(New York: Sonder Press, 2019)
In its fifth year, The Best Small Fictions anthology is more robust than ever, representing authors across twenty-six nations and six continents. The volume – featuring over one-hundred flash fiction pieces – highlights ten stories at its start, then leads the reader into the collection’s main contents: a lengthy series of stories lasting a maximum of one to five pages. The anthology is significantly longer than it has been in previous years, and this updated structure does more than simply celebrate a wider selection of voices. The length of the collection, contrasted with the structure of the flash fiction, creates a sense of growing urgency. Within these brief prose selections, there is no true resolution; readers are left at the climax of each story, led immediately into the start of the next. But joined together, the stories share one theme: the need to be heard.
Many of the anthology’s flash stories appear to end midway through the narrative arc, leaving the reader hungry for resolution. “Buffalo” by Johanna Aitchison ends in the future tense, and “There Will Only Be One Funeral” by Benjamin McPherson Ficklin consists of a series of sentences constructed around the phrase “you might” from start-to-finish, never committing to a single realized action. In “Fawn” by Carrie Cooperider, the story ends on a question as the narrator imagines the possible actions of their mother, envisioning that she is “seeking out…her dear heart, her own dear darling” before asking, “oh, wouldn’t she be?” as though hope could transform the imagined action into reality. These conclusions instill the reader with a lingering want, an unfilled desire for resolution. As readers move from one unresolved piece into the next, the feeling of urgency increases like a rising call to action.
“The Convent” by Maggie Cooper confronts the ambiguous definition of an “ending” directly. When a group of nuns produce a final batch of raspberry jelly before closing their store for good, Cooper describes the taste as “sweet and heavy like an ending.” Though this line ends the piece, Cooper’s language suggests it is not an ending. This is the “last recipe” the nuns produce, yet it is “like an ending,” not an ending, suggesting that while the “sisters’ numbers dwindled,” the final recipe could “preserve them” like a moment captured in time. In this way, Cooper’s story suggests that customs and cultures never truly end, even as they fall from the mainstream narratives of contemporary society.
The Best Small Fictions spotlights a rich variety of diverse voices and cultures. This, combined with the story and anthology’s contrasting structures and theme of open endings, not only encourages the reader to expose themselves to diverse literary voices, but to engage actively with their stories. Many of the pieces in the spotlight section – including Dionne Irving Bremyer’s “Shop Girl,” Christopher Gonzalez’s “Dress Yourself,” and R.M. Cooper’s “Emergency Instructions” – are in second person, drawing the reader directly into the story. Just like the pieces later in the book, many of the spotlighted stories end with questions, encouraging the reader to reflect on issues of the lower working class, body dysmorphia, racial injustice, and rape culture. In this way, the anthology embodies a political outcry, magnifying the voices of writers across cultures, borders, race, and gender, and encouraging readers to examine their role in the stories’ unfulfilled resolutions.
2019’s The Best Small Fictions comes alive, each story a single heartbeat within a drumming pulse. It comes to an end with as much force as it opened, its final stories featuring voices that are triumphant even in defeat. The final story, “A Thousand Eyes” by Tara Isabel Zambrano, ends with an image of “bodies returned to stillness before they are done being dead…ready to be broken again.” The finale to the anthology also features “I’m Exaggerating” by Kate Wisel, in which a flight attendant contemplating her escape from an abusive relationship encourages a crying infant on the plane to “keep screaming.” It’s a fitting conclusion to the anthology – a final call to action, urging writers to keep telling their stories, loud and bold and true, and to never stop fighting for the right ending, as ambiguous as it may be.
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Briana McDonald’s fiction has appeared in The Stonecoast Review, Glassworks Magazine, The Cardiff Review, Rozyln: Short Fiction by Women Writers, and Marathon Literary Review. She is an Associate Editor and a prose reader at The Literary Review.