The short story can be a magical thing. It’s a breath, a moment, a captured mood — or an entire teeming world packed into a few pages. Maybe, if it’s really great, it’s both. The only trouble with short stories is that not enough people read them. So, in a series to celebrate Short Story Month (and help you add to your reading list), Flavorwire is asking some contemporary masters of the form to talk about the short stories they love. In this installment, Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, whose collection Brief Encounters with the Enemy is one of our most anticipated books of the summer, tells us about two stories, both introduced to him by his mother.
Sayrafiezadeh: It was my mother who first told me about Raymond Carver’s “Why Don’t You Dance?” I must have been 12 years old, and she must have been taking a writing class — she took many writing classes over the course of my childhood. The premise of the story, as summarized by my mother, seemed absolutely heartbreaking to me. I was no doubt too young to be hearing about how a divorced man sold his belongings on his front yard. My mother was a divorced woman, after all, and our meager belongings wouldn’t have been worth selling even if we’d had reason to. I don’t recall that my mother, in conveying the story, seemed particularly distressed by the content. She was most likely thinking of it in terms of its literary merit rather than its close relation to the state of our lives. But in the absence of her emotion, I felt emotion, and the story has haunted me ever since. I didn’t read it for at least 20 years, and when I finally did I was surprised to see that the title was “Why Don’t You Dance?” as opposed to “Why Can’t You Dance?,” which is what I was sure she had said. The unspoken message, as far as I was concerned, was that my mother, who suffered from depression all of my life, was trying to convey to me that her inability “to dance” was not a choice she had made, but something beyond her control. The story proper has always underwhelmed me — which doesn’t mean it’s not a favorite of mine. The alcoholism is a distraction, the haggling over price is a distraction, the switching of viewpoints is a distraction, the man actually dancing is a distraction. Every time I’ve read the story I’ve almost immediately forgotten what just happened on the page and instead imagine the scene I saw as a child through my mother’s eyes, i.e., a lonely man standing on his front yard with everything he owns declining an invitation to dance with a young woman.
Here’s another favorite story of mine that’s also underwhelmed me because it was also preceded by my mother’s description: “The Lottery.” This I clearly remember being told at dinner with delight when I was a little boy. Was my mother reading this one for a writing class? Probably not. It would have been a story she would have read when it first appeared in The New Yorker in 1948, when she was a young woman, when the prospect of being a writer was still a distinct possibility. Apparently, the stoning to death of a woman by the townspeople was a funny thing to my mother. I couldn’t understand the humor at age ten or so, I could only see the absolute horror. Horror compounded by the fact that the idea of “winner” was being turned upside down. Now, I see the humor. The subversive wryness of Shirley Jackson’s matter-of-fact prose, her endearing folksiness that’s about to turn dark, her questioning of American tradition and institution — if that’s even what she’s questioning. The horror of the story, of course, has never lived up to what I experienced when my mother was describing it, made worse by tears of laughter nearly running down her face. There’s nothing more isolating than being the only one able to see the tragedy. What my mother was essentially doing by telling me the story was spoiling the story. The reader assumes that the narrative is building to something banal, or in any case not murder. The revelation comes in the last few paragraphs. The last six words, really, “… and then they were upon her.” But it doesn’t matter that it was ruined. The story as it appears in my mind has always been much worse: my mother finally winning something in her life, only to find that she is to be stoned to death by the very people she thought were her allies —- myself included.