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.

One Story Issue #273: Stephen Fishbach’s “To Sharks”

Our new issue was procured and edited by contributing editor Will Allison, so I’m handing the rudder to Will to steer us toward it. Here’s his intro! — PR

Two months ago, while introducing a story involving the former San Francisco Giants pitcher Tim Lincecum, my colleague Patrick Ryan used this space to confess his ignorance of sports in general and baseball in particular. “I had no idea Tim Lincecum was a real person who used to pitch for the San Francisco Giants,” he wrote. “I didn’t even know there were San Francisco Giants.”

Now it’s my turn: Though I do know of the TV show Survivor, I have never watched an episode—despite the fact that it’s been around for 30+ seasons, despite the fact that it has come to define the reality TV genre, despite the fact that some of my friends are fans. It’s a gap in my cultural literacy that I just haven’t gotten around to filling, perhaps because I’m often watching baseball instead.

So when this month’s story crossed my desk, I was mostly clueless but intrigued. “To Sharks” follows the misadventures of Kent Duvall, a former contestant on a fictional reality TV show called Endure. Furthermore, the story’s author, Stephen Fishbach, competed in two seasons of Survivor

Since his last appearance on the show, in 2015, it turns out Mr. Fishbach has dedicated himself to the art of writing fiction. By contrast, his protagonist has struggled to move on from his brief time in the limelight. Twelve years after winning $100,000 on Endure, Kent finds himself out of shape, unemployed, and still clinging to his long-ago fifteen minutes of fame, but he gets to relive his former glory when he is invited to a charity event where worshipful, diehard fans mix and mingle with former reality TV contestants. Kent sees the event as a chance to jumpstart his life, and he angles to land a job working for a wealthy fellow Endure alum. Suffice it to say, things do not go as planned, and the ensuing events are as hilarious as they are sad.

Kent Duvall is a character I won’t soon forget, and I was also fascinated by the reality-TV fan subculture depicted in “To Sharks,” a world that Mr. Fishbach renders with ironic distance but also with insight and genuine compassion. We’re excited to be kicking off 2021 with his first published story, and we hope you enjoy it too.

One Story Issue #272: Dantiel W. Moniz’s “Necessary Bodies”

Billie, the main character in Dantiel W. Moniz’s story “Necessary Bodies,” has a secret: she’s pregnant. This is primarily a secret she’s keeping from her mother, Colette, who’s about to turn fifty, has two grown children, and—so far—no grandchildren. To Colette’s thinking, if one can make babies, one should make babies.

But to Billie’s thinking, a prospective parent should ask herself some very important questions before bringing a child into the world, one of which is, Will I be a good parent?

That alone makes “Necessary Bodies” a bold and challenging story, because while most everyone hopes they would rise to the occasion of child-rearing if presented with it, not everyone does. (If everyone did, think of all the great novels sprung from unhappy childhoods we’d be deprived of.) Dantiel W. Moniz says in our Q&A that she’s a writer who doesn’t shy away from uncomfortable or undesirable feelings, and the result of that is writing that feels refreshingly—and comfortably—real. This story, our last in a very rocky and challenging year, is a pre-pandemic joy to read. I’m delighted to introduce you to it and to this dynamic, emerging author.

One Story Issue #271: Jenn Alandy Trahan’s “The Freak Winds Up Again”

I’m not what anyone would call a sports fan. I never know who’s in or who won the World Series. I never know who’s playing in the Super Bowl (my ignorance is such that I just had to look up “Super Bowl” to find out if it was one word or two). I was walking through LaGuardia once when a crowd of people suddenly started screaming, and I assumed it was a mass shooting; turns out the World Cup was being broadcast in a bar and someone had just scored a goal. So when I first read “The Freak Winds Up Again” by Jenn Alandy Trahan, I had no idea Tim Lincecum was a real person who used to pitch for the San Francisco Giants. I didn’t even know there were San Francisco Giants.

The narrator in “The Freak Winds Up Again” is somewhat obsessed with Tim Lincecum. She’s also living her life in the shadow of her brother’s suicide. While her fandom serves as a helpful distraction from her sadness, it’s also intricately threaded through her healing process. There’s something of a magic trick happening here, I’d argue, because by the closing words of the story, Lincecum’s stunning achievements feel as intimate and personal as the narrator’s grief, and the pain she’s working through seems to be touched by the pitcher’s healing hands.

