One Teen Story Issue #67: Shira Zur’s “Dear Margot”

The time has come to publish the second of three winners from One Teen Story’s 2021 Teen Writing Contest. As I mentioned when introducing our previous winner, 2020 brought us more than 450 entrees, which is the most we’ve ever received. Given that our submission window didn’t open until September of that year, we found it very impressive that so many teens were tapping into their creative impulses during lockdown. Our goal was to pick the most outstanding entree in each age category (13-15, 16-17, 18-19), and our work was cut out for us.

For our second installment, we present to you “Dear Margot” by Shira Zur. This story is a good old-fashioned epistolary. More specifically, it’s a one-sided correspondence: a teen who refers to herself as “S.L.” is writing letters to her sister Margot—only, Margot has passed away. That premise brings with it several immediate questions any reader might have, such as How did Margot die? and Were the sisters close? and What’s the point of writing to a dead person? Questions, for me, make up at least a third of a good reading experience.

What I love most about this story, however, is that, while answering some of the questions we bring to the table, it also provides us with questions we might not even have thought to ask—and answers them, as well. In a fairly short amount of space, Shira Zur covers a lot of emotional ground, weaving together a portrait of two siblings out of the grief of the one who survived. We at One Teen Story are delighted to be ushering “Dear Margot” into the world.

To read an interview with the author, please visit our website.

One Story Issue #280: Alice McDermott’s “Post”

Near the beginning of the lockdown in New York City, I thought about all the lonely people who suddenly were having to confront a whole new kind of loneliness. I also thought about all the couples living in all those apartments who were having to redefine their notions of cohabitating. Perhaps most often—and this might sound strange, but it was a pretty strange time—I thought about those cohabitating couples who’d been on the verge of breaking up when the lockdown began, and how any plans to break up had to be shelved (along with all the rest of one’s plans), and what that must have looked like when added to the other stress, worry, and general discontent that comes with a pandemic. Ticking time bombs! I thought. Huge fights! Murders! I could foresee the day Netflix would run dry and was, perhaps, pre-seeding my desire for other people’s drama.

Leave it to Alice McDermott to imagine a lockdown scenario of compassion—of love, even—between two people who have already drifted apart yet have chosen to lock down together. Mira and Adam are recent exes living in Brooklyn when the pandemic turns life on its head. While social distancing, by necessity, is driving so many people apart, they manage, temporarily, to come back together—not as a couple, not as anything romantic, but as a kind of two-person care unit. One of the many things I love about this story is that it’s about a pair of exes, yet it contains not a single argument about their shared past, not a single zinger, not even a single regret. It’s a love story about ex-lovers who are not attempting to reconcile. In the canon of great stories about exes, “Post” deserves an honored position. One Story is proud to present to you this brilliant new piece of fiction by the one and only Alice McDermott.

Please visit our website to read an interview with the author about “Post.”

One Story Issue #279: Christine Vines’s “The Tower of Amber Lane”

A lot of wonderful fiction has come from writers examining post-traumatic stress disorder. Katie Rogin’s novel Life During Wartime and Phil Klay’s short story collection Redeployment come to mind. So do Edward St. Aubyn’s five Patrick Melrose novels (which, while diving deeply into addiction, all have their roots in sexual abuse). The subject matter can be discomforting and even painful, but good fiction, as Raymond Carver said, “is partly a bringing of the news from one world to another.” And that’s what good fiction about trauma and post-trauma does: it brings the terror to the reader in a way that transcends observation and becomes something much more intimate.

Christine Vines’ “The Tower of Amber Lane” is good fiction that brings difficult news. One of the many things I admire about this story is that, within a fairly short amount of narrative time, it renders the lead-up to the trauma and then, while taking a brief step over much of the event itself, settles into the immediate post-traumatic period. There’s a boldness at work here, a willingness to dive deep into the hours and the very minutes following a harrowing night in the life of Lissa, a college student who’s living on the edge of campus and trying to climb out of the fellow-college-student dating pool. The point of view is close, the voice is intimate, and the effect is beyond chilling. This story is fearlessly fearful—and perhaps all the more so because the reader is right there with Lissa as she struggles to make the right decisions in a world that doesn’t always share her definition of what’s right.

The first time I read “The Tower of Amber Lane,” I started off deep in an armchair and ended up on the edge of the cushion, my hands white-knuckled as I held the pages. Christine Vines has written a story about, as she puts it, “navigating safety in intimate encounters.” Safety, as Lissa learns, is a relative term, and trying to navigate it can be terrifying. One Story is proud to be publishing this powerful work of fiction by an emerging writer of great talent.

To read an interview with the author, please visit our website.

Issue #278: Kristen Leigh Schwarz’s “Signs and Symptoms”

Every story has a spark that set it smoking in the writer’s mind, and the spark that set off our new issue, “Signs and Symptoms,” was a news article about a physicist’s attempting to open a portal into a parallel universe. Author Kristen Leigh Schwarz read that article and couldn’t help but wonder, How might that go?

