Illustration: Hannah Kamugisha

SHORT STORY WEEK

When short stories tell women’s stories, they get right to the heart of things

In a year of #MeToo, #ibelievewomen and Time’s Up, The Pool’s fourth annual short-story week celebrates tales of our many and various shared experiences – and offers hope, says Sarah Franklin

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By Sarah Franklin on

Let’s face it, this has been one of those years when the world has basically been on fire. Or perhaps, more accurately, it’s been the year when the fire that’s been kindling inside women for years started raging again, becoming impossible to ignore.

We’ve been telling our stories, hearing our stories, changing the future by revisiting the past. Everyone’s been doing their bit, whether it’s speaking the truth they’ve kept quiet for so long, or standing quiet and still and saying, “I hear you. I believe you. I stand with you.”

A really unexpected thing has happened to me as a consequence of this. Under very specific circumstances, this show of strength – the sheer scale of the stories we’ve heard this year – has made me more afraid. For more than two decades now, I’ve run through the woods three or four times a week. The miles on my legs take years off my mind and I invariably come back calmer. I’m careful – I always tell someone my proposed route, I vary it regularly and I have my phone with me (not that there’s any signal out there). I can run for miles without seeing anyone; just me, the whisper of the trees and the fields.

But this year, if I see a man in the woods, particularly a man with a strong-looking dog, or even a man without a dog and thus no obvious reason to be walking in woodland, my heart starts hammering in my chest and my hands start shaking until I ball them up. More than once, I’ve hidden behind a tree until I know which way he’s going, then sprinted in the opposite direction, twisting round to check he’s not following.

In shouldering everyone’s stories, in bearing witness and listening and talking, I’ve got more scared. Who am I to think I’m safe, that the bloke through the oaks with the Alsatian and long length of cord masquerading as a lead isn’t going to suddenly come after me, come at me?

These stories show us women unafraid to tell us the truth of what’s happening in life. Women empowered by this truth

I hate myself for this reaction. It’s unfair to the many, many good men out there, it’s cowardly and it’s weird. I want to go back to  running as deep into the woods as I want, to feel thrilled that my legs are strong and my lungs are healthy, not be wondering just how far and fast they can take me in an emergency. I need to recover my mojo – and quickly.

That’s where this year’s stories come in. They show us women unafraid to tell us the truth of what’s happening in life. Women empowered by this truth. Some of them plunge us straight into situations we’ll never encounter ourselves, immersing us in that unique way of short stories, getting right to the heart of things. There’s no time to waste, they’re saying – understand this, understand me, now. Do it now, not later.

Other stories you’ll read here this week are perhaps more familiar to us, bringing back, instead, the sharp sickness that lies within all of us who have been bullied, whether as a child or later in life. Here, the immersion is again instant, plunges perhaps deeper because it’s pressing again on the bruise we’ve hoped to conceal over the years.

These stories share an emotional heart despite the difference in topics. They’re funny as well as angry, tender as well as provocative. The humour is often stealthy; you find yourself laughing when you’re not sure if it’s really OK to laugh, find yourself absorbing the message all the more because of the humanity of this. Who hasn’t laughed when something’s really dire, after all?

And, most importantly of all, they offer hope. People can imagine solutions. We can imagine solutions. We’ll get there. It might take years, but our foot is wedged in the door now and we’re not giving up. We’re ready to get out there and fight. Even if fighting means getting back out into the woods with my head up. I’m not alone.

@SarahEFranklin

Illustration: Hannah Kamugisha
Tagged in:
short story
Short Story Week
#MeToo
Books

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