This story almost made me care about sports! It definitely made me care about the narrator’s love of baseball. During the editing process, I hopped over to YouTube and found the footage of Lincecum’s no-hitter against the San Diego Padres, and I got goosebumps watching it. An hour later, I’d happily gone down a rabbit hole of baseball clips. So I would say to you, as you embark on our new issue, that you don’t have to be a baseball fan to enjoy this story by Jenn Alandy Trahan, but you just might be one by the time you finish it. The narrator’s passion is infectious, and Trahan has a pitch that will sneak up on you. One Story is proud to usher “The Freak Winds Up Again” into the world.

One Story Issue #270: Yohanca Delgado’s “The Rat”

One Story‘s very own Lena Valencia was just as impressed with this story by Yohanca Delgado as I was, so we decided to edit it together. It was great fun to do so, and Lena wrote a fantastic introduction to the story. Here it is! — PR

When outdoor dining opened in New York City in late June, there was a news item making the rounds: Rats, deprived of their usual diet of pizza and bagels during the city’s lockdown, were harassing al fresco diners. Though the idea of a rat scuttling into my $19 grain bowl is horrifying, there was something about the resilience of these creatures that I found amusing, even, dare I say it, inspiring. It was also a reminder that NYC was back, or, rather, had never left: there is no New York City without its vermin, after all.

In “The Rat,” Yohanca Delgado uses the unofficial mascot of NYC to represent a different sort of resilience. Samanta, a down-on-her-luck door-to-door knife saleswoman, is struggling with the loss of her late mother when she meets an eccentric stranger who not only offers to buy enough knives to vault Samanta out of her financial troubles but claims that she can rid her of her grief. If this sounds too good to be true, it is, and this is what Samanta discovers soon after she consents to the stranger’s proposal and finds herself being followed by a rat.

It’s appropriate that this story is coming out around Halloween, a time when many of us revisit our favorite horror films and books. Delgado is an expert at creating unsettling spaces and making the reader squirm with discomfort. And, like the very best horror stories, “The Rat” isn’t just about a monster—in this case a seemingly immortal rat; it’s about embracing those tough, painful feelings that are so tempting to ignore or push away. Much like the persistent rat of this story’s title, they won’t just vanish. They’re a part of you. As Delgado states so aptly in her interview, “nothing evaporates into thin air, nothing disappears forever.” We’re thrilled to share “The Rat” with you.

One Story Issue #269: Gothataone Moeng’s “Small Wonders”

Our new issue was procured and edited by contributing editor Karen Friedman, so I’m giving her the helm to make the introductions. Take it away, Karen! — PR

In June, a friend texted me that her ninety-eight-year-old grandmother had died. Amid the family’s sadness, there was one bit of relief: New Jersey had just loosened the restrictions on gatherings and they would be allowed to have a small wake with timed entries and a socially distanced funeral service. The family felt lucky.

Rituals are a framework. Stand here. Say these words. There is comfort through the connection to those who have performed the same rites in generations before us. But what happens when tradition feels like a facsimile of the sacred or when it is simply not enough to usher in the promised peace and wholeness?

In our latest issue, “Small Wonders” by Gothataone Moeng, we are introduced to Phetso Sediba, a young Botswanan widow, who for a nearly a year has worn the same midnight-blue dress, cape, and veil every time she leaves the home she once shared with her husband, Leungo. It is a form of penance, of remembrance, but also a warning to others who believe the old superstitions about bad luck following the widow. Phetso has sought shelter in her widow’s clothes, using them as shorthand to keep others at bay while she mourns the loss of Leungo and the life she imagined they’d have together. She is an anomaly, because of her youth as well as her desire to adhere to traditions that others have let go. As Phetso nears the prescribed end of her mourning period, she struggles, unsure of what the traditions have meant and whether she is ready to meet the world without their protection.

We accepted Gothataone’s story before most of us had ever heard of Covid-19 or knew how much our lives were about to change. Still, it feels particularly well suited to a time when grief can no longer take its familiar shape, when we must rely on Zoom shivas and Livestreamed funerals. It is now, sadly, easy for us to understand how precarious our traditions actually are, how dependent on our willingness to believe in their meaning. And yet, I feel compelled to insist that this particular story ends on a note of hope—uncertain, but there. Just as Phetso waits to reenter the world, so we too will face what comes on the other side of grief.

I couldn’t be more delighted to introduce Gothataone Moeng to our One Story family and hope you love “Small Wonders” as much as we do. Please check out our Q&A for more information about how this story came into being.