Meet seven writers collected in the Pen America Best Debut Short Stories 2020 anthology

Every year, PEN America releases an anthology of the best short stories written by first time published writers. This year, a dozen writers were selected from a wide-ranging array of literary journals – both in print and online. They were judged and selected by Tracy O’Neill, Nafissa Thompson-Spires, and Deb Olin Unferth.

I asked seven of the collected writers get-to-know-you questions to better introduce them to readers.

The writers participating in the roundtable are:

Can you introduce readers to who you are as a writer and what interests and informs your writing?

Ani Cooney: I view my way of writing as an examination of a question or a human circumstance that I don’t fully understand. I go in knowing very little, but once I follow the sentences and characters there are often realizations in the end that help shape my worldview. I also approach my writing with play in mind — play with language, characters, and humor. Play and humor help a lot with the agony that comes with the work! 

I write about characters in the “margins,” characters in stories that I rarely found growing up. Queer people. Filipino folks and other characters of color. I am tired of reading and being tasked to find the universal in stories that only feature certain characters by certain type of authors. That limits the imagination and has dangerous and real-life implications. Writers who look like me are here and our stories are not in the margins. 

Mbozi Haimbe: I was born and raised in Zambia, moving to the UK in my mid-twenties. My dad used to belong to a reading club that would send him a wide selection of books on a regular basis. Some of my early influences come from dipping into his library. My mother was also an avid reader; one of her books, The Grass Is Singing by Doris Lessing, put a magnifying glass to the Africa I saw around me, helping me appreciate the colors, sounds and textures I’d previously taken for granted. I read a lot as a child, and during my secondary education, where I discovered writers like Chinua Achebe, Wole Soinke and Harper Lee. My early reading, coupled with my observation of life around me inform my writing of African inspired realist fiction. I also write speculative fiction, which is inspired by unsettling stories my grandparents told me growing up.

Mohit Manohar: I’m still finding my way as a writer. I grew up in Catholic boarding school in a remote town close to Darjeeling, up in the Himalayas, and my upbringing has given me a somewhat absurdist take on things: you know, as being a gay Hindu boy in an intensely homophobic but multicultural and multilingual environment overseen by Catholic authorities is wont to. So I work with what I have. I’m also currently doing a Ph.D. in art history, and my readings in art history and related fields tend to seep into my stories. I guess I like to write stories that are not without humor and not without a sense of history. 

Damitri Martinez: I like reading and writing stories from characters who might be overlooked or thought of as not having a story to tell in the first place. I like forcing myself to look at things from different perspectives, especially from aspects of some of our older storytelling forms, like myths and fairy tales. I love the concept of adapting old tropes into something new and refreshing, something that matches and validates the existence of readers who might be struggling to know if their lives matter in significant ways. Writing from authors like Toni Morrison, Louise Ehrdrich, Mark Doty and Tony Kushner did that for me: they showed me my life matters, especially through the aspects of it I shy away from.

Willa C. Richards: I write poetry and fiction. Though these days I write a lot more fiction than poetry. I grew up in a large, but very tight knit, somewhat non-traditional family. A lot of my writing is interested in the complicated, beautiful, messiness of family structures and those familial bonds that so quietly, and sometimes even tragically, inform who we are.

I love exploring topics that I spend a lot of time talking to my Mom and my sisters about, but which I don’t often see depicted in popular culture in nuanced, interesting ways—sex and sexuality, the messiness of pregnancy and childbirth, the intersections of motherhood and personhood, the difficulties of nurturing healthy, sustainable relationships, how we move through death and loss.

I also love writing about the Midwest, particularly Wisconsin and Michigan, and those places which will always remain home to me—the city of Milwaukee, and its suburbs, Lake Michigan, Door County, Northern Wisconsin, Lake Superior, and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

Shannon Sanders: I like to write about people who are both embedded in and sometimes at odds with their home communities. Trying to please their parents and grandparents while juggling the demands of their peers, careers, and chosen families.

I’m also a very nosy person (working on it!) and I am extremely interested in subtext–what goes unsaid in polite conversation for various reasons (everything from generational trauma to basic manners).

Finally, I try to honor my mom’s occasional request, which is to “write about Black people doing good things.”

