‘Best Debut Short Stories 2020: The PEN America Dau Prize’: The Ties That Bind

Cade Johnson

Each year, Catapult publishes an anthology of the twelve recipients of the PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers, which highlights writers who demonstrate exceptional talent in their first published short stories. In this year’s installment, Best Debut Short Stories 2020: The PEN America Dau Prize (240 pages; Catapult), editor Yuka Igarashi’s introduction observes that the un-ignorable presence and impact of money unites the collection. But reading through these stories, it’s hard not to focus, perhaps as a result of the pandemic’s transformation of the ways we socialize, on the stories’ exploration of group dynamics, as well as themes of isolation. In Valerie Hegarty’s “Cats vs. Cancer,” the protagonist undergoes testing and removal procedures for cancerous lumps in her breasts, while simultaneously trying to acclimate a rescued kitten to her home, where her other cat reigns supreme. She studies feline hierarchies as she sits in the waiting room after a mammogram. In “Madam’s Sister,” Mbozi Haimbe explores from the perspectives of a gardener and a security guard the class conflicts that manifest when the sister of a wealthy Zambian landowner (“Madam”) comes to visit from London and disrupts the household.

This anthology, with its particular interest in group and social hierarchies, is rife with insight on how gender, race, class and privilege influence relationships, but it’s just as interested in exploring individual desire and interiority. In “Don’t Go to Strangers,” published in Issue 115, writer Matthew Jeffrey Vegari tells the story of one late night shared between two married couples. The unspoken feelings of the story’s quartet range from distaste to attraction in ways that become increasingly gripping as the story goes on. Vegari expertly navigates the complicated landscape of long-term relationships and delivers the story with tenderness.

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Unlike Vegari, who lays the interiority of the story’s characters bare, the tension of Sena Moon’s sleek and thrilling “Dog Dreams” hinges on the undisclosed tension between the narrator, Jimin-ah, and the former friend she meets for dinner, Yeju. The finer details of the story unspool gradually at first, but the secret intricacies of their relationships become clearer in the story’s conclusion, landing with impact while preserving a sense of mystery.

Moon writes with a style that feels at once peculiar and exacting:

Yet defined her life was, at least in my eyes. [Yeju] used to tell me stories about her men, paying clients and nonpaying ones. The way her hair cascaded onto pillows of every bachelor pad and motel imaginable—once, the back seat of a moving train; once, the gleaming wooden surface of a temple floor. The smell of hand sanitizer. Sanitized hands patting under pillows, groping for a condom, a knife, an ulterior motive, for her phone, to tell me that I was the only person she could truly be open with ever since that day we met in the hospital where we both lost something: her a womb and me a baby.

Poignant is Kikuko Tsumara’s “The Water Tower and the Turtle”and its reflection on the strange familiarity of moving back to your hometown after being away for many years. The protagonist is a single, middle-aged man who moves into an apartment unit in his rural Japanese hometown near the tall, unforgettable water tower he used to “steal glances at” when his friends weren’t looking. The emotional terrain Tsumara crosses feels especially relatable during a time when many young people are returning to the familiar warmth of their parents’ home. Granted, COVID-19 has severely limited the scope of our social engagement with the world, which matches the story’s sense of quiet isolation.

While serving as a fresh, delightful collection of short fiction that looks to our literary future with promise, Best Debut Short Stories serves as a timely exploration of an array of themes that speak to our current reality.

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