How it goes for barista Marvin is that a series of bizarre and troubling phenomena first are reported in the news and then begin to occur in his place of work. The parallel universe, it seems, is vacuuming things out of this world at an alarming rate. Marvin and his boyfriend, Reg, have to think fast: Should they call for help? Run for their lives? Go to a casino and play nickel slots until this world and everything in it have been sucked into the void?

I love “Signs and Symptoms” because it manages to be so many things at once. It’s weird, fantastical, a little frightening, extremely funny, and romantic. Yes, this apocalyptic yarn is romantic! Kristen Leigh Schwarz has pulled off a kind of magic trick with this highly original story that is simultaneously down to Earth and out of this world. We hope you enjoy it as much as we did.

To read an interview with the author about this story, please visit our website.

One Story Issue #277: ‘Pemi Aguda’s “Breastmilk”

Our new issue was acquired and edited by contributing editor Will Allison, so I’m handing over the intro mic so that he can make the introductions. Take it away, Will! — PR

’Pemi Aguda’s “Breastmilk” takes place in Lagos, the most populous city in Nigeria and the third largest city in Africa. As soon as Aduke’s husband, Timi, returns home from a business trip to the capital city Abuja, he confesses to committing adultery with his ex-girlfriend. But Timi is otherwise a good man—a rare Nigerian husband who eschews sexist gender roles—and Aduke promptly pardons him. They have passionate forgiveness sex, and thirty-eight weeks later, their first child, Fikayo, is born.

That’s where the trouble begins. Aduke finds herself unable to produce breastmilk, and she comes to believe the problem stems from her unresolved regret about letting Timi off the hook so easily. On top of that, Aduke fears she has betrayed the feminist values she inherited from her proud, activist mother. “Women suffer enough,” her mother says. “Don’t add man problem on top. Keep your shoes beside the door.”

I was drawn to “Breastmilk” by the raw honesty of Aduke’s voice and by the story’s vivid rendering of the early days of parenthood. Aduke’s fear is one that all parents will recognize—the fear of failing one’s newborn child. But for Aduke, that fear is compounded by her body’s refusal to comply with the demands of motherhood. It’s a fraught, heart-wrenching situation that Ms. Aguda explores with tremendous depth of feeling in pitch-perfect prose. We’re excited to be showcasing Ms. Aguda’s work in our pages, and we hope you find Aduke’s story as compelling as we did.

To read an interview with ‘Pemi Aguda about “Breastmilk,” please visit our website.

One Teen Story Issue #66: Elane Kim’s “Smorzando”

As 2020 was nearing its close, we received more than 450 entrees for One Teen Story’s Teen Writing Contest—the most we’ve ever received. They came in from teen writers ranging in age from 13-19, and we grouped them into three categories: 13-15, 16-17, and 18-19. Our goal, as always, was to pick a winner and runner-up in each category, and our team of dedicated contest readers set the process in motion by diving into one of our favorite shared activities: reading. It was heartening, indeed, to discover that not only had the teens been writing during a tumultuous year, but they’d also produced some powerful, moving stories.

We’re pleased to present to you the winner of our 13-15 age category: Elane Kim, who has written a quietly moving story called “Smorzando.”

“Smorzando” is about two sisters, Amy and Maya, who have lost their mother, live with their grandmother, and share a passion for playing the piano. As is often the case in stories about siblings, there is rivalry: Amy is more dedicated (at first); Maya is more talented. The fact that Maya is the younger of the two sisters isn’t lost on Amy, who does her best to tolerate her sister’s immaturity while struggling to accept that, no matter how immature she is, Maya will always be the better pianist. Add to this Amy’s desire, as the older sister, to help keep alive the memories they share of their mother, whom they both dearly miss.

Elane Kim has written a tender and utterly convincing story about these two girls at a challenging juncture of their lives. We hope you enjoy “Smorzando” as much as we did.

One Story Issue #276: Jackie Thomas-Kennedy’s “Extinction”

When it became clear that the pandemic wasn’t going to be over anytime soon, and social distancing turned into lockdown, and lockdown turned into finding new ways to live and stay creative and sane, we at One Story began to anticipate the pandemic-related submissions we were bound to receive. As they started to come in, I couldn’t help but wonder if someone was going to write a story about how weird we all became. What I mean is, consciously or not, we all had to reinvent our notions of interaction and intimacy. We all had to find new ways to lend emotional support, and we all had to find new ways to receive emotional support.

It wasn’t a smooth process, by any means. We were living in a world of constantly changing information, trying to cope with a global health crisis that immediately and bizarrely had become political. And as the spring of 2020 edged toward summer, everything became more challenging, more unsettling, more of a mirror held up to our faces, showing us ourselves in stark relief.

I’ve been a fan of Jackie Thomas-Kennedy’s writing for a long time, so I’m particularly thrilled to be presenting “Extinction” to you. This, in many ways, is the story I was wondering if someone was going to write: a story about how our world was (and still is) upended, and how it changed us not just in obvious ways but in subtle ways we might not even have been aware of. How do we make the best of things when a better version of our world is rapidly receding from our view, when distancing becomes isolation, and when we can’t trust ourselves to make the best choices? “Extinction” puts its finger on the pulse of our current lives. It’s both a story for our times and a story with staying power.

