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Writing Queer, Writing Short Stories with Jen Currin

Writing Queer, Writing Short Stories with Jen Currin


By Jen Currin

Short story month has just passed, and now it’s already Pride month, and I’ve been thinking about queerness, and also about short stories, as I often do. Both queer people and short stories inhabit marginalized identities; although heteronormative depictions of queer people have gained much traction in recent years, queers are still not straight, and do not live straight lives. Likewise, short stories occupy a distinctively different space from other literary genres; they are akin to poetry but not poetry, and certainly are not novels (although many a literary agent would wish them so).

I came to the short story form as a writer somewhat late, as someone who had already been seriously writing poetry for two decades and had published several poetry collections. An avid reader of the genre for many years, I wanted to try to dance with this wily creature, to create little universes in prose. On one hand, my appreciation of the form—which bordered at times on reverence, when, for example, I read an Alice Munro or Yasunari Kawabata story—inspired me to throw my metaphorical hat in the ring. Appreciation and curiosity and foolish nerve—I wanted to see if I could do it. So many words! Another driving force was the decades of stories I’d been carrying around in my body, in my mind—let’s call them my lived experiences. There were so many situations I had lived through or witnessed in queer communities that I hadn’t seen brought to the page, and I wanted to write some of those experiences into fiction. I also wanted to imagine new possibilities for queer lives. What are some possible futures for our communities? If the U.S. doesn’t succeed in legislating and terrorizing queers out of existence, what kinds of lives might they live? And how will queers live in these years of climate change and AI uncertainty and ongoing political disruption?

I think often of Nadine Gordimer’s description of short stories as fireflies (she has described them as “the flash of fireflies,” but “glimmer of fireflies” is the phrase that has stayed in my mind). Trying to capture that glimmer, that transitory shimmer, is the work of the short story writer, and in some ways, it makes sense for a poet to turn to short stories, as poets are used to working with fragments. We are well-acquainted with the phrase or metaphor that gives a shiver and demands to be put in a poem. My short story process involves gathering these glimmers, written on slips of paper, over months or even years, and storing them in a folder marked, for example, “Tea Dance.” Eventually, a story rises out of the heap of fragments—and it’s most often an insistent character, someone who really wants to be heard, who finally ignites the narrative.

Characters are the engines of story, and without an engaging protagonist it can be hard to want to read or write a story. Years ago, I was asked to moderate a panel at Vancouver’s now-defunct Growing Room Literary and Arts Festival called “Not Your Sidekick: Writing Queer Characters.” Sadly, the panel never happened, as the festival was scheduled to take place in March 2020, but I’ve carried on—in my head, mostly—the discussion about the importance of centering queer characters in fiction, of showing the complexities and contradictions of queer lives as an essential aspect of the human experience.

Which queer stories should be brought to life? My new collection Disembark has several stories that deal with queer friendship, and it’s tempting to say that stories of queer friendship are paramount, a necessary balm for the cruelties and indignities enacted upon queer people the world over. But the stories in Disembark are not gay-as-in-happy stories, and the same is true of so many stories by queer writers I admire—Camille Roy, Billy-Ray Belcourt, and Bryan Washington come immediately to mind. It’s too easy of an answer—it’s not the short story’s job to be a balm for suffering, even if we might experience some stories as medicine. Sometimes a story simply makes us think about a situation in a different light, or shows us an experience or culture we haven’t encountered before, or a type of person who seemed one-dimensional to us before the writer’s rendering. Perhaps a more generous answer to this question is one expressed in an important Garth Greenwell essay from a few years back: “We need more queer stories, period.”

Check out Jen Currin's short story collection Disembark


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