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 Sabrina Orah Mark, Emily Nemens, and Deesha Philyaw.
This year, four writers participated in the round table:
- RZ Baschir (“The Chicken” from The White Review)
- CK Kane (“Them Bones” from Hobart)
- Yasmin Adele Majeed (“A Wedding in Multan, 1978” from The Asian American Literary Review)
- Oyedotun Damilola Muees (“All We Have Left Is Ourselved” from Reckoning)
- Cal Shook (“Man, Man, Et Cetera” from Virginia Quarterly Review)
- Preeti Vangani (“Work Wives” from Typehouse)
- Seth Wang (“The Cacophobe” from Ploughshares)
Can you introduce readers to who you are as a writer and what interests and informs your writing?
Oyedotun Damilola Muees: I am a Nigerian writer of contemporary and speculative fiction, and non-fiction about pop-culture. I like to dig deep into areas of environment, war, queerness, folktale, culture, dark and everything science and technology.
Preeti Vangani: I am a poet and more recently, I have started writing short stories. My work in both genres centers grief, sexual relationships, familial strife and the worlds where these three intersect. I think a lot about the role of pleasure in grief. How to stay curious and wondrous while being rooted in grief which is ever-present, how to love better or deeper, and how to parse through the negotiations one makes as a woman with oneself while being with a beloved: all of these questions haunt my writing.
Growing up, I learnt that any observance of intimacy, especially for girls, is a source of great shame. In my work, I try to dive into the social structures that define ‘permissible love’ for Indian women. The curiosity emerged for me because most women in my family have had arranged marriages and are allowed ideas of love, ambition, sexual exploration, so long as they fit within the boundaries of traditional moulds, which is to say, if they are kept extremely invisibilized.
CK Kane: I’m a writer of primarily short stories and screenplays, branching out into novel territory currently. I’m informed by objects one might find at a garage sale (for example right now I’m working on a book and when I work on it I surround myself with creepy little tchotchkes and depression/uranium glass…perfume atomizers…ceramic poodles…cherubs..this type of thing that I wouldn’t normally have in my space. I can’t explain why!), my childhood, old magazines, colors, textures, music, lists, information I’ve gathered (usually passively) throughout life, smells–I’m big on the olfactory in writing. There are links to stories and poems I’ve written on my website. Also, on some streaming platforms you can still find the feature film I wrote and directed a few years ago, “Behind Some Dark Cloud”.
Seth Wang: Some preoccupations: self-exploitation, self-mythology, narcissism, spiritual mutilation, aesthetic transcendence, spiritual mutilation in the service of aesthetic transcendence, plastic surgery, obsession, envy, power, cages, beauty, evil, lies. It’s a cliché for a trans writer to say they’re interested in monstrosity and artifice, but yeah, those too. I almost exclusively write in first person. I veer between classical, almost old-fashioned, neo-gothic character studies like this story and recursive, cyber-baroque rants in one endless scroll. Think Bernhard but about hot people who are terminally online.
Obviously, my writing is also informed by my lived experience as a trans Asian person, as a member of certain other marginalized communities, as a survivor of some really awful shit. Just because I’m not writing monosyllabic diaspora-bingo-lyrical gender-bent retellings of the Legend of the White Snake where my unproblematic self-insert processes my abuse with the help of my body-positive queerplatonic chosen family doesn’t mean it’s not there. It saturates my entire ethos. This isn’t a strawman I’m railing against, either, and any marginalized writer whose work aspires to more than just representation and instruction and therapy knows it. It’s a very sinister mix of intellectual condescension and bad-faith pearl-clutching we’re constantly coming up against, even in supposedly literary spheres, even from people with whom we supposedly share community. This idea that marginalized people and survivors have to write inoffensive, didactic, autobiographical morality tales perfectly itemizing our suffering, or else risk disbelief, ridicule, harassment, or worse. I’m lucky enough to have only encountered it so far in higher education (derogatory), and only enough for it to be merely annoying instead of professionally damaging.
Unrelated: for about three years in undergrad I was dealing with severe mental health issues and, like, trauma and didn’t read anything for pleasure but perfume blogs. That probably affected my style somewhat.
Yasmin Adele Majeed: Right now what interests and informs my writing is: the weather in California, the immigrant suburbs of the Bay Area, the Pakistani diaspora in the U.S., Filipinos in Vacaville and Vallejo, the obsessions and desires of young girls, Lahore, loneliness, Radio Disney, the Redwoods, infidelity, the surrender of Hiroo Onoda, the novels of Chloe Aridjis, Michael Ondaatje, and Jamaica Kincaid, Kids See Ghosts, and Claire Denis’s 35 Shots of Rum.
Cal Shook: Well, a big thing is that I live in New York City and I’ve been here a long time now. I find it continually fascinating, the way we manage to live so completely stacked on top of one another. And I’m just so interested in all the relationships—long-standing or fleeting—that the shared container of this city brings about. My stories tend to zoom in close on those incidental relationships. And to illuminate moments of transition within them, which I think of as opportunities for change, and which we navigate in life completely blind to whatever might be coming around the bend. I love writing from that aspect of adulthood: pretending we know what’s going on without having the least clue.
