[Reading Room] The Provincials by Daniel Alarcón

This story comes from the 2017 collection of Daniel Alarcón’s stories The King Is Always Above The People.

I picked up the collection because I saw it on a ‘recommended reading’, highlighting non-white/non-mainstream voices.

Short story collections are a funny thing. Sometimes the whole collection hangs together and I can’t wait to read the next story. Sometimes I hate most of the stories but find a couple of gems.

This collection is like that. It’s not that any of the stories are badly-written– they’re not–I didn’t much enjoy them, on a first read-through.

Having said that, I was really impressed by the long, roughly 14,000-word story in the middle of this collection, The Provincials. 

I also found that the collection, as a whole stayed with me.

More on that later, but for now, let’s look at The Provincials.

The Opening Line

The first line of this story does a great job of setting up what is to come in the story,

“I’d been out of the conservatory for about a year when my great-uncle Raúl died.”

Think about everything we know, from that first line:

  • This is a story featuring a young adult protagonist.
  • They have graduated from a ‘conservatory’, not a technical college, not a university. This is an artistic person.
  • This is probably a middle or upper-class person (who else can go to a conservatory?).
  • They graduated a year ago, but still define themselves by the conservatory. This is not a person who has gone on to a great and immediately successful career in their art.
  • The relative who has died is a great-uncle, not a close relative, so this is not likely to be a story about grief, or about the great-uncle.  Instead, it indicates the story is going to involve family and perhaps tenuous connections to one’s roots. Maybe it’s going to be about obligation, or the ties that bind.
  • The great-uncle is called Raúl, so this story is not going to be set in WASP-y America.

That’s a fair amount that we can dig out of 16 words, only one of which is more than five letters long.

The Story

This story is about a father and his younger, adult son, Nelson, taking a trip back to the small south-American (?) town where the father grew up, to settle the estate of a distant relative. The father left the town as young man, and moved North, to the city. His elder son has since left the country, for San Francisco, and the younger son, the novel’s protagonist, is expected to join him some day. There are hints, relatively early on that this younger son will not make the big move that his father and brother did,

“Even then I had my doubts, but I would keep believing this for another year or so.”)

They travel south through the country, stopping once in a town that is not his father’s hometown but seems to offer some tastes of what small town life is like in this unnamed country: passion, connection, resentments, grief, love…

When they reach his father’s hometown, the slight awkwardness and disappointed expectations we felt between the young man and his father on their drive is amplified in the awkwardness and resentments between the father and the people of his hometown, and by extension between the son and the people of the town. As readers, we wonder if the father and son will bond, or stay distant and miscommunicative, desperate to escape from each other as well as the town, when their errand is finished.

The story becomes a fascinating reflection on what it means to be part of the more migratory generations, and what it means to stay behind.

At one point, Nelson is sharing information from his older brother’s letters from the USA, and he reflects,

“That statement was contained within one of Francisco’s early dispatches from Oakland, when he was still eagerly trying to understand the place for himself, and not quite able to process many things he saw.”

This was a great reminder to me, as a writer who lives in a place I did not grow up in, that it’s not always a bad thing to have the outsider’s view. That searching for meaning, for understanding, can be a great source of energy in a story.

This Is A Looooong Story. Does It Work?

I love the punchiness of short stories, the way they draw characters in deft sketches. I often get impatient with long short stories, but in this case, it is where this author’s best work is done (at least in this collection).

In this, the longest short story in the collection, we are given a chance to get to know the men in the story (we also get hints of his girlfriend’s personality. There had been few women in the preceding stories and none really qualified as a character. The protagonists had been young, inexperienced, or callous towards women).

In the shorter stories I found myself impatient with, and mostly disliking the protagonists. In The Provincials, I didn’t like start out liking Nelson or his father any more than I liked any of the other protagonists, but at least I got to know them better, which made me more sympathetic towards them.

