by Gay Degani
James Thomas, Robert Shapard, and Christopher Merrill came together to collect and edit Flash Fiction International: Very Short Stories from Around the World, released by W.W. Norton & Company in April of this year.
The team’s mission was to gather strong flash fiction from all over the world and as stated in the introduction, and after reading over 10,000 stories, they had what they considered “eighty-six of the world’s best very short stories—known in Portuguese as minicontos, in German as Kurzestgeschichten, in Irish as splancfhicsin, in Italian as microstorias . . . and in English as flash fiction.”
What appeals to us about flash fiction? Beneath the complexities of the world, we live our lives in a series of moments, thousands of them, experiencing an array of emotions and epiphanies. Not all of these stick with us, yet many of them change our lives. What flash fiction manages to do is crystalize some of these moments for us to read, enjoy, and identify with. The flash fiction in this anthology comes from such disparate place as Israel, Argentina, Bangladesh, South Korea, Japan, the United States, Slovenia, Norway, Kenya, Australia, Ancient Rome and many more. What underlies each story is what makes human beings human, past and present.
- Take “Esse” by Polish writer and poet, Czeslaw Milosz. This short piece, read in a minute and a half, is such a moment. The narrator states, “What can be done, if our sight lacks absolute power to devour objects ecstatically, in an instant, leaving nothing more than the void of an ideal…” Who hasn’t experienced a moment when something has caught our eye and we find we cannot get enough it? In this case, it is a woman and the narrator cries out: “I am, she is.Shout, blow the trumpets, make thought-strong marches, leap, rend your clothing repeating only: is?” Isn’t this what life is?
- From Colombia comes the story “Honey” by Antonio Ungar in which a young boy watches his sister cover herself with honey: “she defies the world, she smiles and waits. Little by little her body begins to transform getting thicker and darker.” Suspense builds from the first sentence to the end of the story. A character fascinated by someone in peril, wrought in beautiful prose, reminds the reader of accidents along a freeway and rubberneckers cruising by, the universality of human curiosity.
- Humor is common to human beings too, shown in “Heavy Bones” by Tania Hershman (Israel/England). In this story, the solution is fun and funny. “Only a few minutes ago, we were still tipsy from the bubbly at the reception, our heads fizzing, and now I’m standing here freezing on the doorstep in my big white dress and he’s looking like he’s failed his first big husbandly duty…”
- In “The Snake,” Kenyan Eric Rugara captures that wonderful moment after a household crisis raises adrenaline and mere men have gone to war. “The kid saw it first. Everyone else busy talking and sipping tea when the kid suddenly cried out, ‘Snake!’”
- Flash fiction can challenge and make the reader wonder what is true and what is not, as in “Truthful Lies” by Frankie McMillan from New Zealand. Here the narrator proclaims herself a liar and launches into her own history. “Have I ever been engaged to a dwarf? Yes. No. Choose Yes.” The reader has to question if the choice will lead to a story that can believed or not. This is an expert example of an unreliable narrator.
- Yin Ed Kiong from Malaysia/Indonesia pens a traditional tale, “Ronggeng.” In kinship with 1001 Nightsand Cinderella, this piece has seductive dancing, ritual baths, and star-crossed lovers, proving the adaptability of the form of flash fiction. “All the rich old men in their vulgar boast of wealth and virility would be vying to buka her kelambu—‘to open her mosquito net’—for the first time at the ronggeng.”
- From Afganistan comes “The Tiger” by Mohibullah Zegham, a stark moment of reality when a common past holds peril for an ordinary, hard-working man. “It had been a long time since I’d been to the bazaar. Traveling the vast Shorao desert, the truck was raising clouds of dust.”
- “Little Girls” by Tara Laskowski from the United States is about the relationship between fathers and daughters and a moment that changes the main character’s life. It is all-American, but carries with it a kind of inevitable fate that is universal.
I regret I don’t have more time and space to select even more of these ideal examples of flash fiction, but as our world grows smaller, humans find themselves bumping up against each other more than ever before. Between television broadcasts of war and violence, bickering world leaders, and natural disasters, with much the same prominent in movies and on the internet, we seem more focused on what makes us different than what makes us alike. The wonderful fact about the genre of flash fiction is that it focuses on moments, and in those moments we find our humanity as it exists all over the world. This is what makes an anthology like Flash Fiction International, Very Short Stories from Around the Word, such a gift.
Paperback: 288 pages Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (April 13, 2015)
Gay Degani had three of her flash pieces nominated for Pushcart consideration and won the 11th Annual Glass Woman Prize. Her suspense novel, What Came Before, was published in 2014 and a short collection, Pomegranate, features eight stories around the theme of mothers and daughters. Founder and editor emeritus of Flash Fiction Chronicles, she blogs at Words in Place where a complete list of her published work can be found.