One Story Issue #275: Don Lee’s “Reenactments”

Don Lee’s “Reenactments” takes us to El Paso, Texas, where a Hollywood shoot-’em-up—a “pretty standard narco/border thriller,” as the narrator describes it—is being filmed. The on-location challenges include barking dogs, blistering heat, and fake, sugary blood that attracts fire ants. But the biggest challenge for Alain Kweon (an actor from Hawaii whose agent has convinced him to go by the professional name Alan Kwan) is a script filled with racial stereotypes, and the director who wrote it. Alain’s character, Mano Silencioso, has but a single line in the film. That line make no sense to Alain and, worse, the director wants him to deliver it in what a fellow cast member calls “the old I-rike-flied-lice accent.” It’s the biggest role of Alain’s career thus far, so he has to make a choice: dignity, or potential success in the industry?

This story knocked my socks off for a number of reasons. For one thing, it transported me onto a film set fraught with problems (I’ve got my own problems, but they don’t involve lying on the ground for hours in full sun while bugs eat through fake blood to get at my skin). For another, Alain’s conflict is palpable—and all the more so because the story is told in his voice. The main reason I fell in love with “Reenactments,” however, is because it’s so masterfully told. Don Lee is a writer who knows how to cut to the heart of difficult subject matter in an extremely honest, realistic, and entertaining way. I was leaning forward in my chair as I neared the end, hungry to find out what was going to happen.

One Story is delighted to be putting “Reenactments” into your hands. If you aren’t yet familiar with Don Lee’s writing, a wonderful discovery awaits you. And if you have a secret dream to become a villain in a shoot-’em-up, you might want to keep that dream to yourself (or, at the very least, make sure you have some say in both the script and the ingredients for the fake blood).

To read an interview with Don Lee about “Reenactments,” please visit our website.

One Story Issue #274: Anthony Varallo’s “Hey, Me”

Our new issue was procured and edited by contributing editor Will Allison, so I’m passing the mic over to him to make the introductions. Heeeerrrrre’s Will! — PR

The first thing that struck me about Anthony Varallo’s “Hey, Me” was the disarmingly honest and funny voice of his protagonist. Amy is a struggling college student whose professor has suggested that she jumpstart her incomplete English paper by recording voice memos. The story takes the unusual form of two such memos, recorded by Amy over the course of a few days as she procrastinates writing her paper and instead ruminates on her feelings about topics such as college life, authenticity, friendship, and toast. (Yes, Amy is a bit digressive.)

But mostly Amy’s feelings are focused on her professor, a new mother Amy yearns to connect with on a deeper level. At first Amy’s obsession with her professor seems quite sweet and innocent, but her monologue takes an unexpected turn when Amy reveals that she has stalked her professor multiple times, secretly following her around campus. I couldn’t help anticipating a dark outcome, but at the same time, I wondered how Mr. Varallo would pull off an ending that remained true to Amy’s character. (He didn’t disappoint.)

During my ten years at One Story, I’ve had the pleasure of editing some unforgettable voice-driven stories. Two that come to mind are Bonnie Jo Campbell’s hard-bitten “Mothers, Tell Your Daughters,” which we published back in 2015, and last year’s luminous “Fate and Ruin,” by Mary Grimm. I’m thrilled to be introducing another story worthy of that group, and I hope you enjoy having Amy bare her soul into your ears as much as I did.

Announcing the winners and runners-up of the 2021 Teen Writing Contest

We are thrilled to announce the winners and runners-up of our 2021 One Teen Story Teen Writing Contest! We received over 450 entries from teen writers across the globe, and narrowing it down was no easy feat. Each winner will receive $500 and publication in a forthcoming issue of One Teen Story.

Ages 13 – 15

Winner: “Smorzando” by Elane Kim 

“Even now, I know how to make tragedies digestible. Maya is like Eomma in that she likes the stories with happy endings best, so I learn how to offer half-truths, how to angle the light so that the princess waves from her tower. I don’t show her the bound hands, or the curtains, or the audience.”

— Elane Kim, “Smorzando”

Runner-up: “Set of Cards” by Jacqueline Lan

Ages 16 – 17

Winner: “Dear Margot” by Shira Zur

“Autumn was always your favorite; you’d pull out your soft hoodies and sweatpants and sit on the sofa, drinking mint tea with honey in small sips, watching the leaves rustle in the wind outside. I would watch you from the kitchen and think you looked like a portrait waiting to be painted.” 

—Shira Zur, “Dear Margot”

Runner-up: “Footnotes on Chinese-American Girlhoods” by May Hathaway

Ages 18 – 19

Winner: “The Frame Between Us” by Ethan Luk

“The Honda Odyssey ripped through the night, soared on the highway, and suddenly, we were racing against the current of other cars. We shared a secret silently acknowledged: we were together and that was all that mattered.”

— Ethan Luk, “The Frame Between Us”

Runner-Up: “The Liar’s Game” by Sophie Sheumaker

Subscribe to One Story or One Teen Story in print or on your mobile device to read the winners’ stories throughout the year. Our next Teen Writing Contest will take place in fall 2021. 

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