Alcarón’s writing style  benefitted from the roominess of the larger word count. It allowed him to do things like pause in that first village, which provided a satisfying structure to the story when they pause there again, on the way home. It allows him to paint the scenery through the eyes of an outsider—but not an awed tourist. It even allows him to tell part of the story in the form of a mini-play—which makes sense, as the first-person narrator is an aspiring actor.

This story has a strong sense of place (unnamed though it is) that feeds into the character development. At the start of the story, as they leave the city, the narrator observes,

“A few hours south of the capital, the painted slums thinned, and our conversation did too, and we took in the desolate landscape with appreciative silence. Everything was dry: the silt-covered road, the dirty white sand dunes, somehow even the ocean. Every few kilometers, there rose out of this moonscape a billboard for soda or beer or suntan lotion, its colors faded since the previous summer, its edges unglued and flapping in the wind.”

This sets up a lot of the tension between old and new, country and city, the past and the present, but it doesn’t beat you over the head with it.

The Structure

The story starts and ends outside the capital city, which is nevertheless the focus of a lot of the protagonist’s energy. They travel through a village on the way to the father’s home town and, after their visit. The structure of the story echoes the themes of migration and dislocation, and the ‘nesting’ of locales (everything that happens in one direction, is closed out in the other direction on the way home) feels very neat and satisfying, even as the plot leaves questions open.

This is a great lesson in how you can avoid tying all the character questions up in a too-neat bow, but instead use the structure of the story to create a sense that the story is complete.

Also, I think this story has a last line that works spectacularly well. Read it and see what you think!

 

Do We Need Diverse Books?

I didn’t like the young men who populated this collection. I didn’t enjoy many of their stories, well-written as they were.

But I don’t think that’s always the most important factor in choosing what I read.

People in the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement often talk about the importance of readers being able to find characters like themselves in fiction. I absolutely agree and applaud that. But it’s also important for people like me, secure in the white, Euro-centric tradition, to read outside our own experience.

These characters come from a world that is utterly foreign to me. Their experiences, their lives, their values are different from mine. It wasn’t a laugh-riot, to read about their lives, even though there was humor in these stories.

What is important, however, is that the voices in this collection had something in common with each other. And by visiting their world, over and over, though the various  stories, I became aware of life beyond my own experience. I might not like the characters, or their lives, or some of their choices, but I understand them a little, now.

And if I were to meet a guy like this, out in the real world, I might recognize him, just a bit. I would certainly see him as more than whatever he projected on the surface.

And I can’t think of a better reason for people like me to read and promote  literature from voices that are different from our own.

Read the story here

Do you read diverse books? Do you read books that you don’t necessarily enjoy? Is it worth your time? Leave a comment:

Settings – A Writing Prompt from Josh Barkan

Writing exercise: (20 minutes)

Choose a place that you know well, which you have strong feelings about. Describe that place, first when you are in a happy mood. (10 minutes) Then describe the place when you are in a sad mood. (10 minutes)

What difference did you note?

Writing exercise: (30 minutes)

What is described in a particular setting often depends upon the point of view of the story. Describe a real park you have visited, first in the first person point of view through the eyes of a young man or young woman in love (15 minutes), and then through the eyes of an old widow or widower (15 minutes).

What differences in setting did you notice, even though it was the same park?

 

Tips:

The purpose of these exercises is to realize that setting is never neutral. Setting descriptions are subjective. So your setting should always evoke a mood. Think of your setting as another character. The setting should help us feel the mood of the scene you are describing. If there is conflict in the scene, then the setting should be described harshly, in a way that evokes the harshness of the moment. If the scene is a warm scene, with love, then the setting should reveal that warmth.

 

About Josh Barkan

Josh Barkan is the author of MEXICO. Josh Barkan has won the Lightship International Short Story Prize and been a finalist for the Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction, the Paterson Fiction Prize, and the Juniper Prize for Fiction. He is the recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and his writing has appeared in Esquire. He earned his MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has taught writing at Harvard, Boston University, and New York University. With his wife, a painter from Mexico, he divides his time between Mexico City and Roanoke, Virginia. For writing advice from Barkan and other top-notch short story writers, download Signature’s Compact Guide to Short Story Writing.

