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The short story is a tricky creature. Of no fixed length, it finds itself nestling somewhere between the concise intensity of a poem and the pleasing fleshiness of a novel. Often under-read and undervalued next to its more famous literary siblings, the short story has always been a peculiarly difficult form to master. And that’s just the beginning. Deciding what a short story “is” and what it “should” do leads us down the thorny path of rules, limitations and exceptions that have tied many a writer in knots. No wonder, then, that V. S. Pritchett—one of the UK’s most celebrated short story writers—described his chosen form as “exquisitely difficult”.
And it was in V. S. Pritchett’s name that a prize was awarded to the year’s best unpublished short story, “Singing Dumb” by journalist and novelist Martina Devlin, last week at a ceremony in Somerset House. Also present to strike a satisfying balance with this focus on new writers was the acclaimed author Jackie Kay, a writer who has an impressive track record in poetry, short stories and novels alike. She has won the Somerset Maugham Award and the Guardian First Book Award for her novels Other Lovers and Trumpet, respectively, and her short story collections include Reality, Reality, Wish I Was Here and Why Don’t You Stop Talking. In 2012, her short story “These Are Not My Clothes” was longlisted for the international Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award. So if someone can tell us—or try to tell us—what the short story is and what it does, it could well be Jackie Kay. Despite this, she dispensed with any strict rules of the form, and made no bold claims as to what the short story “should” be.
Talking about Reality, Reality, her most recent collection of short stories, Jackie Kay drew attention to the hybrid nature of their form—half poem, half novel, they “occupy a limbo space”, demanding a lot of their reader and refusing to spoon feed us in the way a comfortable, race-to-the-ending novel might do. Discomfort and unease feature strongly in Reality, Reality—be it the strange mix of self-delusion and self-awareness experienced by many of her female characters, a painful realization that bravado and humour mask a lonely heart, or an awkward distance between reader and character—but they are emotions cut through with humour and pathos. In “Doorstep”, Cheryl’s bluster unravels in the face of an aubergine for dinner: “Then I’ll slice my aubergine and salt it and leave that for a bit. It’s amazing watching the bitter juices come out of the aubergine. I’d like to do that with myself, just pour some salt.”
If the characters struggle to find the happiness they seek, it is not because their author doesn’t care about them. Jackie Kay emphasised to the audience that there was always the “possibility of comfort, of solace” in her stories. Cheryl might be faced with her own bitterness on a lonely Christmas morning, but there is a hint of hope in her friend Sharon, even though she might not be the friend she wants. One of the hardest stories to read in the collection is “These Are Not My Clothes”, set in an old people’s home and narrated by Margaret with heartbreaking clarity. Obsessed by the fact she is not allowed to wear her own clothes, Margaret is determined to buy and wear a cherry-red cardigan and blue slacks. There is a deep sadness in her frailty and solitude—a solitude broken only by the kindness of Vadnie, an occasional carer—that flickers and burns in the beautifully sustained narrative. “I sit and look out. What I see are the trees waving as if they are asking for help, or as if they are saying we surrender… And there is a blue pot with some flowers I used to know the name of, but I have forgotten, so I’ll call them forgotten flowers.”
We are generally accustomed to reading a short story as a single, discreet object, designed to inhabit its own space, not break free of its framework or seep into another story. Reality, Reality seems to confirm this notion—with a series of disconnected, individual stories—until near the end of the collection when Vadnie reappears in another story. Not only has she wandered from one story into another, but she is also not quite the character we had thought she was. In “These Are Not My Clothes” she is a kindly carer who promises to buy Margaret her cherry-red cardigan and regales her with tales of her family life. In “Mrs Vadnie Marlene Sevlon” she is revealed as a lonely fantasist: unmarried, alone and childless, though no less sympathetic for this. And, at last week’s award ceremony, Jackie Kay discussed this interaction between stories, pointing out that her stories often have conversations with each other, acting as mirrors, threads, shattered reflections and distant echoes.
Sometimes, it is the echo of something larger that is at the heart of a Jackie Kay short story: a distillation of sorts, whereby a brief, intense image or feeling is captured that hints at more but needs not say more. As she has said, “It’s like having a malt whisky really, a short story. You can have a wee malt but if you tried to drink a whole pint of whisky you’d be dead.” Brevity, power and focus are the hallmarks of her short story writing.