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Yuka Igarashi, Editor

Best Debut Short Stories 2020: The PEN America DAU Prize

Catapult / 2020 / 240 pp/ 16.95

Reviewed by R. L. Mullins Jr. / August 2021


Assembling a “best of” collection in any field, especially literature, is difficult because of the subjective nature of taste and criteria. Yuka Igarashi, current executive editor of Graywolf Press, with judges Tracy O’Neill, Nafissa Thompson-Spires, and Deb Olin Unferth, has brought together twelve impressive tales by new international voices for the collection, Best Debut Short Stories 2020. This is the fourth installment in a series of fresh fiction from winners of the PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers.

In her introduction, Igarashi states that, “If I see any recurring themes in these pages . . . I kept noticing money.” While true, a potential unifying theme in many of these darker, brooding stories is also one of people in the midst of, or coming back from, loss, and their stories of coping with that loss. Overall, this volume is a fascinating mix of lives, losses, and trials.

The authorial diversity of geographies, cultures, and lifestyles brings to life the universality of the human experience: longing, loss, desperation, poverty, self-recrimination, and the power of hope. India’s Mohit Manohar writes in “Summertime” about a young man’s date with another man in London and the disappointment that follows. “How could he not have seen this? How was he so stupid? So many things Russ had said or done should have alerted him . . .” Sena Moon’s northeast Asian story about a desperate family’s insurance scam in “Dog Dreams” deals with poverty before we shift to Africa where Mbozi Haimbe’s “Madam’s Sister” relates the story of a poor jack-of-all-trades. He is in service to a moderately wealthy woman when her sister comes to stay, and appearances are not what they seem. The poverty-stricken working protagonist is so poor that “There were days when the brazier was empty of coal and the door closed to block out the tantalizing smell of other people’s payday cooking . . .” Damitri Martinez’s American coming-of-age story, “Bat Outta Hell,” is about a teen abandoned by his mother and living with his struggling grandmother who’s also supporting his uncle, until it all comes apart.

More detailed examples poignantly frame the theme of coming back from loss. In Valerie Hegarty’s “Cats vs. Cancer,” her first line gives us a powerful indication of what’s to come. “I throw the bandage in the trash can with the clumped kitty litter.” The unnamed protagonist, who is in recovery for alcohol addiction and suffers from depression, anxiety, and other serious conditions, undergoes multiple rounds of invasive diagnostic testing for breast cancer and finds that she must have a mastectomy, a very personal loss that she believes strikes at the heart of who she is as a woman. She is also trying to take care of a kitten and an older cat who do not get along and these two storylines intertwine. We follow her struggles as she uses a sharp, although decidedly dark, sense of humor to describe the testing process. “[T]he phrase least invasive to most invasive sounded like a line from a CIA manual on torture.” Her spirit would not be broken by loss. The cats finally come together to watch sparrows that would be prey if it were not for a pane of glass, and she shares in their fascination.

“The Water Tower and the Turtle” by Kikuko Tsumura, translated from the Japanese by Polly Barton, tells of a different kind of loss. Tsumara immediately engages using the power of sensory detail. “The moment I stepped out of the temple gate, the thick steam wafting over from the building opposite caught in my throat.” She continues in simple prose that fits the rather drab circumstances the protagonist finds himself in, after retirement. We learn the protagonist was a company man who went where his employer needed him but was never able to develop a lasting personal relationship or have his own family. “It wasn’t that I wanted to stay single and carefree. Somehow things never quite went my way . . .” He regretted never having a family and saw fate as an unhappy presence in his life. Upon retirement, he moved back to his boyhood hometown because it was an inexpensive place to live. The protagonist hoped it would bring back pleasant memories even though his birth family was gone. Nostalgia only carried him so far as he explored his new surroundings. He was still alone and needed to do something with the rest of his life. In the end, he copes by deciding to get another job and caring for a turtle that the previous renter left. A new phase.

This collection encompasses a wide range of human experience from characters young to old, representing multiple races, gender and sexual identifications, cultural and ethnic disparities, and more. It shows that the well of inspiration is deep and inexhaustible. These stories are a bright promise for the future of both the writers and short fiction. While there is a definite international flavor to this volume, there is something else that sets it apart: there are not many happy endings. Igarashi notes that money, like the human experiences of loss I’ve noted above, “. . . is another supposedly impolite topic of conversation . . . like so much of the literature I love best, [the authors] show me something that’s been there all along, veiled by civility and pretense . . . They lay it bare.” That’s what artists do.


R. L. Mullins Jr. writes from Prospect, Kentucky. He is completing his MFA in creative writing (fiction) at Spalding University. His most recent publication is a short story in the anthology, Story Harvest: Fresh-Picked Tales, from Scribes Valley Publishing (2021).


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