 

[Reading Room] Your Mama’s Adventures In Parenting by Mary Robinette Kowal

Last week I talked about reading and writing stories with divided storylines that come together at the end.

The example I gave, Shakedown by Elizabeth Gonzalez, had a fairly traditional narrative structure. While it wasn’t clear how the two storylines would interact, at first, it was an easy-to-read story.

Shaking Things Up

Continue reading “[Reading Room] Your Mama’s Adventures In Parenting by Mary Robinette Kowal”

[Reading Room] Shakedown by Elizabeth Gonzalez

I picked this book up because a, it was written by a Pennsylvania writer and b, because of the glowing review written for it by Karen Russell and short story writer and novelist whose writing I love (literary but not stuffy).

(Incidentally, this is a great way to discover new writers: Continue reading “[Reading Room] Shakedown by Elizabeth Gonzalez”

Stay Excited About Your Writing This Year

To stick to our good intentions and create good writing practices, we have to stay excited about our writing. Meeting a word count goal or an hours-in-chair goal isn’t always enough of an incentive to break through our resistance to sitting down and creating something out of nothing, every day.

So, in this article, I’m offering you some alternative ways to get yourself jazzed about your writing practice.

Of course, being me, I’m going to recommend you incorporate short stories into your writing practice, but you can use these ideas even when you’re working on a scene in a longer work.

I’m going to show you how you can stay excited about your writing practice by:

  • Understanding the purpose of your story and how it affects the final form,
  • Experimenting with new formats and new ideas,
  • Focusing on your audience (but not too much)

I’m also going to give you one foolproof way to make sure you finish your stories, every time.

And then I’m going to invite you to make a very specific commitment to your writing this year—if it seems right for you—one with built-in accountability and support.

Take A Break

Continue reading “Stay Excited About Your Writing This Year”

[Reading Room] The Fish Merchant by Tobias Buckell

clarkesworldmagazine.com

If you want to read an incredibly skilled story that is engaging and moving and gritty and touching, written by a writer with a sure hand, give The Fish Merchant by Tobias Buckell a try.

(It was originally published in Science Fiction Age but I found it in Clarkesworld Magazine)

Just look at this opening: Continue reading “[Reading Room] The Fish Merchant by Tobias Buckell”

[Reading Room] The Appropriation of Cultures by Percival Everett

Described as a ‘delightfully subversive’ story, “The Appropriation of Cultures” by Percival Everett is definitely both of those things.

I listened to this story as part of a Selected Shorts podcast. It was read by Ruben Santiago-Hudson (who I knew as Captain Montgomery from Castle . He turns out to be a wonderful storyteller who gets out of the way of the story and is blessed with a voice I could listen to for days).

It’s described in the show notes as a ‘delightfully subversive’ story and it is definitely both of those things.

The story starts with an affluent college graduate who seems like a bit of a wastrel, spending his time living off inherited money, reading and playing jazz with ‘the old guys’ at some dive bar.

The story’s trucking along just fine until one night Daniel is playing at the bar and some college frat boys come in and request that the band “Play Dixie for us”. Continue reading “[Reading Room] The Appropriation of Cultures by Percival Everett”

[Reading Room] How To Become A Writer by Lorrie Moore

I approached this story with some trepidation, as I’m always wary of writers writing stories about writers. Or, in this case about aspiring writers.

But this was salted with enough wry humor to draw me in. Take the first lines:

First, try to be something else, anything else. A movie-star/astronaut. A movie-star/missionary. A movie-star/kindergarten teacher. President of the World. Fail miserable. It’s best if you fail at an early age…

The author saves the character from an annoyingly sardonic tone by baldly relating what the teenaged writer can expect after slaving over her first story.

