Celebrating the publication today of this year's Best Debut Short Stories: The PEN America Dau Prize, including—among many other amazing and wonderful and brilliant stories—our very own "Them Bones" from CK Kane, we are excited to feature today the Introduction from the series editors, Yuka Igarashi & Sarah Lyn Rogers!
Is it just us, or is everybody thinking about the multiverse lately? At the time of this writing, it is spring 2022, and Everything Everywhere All at Once, a cinematic masterpiece, has just been released, continuing a trajectory of new art focused explicitly on time and space (think Russian Doll, Palm Springs). In our universe, we are increasingly interested in a multiverse. It makes sense. Doesn’t reality feel like it forked at some semirecent point, leaving everyone in new, less familiar territory? Given the pain and loss of the past several years in particular, it’s easy to see the appeal of fiction about infinite chances or alternate universes, particularly ones with more justice, less chaos. Fiction can help us imagine better futures that—once we’ve seen them in an author’s carefully crafted reality—feel more possible to attain. Fiction can also shine a light on the ugly truths of the present and unspool them out into a nightmare future that we can temporarily experience as reality (in the world of the work) and then take action to avoid (in the world where you are reading this introduction).
Often, fiction’s alternate realities don’t show us futures at all, but coexisting perspectives from people who live in overlapping but discrete worlds. In Yasmin Adele Majeed’s “A Wedding in Multan, 1978,” best friends Samia and Noreen bond over mystery stories and hiding under the eucalyptus on Samia’s family farm. The young girls seem unaware of the powers at play around and through them: Noreen’s father, Faisal, works for Samia’s father as a farm manager. He and Noreen arrive through the servants’ entrance for Samia’s birthday, where Noreen is a guest and Faisal waits with the drivers to be allowed to eat dinner, if the hosts remember to feed them.
The narrator of Oyedotun Damilola Muees’s “All We Have Left Is Ourselves” is a photographer who visits Ajeshima in search of a perfect photo location. When intense rains and flooding damage a bridge, she becomes stuck in the area for a while. There she meets Yolanda, one of many people in town who make rent and meet their basic needs by scavenging in water that “might be a mixture of sludge, animal waste, and sharps” for iron scraps and other valuable metals—“anything worthy of an exchange.” When our narrator learns more about the companies that dumped the waste and the government’s unwillingness to help, she asks Yolanda why she won’t leave for the city. This is before Yolanda becomes deathly ill from exposure to toxins. Yolanda says she wouldn’t stand a chance in the city. But, at the moment of the conversation, our protagonist understands Yolanda’s universe: “She liked it here. The freedom to do whatever she wanted.”
Edward Salem’s “Sacrilege” offers different perspectives on what kinds of destruction are considered sacrilegious in the worlds of art and monuments, and by whom. A Palestinian performance artist whose latest work involves striking boulders with a sledgehammer visits “some of the less famous pyramids” near Giza with a couple of friends and is stunned silent when one declares he’d like to take a piece home as a souvenir and starts kicking at a ledge to dislodge one. The artist remembers this moment when, years later, he plans to bring a sledgehammer to the Louvre and “strike at some ledge of the exterior till I freed a fragment of stone to steal . . . before a citizen’s arrest could take place.” A French friend dissuades him, though this has less to do with her declaration that “C’est sacrilège!” and more to do with “the bureaucratic hassle that may follow,” including the potential of deportation.
“The Black Kite and the Wind” by Erin Connal has us traveling back through an Australian woman’s memory to when she was a teenager during a summer of fire—and not just the brush fires that come back year after year, an annual fire season. Inspired by the actions of a bird called a black kite, which carries burning brush to dry areas, a group of jaded teens sets out, via arson, to “prove that the government would prioritize the rich inner-city suburbs, our suburbs, over the rural communities that were burning.” They are aware that wealth and their parents’ status means they live in a privileged parallel world, and they want everyone to stop pretending, to confront the ugly truth in one shared reality.
