Recommended Short Stories You Can Read Online, by: Oyet Sisto Ocen, Harriet Anena, and Uwem Akpan.

The best short story writers do something to you just after you read that last paragraph: they leave a kind of quiet inside you. Or is it peace? It is different things for different people, but I know that after reading a good story, something happens to you on the inside that you just can’t brush off, something that will return to you at odd times when something reminds you of one of the characters from the story or of the story itself.

All three of these stories do just that. All the stories are about children trying to make sense of their normal world that’s beginning to go wrong, or, as in Anena’s story, a world that has always been wrong that the main character is trying to make right. Two of the stories are narrated by children—and their voice is so beautiful and innocent!—the third is narrated in second person, which still gives the story the required feel.

One of the stories was published in The New Yorker in 2006, was shortlisted for the Caine Prize the following year, and appeared in Uwem Akpan’s acclaimed collection of stories, Say You’re One of Them (in fact, the book’s title is pulled from this story). The other story appeared in a collection of selected short stories and poems published by the African Writers Trust in 2013, Suubi. The stories in the anthology were born out of a mentorship program organized by the AWT, where emerging Ugandan writers were paired with established UK based writers. The third story comes from a writer whose poem was also included in Suubi, and this story was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 2018, and appeared on adda.

The best short story writers do something to you just after you read that last paragraph: they leave a kind of quiet inside you.


Oyet Sisto Ocen “In the Plantation”, published in Suubi.

None of the stories in Suubi have ever once lost their grip on my mind, but then this story about a small happy girl, Nakato, and her twin brother, Kato, and their family and friends and an Uncle Tom who lives in the city and has become very rich is one story that would not live my head. The voice of the narrator is so moving and so innocent that we cannot help but fall in love with it.

When, one day, she returned from school to meet many-many people in their house and her aunt carried her and told her that Kato’s head, her brother’s head, was gone, she said: “If Kato’s head had gone, it would come back. It would find Kato and fix itself, we would still run in that long trail of the banana plantations, we would meet Joe and Katumba, probably we would still plan to go and steal the pawpaw from Mr. Mukasa’s plantation and eat in our backyard.”

This juxtaposition of beauty next to blood, innocence next to the evil of men who are supposed to be matured, and peace and grief is the thing that makes this story what it is.

The beautiful thing about this story is how it immerses us in place, in the environment. The story opens with the children searching for nsenene, later they are running to Mr. Mukasa’s plantation to steal pawpaw. All of those things are things that anybody who had real fun in the real world—I mean, I used to sling sparrows and suck the juice from flowers and catch grasshoppers—when they were young would know of. And, quite brilliantly, it is amidst all of these innocence—which also includes the sweet they always got from Uncle Tom, which they ran to share with Katumba, the child who liked to play with his private part, the running after Uncle Tom’s car on their way back from school—that we are suddenly thrown into the bitter world. And I think it is Sisto trying to show us how disaster doesn’t know young or old or maturity or innocence—or rather, that evil men do not care.

This juxtaposition of beauty next to blood, innocence next to the evil of men who are supposed to be matured, and peace and grief is the thing that makes this story what it is.

The other beautiful thing is the use of very short sentences, which is just the best because the narrator is a child. Here: “I still recall its sweetness when he gave it to us. Uncle Tom found us playing in the banana plantations. We were searching for nsenene, the grasshopper which appeared seasonally when it rained in our village. We searched for them on the ground and in the folds of the banana leaves.” These short sentences will keep carrying you, magically (because the magical doesn’t have to be loud and glaring; in fact, the best writers are those who do wonders with the sentence such that it doesn’t distract you from the story itself), such that when you get to its end, you’ll be unable to uproot the feeling that this story would have grown in your chest.


Harriet Anena “Dancing with Ma”, published in adda.

Her mother died just after she was born, so they, the people who found her, named her Kec-kom (misfortune)—“Kec-kom, because you were Aba’s misfortune…Kec-kom, because you were Ma’s misfortune, too”—instead of Gum-kom (fortune). However, after a series of unfair treatments to the young motherless girl (from Auntie and Grandma, the both of them from Aba—the man who is supposed to be her father—’s family, and sometimes even from Aba, too), which made her so angry that she torched the house with fire one day—Kec-kom parked the few things that could be called hers and left the house. She walked 24 kilometers, walking slowly but without stopping, until she arrived a house where she met a woman—Calina Aber—to whom she introduced herself as “Gum-kom”. But even this Jabez-y act wouldn’t change her story. Even here, with Calina, a woman who couldn’t bear a child, and her husband, Simeo Latim, a teacher—even here, with this seemingly nice people, her story becomes another story of kec-kom.

