Forward: 21st Century Flash Fiction by Megan Giddings (Aforementioned Productions, 2019)
Reviewed by Nora Poole
So often, a collection or anthology sets out to represent the best writing of a given form, genre, or year: Best American This, Best Collected That. Not so in the case of Forward: 21st Century Flash Fiction (Aforementioned Productions, 2019), a collection of short short fiction by writers of color, edited by Megan Giddings.“I’m not really a person who believes in bests,” she explains in her editor’s note. “The point [of this collection] is to show off how many ways a very short story can be written[…], to show that there are many writers out there engaging with the incredible elasticity of flash fiction.”
Forward features writers of color exclusively, and while diversity is a condition and context of the collection, it isn’t the subject of every story, or even the majority of them. Giddings is a fiction editor at The Offing, an online literary magazine dedicated to supporting writers of marginalized and intersectional identities. In her editor’s note she explains her frustration with often being the only writer of color published in a collection, anthology, or issue. Writers of color shouldn’t be hampered by the need to consider questions of authenticity or audience any more than white writers should in order to have their voices heard, she writes.
Forward accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do: it collects stories by writers of color that are innovative, experimental, and surprising, while positioning their pieces in conversation with one another, and with the genre as a whole. There are stories about race and sexuality and otherness alongside stories about ghosts and vampires and the history of science. There are stories that make us doubt all previous ideas we had about what constitutes a story in the first place. In eschewing the role of a collector of bests, Giddings instead asks her readers to play, inviting our curiosity, our doubt, and our willingness to question how stories are told.
The challenge for any writer of extremely short fiction is the balancing act of brevity and density demanded by the form. How to tell a full, complex story is so little space? The writers collected in Forward manage this in a multitude of ways, from manipulating the passage of time to making novel structural choices.
The compression of time is a tried and true technique in flash fiction, and is put to good use in several stories in Forward. In Tyrese L. Coleman’s “They Reminisce Over You,” we get the life story of a young black man delivered over the length of a song listened to on headphones. The cascading details of the character’s memory give us a sense of his life flashing before his eyes, a moment elongated, time displaced by memory. Patriz Biliran, in “Secrets in Our Cigarettes,” tells the story of a romance out of chronological order, in sections labelled with the amount of time that has passed since the couple got together. It reads like memories recalled involuntarily, fractal and melancholy. Much is left out but there’s just enough recalled to make you hurt.
Other pieces dispense with any obligation to time and drop us right into the middle of the action. In “The Equivalent of _____” by Ursula Villareal-Moura, we meet a couple on the last day of their honeymoon. While the whole story takes place in the span of a few hours of that day, we’re left with a deep sense of the couple’s relationship, its history, and its future. Likewise with “Wolf” by Madhvi Ramani, the entirety of which feels like the surprising climax to a much longer story. Set during a camping trip gone awry, Ramani leave us not only wondering how things got to this point but what could possibly happen next. This snapshot approach invites the reader into an act of cocreation– you can’t read these stories without entering into a game of what ifs. In this way, a small story takes on a larger life beyond the page.
Several of the stories in Forward rely on their structure to do the work of storytelling. Eshani Surya’s “Between Colitis Flares, Expect These Symptoms” is written as a numbered list. In “Here’s the Situation” by Christopher Gonzalez, the story is divided into 15 short sections headed with titles such as “Here’s how it started” and “Here’s how things often play out.” The structure of these stories does the work of conveying information that in a longer piece would take sentences or even pages to deliver.
These are only a few of the many ways the writers in Forward bend and shape narratives around the question of how to tell such a short story. The transitions between the stories have the potential to feel jarring, so different are they from one another. Yet the caliber of Giddings’ selections mitigates this. Varied as their stories are, each author has a sense of just what is necessary to evoke our trust, to invite us in and secure our participation. Often we’re given just enough to keep making the stories ourselves.
The triumph of this collection is in the spaces between the stories, the details and events omitted or written around. It is in these spaces that the conversation happens: between what a story says and what it leaves out; between the end of one story and the beginning of another; and between the stories and the reader. Forward is for readers who want to see themselves reflected in the stories being told. It is for readers who value a broad definition of what storytelling is, and who is doing it. It is a celebration of saying a lot by saying very little. It is an invitation. It is tiny, and it is boundless.