Kristen Sahaana Surya: Am I supposed to have that figured out yet?! I’m kidding- I mean, in all seriousness, I think answers about artistry are always inclined to change with time and evolution, but right now, I’m very concerned with how art can be a political space, or do political work. I’m a raging feminist. And I’m South Asian, I’m Tamil, so a lot of the stories that I’ve been working on are about Tamil women. For writers of color, I think there’s always a degree of hesitation to cast ourselves as “identity writers” or to categorize our work as “identity work,” but it’s difficult for me to separate myself from the work in this way. Representation is insufficient- what I’m trying to do, at least at this stage, is engage with the elements of my culture(s)- all of them, South Asian, American, South Asian-American- that are inherently understood but not necessarily talked about, and the oppressive structures that are linked to those elements. Which makes me sound infinitely more pretentious than I mean to, but I hope you understand that I’m speaking broadly here. 

What is your writing background?

Ani Cooney: As a kid, I remember writing a lot of quest stories with all these fantastical creatures and super-abilities. Comic books were a big influence to me. The biggest storyteller and influence in my household was my Apo, my loving grandmother, who shared stories about mythical Filipino creatures, sometimes scary and beautiful, to put us to bed. 

I knew from early on that I wanted to write, and it was in college where I became more serious about my work. At UCLA, I had the wonderful opportunity to study writing with Fae Myenne Ng and Mark Richard. They taught me a lot about unimpeachable sentences, plot, and writing stories that will mean something to me years from now. Also, I learned a lot about humility in writing from them — that’s a writing lesson that gets overlooked easily. A couple of years ago, I studied more writing at VONA (Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation) with M. Evelina Galang in one of the most diverse workshops I’ve ever been in. Being in a workshop in VONA truly multiplied my perspective on what writing is and can be. 

Mbozi Haimbe: I initially started writing as a way to manage the stress of my day job as a Social Worker. During this period I mostly wrote fanfiction, mainly for my own consumption. In 2014, I decided to try writing for others as well as myself, and enrolled on a creative writing diploma at the University of Cambridge. The diploma led to the Master of Studies in 2016-2018, also at Cambridge; this was when my writing really took off. The course introduced me to a wider range of writers than I’d previously read, and also introduced to trying my hand at poetry, writing for performance and creative non-fiction. While my main interest remains prose, both in short and long form, the techniques I learnt from other types of writing undoubtedly cross over into my prose writing and helped me find my voice. I wrote ‘Madam’s Sister’ for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize; it went on to win the Africa Region prize of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize.

Mohit Manohar: I started writing as a child to keep myself entertained. I grew up without TV, which at the time I hated, but have now come to see as an early training to be a writer. 

I minored in creative writing in college. College also exposed me to the mysterious field of art history, and happily, I had professors who were never satisfied with vague and woozy descriptions of paintings or buildings. Learning how to describe works of art and cutting my teeth at doing primary art historical research helped me as a fiction writer. 

Damitri Martinez: I’ve written on and off since I was in high school. I’ve taken a few creative writing courses and workshops, but institutionalized creativity is so spotty, I didn’t have it in me to fully commit to pursue it as a focus for a degree. I decided to become a “professional reader” instead. I majored in literature, I have an MA in literature, and I taught high school English for seven years, until one summer (my last as a teacher), I decided I wasn’t fulfilled. So I decided to finally write something on my own. I joined a writing workshop at Lighthouse Writers in Denver, with the wonderfully enthusiastic and encouraging Nini Berndt, just for some structure and accountability, and “Bat Outta Hell” was a result of that class.

Willa C. Richards: My grandmother taught me to read and write before I started school. And both of my parents are academics, so they fostered a deep love of reading and learning in me too. I was lucky in that way. I started writing stories when I was maybe eight or nine and I started writing poetry as a young teenager.

I didn’t take any formal creative writing classes until I was at UW-Madison. They have a great undergraduate writing program and I was really lucky to have the support of a few excellent professors who encouraged me to keep writing. I applied to a bunch of MFAs straight out of undergrad, and ended up getting in to Iowa, which was a somewhat wild, but very formative journey.

I showed up there when I was 22. It was so daunting and humbling to be in class with writers who were already extremely accomplished, to be working with celebrated authors, to have opportunities to meet agents and editors. When I got to Iowa I was still in that awkward phase where I wasn’t sure I was allowed to call myself a writer, but by the time left I’d written a few stories I was proud of and I’d started a novel. 

