Each year, Windsor, Ontario-based publisher Biblioasis releases a series of anthologies collecting the best new poetry, non-fiction and fiction produced by Canadian writers. Since 1971, these collections have offered readers an overview of the Canadian literary landscape by curating some of the country’s most notable works, including pieces by literary greats like Alice Munro and Joyce Carol Oates.
Best Canadian Stories 2021 was edited by Diane Schoemperlen, who is herself an award-winning writer of both short and long fiction that has been published in Canada and around the world. Schoemeperlen offers a wonderful introduction to this year’s fiction anthology, where she gives readers an honest look at her life since the pandemic began and how her reading suffered. She describes how she discovered a joy of reading again while reading stories for this anthology. “The best short stories,” Schoemperlen writes, “are disruptive in all the best ways, diverse in all senses of the word, always looking back and leading us forward at the same time.” (P 7)
This is a common theme that Schoemperlen kept in mind as she selected the stories in Best Canadian Stories 2021. They are raw and honest, and take a hard look at where we’re going as a diverse nation living through tough times. Schoemperlen writes: “The best short stories cannot be written in a vacuum. They must be written in the world, in the midst of a pandemic, in the midst of more horrifying news every day of the bodies of Indigenous children being found in unmarked graves at former residential school sites across Canada. They must be written in the midst of trauma and despair and anger and shame, as well as in the midst of whatever fleeting moments of peace and hope any of us can come by now.” (P 7)
The stories collected here confront our reality and our present, and many of these stories could only have been written now, like “Through the COVID-Glass”, by Lucia Gagliese, which was perhaps the most painfully and cathartically beautiful of the stories because of its brutal honesty about the world we experienced in 2021. The piece is comprised of short diary entries throughout the pandemic, starting with coming home from abroad and entering quarantine in March 2020. The protagonist tries to learn the rules of quarantine, how the virus works, how to stay safe as she navigates staying home and seeing people over Zoom calls, and going out into a new world. It is a struggle to experience as the story is so relatable and makes us examine an experience that it still ongoing, but it’s the story of 2021. It is the story we all need to read right now to know we are not alone in struggling to continue with daily life in a world that has been turned on its head.
Many of the stories in the anthology play with speculative elements as these strange times are shaped into metaphors and monsters. The anthology opens with “Let’s Play Dead” by Senaa Ahmad, in which Henry VIII constantly kills Anne B., and when she wakes up, he does it again. The story is dark, fragmented, playful, experimental, and powerful. “Good Medicine” by Megan Callahan is another story with a speculative bent. It follows a woman who, on the advice of her therapist, turns her anxiety into a beast in order to deal with it. “Lady with the Big Head Chronicle” by Angélique Lalonde is a series of vignettes about a mysterious “lady with the big head”, who is at times mysterious, weird, and eerie—and definitely magical.
In addition to these reality-bending stories, there are several pieces in this anthology that, while not speculative by definition, have the feel of something different and special. “Asleep Till You’re Awake” by Francine Cunningham is about a woman who goes to the doctor because she keeps falling asleep in strange places. Instead of solving that problem, she finds a new one as she encounters her dead mother. “Lightness” by Joshua Wales is a beautiful story of love and identity made strange and surreal by the characters’ names of Birdboy and Spaceman, a detail which gives the otherwise realistic story of love and heartbreak a dreamy, fable-like quality.
All of the stories in the anthology offer something new to the conversation, take us new places, and try new things, from Chris Bailey’s beautiful single-scene story, “What Would You Do?” to the powerfully fragmented bursts of short, poetic prose in Joy Waller’s “Shinjuku for Stray Angels”.
When selecting the stories for the anthology, Schoemperlen thought long and hard about what it means to be a Canadian writer, which is a vital question in this global world. “My definition of the word “Canadian” was broad: born in Canada and still lives here; born in Canada and now lives elsewhere; born elsewhere and now lives in Canada; born elsewhere and still lives elsewhere but spent some significant part of their lives in Canada.” (P 2) This thoughtful categorization of what qualified a piece as a Canadian story led to a wonderfully representative collection of diverse Canadian perspectives that are also global. These are stories that belong to the world, yet are intrinsically Canadian.
While this collection is only a small subset of the amazing work produced by Canadian writers in 2021, Schoemeperlen has done an excellent job of offering us an honest, exciting, and diverse snapshot of the Canadian fiction landscape in 2021.
Best Canadian Stories 2021, Edited by Diane Schoemperlen
Biblioasis, October 2021, 224 pp., $22.95
Will Fawley holds an MFA from George Mason University where he was assistant fiction editor for Phoebe Journal of Literature and Art. His fiction has appeared in Parallel Prairies, Unburied Fables, Expanded Horizons, The Northern Virginia Review, Another Place: Brief Disruptions, and Sassafras Literary Magazine, and his book reviews have appeared in Prairie Fire (online), The Winnipeg Review, and As It Ought to Be.