One World: A Global Anthology of Short Stories

Brazier, Chris (ed.)
Oxford: New Internationalist, 2009, ISBN: 978-906523-13-8, 191 pp.
Reviewed by or other comment: 

Deborah Eade

Development in Practice,


At its best, the short story is almost a prose poem in which every word earns its place and none other would have the same effect. Like poetry, it often works better when read aloud. This slender form has attracted some of the literary giants across time and (Western) culture - Nobel laureates Italo Calvino, J M G Le Clzio, Gabriel Garca Mrquez among many others, from Jorge Luis Borges to Anton Chekhov to Primo Levi - who nevertheless found in it enough room for their genius to flourish. For some authors, it is the chosen creative medium, but more often the genre seems to serve as a writer's exercise ground, a space in which to feel his or her way into the creation of meaning without having to sustain a complex interplay of plot, character, and suspense. Done well, a short story has the delicacy of a butterfly momentarily basking in the sun before flitting out of sight. In its least dignified form, the pot boiler, it too often provides a thin literary veneer to publications otherwise dedicated to weighty issues as fashion, food, and agony aunts.

This anthology claims to speak 'with the clarity and intensity of the human experience' in a collection that makes a 'swift transition from continent to continent, from child's perspective to adult's'. While broad, the spread of authorship falls somewhat short of the 'global' boast made in the title: of the 23 contributors, 12 are from English-speaking sub-Saharan Africa, and none from South America, for instance. Rather than continental coverage, most of the contributions are concerned with different forms of migration, exclusion, and transgression within a household or community: a Filipina housemaid suffers the unwelcome attentions of her employers in Hong Kong, a family struggle to combine a future in Philadelphia with their immediate past in Nigeria; a foreign volunteer is desperately out of her depth in India; an albino musician bullied and ostracised by other performers, inter-generational dishonour in Cameroon, a Zimbabwean father in London imposing ever stricter rules on his daughter's behaviour, then finding to his disgust that his son is gay and proud of it: the ending is at once shocking and ambiguous.

Many of these stories do indeed seem to capture a moment, event, or insight that sets off deeper resonances; unsurprisingly, many of the contributors are themselves migrants: one Nigerian in Scotland and another in Belgium, a Kenyan in Britain, a Zimbabwean in Switzerland, a US citizen in Japan, a Czech in Australia.

Precisely because each story is unique, seeking to compare them is a bit like saying that apples are better than pears. All we can say is which fruit we like eating. I particularly enjoyed 'Leng Lui is for Pretty Lady' by Elaine Chiew; 'Kelemo's Woman' by Molara Wood; 'The Rich People's School' by Lauri Kubuitsile; 'Air Mail' by Ravi Mangla; and 'Homeless' by Ovo Adagha. 'The Kettle on the Boat' hints at tragedy, but stops short of spelling it out. The frailty and shame depicted in 'Retrenched' by Ken N Kamoche has a desperately sad outcome, as in a different way does 'Before Tonde, After Tonde' by Petina Gappah: in both cases, the protagonists are in the grip of forces beyond their control or understanding. Most of these stories have the compromise between economic and cultural survival as a leitmotif. 'The Third and Final Continent' by Jhumpa Lahiri, longer than most, is a gently amusing and wry account of an Indian graduate who settles in the USA via the UK, gradually assimilating but then rudely hauled back to an earlier way of life with the arrival of his new bride. It is the only one in the collection that has been reprinted, from a 1999 volume called Interpreter of Maladies.

The problem with the anthology is not, then, with the individual contents; but rather that it ends up being less than the potential sum of its parts. Simply invoking diversity and making somewhat inflated claims about the anthology's breadth and depth don't add up to an explanatory framework for the selection, or tell us why these 23 authors were commissioned, if indeed that is how their stories came to be; whether anything is intended to hold the collection together, so the stories should be read sequentially; or whether the reader should just dip in at random, for an apple today and a pear tomorrow.

The brief introduction by two of the Nigerian contributors, Ovo Adagha and Molara Wood, refers to the One World project, but then fails to tell us what this project was. Is it simply a one-off or an ongoing collaboration? Given their understanding of 'One World' as going 'beyond the everyday notion of the globe as a physical geographic entity … [but as] a universal idea, one that transcends national boundaries to comment on the most prevailing aspects of the human condition … [an] attempt to redefine the borders of the world we live in', it is frustrating that we are told nothing of the project's genesis or purpose. New Internationalist is to be praised for including fiction within its 'mission to report on issues of world poverty and inequality; to focus attention on the unjust relationship between the powerful and the powerless worldwide; to debate and campaign for the radical changes necessary if the needs of all are to be met' (p. 192). But next time - and I hope this collection will be followed by further anthologies - the editors should elucidate the underlying concept and provide a sufficiently firm editorial framework to make a strength of such diverse content.