“Dancing with Ma” is a fast-paced short story that shows us the life of a young motherless girl, who, in spite of all the shit that the world was throwing her way, took life so gently it is surprising. Or, maybe all the shit that life hauled at her is what makes her so matured (which is the thing for motherless children anyways, we grow up while children our age are playing with their mother’s breasts; while they’re suckling at their fingers we are testing the potency of fire with ours). How being motherless makes one, as Safia Elhillo puts it in a poem: “everything’s child”—that should sound good, but for the fact that when you belong to everything, you are not really anything’s; you are just passing through life, serving here and there, moving from here to there, collecting dust and soil, sometimes joy. All of this is what Kec-kom’s life is: 13, but she already ran away from home, already lost a mother, is not in school, had a man between her legs, ran away from another place, lost a child.

“Dancing with Ma” is a fast-paced short story that shows us the life of a young motherless girl, who, in spite of all the shit that the world was throwing her way, took life so gently it is surprising.

This story would not be as moving as it is if not for how Harriet Anena writes prose, so simple and beautiful that I just want to cuddle her words. (“They found Ma in a banana plantation, knees to chest, arms stretched forward, as if she was trying to scoop something towards her bosom.”; “An hour later, you felt a prick, a tear, a pull and twist in your stomach, as if a knife was in there.”; “Ma had laughed softly, hesitantly, like a young woman being tickled by a suitor she liked but didn’t want to show that she did; because she was told only a slut laughed all her laughter at once.”) No, the prose is not sexy, it is teddy bear-y.

Anena just tells the story, only and only with empathy.

Her voice is moving, just the way Labrinth’s “Jealous” is, but she does it so well that it doesn’t feel quirky in the way a poor movie scene feels—and, considering that she’s writing about pain, a little girl, poverty, abortion, rape, and more?! Any other writer might just have gone preachy, or finger-pointing, or raging, but Anena just tells the story, only and only with empathy.


Uwem Akpan’s “My Parents’ Bedroom”, published in The New Yorker.

When war knocks on the door of a happy home and a child is the one who goes to open the door to welcome it in, and when it enters in, what does it look like to the child, how does that child tell the story?

This is what Uwem Akpan’s “My Parents’ Bedroom” is about. After Habyarimana’s plane was shot down on April 6, 1994, on his way back from a negotiation in Dar es Salaam, people began to talk in hushed tones on the streets, riots began, houses (Tutsis’ houses) were razed, men (Hutus) clutched machetes, entered houses (Tutsis’ houses) and ran the blade into people’s (Tutsis) bodies till their sputtering blood-oozing bodies went quiet and death stole the last breath from their lungs. It was so brutal, it is not even imaginable (there is nothing imaginable about war), especially considering that the Tutsis did not suspect that something that brutal would come in the next hour and, when it all dusked on them, there was no aid from anywhere.

However, the thing was that not only did Tutsis suffer, but even Hutus who saw humanity in Tutsis were considered evil. There was the Hutu Ten Commandments published by Kangura in 1990, which stated how Hutus should interact with Tutsis. The first law: “Every Hutu should know that a Tutsi woman, wherever she is, works for the interest of her ethnic Tutsi group. Consequently, we should consider a traitor every Hutu who: a. marries a Tutsi woman; b. befriends a Tutsi woman; c. employs a Tutsi woman as a secretary or concubine.”

As in “Hotel Rwanda”, Uwem Akpan’s characters are a mix—the husband and father of the child narrating the story, Papa, is Hutu, but his wife, Maman, is Tutsi. However, unlike in “Hotel Rwanda”, this story doesn’t end with the reader getting a gentle smile on their face—in fact, you most likely will have tears in your eyes when you get to the end of this one. And, while it is not a movie or novel, this story is so visual—and the fact that the narrator is a child and doesn’t understand what is happening makes this story so moving.

At the beginning of the story, her mother went out at night, which is something that doesn’t happen because her mother always said “only bad women go out at night.” Unknown to the little girl, the woman had gone to hide—her husband had told her to run but she could not, so she came back. As she asks her mom, Maman, questions, the woman, with tears shining in her beautiful eyes, tells her daughter: “Swallow all your questions now, bright daughter.”

“When they ask you… say you’re one of them, OK?”

As the story unfolds, flipping between their past peaceful life and the present bloody dusk—narrated by Monique, the girl, who is “nine years and seven months old”, and who is in real trouble because she looks like her mother who is Tutsi (her mother tells her at the start of the story: “When they ask you… say you’re one of them, OK?”)—the brutality of war, what it does to the peace and beauty of the life of ordinary, good people, comes into full view, and their hopelessness; and the reality that love (the Hutu Papa marrying a Tutsi woman) and what some call “enlightenment” (“Papa…went to university and works in a government ministry”) doesn’t do shit in such times.

“My Parents’ Bedroom” is a painful story, it’ll almost rip your heart out of your chest and shred it the way a child shreds paper with scissors.


You can check out other recommended stories here.


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