Two Provocative Debut Short Story Collections by Bay Area Authors

Over the past few years, the publishing industry has garnered much criticism for churning out books written about the white or white male experience. Thankfully, this myopic approach seems to be changing. This month, two richly layered debut short story collections by Bay Area authors give voice to the underrepresented.

Mimi Lok’s Last of Her Name is a smorgasbord of powerful writing and angsty emotion wrapped into eight meditations on what it means to feel slightly out of place, either in your head or in your physical surroundings. Set in places as far flung as Hong Kong, the suburban United Kingdom and urban California, each narrative unspools on either side of a misunderstanding or hidden secret and involves characters seeking, but often failing, to connect.

In “The Wrong Dave,” a young Chinese man in London rekindles a relationship with a woman in Hong Kong whom he met at a cousin’s wedding years earlier. As their email correspondence grows more involved and Yi shares details about her grandmother’s recent suicide, Dave becomes less enamored with his fiancee as he pitches forward into a fantasy life with this relative stranger. Throughout their exchange, he doesn’t reveal his suspicion that she thinks she’s emailing a different Dave, adding a thought-provoking wrinkle to an otherwise common trope.

“I Have Never Put My Hope in Any Other but Thee” skirts the fragile line between disaffected teenage Audrey and her poised stepmother as they wander through an art museum on the way to visit Audrey’s father in the hospital. This time the gap in understanding is revealed via the characters’ disparate reactions to an audio installation, to a poignant and surprisingly moving effect.

Author Mimi Lok

But perhaps the most polished and affecting of the bunch is the final novella, “The Woman in the Closet.” In it, 64-year-old Granny Ng becomes homeless when her ungrateful son and daughter-in-law threaten to put her in an old-age home. After bouncing from tent encampment to encampment, she breaks into a house by the highway and, unbeknownst to the lonely man who lives there, shacks up in the back of a spare closet. For more than a year, she insinuates herself into his life, secretly cleaning up his mess and making small improvements while he’s at work. When she’s found and arrested, the aftermath is devastating to both, with a touching yet inevitable twist you might not expect.

While not all the stories are equally successful — “The Accident,” for example, is barely two pages and feels unfinished — it’s quite clear Lok is on to something about the human condition. As the executive director and editor of Voice of Witness, a human rights and oral history nonprofit she co-founded that seeks out and promotes stories of people who have been impacted by injustice, her empathy for her characters — and discerning grasp of their strained or isolated circumstances — comes through on every page. Her stories are insightful, painfully honest and deeply unsettling — a dynamite combination in a new writer on the scene.

In contrast to Lok’s stories, many of which leave the connections between characters or moral conclusions up to the reader’s imagination, the stories and poetry in Beth Piatote’s The Beadworkers are more blatantly political and obvious in their intention.

An enrolled member of the Colville Confederated Tribes, a Nez Perce from Chief Joseph’s band and an associate professor of Native American studies at UC Berkeley, Piatote has a lot on her mind when it comes to the negative way Native Americans have historically been (and are still) treated, and it comes through in her writing.

In “The News of the Day,” two college-aged friends — one Lakota, the other French —  defy history and contemplate the death of a family member against the backdrop of the Battle at Wounded Knee.

“The Fish Wars” tells the story of a feisty girl who lives on the rez and gets into a fistfight with a boy at school after he calls her father a drunk. In reality, her father was arrested not for drinking, but for fishing on the river where their ancestors have done so for generations, echoing actual events of the 1960s and ’70s.

Author Beth Piatote

One of my favorite selections in the book, the unique and well-paced “wIndin!,” stars a young artist navigating singlehood while doling out love advice for her gay best friend. Interspersed throughout the story are instructions for how to play a Monopoly-esque board game she created based on modern Indian life. The winner “must successfully avoid having part or all of his or her assets taken into trust by the federal government.”

The final piece, a play in verse entitled “Antíkoni,” reimagines Sophocles’ tragedy “Antigone” by addressing how Indian artifacts are treated in the era of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. In Piatote’s version, Antigone steals her brother’s remains back from a museum director.

Though not all the offerings in The Beadworkers are as solid as this one, it’s a fitting conclusion to a collection that gives voice to what is so often left unsaid.

Originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle (October 11, 2019)

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