2016 has so far seen some pretty good literature published. But great literature, sadly, is becoming harder to come by. Especially in its shorter forms, which I have always preferred to novels. I am excited to share, however, that I came across a new writer today, and one about whom I am excited!
I am on the verge of turning 50, and time and endless reading has left me picky. I will not read a piece of fiction anymore, short or long, whose first few paragraphs do not strike me as authoritative and beautiful. This can be accomplished via the author’s prose style and voice. It is tonal and decisive, complex and layered, or direct and compressed; I’m beginning to think it is becoming rare in modern fiction.
I picked up The O. Henry Prize Stories 2016, and combed the Table of Contents (TOC) for familiar writer names, there were two; I put them both to my “first few paragraphs” test; both stories failed to make the bar. I then went back to the TOC, and looked at the stories titles…I have found that a title can be, more often than not, indicative of a very strong short piece of literature.
I selected three titles (one was iffy) in the anthology that fit my normal expectations in the “story title” area. Two of the three stories were then also put to my test, and failed. A portentous cloud of depression moved directly over my head, and threatened to stay indefinitely.
“WHERE HAS ALL THE GREAT LITEATURE GONE?”
The third story was salvation. It was entitled “Train to Harbin” and was written by an author whose name was unfamiliar to me. The first sentence passed my test. Then the next. Then the entire first paragraph; and then the next paragraph, and then the story broke my heart, resuscitated hopd, and blew me away.
I love this story. And I am excited about its author: Asako Serizawa.
(Note: To be fair to all 20 of the O. Henry Prize Stories of 2016, I went back before I read “Train to Harbin”, and read the first few paragraphs of the other 15 stories. There are two more writers with whom I am not familiar whose stories were very promising: 1). “The Mongerji Letters” by Geetha Iyer; and 2) “Temples” by Adrienne Celt.)
Asako Serizawa’s story “Train to Harbin” has been printed in three different publications and selected as the best story by O. Henry prize juror Molly Antopol. After checking the author’s website (Publications by Asako Serizawa… ) I realized, she has not published more than a handful of fiction. And after coming across this quote on her website, I began to understand why the few stories she has published are first rate, compassionate, and powerful…
“Someone once said that writing is 80 percent revision. That’s true for me, though the figure is probably closer to 90 percent. I revise the minute I start writing, and then even after I print the story to “just look it over one more time,” I usually end up with 5-10 “last” drafts, all heavily marked up. The problem is, you change one word and the whole thing shifts, widening old cracks, revealing new ones, and you start worrying about the entire foundation, down to the initial concept. It’s really a terrible process, and I often wonder how much is really necessary, how much really makes a difference, but I don’t see a way around it.
Part of it is that there is so much to figure out—all the nuts and bolts of the craft—and then, because stories are representations, I feel a responsibility to consider what I’m representing, how I’m representing it, and why.
I used to tell myself that it’ll all get easier eventually, but every story is a new story at a new stage of constant development, so I’ve found that it actually gets harder, even though a few things do get a bit easier.
I often hear rumors about Muses visiting writers. I can only imagine what mine must be doing. Probably still waiting for that H1B work visa…”
– Asako Serizawa (Author Website)
The story opens beautifully—evoking a delicate, nostalgic mood; and a style that is direct and moving, and sustained throughout the story…
Instead of describe the plot myself, here is a lovely little writeup by Molly Antopol, juror for the O Henry Prize Stories, 2016. Antopol selected”Train to Harbin” ad her pick for the year’s best story…
‘From the story’s opening line—”I once met a man on the train to Harbin”—I was captivated. And by the end of the first paragraph, I was entirely invested in the narrator, an old man who had once been a doctor in Japan. I love Asako Serizawa’s prose—direct and reflective, lyrical and unshowy—and the utter authority with which she writes about this time and place and her protagonist’s profession: bacteriological work at a research unit in Pingfang during World War II, just as his country goes to war with China. For all of the research Serizawa must have done, I never once felt it, was never once reminded that I was reading a story—instead, I was utterly swept up in the world she had created.
Weeks after finishing the story, lines and descriptions (but never scenes—stunningly, this story manages to feel propulsive and immediate even though it’s told almost entirely in narration) kept coming back to me. The narrator’s poignant relationship with his son, Yasushi. A horrifying depiction of prisoners strapped to planks and gagged with pieces of leather. The narrator’s arrival in Pingfang, “still festive with wealthy Russians and a few well-placed Chinese.”
For such a short piece, “Train to Harbin” feels epic in its exploration of history, war, loyalty, and trauma. It is also intimate, raw and reflective, as the author examines the psychological effects the narrator’s work in China have on him years later. This is a haunting, visceral, and ethically nuanced story, and I was struck by how Serizawa forces her narrator to wrestle with moral consequence on a deeply philosophical level. And by looking so intensely into the deeds of his past, the pain and remorse that define him ultimately become the vehicles that drive the story forward.
In the end, what amazed me most was the story’s structure. Rather than telling the story chronologically, Serizawa lets the chaotic nature of memory govern the way the piece unfolds. As the narrator of this heartbreaking and gorgeous tale tells us, “Perhaps it is simply the mind, which, in its inability to accept a fact, returns to it, sharpening the details, resolving the image, searching for an explanation that the mind, with its slippery grasp on causality, will never be able to find.’
Get the 2016 anthology (above, left) that contains “Train to Harbin” here:
Serizawa’s story The Visitor” was featured in The O. Henry Prize Stories 2013. Get the 2013 anthology here:
Serizawa has published a handful of other stories in various journals. Read about the author and her other publications at her website:
The following stories by Serizawa are free to read here:
In adfition to being selected for the 2013 and 2016 O. Henry Prize, Serizawa, along with give other authors, was a recent recipient of the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award:
Lithub mentions these Rona Jaffe award recipients here:
I would venture that the other five recipients of the Rona Jaffe award are also worth a discerning reader’s time.