Updated: Oct 29, 2019
"You can choose your friends but you sho' can't choose your family," says Atticus Finch in "To Kill a Mockingbird." And there is, of course, a lot of truth in this. Generally, we don't get to choose who our mother and father are, and mothers and fathers don't get to choose the characteristics of their daughter or son. We are thrown together by genetics or fate and that, more or less, is that.
For a writer, there is a lot of material in the parent-child relationship. A lot of what we are is defined by who our parents are/were, how they treated us as children, how they treat us as adults. We inherit genetic traits from them. We inherit a socio-economic status. Often, we inherit their beliefs or else, we rebel against them. In our modern world, the idea of parenthood has become more fluid. Parents separate, children are adopted, a child might have two dads or two mums, they might spend years bouncing between foster homes, they might be a child carer etc.
Of all the relationships we have during the course of our lives, the parent-child relationship will likely change the most. At the start, of our lives, we are dependant on our parents for everything - feeding us, clothing us, changing our nappies. But with every year that passes, the dynamic of the relationship changes. How much freedom should be given to a teenager? How do we establish a more equal relationship once the child has become an adult? Once the parents reach a certain age, the relationship can often end up 180 degrees from where it started.
A rich wealth of scenarios and angles, then. And it can be no surprise that I was spoilt for choice finding stories for my showcase blog this month. Whittling this down to six choices was hard but I think I've ended up with six stand-out pieces that run the gamut of emotions from poignant to funny, from anger to beautiful calm.
Zach VandeZande | Milk Candy Review
I love the journey we are taken on in the first paragraph of this piece. In the first sentence, the father seems confident in his role but there is still a hint of his insecurity in the way he sits on the floor rather than perched on the bed as we might expect. By the third sentence, "he sits there [...] breathing with his ragged half-drunk filling up the room." The daughter knows her father doesn't tell stories but she is still hopeful; a fleck of humour in the way the observation has been phrased. There is a poignant juxtaposition in this piece of the father's opinion of the daughter ("the brightest star") and himself ("[he] knows he should be better"). The relationship feels so real, so brilliant well-observed. This really gets to the heart of how it can be difficult to be a parent. It isn't something that comes naturally to everyone. I love the horrible image in the second paragraph of the bird "washed down a storm drain and starved by its gluttony." This sticks in the reader's mind and rings like a bell in the final paragraph when there he is again all those years later, "that same sour breath." The lesson in this story is beautifully clear.
Barclay Rafferty | Reflex Fiction
I'm a bit of a sucker for pieces that play with language and this story wraps an entire lifetime into three hundred and sixty beautifully chosen words. That first sentence full of threat and menace. The wonderful image of "eyeballs cracked with forked lightning." The shock in "But I did drown." I like how we slip between different memories from the narrator's life. The jumps forward in time work seamlessly and the fragmentary nature of the narrative perfectly chimes with the mother's Alzheimer's. In amongst the time hops, we have enough little details to piece together the life of both the narrator and her mother. The sheets are "threadbare", the narrator wears "pleather" trousers, the mother "[flattens] the note like a chorus telegraphing the curtain." I could probably write a whole post about the paragraph that starts with "dewy nightmares roost..." And I love how the end refers us back to the title - "The Ballet Master's Daughter" who performs her one and only "grand jeté."
Amanda Claire Buckley | Okay Donkey
There is something very visually pleasing but also quite disconcerting in seeing a whole paragraph of writing completely devoid of capital letters. It is an immediate question for the reader to unpick. And it becomes clear as we read that our narrator is not human. She is a fish and fish don't use capital letters or speech marks(!) Jesting aside, this formatting choice is inspired in that it immediately creates a sense of otherness which is enhanced by brilliant images splashed through the narrative. There are so many highlights but "you leaked our home out of your lungs" is a favourite. I'm also really admiring of the rhythm of this piece. Amanda links together short and long sentences and flecks of speech into one long, breathless paragraph. And thematically, there is so much packed in. The idea of evolution, both scientific and sociological, wonderfully interweaves with a mother's preoccupation for her child growing up in a world that is alien to her. This is a wonderful allegory telling us "the whole history of us" through the eyes of a fish.
Maura Yzmore | Spelk
This is another story that cleverly uses an animal as a central character to explore a parent-child relationship. Sometimes very small details can make big differences. Here, I feel like it would have made more sense, grammatically, to call the character "THE dragon" but "Dragon" without the definite article is so much starker. It seems to have a bitterness to it that runs throughout the piece. That bitterness is infused with a dark humour - "Dragon texts in all caps, always, because Dragon’s world is on fire even when it isn’t" - and perceptive insights into a toxic relationship. I love the line - "Dragon is a damned thief, [...] coating my recollections with spit and sticking their own scales on top." I like how Dragon isn't given a gender - they are they or their, they could be a mother or a father. Gender isn't important. What is important is the relationship - Dragon controlling and manipulative, the narrator trying desperately to get away.
Chris Milam | Spelk
I think humour is a difficult thing to get right. Push it too hard and it can feel very overdone. Don't push hard enough and it can feel a bit deflated. For me, this piece gets it just right. I love the way the inside of the Taco Bell is described as "an oasis of sub-zero air conditioning"; I love the nickname "Morehead" and its following explanation. In the third paragraph, the description of the #1 dad's "hands cradling the burrito like an injured baby sparrow" is infused with an unexpected tenderness. And as we start to see that the narrator's character come into focus, there is a poignancy to this story. "I would firebomb an animal rescue shelter to be named #1 Dad," he says. We are left wondering about the narrator's perspective on the world, why he thinks to take the t-shirt at face value. Because despite the #1 dad's parting shot, the narrator isn't a "whackjob loser." There's something quite touching in his ambition to "to land somewhere in the top million of dads."
Jason Jackson | The Short Story
To finish with, a story with not one parent-child relationship but two. Dreams in fiction can be a tricky thing to get right. They've been done before and so it's a bit of tightrope. In this piece of flash, Jason walks that tightrope with ease. At first we have an imagined future. It is unsettling - "a silence, a weight, which is difficult to shake." Then we have an interpretation of the past as the narrator "remember[s] [his] own father." These are lives painted in broad brush strokes but when you stand back from them, you get a pleasing sense of the whole, how we inherit traits, ideas and DNA not just from our parents but from our grandparents and great-grandparents. And from there, the narrator muses about how he'll be remembered. "In your retelling of me, you’ll be mistaken," he says. I love how Jason builds up towards a crescendo in his third to last paragraph - that wonderful sentence that churns along towards the "red-white-and-black of it all."
If you've enjoyed this month's selection of stories by Amanda, Barclay, Chris, Jason, Maura and Zach please let them know on Twitter...
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