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  • Short Fiction Contest Introduction
  • Kirsten Reach

“Sine Qua Non,” writes Short Fiction Contest runner-up Tyler Barton.

“This is a designation the French use to mean: without which, there is none. The essential ingredient. Say, a chili with no tomato. A Manhattan sans whiskey.”

What is the essential ingredient for a successful short story? Some years we see one theme coursing through all three of the top stories in our Short Fiction Contest, but this year each story has a distinct strength.

In Laura Roque’s winning story, “Dientes for Dentures,” we fall for the protagonist’s Abuela, a complicated woman who resists easy categorization. Her daughter and granddaughter don’t always understand her choices—her loyalty to Castro, her decision to remove her teeth—but their love and loyalty shows in the way they care for her in her old age.

In “Spiritual Introduction to the Neighborhood,” a runner-up by Tyler Barton, it’s both the relationship to a place and the unconventional form the author has chosen. This, too, is a story about the brutality of aging, as we learn the narrator’s children are planning a move to assisted living. What will be lost? A deep knowledge of the goings-on in town. Barton has divided sections of the story by streets and circles, revealing intimate knowledge of street hockey games, the foster-dog service, and how quickly a neighbor might pick up a donation to the Little Free Library.

In “Breaking” by Christopher Fox, it’s the strong connection between a father and daughter and the pain of the space between them in a moment of crisis. “Space” is not a metaphor: he is an astronaut, keeping up with the news from 254 miles above Earth. “I’ll be up here for three more months—there’s no other way,” the protagonist says, imagining his daughter’s suffering taking place while he floats above the planet. [End Page 1]

In each of these stories we see something emerge, and this year we see the emergence of three exciting new writers.

Judge Melinda Moustakis writes:

Winner: “Dientes for Dentures” by Laura Roque

With prose that feels like a fever dream, urgent and fierce, this story portrays three generations of women in Hialeah, Miami, through the perspective of a granddaughter. The narrator and Mami are worried about Abuela, a complicated character who came to the US from Cuba after losing her family to revolutionary violence but still, inexplicably, remains loyal to Fidel Castro. Paradoxes such as this create an unforgettable depiction of Abuela, who seems both mythologically strong and all too frail, and who is now in hospice care. I couldn’t stop thinking about these three women and who they were to each other, their love and loyalty and misunderstandings. Abuela’s body becomes a map of scars and memory for the narrator, even as her grandmother is losing her sense of the world in the present. An entire novel of experiences, a whole life, and a lineage of women is encapsulated in this brilliant and compact portrait.

Runner-up: “Spiritual Introduction to the Neighborhood” by Tyler Barton

A neighborhood in the Minnesota River Valley is recast in a collage of modular fiction, and the strange becomes familiar and the familiar becomes strange, and sometimes wondrous or sinister. The narrator, removed and intimate, singular and plural, is an unsettling camera, and one never quite knows what image or character or street or animal or object will be in the next close-up. These tensions drive the story, and it is that sense of hovering, of dissection, and of voyeurism that is the impressive accomplishment—plot can be as subtle as atmosphere, or spirit.

Runner-up: “Breaking” by Christopher Fox

A father hears there is a shooting at his daughter’s high school, and he is miles away—in space. Sometimes writers find the perfect setting to amplify an already fraught situation in a way that adds to the emotional resonance. Unfortunately timely, this story runs the risk of becoming cloying or sentimental, but the vastness of space and the ability to see earth from a shuttle-eye’s view give breathing room to the concept. Universally...


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