Shannon Sanders: I’ve been a reader all my life, primarily of fiction. In high school and college, I wrote reams of X-Files fanfiction–that’s a little bit funny or embarrassing now, but I think that in a way, it helped me to learn some of the tools I would use later in my attempts at literary fiction: shaping scenes, developing characters. (In fanfiction, you have a head start on lots of the basic story elements.) As an adult, I always felt a bit locked out of the writing world because I wasn’t pursuing an MFA or writing a novel by age 25–but it was always something I hoped I’d find my way into. In 2015, on a whim, I signed up for a local fiction workshop and discovered the magic of deadlines. By early 2016 or so, I had a few decent short stories under my belt, and dipped my toe into the intimidating world of submissions! I now have short stories in a few literary magazines I love (One StoryJoylandSLICE, and others), and I’m putting the finishing touches on a linked-story collection.

Kristen Sahaana Surya: I was trained as a dancer, so I think my whole approach to artistry is framed by that. Everything I know about art- as a discipline, but also its relationship to spirituality, which I consider essential- really comes from that training, which started for me when I was three or four probably. And I did theatre for a while too- I went to a performing arts school in Hell’s Kitchen, where we did a lot of heavy method work, but also got the political history of theatre. All of this was before I was “writing seriously,” whatever that means, so I think it seeped into the way I work somehow. I went to Tufts, where I met my first ever writing mentor. And now, in my non-writing life, I’m an attorney, which has taught me how to be two different types of writers in the same body. I’m also fortunate to be in the Warren Wilson program, which is truly the gift that keeps on giving for writers- hands down one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself and my work.  

How did this story come to be? What was the process behind it?

Ani Cooney: I wanted to honor a person in words and language and in the imagination. A few years ago, there was an accident in my neighborhood and the article never mentioned the mother who passed, only mentioning and painting the life of the other person who was also killed in the accident. That was my entryway into the story: why and how do we get to honor another person over another? I wanted Evangelina, the mother in my story, to feel corporeal in my mind, and I know language and words can help shape that. So I followed Lila’s voice and her grief as she tried to honor her mother’s life. 

In writing this story, I used the first and third-person point of views but the distance for me as a writer did not work until I used the second-person. Writing in this point of view felt didactic to Lila (just like Evangelina was to her) as if I was speaking to her as I followed her. In the end, it was also didactic to the reader and I didn’t realize that until I was revising and I started hearing from my friends who read the story. 

Mbozi Haimbe: I was on vacation in Zambia at the time, and I guess listening to snippets of the conversations from domestic workers walking home sparked the idea of ‘Madam’s Sister’. Having just come off a plane, there was a sense of inevitability that the titular character would be a member of the diaspora. In terms of process, I drafted the story over about a week, then just let it sit for a while, coming back to edit it now and again over about a month.

Mohit Manohar: I wanted to write something that amped up the best and worst bits of certain dates I had been on and see what narrative I could come up with. I set the story in London, during Brexit, because I happened to be in the city at the time and thought it was an interesting historical moment to capture in fiction. I wanted to describe how relaxed London was on the eve of Brexit. None of the people I met believed Brexit would actually happen. I cooked up a plot where two people go on a date and Brexit is something that takes place in the background. The initial draft featured Brexit as a blip, but Polly Rosenwaike, the fiction editor at Michigan Quarterly Review (where “Summertime” was published), urged me to revise the story so that Brexit would leave a slightly larger imprint on the plot. I’m glad she made this suggestion, for it helped the draft. The final published version was naturally helped by Polly’s editorial insight. Earlier drafts benefitted from the advice of my friends, who were kind enough to read and comment on it.

Damitri Martinez: The story began with a simple image: a confused teen riding on the back of a motorcycle belonging to a dark, shadowy figure. The particular image gave me an underlying “Little Red Riding Hood” vibe to it that I was interested in queering and then pinning to our real world. The archetypes of the Innocent and the Wolf became a disenfranchised teenager with a sexually repressed, motorcycle-riding uncle. As I started writing, Julian and Jay became startlingly real characters. When Julian, the protagonist, finally came to full fruition, he had something to confess, something to say that he thought very few people would be willing to hear. So I let him take control of my consciousness for a couple weeks, and he let it all out. Turns out, he has a very beautiful voice.

