Each year, among the new fiction collections fighting for attention are a handful published neither through mainstream houses nor the usual small press alternatives but via a third avenue: book prize contests.
With that in mind, here are 10 notable prizewinning collections published in 2022.
Rich with dreams and ghosts, Gabrielle Lucille Fuentes’s “Are We Ever Our Own” (BOA Short Fiction Prize) follows descendants of a Cuban family to America and beyond. Yet its true subject is female artists overshadowed by their male counterparts.
“You say my work is disappearing,” one character writes in a letter. “Turning in on itself — getting smaller and smaller. You say ‘domestic, tidy, craft.’ You don’t mean ‘craft’ in that nice way the boys upstate with their forged steel boxes do.”
In other stories, Fuentes adopts elegant expository summary that can create emotional distance, but immediacy returns whenever we hear these women’s voices directly. “Palm Chess” alternates between a screenplay and journal entries by a female filmmaker who has left her artist husband — movingly connecting the private and creative selves.
“There Is Only Us” by Zoe Ballering (Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction) resides in the realm of speculative fiction. In the excellent “Mothers,” an inoculation has “eliminated the biological need for sleep,” dooming the uninoculated to decreased productivity and lower station — raising pertinent questions about how social groups divide based on medical choices. Whether set on Noah’s ark or at an everyday high school of “pep rallies in which acned cheerleaders performed thigh stands to thunderous applause, early release on Fridays, a vending machine on the second floor that spit back even the crispest dollar bills,” these stories get to the heart of human existence.
If punchy first sentences are to your taste, Wendy Wimmer’s “Entry Level” (Autumn House Fiction Prize) is the book for you. “When Mary Ellen’s left breast grew back on its own during our Saturday dinner break, we had confirmation that something weird was happening.” Many intros seem designed to startle; several stories enter fantastical terrain. In the delightful “Texts from Beyond,” a company purportedly helps people send messages to deceased relatives. Equally affecting are stories more rooted in the real, where Wimmer gets closer to character and emotion, such as “Billet-Doux,” told via unsent letters addressed to celebrities, random people, inanimate objects, a recurring guy on the BART and the protagonist herself.
Like Wimmer, Erica Plouffe Lazure introduces “Proof of Me” (New American Fiction Prize) with a shock. Yet Lazure handles such moments with subtlety, in rich Southern cadences. And while accidents (comic and benign, gruesome and deadly) occur throughout these lightly interconnected stories, Lazure’s tone remains stoically upbeat. From a professor at the local college to laborers at Golden Poultry and the Gas ‘N’ Sip, Lazure makes the reader game to follow these small towners’ travails. “I am a known heretic in these parts because I mow the lawn on Sundays,” one resident proclaims. Even as some venture to San Francisco and beyond, their North Carolina ties remain strong.
Geographical place also centers Toni Ann Johnson’s “Light Skin Gone to Waste” (Flannery O’Connor Prize for Short Fiction), about a Black family in small-town New York in the 1960s through mid-aughts: Philip, the complicated psychologist father; his fiercely savvy wife, Velma; and daughter Maddie, chafing at a suburbia where no one looks like her. As they suffer indignities due to ignorant neighbors — and each other — the prose in Maddie’s sections feels most alive. Yet the linguistic neutrality of Phil’s sections reflects an academic who, when scorned by bigots, responds calmly with legal warnings. With its constancy of character, this quietly powerful collection leaves the impression of a novel.
Meron Hadero’s exquisite “A Down Home Meal for These Difficult Times” (Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing) includes stories possibly inspired by Hadero’s life (born in Ethiopia, she then moved to Germany and America). In “The Wall,” about an intergenerational friendship, and “The Suitcase,” about a visit to Addis Ababa, small details crystallize whole worlds. At a busy intersection, “Small nimble vehicles, Fiats and VW Bugs, skimmed the periphery of the traffic, then seemed to be flung off centrifugally, almost gleefully, in some random direction.” Sentences infused with attitude throw gut punches that land with enough power to bring on tears.
Wistful humor illuminates “Your Nostalgia Is Killing Me” by John Weir (AWP Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction). Having survived school bullies and the AIDS crisis, the narrator is still processing his grief. He is also very funny. A standout is “Katherine Mansfield,” with the operatic nuances of any on-again/off-again romance. Of the closeted lover:
Maybe he was out to his parents, but he liked to hide. Shame excited him. Am I calling him Catholic? Some people can’t be themselves unless it’s forbidden. I’m not saying he was a homophobe. He supported gay marriage, gay adoption, gays in the military, and openness and equal rights for everyone but him.
Weir’s sensibility and droll insights pleasingly unite these decades-spanning stories.
Delightfully jaded wisdom buoys Louise Marburg’s “You Have Reached Your Destination” (EastOver Fiction Prize). “We were both in our early forties, and neither of us had been married, which made me a spinster and him a catch.” Marburg captures how the wounds of childhood linger — yet she allows moments of grace. It is gratifying to read fiction that tackles complex emotions. In Marburg’s hands, even the seemingly whimsical (two stories involve fortune tellers) carries the weight of truth.
“I’ve never met a psychic,” Gretchen said. “How do I know you’re real?”“I’m sitting here in front of you,” Elaine said with a laugh. “How much more real do you want?”
Ramona Reeves’s engrossing “It Falls Gently All Around and Other Stories” (Drue Heinz Literature Prize) follows two main couples in Mobile, Ala. At the hub is Babbie, who has endured a miscarriage, multiple husbands and prostitution. Reeves brings poetry to the portrayal of those who have it hard: “Some people had to make do with pushing their noses against the pretty parts of life.” Donnie is a good-natured alcoholic prone to poor decisions and “a bad case of hope.” Babbie’s first ex-husband and his wife help reveal the nuances of long-term partnership with perception and humor. Yet it’s small gestures that speak worlds, as when wife and ex-wife hug, “barely touching, a flurry of hand pats on shoulders that stood in for sincerity.”
Frayed relationships populate Christopher Linforth’s “The Distortions” (Orison Fiction Prize), set in and around Zagreb during and after the Serbo-Croatian War. Whether between an American professor-slash-womanizer and his student, or a dying male ballet dancer and an older female photographer, intergenerational trauma taints transactions and corrupts intimacy. These vivid stories remind us how quickly perceived difference can lead to conflict. In “brb” a supposedly 17-year-old boy writes his online American girlfriend: “Croatia is not that different from Florida. . . . Like your Confederates, Chetnik Serbs still curse at us and say we are the aggressor, the destroyer of the Republic.”
That he is really a middle-aged man encapsulates the irony and revelation of “The Distortions.”
Daphne Kalotay is the author of the novel “Russian Winter.” Her story collection “The Archivists,” winner of the Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction, is forthcoming in 2023.
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