A year ago, I came across an anthology of short stories, New Sudden Fiction, edited by Robert Shapard and James Thomas which collected over 60 stories from different writers with less than 2000 words. I remember that my reaction towards the anthology was lukewarm because I realized that, when it comes to fiction, the shorter the word count the harder it is to pull off something worthy of reading. This is, in my opinion, because the limited word count creates a constraint in creating a satisfying narrative flow. I believe this is also why sudden fiction has the tendency to be grounds for experimentation with writers finding creative ways to tell a story with a limited word count. If done with deft hands, the result are stories like David Foster Wallace’s “Incarnations of Burned Children“, Margaret Atwood’s “Happy Endings“, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “One of These Days.”
We can certainly add Alice Walker’s “Roselily” to the list of wonderfully written sudden fiction out there. In the story, Roselily, a mother of four children from different fathers, is about to marry a man who is a stranger to her. We enter the story in the middle of the wedding just before the bride and groom are about to exchange their wedding vows, at the moment when the preacher is asking (rhetorically) if there are any who are opposed to the marriage.
Dearly Beloved, we are gathered here in the sight of God to join this man and this woman in holy matrimony. If there’s anybody here that knows a reason why these two should not be joined together, let him speak or forever hold his peace.
The whole story is framed within these two sentences from the preacher with a break every few words or so to illuminate the thoughts of Roselily. Within the two sentences of the preacher, we learn so much about Roselily’s anxieties about her past, present, and future. We learn that she is worried about living with a Muslim man. We learn that she is nervous about living in Chicago, miles north from where she has lived all her life. We learn that she worried about her children and about the children that are surely to come when she does not even want children in the first place. We learn that she wants to live and that she is worried that she does not know how.
She wants to live for once. But doesn’t know quite what that means.
Still, despite the story’s overall ominous tone, the reader can sense hope in Roselily’s voice. She hopes that the land north of Mississippi can offer a different life than the one she grew up with. She hopes for a better life for her children, for a lover that is better than the ones that left her, and for a new city that is more tolerant than the one she is leaving behind.
“Roselily” is a story about a woman’s anxiety. Anxiety with her past, with her present, and with her future. Alice Walker, in skilfully combining style with content, has created with less than 2000 words a story that strikes the very root of the human experience and tells a story about a woman’s struggle for a better life that seems out of reach, no matter what she does.