Sometimes fiction shows people keenly aware of a particular timeline ending, taking certain possibilities with it. In “For Future Reference: Notes on the 7–10 Split” by Patch Kirschenbaum, a teen caught in the crossfire of his parents’ messy divorce cultivates a feeling of home and family for himself at the local bowling alley—first as an employee, then as a serious, dedicated bowler. The story is written in second person as a series of guidelines from the adult version of this teen to his younger self, playing with the concept of time and timelines; it’s as though the already-in-a-better-place adult is standing in as the parent for younger him, who currently doesn’t have one.
In Catherine Bai’s “Writing with Blood,” our protagonist is an American girl quietly despairing over her inability to communicate fluently in Chinese while visiting relatives in China. The language she reaches for escapes her grasp, “like sediment, left behind by diverted currents.” It’s the perfect description for these moments, and also the sense more broadly that her father, by leaving China for the United States, diverted a particular current of lineage and understanding: “I share blood with my father’s family, but [my mother] shares language.” Though the world of language feels fraught, there is no denying the reality of blood and what the body knows and remembers.
Preeti Vangani’s “Work Wives” follows a college grad at her first job, throwing herself fully into the work, a close friendship, and a clandestine relationship, all of which serve as distractions from the death of her mother, which occurred on the day of her graduation. This new life is helping our protagonist avoid feeling the reality of her grief: “I could never be rescued from my mother’s loss. I could be driven away from it, though, whenever Ankur fucked me or lay next to me . . . the sadness of her death had been blocked or diluted, like she was now someone I knew only from afar.” Soon, the new reality that’s meant to save her also unravels, causing her to face old grief and new when this timeline closes its loop.
Cal Shook’s “Man, Man, Et Cetera” opens with a woman secretly moving out while her husband is camping, and shows a zoomed-out perspective on her life as each successive partnership comes to an end. But this is not a collection of tragedies or failures; we see the new person she becomes at each new stage, and the men she meets who are Mr. Right for Right Now. This woman lives many lives in one life alongside and through each relationship. An ending image of balloons loosed to the sky suggests that ascending to new heights, new experiences, requires that we let go.
“Them Bones” by CK Kane points to the ways our upbringing and early experiences create much of our reality and ways of relating to the world. This story feels claustrophobic, set in a small town and an enmeshed family: “I guess they assumed I wanted to fuck my brother. Or that we already fucked each other. My mom seemed to think so too.” Maxine, our narrator, alternates between what feels like an effort to be seen (initiating ambivalent sexual encounters) and an effort not to be seen at all (“I fantasized that I could simply disappear”); ironically, starving herself earns Maxine her chaotic mother’s elusive approval. (“She’s looking fabulous these days. In fact I’m tempted to buy her some nice new clothes.”) By the end, when Maxine’s trajectory of total disappearance seems certain, the story pushes us into the supernatural or surreal in the form of a mysterious being—giving Maxine hope that the world is bigger, more fantastical, less limiting than she and we were led to believe.
Fictional worlds can be distorted mirrors that tell us truths about our own. In RZ Baschir’s “The Chicken,” the word sisterfucker in place of motherfucker in the second line signals to readers that the reality we’re about to encounter is an alternate one. Our protagonist tells us she “has always lived with Aunt and Uncle” and never mentions her parents—there is no timeline where she lived with them. Her life with Aunt and Uncle revolves around the killing and eating of chickens, except her uncle cannot eat: “Aunt says his throat closes up around food. It’s the chicken’s blood that keeps him going. That, and the smells of cooking, is all he needs.”
The surreality is coupled with mundane cruelties: our protagonist is hit, told she is stupid, and her aunt suggests that whoever “ends up with [her]” will be disappointed. The aunt’s desire to take her out of school as soon as possible feels resonant with this observation of the chickens: “Aunt told me she cut their wings whether they could fly or not, so whether or not they could fly was irrelevant. I think this means they can fly, or that Aunt is scared of them flying.”
Seth Wang’s “The Cacophobe” presents us with a protagonist who is “deathly allergic to ugliness” in the most literal sense, someone who will become physically ill and “like a much-pawed statue of the Madonna—weep tears of blood.” While this affliction feels otherworldly, reactions to it feel recognizable to our world. People are interested in the visual spectacle of our protagonist’s pain. They contrive ways to produce the spectacle so that they can observe it. They find the whole thing funny, interesting. Our protagonist decides to benefit financially from this, creating a performance art character called the Endurance Aesthete, whose physical response to terrible art while enclosed in a glass sarcophagus results in a “drained, hive-y, blue-lipped body submerged in blood.” Being made a spectacle is what pays the bills, at great personal cost.
