Saturday, August 07, 2021

The Best American Short Stories 2021 - Selected by Jesmyn Ward

As these things work, all of the stories selected by two-time National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward for The Best American Short Stories 2021 compilation were actually published in English in American or Canadian periodicals between January 2020 and January 2021 by writers who call either the United States or Canada home. For that reason, the stories reflect much of the craziness that the world experienced during the chaotic year that 2020 so unexpectedly turned out to be for all of us. The stories told to us here by the especially diverse group of writers chosen to represent America’s best short writing of 2021 are thought-provoking reminders of just how different we all are now from who we were just one year earlier. 

Almost every short story compilation will read differently to different readers. The favorite stories of one reader may barely impact another reader at all; some readers will love almost every story in the collection while others toss the book aside in frustration that none of the stories work for them. That’s just the way it happens, and with that caveat in mind, I want to give special mention to four of the twenty stories in The Best American Short Stories 2021 that most directly spoke to me. 

The first is “Clementine, Carmelita Dog” (originally published in Granta) by David Means, a story that captures much of the feeling of isolation and despair that seems to have been so common during much of 2020. This story, although it uses the third person voice, is told largely through the eyes of Clementine, a “middle-aged dachshund,” who positively impacts the lives of two separate households, once as “Clementine” and then as “Carmelita.” While not exactly a feel-good story, this one leaves the reader in a hopeful mood about the things we can learn from the year we’ve just endured. 

“Paradise,” by Maya Murray (originally published in The Southern Review), more directly addresses one of 2020’s disasters, the California wildfires that annually devastate portions of that state. In this character-driven story, we watch a woman trying to convince her 80-year-old father-in-law, a man for whom she now feels responsible despite his lifelong antagonism toward her, that it is time to abandon their home and run for their lives before it is too late to escape the fires. As I watched the interplay between the characters, I found myself wishing this one was much longer than it is.

Stephanie Soilleau’s “Haguillory” (originally published in Zoetrope: All-Story) is a revealing story about a deeply, probably permanently, flawed old man who confirms what kind of man he really is at the very end of the story. The story takes place in Louisiana, shortly after a hurricane has passed through the state, during a crabbing expedition the man and his wife have decided to make. Haguillory is a hard-to-forget fictional character that has earned his place in my memory — even though I can’t tell you why without spoiling the story. 

Finally, there is “Biology,” by Kevin Wilson (originally published in The Southern Review), the story I found to be most touching one of the twenty in the collection.  “Biology” is told largely in flashback through the eyes of a gay man who has just heard that his favorite high school teacher has died, the biology teacher who is responsible for having practically saved the man’s life by showing him, by example, how to survive his high school years. The teacher is a very complicated character, and I found myself being completely immersed in the world that Wilson created in the limited number of pages he allowed himself to tell the man’s story.

Bottom Line: The Best American Short Stories 2021 is an outstanding addition to this long-running series of short story compilations. That it reflects the work and world-views of such a diverse group of writers is an added bonus to readers looking to experience the writing of a group of young, new-to-them, authors.

Two-time National Book Award Winner, Jesmyn Ward


  1. What I really want from Jesmyn Ward is a new novel!

  2. I had to smile when I saw that short stories were the topic of this post. Why? Because I think Akashic has my number: they keep putting their Noir anthologies on sale for $1.99. I've been loading up my Kindle!

    1. Thanks for the heads-up on the Akashic books being marked down. Looks like at least a dozen of them for that price...time to do some shopping.