RZ Baschir: Broadly, my writing explores relationships between waking and dream life, the surreal and the uncanny. I’m interested in liminal experiences, moments on the edge of reality, or transitions between one way of being and another. My narrators are people on the margins, talking in first person present tense. Often, they are confused by the stories they themselves are telling. I’m also very conscious that I’m writing as an intellectual child of immigrants, and as such have always been intensely conscious of my identity, otherness, and experience of life through a vulnerable, female body. All this informs my writing. My influences include Jung, Kafka, Anna Kavan, and Angela Cartera.
What is your writing background?
Yasmin Adele Majeed: Like the characters in my story, I spent a lot of my childhood writing stories and plays about young brown girls. After college, I started taking writing workshops and studying fiction through literary organizations in NYC, including CRIT, Kundiman, and Kweli. Now I am in the last year of my MFA program, where I’ve been lucky to work with and learn from many brilliant writers.
Cal Shook: For ages I mostly wrote poetry. Then I got into writing plays. And then in the last few years, I got super serious about the short story form. I recently completed my MFA at NYU, so all those workshops and classes certainly comprise a lot of my craft background in fiction. But the truth is, I’ve gained way more from being a reader than from any other practice. I obsess over genius story writers, and my love for George Saunders and Joy Williams and Lucia Berlin and Jhumpa Lahiri and Etgar Keret (and the list goes on) is really the well that all of my sentences and instincts consistently draw from.
Seth Wang: I studied journalism in undergrad and have freelanced, permalanced, and ghostwritten for everything from shady fake product review sites to big media brands. I also have an MFA in fiction from Washington University in St. Louis.
RZ Baschir: I’ve loved reading for as long as I’ve been conscious pretty much and wanted to write my whole life. I spent many years writing snippets of stories that never came together. I only really started writing seriously at the beginning of 2021 when the second lockdown gave me the space and time I really needed to focus and commit.
Preeti Vangani: I came to writing entirely by accident. After college, I studied business management and worked as a marketing professional for eight years. Midway through my corporate life, the sub-culture of stand up comedy and poetry open mics (their English-urban avatars that is, because both forms have a much older history) started budding in a big way in Mumbai. I’d always been interested in theatre through school, or the meeting point of performance and writing: so I tried my hand at both, comedy and poetry. I loved it so deeply, it was so freeing, that I found myself writing for the first time about my mother who’d passed away a few years ago. I’d write in Hindi and English both, mostly mimicking patterns I’d heard in Hindi film songs. After many years of writing purely out of instinct, I applied to MFA programs and moved to the States in 2016. At University of San Francisco I studied poetry and now I continue my practice through my teaching life, through summer workshops, and most importantly with the love and care of writer friends I’ve found in this part of the world.
Oyedotun Damilola Muees: I’m a self-taught writer who started out as a poet in the latter years of my senior secondary school days. My poetry style was written through a form of storytelling. I guess this was the water that nourished the growth of my career. My penchant for stories led me to read lot of stories, basically African novels and fairytales. This was the origin of my journey as a writer.
During my undergraduate days, I was appointed as the Second Editor-in-chief of my department. We were solely responsible for writing local, national and international news touching topical aspects of the society. We also wrote fun stuff, poetry, sports, and everything worth reading.
After so many attempts of sending out stories with a huge pile of rejections, I stuck with writing poetry and posting it on my Instagram page. Then in December 2020 I sold my first story to Reckoning.press.
CK Kane: I was always encouraged to write by my maternal grandparents who largely raised me. They taught me the most about language and literature. They turned me onto Truman Capote at a young age which really changed everything. I just always wrote things but I never considered it something that could be a job or a title until I went to film school at SVA and started screenwriting.
How did this story come to be? What was the process behind it?
CK Kane: This story began, I suppose, with the image of the canine-humanoid creature. I just thought it was hilarious to imagine a person with a dog’s face who was somehow alluring. Then, I built off of that. I consulted, like always, my many lists (paper, iphone notes, word docs) of images/moments/words/word combinations I keep for this purpose, and created a sort of hodgepodge. I was delighted to be able to use so many of the colors, textures, and sounds I’d been keeping in my arsenal–in my opinion this story is a real sensory experience. I also loved and am forever inspired by the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, particularly music and fashion, so it was a blast to be able to inhabit that world for a little while. There was probably more “production design” in this story than in my others–I was fully conscious of the spaces and structures, I could build a set of the movie adaptation of it, or at least a scale model. This is very important to me when I write, to really focus on a room or a garment or something tangible that allows me to really channel the narrator.
Cal Shook: When I started working on this piece, the pandemic had pretty well messed with my sense of time. A single day dragged on endlessly back then. But there was also this feeling, looking back on how we got there, that whole years could be easily collapsed into just a few poignant moments. This story sort of functions like a fast-moving train. It passes swiftly through more than a decade, making stops at key life junctures on a course toward a version of love that might actually work. I usually write within a much narrower timeframe, so it was a fun challenge to try and pull off something different. What surprised me, though, was the second-person voice that just came out when I started writing. I’d never used that POV in a story, but there was something about the “you” of it—that sustained collective you—that seemed to fit the global moment.