Show it to your mom. She is tough and practical. She has a son Continue reading “[Reading Room] How To Become A Writer by Lorrie Moore”

[Write On Wednesday] Get Your Kicks on Route 66

Detours Sometimes Lead to Conflict

How often do our travels – or our lives, for that matter –  go exactly as planned? The detours often lead to conflict, and conflict drives drama. Conflict provides the impetus for action and the catalyst for your characters to change. Conflict keeps things interesting – if it doesn’t get everyone killed! Don’t leave your reader wondering, “Are we there, yet? When are we gonna get there?” Road trips are meant to be fun, interesting, enlightening experiences for the whole family. All too often, we get lulled into complacency, boredom, and “white line fever.” Roadside attractions provide opportunities to stray from the planned path – and opportunities for it all to go terribly, shockingly, or hilariously wrong.

Today’s Prompt

Your character is taking a road trip cross country with two people who are not family or close friends. Something goes horribly wrong at the World’s Largest Cockroach and Frozen Custard Stand (or other odd or humorously cheesy roadside attraction) located in the middle of nowhere.

Ideas to Explore:

  • Who are these characters and why are they traveling across the country together? Was it by choice? Will they be closer by the end of the trip – friends for life, perhaps – or will one or more of them (barely) live to regret it?
  • Now’s your chance to camp it up – you can use an actual roadside attraction (the more ridiculous, the better!) or invent one. Don’t just describe it, though – make us feel like we’re there.
  • What could possibly go wrong? Here’s your opportunity to add over-the-top drama, nail-biting action, or hilarious comic relief. Can you work in all three?

Tips:

  • Create 5-10 brief character sketches on scraps of paper. Fold them up, drop them into a Mason jar, and pull out three of them. Throw them into the car together and see where it leads.
  • Build your own roadside attraction. Make us feel like we’re there. If it really existed, would we want to visit it – or would we pray we didn’t have a flat tire within 30 miles of it?
  • Use descriptive language that appeals to all five of the reader’s senses.
  • Add additional characters who are not in the car with your main characters. Throw in an animal, maybe a pet. Maybe it’s part of the attraction.
  • How do your characters solve their problems? What does that reveal about them that we didn’t know before?

Have fun! Be sure to come back and share your story links in the comments.

 


Holly Jahangiri is the author of Trockle; A Puppy, Not a Guppy; Innocents & Demons; and A New Leaf for Lyle. She blogs at It’s All a Matter of Perspective. You can find her books on Amazon at http://amazon.com/author/hollyjahangiri. For more information on her children’s books, please visit http://jahangiri.us/books.

[Reading Room] On Cosmology by Roísín O’Donnell

I’m often wary of modern Irish and British stories because they tend to be grim. It’s not a style I enjoy and it’s not one I have much time for. So I tend to shy away from modern British and Irish stories altogether.

But it’s always good to read outside your comfort zone, so occasionally I give a new story in a genre I don’t love, a shot.

On Cosmology, by Roísín O’Donnell won the  Hennesy/Irish Times prize for August 2015. In the story, a lecturer in astrophysics wonders about the ‘gooey, alien-like creature’ which may be growing inside her.

So yes, it does deal with sex and issues of pregnancy — and in less-than-ideal-circumstance. In Ireland, no less. Certainly sounds like the recipe for a grim, modern moan, doesn’t it?

This story, however escapes being grim.

I had to think hard about what O’Donnell had done right that kept me from hating her story. And I think it came down to this: I liked the main character. She was not thrilled about her situation but she was curious. That curiosity, which totally fitted with her profession as a scientist, trumped everything else. It felt real, as if she was a real character. It gave her an optimism that transcended her circumstance.

I like the narrator and the picture of her world that she paints. We, as writers, would be wise to give our characters a strong character trait that carries them through any situation they face. It can waver, it can bend, but in the end, they’ll be realistic characters if they are ultimately consistent.

So yes, I recommend it.This is a good one!

Read the story online here.

The Tuesday Reading Room is a regular feature at StoryADay.org. If you’d like to contribute a review of a short story, read the guidelines here.

