Best Canadian Stories 2021. Biblioasis
In her candid introduction to Best Canadian Short Stories 2021, Diane Schoemperlen recounts an obsession with the news: “With my need to know what was happening slugging it out daily with my need to protect my mental health, I was unable to look away from the news even though I knew I should” (3). Here, Schoemperlen is not only referring to her urge to track coronavirus cases “locally, provincially, nationally, and internationally,” but also t other catastrophic events, including the undeniable effects of climate change and tragic consequences of violence driven by racism (3). In a time where so much is happening, and we seemingly have unlimited access to information, the stories compiled by Schoemperlen make us question the root of our desire to know as well as the ethics behind our methods of knowing.
This need to stay up-to-date (to not be left behind), to be informed (and to inform others), to understand (and be understood), and in certain cases, to consume information is indeed the thread that ties together the sixteen stories of Schoemperlen’s collection. The anthology begins with Senaa Ahmad’s “Let’s Play Dead,” a story that sardonically retells, through fragmented narrative, the relationship between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, who is playfully referred to as “Anne B.,” to challenge our archiving of history (9). This playing with temporal linearity is common throughout the collection: Elise Levin’s “Arnhem” is told from the perspective of a married woman recounting her traumatic sexual experiences, and Sarah O’Leary’s “The Ones We Carry With Us” depicts a woman coming to terms with a past experience of being conned while reflecting on the death of a friend. Even in Lucia Gagliese’s “Through the COVID-glass,” a story that attempts to follow a chronological temporality as the narrator journals her days in self-isolation, time escapes from human consciousness and control, morphing into an unstoppable stream of information.
This back and forth between past and present, with few signs of an abundant future, is, as Schoemperlen’s introduction suggests, indicative of our present moment, a time where most people are overwhelmed by how rapidly and incessantly information is conveyed through the news. These stories thus ask readers to consider the utility of information. What are we to do with all this information? How can we personally document our lives when there is already so much documentation? How come there is still so much unknown, and hence, to report on when every moment seems unprecedented? Just as a sense of urgency remains in our lived experiences, these stories push us to recognize how more information does not automatically translate into more understanding.
Then, there is the question of shapes and forms, which is perhaps the solution offered by Schoemperlen’s compilation. In Megan Callahan’s “Good Medicine,” the narrator in response to her therapist’s suggestion “to give [her] anxiety form” describes her anxiety as a wolf (47). Her ability to give form to her feelings allows Callahan’s protagonist to understand herself as well as those around her. Similarly, Francine Cunningham’s “Asleep Till You’re Awake” challenges us to think about the human forms of death and how they may coincide with our own living shapes as sleep and death become indistinguishable when the narrator grieves for the death of their mother. In addition, Shashi Bhat’s “Facsimile,” which depicts a young woman reacting to her family’s pressure to marry, draws attention to how we are frequently asked to give forms to ourselves, particularly when composing an online dating profile.
This theme of form as an antidote, or at the very least, a sedative is further highlighted by Schoemperlen’s inclusion of stories that challenge our ideas about the genre of the short story. Most notable in this regard is Angélique Lalonde’s “Lady with the Big Head Chronicle,” a story that is organized by encyclopedia-like statements, such as “Lady with the Big Head Reads Poetry,” and culminates in prose that looks akin to poetry (98). This turn to forms suggests that these stories will, too, become a type of archive of these times. Interestingly, Schoemperlen chose to order these stories alphabetically by authors’ last names, suggesting that our fear of the unknown can still be appeased by a reliance on the familiar.
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