(Re)Defining America, One Story at a Time

American Fiction, Volume 12
Edited by Kristen J. Tsetsi
Guest Judge: Josip Novakovich

Review by Emily  Wojcik
November 28, 2012

Fiction collections are a tricky business, and none more so than those that aim to compile “the best” of anything—in this case, “the best unpublished stories by emerging writers,” as the title page promises. I say “tricky” because if one is prone to cynicism (as this critic is occasionally), the urge to be reactionary can be difficult to subdue. What makes these stories the “best,” and by what standards? How do you define “emerging” anyway? And does the “American” of the title lend the stories a yet unearned canonical gravitas (recalling, say, Ernest Hemingway or Raymond Carver), or does it simply provoke an arbitrary nationalism?

These are the kinds of questions that came to mind when I received the aforementioned collection, the latest in an annual series published by New Rivers Press, from Minnesota State University Moorhead. New Rivers is dedicated to publishing “imaginative work from emerging and established writers,” a potentially risky goal when it comes to short fiction. The stories published in American Fiction Volume 12 represent the winner, runners up, and honorable mentions of the New Rivers annual fiction contest, judged this year by Josip Novakovich, a Croatian-American-Canadian writer for whom nationality is more a problem to be wrestled with than a point of pride. Indeed, given his own background and style, Novakovich is an intriguing choice for judging such a collection, and the resulting stories challenge many of the snarky assumptions behind my initial reservations.Most notable is the malleability of the word “American,” which is to say that very few of these writers would immediately jump to mind as such for most readers. With a healthy dose of first-generation hyphenates (the first-place winner, Dika Lam, is Chinese-Canadian-American) and recent transplants, the authors here represent a far more democratic vision of America, challenging even the geographical borders on which such designations are made. Does “America” only encompass the United States or does it—as is clear on any map—include Canada and Mexico? (While we’re at it, were Hemingway and Carver ever really the standard-bearers of American fiction, anyway?)

Novakovich makes a compelling case for his vision of an American identity determined not by lonely, disaffected white frontiersmen, but instead by “what America is—not only in itself, but also the world with its currents and perspectives.” The first-prize story, Lam’s “The Polar Bear Swim,” is a funny, heartbreaking investigation of minority identity in, of all places, Ottawa, Ontario. Its heroine—a Chinese orphan adopted by a white Canadian woman, who opens her story with the words, “I’ve converted to Eskimo. It’s official”—captures in a few short pages a voice so funny, brave, and weird that one can only hope this truly is the future of American fiction. Perhaps Canada is the next frontier for the invigoration of the American idiom.

The stories are for the most part perfectly crafted, which makes sense when you read that Novakovich has an admitted soft spot for the “workshop story,” those pieces that are born in MFA programs, with their carefully wrought scenes and quiet buildup. Although his rationale for this preference is fair enough—“In the world of painting it’s a damning thing to be an autodidact rather than an academically trained painter, so why should it be the reverse in writing?” he asks—I have to admit that some of the stories suffer a bit for what we might call the “workshop-iness” of it all.

Some of these stories exhibit a deflating tendency toward the too-careful, or too-subtle. Stephanie Dickinson’s “The Wheelchair Girls,” a flinty, almost spooky tale of two disabled friends attempting to rescue a third from an abusive husband, creates masterful tension, and very real characters, and then just sort of peters out. The ending is perhaps more true to life than any real conflagration would be—but isn’t the point of fiction to heighten and make dramatic the small encounters of the everyday? I couldn’t help but suspect that a little less craft and a little more recklessness would have created a more powerful impact overall. As it is, Dickinson seems almost to have lost her nerve.

Likewise, the third-place winner, Theresa Dave Morales’s  “Jacinto’s Teeth,” feels like a series of artful mini-essays rather than a fully realized short story. Detailing a few days in the life of a teenager as he navigates the civil war in Guatemala, Morales powerfully evokes the heavy oppression and unlikely optimism of those surviving in untenable environments, but the characters feel less like people than vehicles for a history lesson. It’s a well-written lesson, but seems dry nonetheless.

These are, it must be said, very small quibbles and should be taken as such. American Fiction Volume 12 is full of very fine stories. The best of these are character-driven, full of weird, awkward, sometimes ugly people whose recognizable humanity helps mitigate the occasionally frustrating endings. My favorite, after “The Polar Bear Swim,” was an honorable mention, “John the Revelator” by Sean Conaway. Its main character is a profoundly unhealthy restaurant owner, whose swollen prostate leads to squirmingly uncomfortable bathroom scenes that parallel his encounters with the cretinous, yet strangely likable, band of reformed felons he employs. It’s the kind of story you can’t stop reading, even as things go from merely uncomfortable to downright frightening, all backlit by a cheap Pay-Per-View wrestling match that draws the men toward their final dissolution.

In all, American Fiction Volume 12 proves surprising, provocative, strange, and very hard to put down. Novakovich may not have chosen stories that fit the mainstream idea of “American,” but what he has cobbled together instead is a deeply interesting introduction to writers from whom I hope we hear much more. It is not a collection for everyone, but I, for one, am grateful to Novakovich for introducing me to these writers, and to New Rivers Press for publishing them.

Emily Wojcik teaches English at the University of Connecticut and Holyoke Community College, and is assistant editor at Paris Press in Massachusetts.

American Fiction, Volume 12
Edited by Kristen J. Tsetsi, Bayard Godsave, and Bruce Pratt
Guest Judge: Josip Novakovich
Publisher: New Rivers Press, 2012
Price: $16.95 (paper)
Pages: 304
ISBN: 978-0-89823-264-6

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