Cleanness, or check out some of editor R.O. Kwon’s recommendations for books by women.

Cosmogony by Lucy Ives

Vast in both genre and style, the stories in Lucy Ives’ debut collection Cosmogony animate the little, off the beaten path moments that make up everyday life. Recommending “The Volunteer,” a story about memory, time traveling, multiple worlds, and romance, Tracy O’Neill argues that “Ives takes an interest in the story as a puzzle.” The intricacies and cleverness of Ives’ writing extend throughout the collection, where everyday life clashes with the surreal to unpack and explore the nature of human existence.

My Monticello by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson

Although set in the near future, Jocelyn Nicole Johnson’s debut collection, My Monticello, reminds readers that history is alive and well, particularly when it comes to people of color and the legacies from which they descend in America. Her fiction asks, what does it mean to find a home in a country antagonistic to one’s own survival? And her relentless, original stories—about a professor studying racism by observing his own son or a single mother buying a home on the brink of the apocalypse—answer.

Walking on Cowrie Shells by Nana Nkweti

From gender and ethnicity to one’s given role in a family, the characters in Walking on Cowrie Shells toe the line between wanting to meet and subvert the expectations associated with their various identities. Michelle Chikaonda discusses Nana Nkweti’s exploration of the multiplicity of African womanhood in these playful stories, as well the author’s knack for experimenting with genre.

The Rock Eaters by Brenda Peynado

Brenda Peynado writes about politics and racism through the lens of fabulism in her debut collection. Find her in discussion with Deirdre Coyle on how a pre-teen headspace lends itself to fabulism or how anger and love can co-exist in storytelling. Peynado also recommended political stories that similarly wrestle with revenge and justice, kindness and complicity.

A Dream of a Woman by Casey Plett

In Casey Plett’s sophomore short story collection, A Dream of a Woman, she centers transgender women as they grapple with love, sex, and addiction in their adult lives. Find more of Plett’s work on our lists about trying to survive under late-capitalism or on fantasy pieces by trans and nonbinary authors.

100 Boyfriends by Brontez Purnell

In his interview with Whiting Award Winner Brontez Purnell for Electric Literature, Greg Mania writes that Prunell’s characters “are a manic melee, each flirting with disaster, each resplendent in their own magnificence.” Read their conversation on gay dysfunction and run, don’t walk, to read 100 Boyfriends, a striking short story collection that magnificently unpacks desire, loneliness, and giving in to the urge to self-sabotage. 

The Ones Who Don’t Say They Love You by Maurice Carlos Ruffin

In stories chock full of New Orleanian charm, Maurice Carlos Ruffin navigates the intricacies of a region while commenting on life more generally. Find yourself in the heat of one such self-reflective space, a Louisiana courtroom in the 1800s, in “Caesara Pittman, or a Negress of God.” This auspicious debut, The Ones Who Don’t Say They Love You, is a spitfire of a collection. 

Objects of Desire by Clare Sestanovich

This debut collection has been highly anticipated ever since Clare Sestanovich appeared in The New Yorker. Introducing  the short story “Terms of Agreement” in Recommended Reading,  Leslie Jamison says that in Sestanovich’s stories, “characters are stumbling, clawing, tripping backwards into new ways of seeing themselves and the undisclosed selves of their fellows.” “Terms of Agreement” offers a tender, thoughtful take on women’s lives, and “Make Believe,” also published in Recommended Reading, gives a sharp exploration of loneliness, from the perspective of a nanny working for a wealthy family.

We Imagined It Was Rain by Andrew Siegrist

Strongly rooted in contemporary Tennessee, We Imagined It Was Rain is stoic, gothic, and atmospheric as it places readers on a mountaintop, in the rain, or in the midst of profound human heartbreak. A masterful demonstration of detail and imagery, these timeless stories speak to the human condition today, a hundred years ago, and far into the future. Siegrist also recommended eight other books that capture the essence of Tennessee.

Today a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket by Hilma Wolitzer

Today a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket is 91-year old Hilma Wolitzer’s first book in nearly a decade, and the first short story collection of her much-lauded career. Roxana Robinson recommends Wolitzer’s “Great Escape” as a kind of master class in writing about human connection, noting that the married couple at the heart of the story “are deeply connected to each other, in ways that can be created only through decades.” With sweeping strokes, Wolitzer crafts tender, telling stories about the intangible moments that bind people together.

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