Yasmin Adele Majeed: This story came out of a confluence of events and ideas I couldn’t stop thinking about in the fall of 2019. First was a personal interest in depictions of unions in fiction and how to write about the messy, complicated, and often unnoticed work of labor organizing. I was also researching the years of Zia ul-Haq’s dictatorship and the history of martial law in Pakistan, and at the same time, I was taking a writing workshop with the writer Gina Apostol who spoke to our class about the political possibilities of free indirect discourse. This was during the last days of the Trump administration when I was reading a lot of Don DeLillo, our great chronicler of the absurdity and violence of political spectacle. The opening scene of this story, which is also where I started the first draft, is partly inspired by the beginning of Mao II. From there, the rest came quickly.
Seth Wang: The bulk of my creative choices here came from writing under constraints. I had around 5,000 words of space and a month to hit it for the submission deadline. Two weeks in, I had the beginning of a really, really bad dark academia satire about a 40-something who 22 Jump Street-ed his way into a Decadent rip-off of The Secret History clique who confront him at a dinner party where they’re serving the head of their advisor on a silver platter, Salomé-style. Just complete aesthetic garbage. Worst of all, it was paced novelistically. I had spent 3,000 words just describing people’s outfits and affects and modes of mincing and the dude had barely walked through the door.
With two weeks left, I had to start over. So I thought about strategies for condensation. The solution, as with so much of my writing around this time, lay in the suicide note, my favorite form. The perfect way to condense an entire novel into just a few pages. I realized I could further cut down on word-count if a lot of stuff had to remain unsaid, so I made my protagonist believe he was allergic to ugliness. Also because I thought it’d be fun to pathologize whatever damage the guy from Against Nature had and make his symptoms drop-dead gorgeous as well. Once I had his voice down, the rest fell into place.
RZ Baschir: The story had been in my head since 2019, and I’d been playing with various versions of it that somehow never quite came together. In earlier versions, Uncle was the main character and Paris Sweets was the main site of activity. I worked hard at that story, but it never quite ‘sang’ for me. At the beginning of 2021 I decided I needed to be more honest with myself and write what I felt. So I told the story from the perspective of a young girl on the cusp of initiation into the mysteries of her own personhood. Once I found the voice, I could see the way she would navigate the world of the story with ease. I didn’t decide on the ending till much later in that process however. When working on a story I like to keep a notebook for random thoughts, ideas and fragments of language that then end up informing the story in unforeseen ways as it develops. It was using this space outside of writing the text itself that the ending and the bigger shape and idea for the story really came together. I wrote in the mornings before work, and the evenings after dinner. When I was happy with it I sent it to some friends I trusted and reworked elements of the story before I was happy to submit it to the White Review Short Story Prize.
Oyedotun Damilola Muees: “All We Have Left Is Ourselves” was birthed out of a personal experience with flood sometimes in April 2019, during my compulsory one year National Youth Service in Anambra state.
The process was one that brought memories I thought was locked far away in the tight spaces of my mind. Part of the tellings were actual happenings. I am glad that I found the courage to put it out in words.
Preeti Vangani: I am never not writing about my mother. So this story too, is a combination of personal experiences, and my struggle to reconcile that hot-early feeling of grief with what my body was going through at the time. In terms of process, again, I never intended to write fiction, it really wasn’t on the horizon, but while working on some poems, I started talking about female friendships with a friend. We got chatting about the diction of politeness in Hindi — the ‘aap’ vs. the ‘tu’ that appears in this story— which got me thinking about power differentials among beloveds. The idea seemed too large to encapsulate in a poem, in that it needed a larger vessel for contextualization. That’s how the story started.
What can we expect from you in the future?
RZ Baschir: I’m currently working on a short story collection.
CK Kane: I just collaborated with my friend the writer Thomas Moore ( author of “Forever”) on a series of haikus inspired by school shooters, which will be in the upcoming print issue of Uncensored New York, and I’m at work on a novel which I hope drops in the next year or so, as well as a collection of short stories. I’m down for whatever, who knows. I sometimes think about writing another movie, or perhaps a play.
Preeti Vangani: I am working on a new manuscript of poems that should be out soon, inshallah. And a collection of stories about women that hunger for desire despite being betrayed by it.
Oyedotun Damilola Muees: Hmmm, a lot I can tell you. For starters, a short story collection due to the volume of short stories I have written and still writing. In between I’m also working on a scifi-fantasy novella which is planned as a trilogy. And of course novels.
Seth Wang: I have a short story about nudes that’s currently out for submission. Right now I’m revising a nunsploitation novella. Then I’m taking a break from shorts for a while and focusing on my trilogy of stand-alone novels about historical eunuchs. There’s also a book-length erasure of Lolita in the works.
Cal Shook: I have a publication in Joyland coming up – another story from my almost-done collection. I’ve also just started work on a novel, and it’s really exciting to be spending time on the next project. It’s a bit like having an affair on my current project… but in the best kind of way.
Yasmin Adele Majeed: Hopefully, someday, at the very least: a novel.