Short Story Prize
Reader Q&A with Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair
As we prepare to unveil the shortlist for the 2013 CBC Short Story Prize, we're asking the readers for the competition what it's like to read hundreds of short stories in search of the best. Here's Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair on how the best stories show a breadth and complexity in life, character, and climax .
Tell us about yourself. Where do you live and what do you write?
I currently live in Winnipeg, Manitoba and write predominantly short fiction and creative non-fiction but have also had forays in poetry and graphic novels.
What's your day job?
By day I am an Assistant Professor teaching Indigenous literatures, cultures, and history at the University of Manitoba. By night I am a writer, editor, and performer found in book, print, and broadcast media across North America. With any time I have left, I try to be a father.
What's your literary street cred?
My critical and creative work has appeared in journals such as Prairie Fire and Canadian Literature, newspapers like The Guardian and The Winnipeg Free Press, online sites like CBC Canada Writes and Media Indigena, and books such as The Exile Edition of Native Canadian Fiction and Drama and Troubling Tricksters. I have a graphic short story appearing in the upcoming Graphic Classics 24: Native American Classics. I am the co-editor of the award-winning anthology Manitowapow: Aboriginal Writings from the Land of Water (Highwater Press, 2012) and the recently-released Centering Anishinaabeg Studies: Understanding the World Through Stories (U of Manitoba Press, 2013). I am also the editorial director of The Debwe Series with Portage and Main Press, which features some of the newest and best Aboriginal writing in Canada.
What are you working on now?
I am currently finishing a study on Anishinaabeg narrative history which examines thousands of years of creative and intellectual storytelling traditions amongst my people. I am also putting the finishing touches on a short story manuscript called Native Studies.
What do you like most about the short story as a form?
I love the ability of the short story to move quickly through time, space, and plot to not only create universes but also diversify and challenge the parameters within those places quickly. I find the form extremely difficult to do well but also the most exciting to read. Novels might have more breadth, and poems more colour, but short stories showcase incredible skill and care in a remarkably—and beautifully—tight space.
When you’re reading hundreds of stories and trying to choose the most exceptional ones, what are you looking for?
Keeping the reader’s interest without any breaks is by far the most important. This, for me, is done through a layering of detail, metaphor, and a simple yet solid plot. Basically, I need to know where I am and what am I doing there as a reader so I can familiarize myself with the rules of the universe I am sitting in as quickly as possible. Then, throw anything at me. I specifically look for subtle hints of the world beyond the dialogue and description—the plot behind the plot. The best stories to me show a breadth and complexity in life, character, and climax and a real sense of what motivates life to be so interesting. This is all gestured to in the first few hundred words—I never want to know exactly where the ending is when a journey begins.
What are some of the subjects/themes that people are writing about?
Most short stories I read deal with one of four “L’s”: love, loss, lack, or the atypical “slice of life.” These are all good and worthwhile pursuits but the stories I enjoyed most were those able to twist, test, and challenge the parameters of these subjects in unique and grounded ways. Situations don’t always begin with these things—they come from places, times, and reasons. These are what tantalize me as a reader more than anything else. I like knowing at the end of stories why characters made terrible and beautiful choices and therefore, embody complex situations.
Has being a reader for the Short Story Prize changed anything about how you approach your own writing? Would you do anything different if you were to submit to the competition?
Yes, absolutely. I would focus on my first five sentences more and ensure that my plots are deceptively simple. I would focus on the nuance of the small and show how it embodies the big. I would keep dialogue clear and concise but sprinkle it with hints of metaphor and motivation. I would also keep my stories shorter rather then longer, getting to plot points quickly—remembering that judges are reading several hundred stories and you need to stand out as succinct as much as talented.
Can you describe a couple of the entries that struck you as standouts?
“Tracing the Shadows"
There is so much deliciousness in this story I returned to it time and time again—the spinach, the math, the rice, and more. This is the kind of story that should be taught to students, displaying how to build suspense and thicken plot through nuance and detail while delivering a crescendo of “aha” moments at the end—all in the act of a conversation over dinner.
“The Thing That I Know”
In a dynamic, sharp, but subtle style, the writer of this story is able to knit together a horrifying memory into a conversation that is both everyday and earth-shattering. The best stories show you a world full of darkness and brilliance, resilience and tragedy, and this story does all—and more.
This story’s got it all: tragedy, betrayal, love, and beautiful, undeniable complexity. It’s a roller coaster of emotions that displays the many-sidedness of human desire and decision-making. I encourage anyone reading this story to try reading through the different empathic lenses it offers and the different perspectives on a situation that is so often simplified. The ending too is worth reading over and over, if only for the searing image it leaves you with.
Follow Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair on Twitter: @niigaanwewidam