Nalini Jones’s Short Story Mix Tape

Although most “Selling Shorts” guest writers zero in on a single story that has moved or inspired them over the years, sometimes it’s hard to narrow the field down to just one. Nalini Jones, the author of What You Call Winter, has her own dream anthology, and today she’s given us a peek into her selection process. I have a feeling that some short story writer about twenty or thirty years into the future might be adding some of Nalini’s stories from this debut collection to his or her own wish list…

nalini-jones.jpgIn college, in a fit of archival spirit, I tried to gather my favorite songs on a single mix tape. One became two, two became three, and a week later I’d created a series of over a dozen, which I eventually gave to my uncle. I imagine they might still be in my grandmother’s house, the cases scratched and dusty, the tapes themselves relics of a particular moment in my history.

My mix of stories changes all the time—with a few anchors, of course. I cannot do without Eudora Welty’s “June Recital.” Loch’s plight, shut up in a room to nap while a whole glorious world awaits exploration, is so nuanced, so minutely imagined, that we are immediately rooted both in a southern town and in a small boy’s sensibility. By the time we look through his telescope, our eyes have adjusted to Morgana; every line is saturated with a sense of place. And I love Miss Eckhart, whose passion for music is so great that even trifles—the sashes for recital day—are swept up in its tide.

Chekhov’s section has grown to include “Gusev,” for the sense, as it ends, that nothing is quite final. The quiet matter of Gusev’s death, the way we slip with his sailcothed body into the water, the sudden encounters with pilot fish and the shark, and the final view of the ocean, indifferent and lovely, all take us beyond what seem to be the original parameters of the story—the life of Gusev. There is a sense of our opening into a new world even as his life closes. In the dark pitiless waters, we’re shown life swimming in and around his death, and then, as we leave Gusev and return to the surface, Chekhov gives us a glimpse of the beautiful light that transforms the ocean into something “tender” but nameless “in the language of men.” That gesture toward mercy, toward hope, never fails to move me. It strikes me as intensely generous.

Also generous is Alice Munro. My perennial favorite is “How I Met My Husband,” for the surprise of its title and for the sudden, unexpected eloquence of its uneducated narrator in its final pages.

I begin writing classes with Grace Paley’s “Samuel,” the deft history of the sort of boy you might avoid if Paley didn’t give him a name and a mother. And I share David Leavitt’s “Aliens” with my students, because I still remember my feeling of glad discovery when I first read it and realized that a good metaphor invites directness. I still laugh out loud when the grandmother, who has bought her first cordless phone, calls up her daughter to test its range and wonders every few paces if she’s gone too far—this, in a family whose members have spun so far from each that the genius son sequesters himself to create artificial intelligence and the ugly daughter announces to her teacher that she is an alien, awaiting return to her home planet.

My anthology is always growing; a few crucial additions include Jhumpa Lahiri’s luminous “The Third and Final Continent,” Michael Chabon’s virtuoso “Son of the Wolfman,” and Olaf Olaffson’s devastating “March.” I was fascinated by the premise of Penelope Lively’s collection “Making It Up,” in which she swerves from what happened in her real life to the murkier regions of what might have been; “The Mozambique Channel” is especially memorable. But today my collection will end with Binnie Kirshenbaum’s “History on a Personal Note.” The story begins with a line that gives me such pleasure I’ve committed it to memory: “Despite the theoretical knowlegde that history repeats itself, Lorraine was devastated by a second Ronald Reagan landslide victory.” Lorraine’s capacity to be surprised by the obvious is hilariously, ruthlessly at work in her love life as well. But Kirshenbaum’s stories are full of intelligent women who stumble and recover; it is at once painful and powerful to bear witness to the way love can undo them and the way they lace themselves back together again, as funny and sexy and sharp-witted as ever. A good note on which to end my mix, at least for today.

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3 November 2007 | selling shorts |