A colleague at a university once said to me in passing, “Why do you creative writers teach others about writing stories? All of the stories have been told, right?” I wish I can travel in a time machine back to that hallway, and instead of walking on by, waving off the sarcastic comment, I would turn to this professor and hand over Kathy Fish’s newest book, Wild Life: Collected Works from 2003-2018 (Matter Press, 2018), that I’d be sure to bring along with me. “Not all of the stories have been told yet,” I would say.
For close to a decade now, I have studied many of the stories Fish has published in online journals and her previous books. And this newest book, a greatest hits of her successful writing, is overflowing with an abundant supply of the lessons from her past work, along with recent examples of Fish’s mastery and revelatory prowess displayed in the flash fiction and micro fiction genres. It is a pure joy to attain even more understanding from her words regarding how her characters try to exist with each other in a world that only Fish can conjure. I marvel, absorb, and I am inspired.
My first lesson with Fish’s writing was back in 2009, when I read the flash fiction “Tenderoni.” Thankfully, it appears in this collection that showcases her sustained production of creative work between 2003 through 2018. I remember the reaction I had (still have) when I read this flash fiction: How does she do this in such a tiny story? Over time, I surmised the this is Fish’s ability to portray such heartbreak revealed by a couple riding their bikes through the rain to a parade, only to have their way barred by the mangled reality of life. And, more aptly, the narrator admits about her boyfriend: “I hate watching him struggle, but he struggles a lot so I’m getting used to it.” So there is more than just the mess of life that must be cared for, life that still must be lived and loved despite the struggle and canceled parades. For me, Fish’s instruction here is note-worthy every damn time I come to this flash fiction.
What is most striking to me about this collection is Fish’s handling, so perfectly, of family dynamics in all of its forms: siblings, parent/child, extended family members, neighbors, strangers, really, all of us together in this human family. We fight each other, we love each other, we up build and tear down each other. Fish knows all of this and more. You will note her astounding interpretations of “family” in such varied stories as “The Once Mighty Fergusons” and “Everything’s Shitty at Price King” and “Five Micros” and “Grip” and “Swicks Rule!” and other gems. I am obsessed with the meaning of family, especially in suburbia where I grew up. Why are we fated to be with some people and not others, their blood our blood, enmeshed beyond all reason whether we like it or not? And what about those who do not share a biological connection? Are they just as deserving of familial love or hatred or indifference or forgiveness? Fish answers these inquiries from me with such expressiveness, at times brutally, other times lovingly.
“Wren” is a flash fiction that lays bare a sense of longing and concern for another that I have not read in any other story. The narrator and her family full of esprit de corps cease their rough play in the yard at the command of their mother to show a moment of awareness, a quiet respect toward the Chu family. And then there is an epiphany that only Fish can put into words:
Mother stopped struggling and Father loosened his grip and we all turned to see Wren and her parents on their nightly walk. Mother gathered us all around her, hushing us…. Mr. Chu nodded and Father nodded back. Wren’s mother glanced at our mother. Some maternal understanding, like heat lightning, flashed in the space between them.
Next comes the narrator’s desire “to cross the street and touch her [Wren’s] white cheek. I wanted to tell her my name.” Finally, for me, it is the narrator’s dream of a distinct care for fragile bird-like Wren that solidifies Fish’s astonishing intention regarding this story.
For a lesson on those of us who are not biologically connected, but are connected all the same, this collection begins with a seminal piece of writing titled “Collective Nouns for Humans in the Wild.” This work originally appeared in Jellyfish Review, where I first read it along with so many other readers around the world. It does not surprise me that this revelation in writing is a Best Small Fictions winner and I am so pleased it appears in this collection. Only Kathy Fish could have created such a tragic, thought-provoking, enraging, stirring, relevant call for everyone reading to open her or his eyes and ears and hearts. It is well past the point that our collective futures must live with “[h]umans in the wild, gathered and feeling good, previously an exhilaration, now: a target.” Fish instructs yet again with her virtuosity of the written word.
In my moment of time travel, I would further say to my fellow snarky professor, “Go ahead, open any page. Learn, my friend. Study Fish’s magnificent word choices, her unique descriptions of us like we’ve never been described, learn her distinctive translations of love and struggle and togetherness and separations. Learn that she has written the new stories of our time, any time, in a fresh, original voice that we are blessed to read.”
Dan Crawley’s writing has appeared in a number of journals, including Wigleaf, CHEAP POP, Bending Genres, Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, and New Flash Fiction Review. Along with teaching creative writing and literature courses, he reads fiction for Little Patuxent Review. Find him at https://twitter.com/danbillyc