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Approachable Discomfort: A Review of the Short Story Collection IN THE BETWEEN

Brice Particelli, Editor

In the Between: 21st Century Short Stories

Persea / 2022 /240 pp / $14

Reviewed by Lesly-Marie Buer / June 2023


In the Between is a collection of sixteen short stories, two comics, and one work of flash fiction published since the year 2000 by authors ranging from the well-known, such as Roxane Gay, to the up-and-coming, like Maria Anderson. Some readers may be more unfamiliar with comics, but the comic from Mister Loki resembles an illustrated poem and, from Shivana Sookdeo, illustrated flash fiction. The collection embraces ambiguous states of being, like the protagonist in Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s short story, who finds himself in an in-between space: “I wandered the rooms of the house. Nothing seemed foreign. But nothing seemed familiar.” Characters are in-between jobs, cultures, genders, childhood and adulthood, and health and disability. The diversity of voices and storytelling methods creates a collection that feels sincere, innovative, and pressing.

The characters from these stories face the pressures of living in a world that is embroiled in political chaos with the ever-looming threat of environmental catastrophe. Writer Phil Klay’s character in “After Action Report” is trapped in the exhausting constancy of the US invasion of Iraq, in an ambiguous space between the stories we tell, the stories others tell, and what actually feels true. Some characters search for a “normal” in the aftermath of death or violence. In his recovery from a hate crime attack, the protagonist of Sáenz’s “The Art of Translation” realizes “I would have to fight to translate myself back into the world of the living.”

Other characters redefine societal assumptions. In the comic “A Place Like Home,” Mister Loki, a queer artist, couches poetic language in illustrations of fascinating aquatic life to interrogate what our culture defines as normal. Mister Loki laments that “Society has told me that I am broken, a thing to be repaired,” but in a later frame writes, “I was masterfully created to be me.” As characters grow outside of, or within the space of, the in-between, there are endings that carry sadness, but they also carry hope, promise, and magic.

Throughout these stories set in ambiguous spaces, the tension around transformation is palpable, as Ryka Aoki points out in her short story “To the New World: “whether you were going to a new country or to a new gender—it was still a long and violent journey.” This tension culminates in characters revealing themselves to others, especially when others have unfulfilled expectations of how certain people are supposed to act based on assumptions about gender, race, and ability.

Vanessa Hua reveals in her short story, “Accepted,” how discriminatory expectations can turn us into selves that are not us. Writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie describes how the expectations of whites and of family members create a feeling of isolation in a young Nigerian woman in “The Thing Around Your Neck.” This feeling of being trapped forces the character into a series of choices, none of which are positive. Different sets of communication expectations create disconnection for writer Nancy Fulda’s protagonist in “Movement,” who is tasked with making a personality-altering decision: “If they would bother to wait I might find words to soothe their frantic babble. But they do not know how to speak on my time scale.” Whether the collection’s short story characters face structural or interpersonal violence, neglect, or the inevitability of death, they are transformed into or out of liminal space.

Loneliness is a consistent theme, created in part by disconnections between characters, but people are pulled in and out of loneliness, as well. In writer Robert Anthony Siegel’s “The Right Imaginary Person,” sex connects a lonely US student in Japan to another person, to a foreign culture, and to himself: “With each touch of her hand I felt like I was being sewn back together.” The name “Ron” connects a slew of lovers for one character in writer Joy Baglio’s short story: “the shared name was a kind of wormhole between them that only I could slip through.” Yet many of the sexual relationships connecting people also end, slipping them back into ambiguous spaces of disconnection. Connection and disconnection ebb and flow through sexual and familial relationships throughout the collection. The stories themselves, though, are a way in which readers connect with others. These authors make variable lives understandable to those who do not live them. Many of the characters are translators, code-switching for each other and for the reader. An obvious example is of Rion Amilcar Scott’s title character, Juba, who works as a knowledge translator for an urban neighborhood, wielding language as power to attack power itself—which is why translators like Juba are often criminalized, and why books in our current world are banned.

These stories are most successful when specific circumstances produce feelings ubiquitous to the human experience, making both the particulars relatable to a general audience and unique to one character’s identity. These authors successfully create space for discomfort by crafting settings where there are imbalances of power that read as unjust. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie allows readers the revulsion of unwanted sexual advances. Phil Klay demands the reader question the denials of human emotions to those who are seen as less than. These uncomfortable spaces create stories that feel urgent and pressing, like they could happen in the next moment and that our humanity is on the line.

Perhaps to build an element of the unknown, a few stories become convoluted without a clear purpose for the confusion. People’s ages and the details of their lives shift without explanations or transitions. Different time periods are melded until they are unrecognizable. Writer Alice Hoffman’s story, “In the Trees,” slingshots between past and future images to such a degree that it is unclear if the story is in the 1950s or 2050s. The military jargon is disorienting in the first pages of Vanessa Hua’s short story, until the reader is told a character is part of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC). The highly detailed but small frames and font in Shivana Sookdeo’s comic, “Windows,” requires careful study to absorb the meaning.

Yet In the Between is for readers who are willing to feel the discomfort that is necessary to build a world in which we may all live the lives that feel truest to us. This collection provides access to those uncomfortable spaces in an approachable manner, and I am grateful for that service. The different forms of storytelling allow all readers, no matter their personal background, to glimpse, and maybe find, solidarity “in the between.”


Lesly-Marie Buer (she/they), PhD, is a writer and harm reductionist based in Knoxville, Tennessee. Their book, Rx Appalachia (Haymarket, 2020), focuses on the harms of the War on Drugs on Appalachian women and was a finalist for the Weatherford Award. Their work has appeared in such publications as the Journal of Appalachian Studies, North American Dialogue, and Boston Review. Lesly-Marie is pursuing an MFA in fiction at the Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing at Spalding University. More at


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