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Richard Cumyn: Good Stories in Small Packages

"Whenever I can, I try to shine a light on the short form in this country, to give the slim but sinewy book its due."

Book Cover Song for Migrant Soul

Richard Cumyn's latest book is The Sign for Migrant Soul, and in this list he spotlights other great story collections and novellas. 


Whenever I can, I try to shine a light on the short form in this country, to give the slim but sinewy book its due. Canadians have always written outstanding short and long stories. Women and LGBTQ writers are leading the way, expanding the form stylistically and exploring the literary potential of a structure that demands precision, efficiency, original expression and an uncanny third eye for the way people can be complex, unpredictable beings. You have to pay attention when you’re reading a well-written short-story or novella. The effect can be long lasting and transformative.

This is by no means a best-of list or anything close to comprehensive. It’s an idiosyncratic compilation of ten recent short-story collections and novellas I think deserve attention. It’s guilty of bias, favouritism, myopia, relative illiteracy—you name it. It’s exclusive out of ignorance and serendipity rather than malice. Some of these titles are books I’ve reviewed, liked and hung on to. Some were written by friends.  We tend to find and recognize each other; it’s still a small community. 


Book Cover Afterall

Afterall, by Lee Kvern

Imagine if the artist Laurie Anderson relocated from NYC to southern Alberta and you might get Lee Kvern, a brave, compassionate, no-bullshit and self-described “wild” (rather than “cultivated”) writer.  Her novella Afterall examines homelessness in downtown Vancouver through the eyes of Beth, 36, and her precocious child-of-friends, Mason, who is 9.  For a first book, it’s a keenly observed gem of a story about recklessness and the limits of social activism.


Book Cover Crisp

Crisp, by R.W. Gray

Another debut, R.W. Gray’s vivid collection, Crisp, moves fluidly like a series of lucid dreams.  The stories draw on the familiar but by way of sometimes ominous transmutations.  One of my favourites is “Wabi Sabi,” in which a potter, Alice, goes to work reshaping her “gristle and bone” husband as though he were a lump of clay.


Book Cover Perfect World

Perfect World, by Ian Colford

Ian Colford’s Perfect World should be required reading, first as a primer in how to construct the perfect short novel and second as a close hard look at domestic abuse and its consequence. We are continually told that a damaged child will grow into a damaging adult, but until we experience it as we do in harrowing fiction like this, that fact remains academic. 


Book Cover Jane and the Whales

Jane and the Whales, by Andrea Routley

I love to read fiction that teaches me something new about the natural world.  Andrea Routley’s first collection, Jane and the Whales, is replete with fascinating information about the non-humans who let us share the planet with them.  Animals often appear nobler than humans in these unpretentious stories that let natural wisdom bubble up through apparently naive narrative voices.  Here’s evidence of a writing talent that probably can’t be taught.


Book Cover Keeping the Peace

Keeping the Peace, by Colette Maitland

Colette Maitland is a writer of note among CanLit up-and-comers. Praised by the likes of Antanas Sileika, Diane Schoemperlen and Charlotte Gill, her first collection, Keeping the Peace, spills over with the busy-ness of life.  If they were paintings these stories might be by Kreighoff or Bosch, hyperkinetic and full of those peculiar, precise details we tend to miss as we hurry through our days. 


Book Cover Canary

Canary, by Nancy Jo Cullen

Also from Biblioasis in 2013, Canary by Nancy Jo Cullen is a John Metcalf edition that should be in everyone’s permanent collection. The book’s back-cover tag line, “What has to die before you force yourself to change?” lets us know what’s at stake in these smart, funny, accomplished stories. I remember thinking after finishing the book that these characters were people I’d want to hang out with.  


Book Cover Squishy

Squishy, by Arjun Basu

I got to hang out with Arjun Basu a couple of years ago when we were on an arts-granting jury together.  Arjun is so in touch with the zeitgeist that I don’t even try to stay abreast. Just read his epigrammatic Twitter stories or the ones collected in Squishy.  I mean, presented with opening lines like, “The smell of deep fried seafood is one of those things that makes me doubt my atheism,” you know you’re in the hands of a master stand-up raconteur who doesn't waste a drop. Wry, delivered in snappy jabs, his sentences sparkle with wit but never sputter into silliness.


Book Cover Jewels

Jewels and Other Stories, by Dawn Promislow

Dawn Promislow’s beautiful collection, Jewels and Other Stories, was deservedly long-listed for the now discontinued Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize the year it was published. Canadian by way of Johannesburg, South Africa, Promislow writes the kind of story that at first glance seems unsophisticated and mannered but which encompasses complex layers through which the reader glimpses those subtle alterations that memory can make to one’s personal history.


Book Cover Whirl Away

Whirl Away, by Russell Wangersky

Russell Wangersky's collection, Whirl Away, made the Giller long-list the year it was published. Wangersky is no stranger to award lists, but he still should be better known in Canada than he is. I think he de-codes and re-sensitizes the masculine in much needed ways, helping to validate the male perspective without resorting to outdated, sexist, patriarchic modes. Pace, Philip Roth! 


Book of Gaza

I’ll end this list with The Book of Gaza: a city in short fiction (Comma Press, UK, 2014), a timely collection edited by Atef Abu Saif. My friend Nasser Saleh, a librarian at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, gave me the book. Although it’s not a Canadian publication, we should all be reading it.  Each story, rendered into English by a different translator, reminds us that Gaza, desperate, pinned down between Israel and the sea, and suffering unimaginable deprivation, is peopled by those who love, pray, curse, celebrate and mourn the same as you and I. 


Book Cover Song for Migrant Soul

About Song for the Migrant Soul: In nine memorable new stories and with tragicomic flair, acclaimed master of the short form Richard Cumyn dramatizes lives in tumult and transition. If the sign for migrant soul is an enigma, this remarkably upbeat and innovative collection is anything but.


Richard Cumyn is the author of nine books of fiction. A past fiction editor of The Antigonish Review, he has been published widely in Canada in such literary journals as The New Quarterly, The FiddleheadPrairie Fire, Grain, PRISM International and Event.  He has been shortlisted twice for the ReLit Award, was a finalist for a National Magazine Award (essay), and was long-listed for the 2010 Frank O’Connor International Short  Story Award. His screen adaptation of Susan Kerslake’s novel, Penumbra won a 1998  Linda Joy Media Arts Award. He has taught fiction at the Maritime Writers’ Workshop, read his work in the Dalhousie University, St. Jerome’s (Waterloo) and Lorenzo (UNBSJ) reading series and been short-term writer in residence at St. Mary’s University. He lives in Edmonton. 

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