[Reading Room] The Goat Variations by Jeff VanderMeer

What can we learn from this story as writers? Well, certainly not to try to write a story just like this…

The Goat Variations, by Jeff Vandermeer, plays with reality and alternate realities, in the best traditions of ‘what if’ speculative fiction.

It starts with a scene that most people who were sentient in Sept 2011 (or shortly thereafter) will recognize, but then things get weird.

Slowly you start to realize that things are not as they should be and your brain starts running quickly to catch up. Then things get REALLY weird…

This was not an easy read. It was mind-bending in a deliciously difficult way.

What can we learn from this story as writers? Well, certainly not to try to write a story like this. Perhaps it’s more that we should be willing to be idiosyncratic, like VanderMeer. Or perhaps it’s that a good idea is worth working, and reworking until we’re telling it in the way that it needs to be told.

Perhaps it’s that you can’t worry about taking a topic as fraught with baggage as 9/11 and telling our own story in our own way, about difficult topics.

Most of all, we can’t be afraid of other people disapproving of the things we write — or the way we write them.

(Small nit-pick: the website that I’m linking to here inaccurately casts the main character as “George Herbert Walker Bush” when in fact it is George W. Bush.)

But the story? The story is great!

Read the story here

The Tuesday Reading Room is a regular feature at StoryADay.org. If you’d like to submit a review for the Reading Room, see the guidelines here.

Guest Prompt from Charlotte Rains Dixon

Your main character can have anything in the whole world that she wants. Anything!

Charlotte Rains Dixon headshotCharlotte Rains Dixon is a writer who has made the jump from non-fiction to fiction with her new series of mysteries, the Emma Jean books (the first is available now). Her short stories have been published in The Trunk, Santa Fe Writer’s Project, Nameless Grace, and Somerset Studios. Check out her blog for writing tips and inspiration that are very much in tune with the ethos here at StoryADay.

The Prompt

Your main character can have anything in the whole world that she wants. Anything! Doesn’t matter if it is illegal, immoral, or illicit. Explore what that thing is, why she wants it, and perhaps most importantly, what the consequences of getting that thing might be.

 

Go!

 

(Remember, all prompts are optional and you certainly don’t have to do two stories, or combine the prompts, on days when there’s a celebrity guest.)

 

[Reading Room] Bertie’s New Year by L. M. Montgomery

This is a charming story about good little rich girls being nice to a poor little (good) poverty-stricken boy. The message of the piece is hopelessly outdated (the privileged should be charitable to the deserving poor, who will appreciate it, no strings), but it’s a nice story.

(N.B. I’m by no means opposed to the well-off helping those who’re struggling. I’m just not sure it ever goes as smoothly as it does in this story, and I think…no, never mind. The point is, the way this story unfolds feels very dated. And it is. So, not a crippling criticism).

Anyhoo, the thing that really struck me while reading this, was
how often LM Montgomery did things that my critique group would NEVER let her away with, if she ran the story by them before submitting it to her publisher. And none of them killed the story for me. I still enjoyed it.

So: lesson learned. Write your own story. Listen to critique partners, but don’t worry too much> Opinions are like…well, you know how that goes, right?

Story found via: Short Story Thursdays. You should subscribe, if you don’t already.

 

Read the story online here.

[Reading Room] Weights & Measures by Jodi Picoult

This is a sad story, dealing with two parents’ grief over losing their child: it’s a dangerous read for any parent. Do not attempt if you are feeling fragile.

That said, it is a very well written tale that totally lives up to the remit of the anthology it is published in: stories that keep you saying “…and then what happened?”

This story is contemporary, realistic fiction that veers into magical realism in a way I thought really fitted with the enormity of the subject. There is also a lovely helping of arcane knowledge (in this case about weights and measures) that made me happy.

My only complaint is that, while I liked the ending, I felt it swooped in a little too quickly.

Found in  – Stories: All-New TalesNeil Gaiman and Al Sarrntonio