Willa C. Richards: Both of my parents are archaeologists. Once my younger sister and I took a road trip with our parents to return borrowed human remains to their “home” institution. At the time, the situation hadn’t seemed all that strange to me. My mother is an osteologist, and most of her research is concerned with historic cemeteries, so road tripping with skeletons hadn’t seemed particularly out of the ordinary to us. Though of course when I relayed this story to my peers, and I saw their faces, I could see how the situation was actually quite bizarre. “Failure” was very loosely inspired by that trip, but it really grew and flourished around the characters themselves.

The first draft of this story took me a few months to write. I started it in January 2015 and then I workshopped the first draft of it at Iowa in March or somewhere around then. Then I revised the draft that appears in The Paris Review on and off for probably four years? It lost a lot of weight over the years—I believe the first few drafts were over 10,000 words!

Shannon Sanders: “The Good, Good Men” started with a piece of gossip I overheard. An acquaintance of my parents’ mentioned in passing that she had a friend whose adult sons disapproved of her boyfriend and teamed up to intimidate the boyfriend into treating their mother as they believed she deserved. The acquaintance told this story with admiration for the sons–they were painted as gallant and loyal. But the story haunted me afterward for what it said about the mother’s agency and the way it was regarded by the various men in her life. Honestly, though, I didn’t know what I wanted to say about any of that until I was nearly finished plotting the story.

I drafted the story in 2016 for a workshop with the late novelist Robert Bausch, who was very encouraging and offered fantastic suggestions. I revised it in bits and pieces over the years, submitting it to magazines after each revision, and was thrilled finally to have it accepted by Puerto del Sol‘s Black Voices Series.

Kristen Sahaana Surya: I work on a line and sound level first always, which I think is different from the way that some writers work- I think there are writers who are more top down and can plan out a story before they get to the meat, but I have to hear it in my ear first, kind of like music. My writing group always does generative prompts together with a timer. So a few sentences came out of a prompt we did and I basically built the whole story around that. I’ve also realized that I treat writing a lot like I treat contract negotiation- for lawyers, whenever we’re facing an issue, it’s standard practice to call a peer and just hash out all the angles. I do the same thing with stories. For this one, I’d call my brother and be like, “Ok, so what if she does this next?” Or I’d have tea with my grandma and say, “What would you have done if this happened?” The editing process was also like that, a lot of calls, a lot of coffee.

What can we expect from you in the future? 

Ani Cooney: The short story is such a beautiful and challenging form to write and I want to continue playing with it. I have a multiple short stories in the works, shelving one after the other whenever I get stuck, and my ultimate goal is to have a collection. 

Mbozi Haimbe: I find short stories very satisfying, and hope to produce more of these in the future. I’m also working on my debut novel, a speculative story set in near-future London featuring Zambian main characters.

Mohit Manohar: I’ve a short story forthcoming in Nimrod this fall and a peer-reviewed article on the Chand Minar—a monumental minaret in Deccan India, built by an African military slave in the fifteenth century—forthcoming in a research journal next year. The existence of African military slavery in India is not really known outside of select academic circles, and I hope at some point to write something to bring this history to a wider reading public. I’m also aiming to finish the first draft of a novel soon. And I’m writing my dissertation on a city in medieval India, which I have to submit by 2022. I write stories when I can, and hopefully, some of these will see the light of the day. 

Damitri Martinez: I’m in the process of wrapping up a collection of short stories, and I’ve begun the research, outlining, and preliminary writing of two bigger ideas I have for novels. I’m thrilled to know “Bat Outta Hell” was a break in the dam. I’m excited to see where my creativity takes me.

Willa C. Richards: I’m currently working on edits to my debut novel, The Comfort of Monsters, which comes out with Harper next summer. After that, I’d like to revisit and edit some other stories, work on some screen writing projects, and then start another novel!

Shannon Sanders: More stories–I have a few publications that are new or upcoming at the time of this writing. I’m putting the finishing touches on a collection of linked stories, most of which involve the characters in “The Good, Good Men” and their extended family.

I’m also working on a novel! It’s an entirely different challenge, and I’m teaching myself as I go. When I need to come up for air, I turn back to short stories. I love the satisfaction of finishing a piece and sending it out into the world.

Kristen Sahaana Surya: More stories, I hope, and hopefully a novel one day too. 

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