Emma Shannon’s “Beat by Beat” informs us that at “the edge of the universe there is a worm, pale pink and glowing,” who shits out stardust to create the sun and whose heartbeats and sneezes determine the happenings of everything on Earth and elsewhere: a father falling through a spacetime rift that appears next to a tree, two women falling in love, a flower instilled “with the knowledge that Rome was never meant to exist,” a new galaxy where one planet is populated entirely by squid. The narration moves us back and forth through time in the life of a boy named Edwin (age five, eight, a newborn, thirteen, thirty), who briefly is the only being in the universe that can perceive the worm and who can hear some of its information. We are also given the cosmic worm’s perspective as it treasures its secret connection with Edwin and experiences time in a nonlinear way. Even after Edwin loses his contact with and memory of the worm, he is still concerned with profundities: “how large our universe is and whether we really exist at all . . . there must be other civilizations and worlds among ours, undetectable and microscopic.” He still holds the energy of curiosity and of following an unbelievable hunch; for maybe this reason, he has the power to bring healing to the most powerful being in the universe.
This was just the briefest preview of the way that each piece of fiction is its own universe, offering its own reality and wisdom. An anthology of short fiction, then, is a handheld multiverse, full of realities to travel to and sample.
Literary journals are also their own universes, each offering space to writers with different interests and approaches. These differences enrich the literary ecosystem and the wider world—so it’s to our benefit to maintain this multiplicity of perspectives. The lifespans of literary journals are also a reminder that universes can end. We nearly lost Conjunctions and The Believer this year. Thanks to public recognition of those journals’ importance, and renewed financial support, they will continue. Not every timeline lasts forever. But we can do what we’re able to support our favorite journals before it’s too late. We’re especially grateful to the journals included in this anthology—The Asian American Literary Review, Barrelhouse, BOMB, The Cincinnati Review, Flock, Hobart, Ploughshares, Reckoning, Typehouse, Virginia Quarterly Review, and The White Review—whose editors’ notes provide insight about what’s exciting in fiction today and what makes a short story feel new and different among the countless others an editor reads. We are also grateful to all the editors who nominated a debut writer this year and actively work to champion new voices and perspectives.
Thank you to this year’s judges, Sabrina Orah Mark, Emily Nemens, and Deesha Philyaw, who selected the twelve winners—creating this handheld multiverse out of one hundred fifty debut short story nominations. Thank you to PEN America and the Robert Jensen Dau Foundation for creating the reality of this prize and anthology year after year.
Sarah Lyn Rogers
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When CK Kane emailed "Them Bones" to my Hobart email, the word count was almost three thousand words more than the suggested guideline for fiction, but after reading a few paragraphs I refused to let a technicality keep me from accepting the story. I responded immediately after I finished reading with impatient urgency, asking if she would please let Hobart publish Them Bones. I can’t say who was more excited when CK accepted the offer, but I was absolutely stunned to learn as her publication date neared that "Them Bones" would be her first published story. In my limited time editing fiction at Hobart, I’d read thousands of emerging writers, and CK was the best. I believe her talent rivals, even transcends, some of the most accomplished current fiction writers today.
What drew me into the cold, unattainable world Maxine, the narrator of "Them Bones," lived in was a decaying beauty juxtaposed with gruesome, disturbing sexuality. Maxine is a siren, destroying those who succumb to her. Desire and longing permeate throughout the story, coexisting with a simmering, feral anger. These elements weave together, causing me to wonder when Maxine will ultimately destroy herself. I’m unable to pinpoint any answers to the questions "Them Bones" left me, so I’m forced to wait until CK Kane unleashes more of her provocative art into our world. She is a beguiling new voice in contemporary fiction, and I cannot wait to be led down whatever dark path she reveals to us next.
Editor, Web Fiction at Hobart (2019-2021)