I truly believe in the transformative power of narratives. I believe that through stories we challenge assumptions, expand our understanding, and make connections with others. It is why I became an English teacher. As idealistic as it sounds, I hold tightly onto my belief that literature has the power to make us more empathetic, more compassionate, more human.
But this also means that we, as teachers, have a responsibility to introduce our students to a diverse range of stories, of authors, of content. The most convenient place to do this is often in a short story unit, as we can wind our way through multiple continents and differing perspectives, all within a couple of weeks.
While all types of diversity and representation matter, for this post I want to take a moment to focus on including global perspectives in our curriculum: including voices and stories from around the world to broaden students’ horizons, while also helping them find commonality with those seemingly different: thus exploring our common humanity.
So here are some of my recommendations for short stories to include in your classroom. [*Note: Most of these would be most appropriate for grades 8-12; though some content might be mature for some classes. Do use your professional discretion; you know your classes best!]
“The American Embassy” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie [found in The Thing Around Your Neck]
Adichie’s powerful TEDtalk “The Danger of a Single Story” is how I always open my short story unit. In this talk she explores the problems of only reading stories from a homogenous group (often white, western, male). As a Nigerian female writer herself, she knows this well. As she eloquently explains in her talk: “Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.” While I use many of her stories and essays in my classroom, I love reading “The American Embassy” with students, as it speaks to universal themes of fear, loss and grief. As the protagonist queues outside the American Embassy in Lago, Nigeria, waiting to make an application for asylum, she is confronted with recent tragedy and heartache. The narrative includes flashbacks as the painful death of the protagonist’s son is conveyed; thus it is an engaging story for teaching narrative perspective and plot structure.
“Borders” by Thomas King [found in One Good Story, That One]
In this compelling first-person narrative, King - himself of Cherokee and Greek descent - explores the concept of identity in a changing world: particularly as it relates to indigenous peoples. Set on the border between the US and Canada, a proudly First Nations woman asserts her own idea of identity and belonging, refusing to conform to imposed concepts of citizenship. Told through the perspective of a young boy, I have found that students connect with this complex topic in a way which is accessible, opening up fruitful, engaging conversations about nationhood, identify, and belonging. The story is constructive for teaching the importance of setting, as the problem of crossing the physical border clearly parallels the deeper theme as it relates to the restrictions often placed on others’ identities. You can access all my teaching materials for this story here.
“The Kettle on the Boat” by Vanessa Gebbie [found in One World]
In this brief-but-powerful narrative, Welsh author, Vanessa Gebbie, tells the painful story of Qissunguaq, a six-year-old Inuit girl, who is separated from her family as a result of climate change impacting the food chain and their means of survival. The narrative voice is clearly defined as the simplistic language reflects the young child’s confusion about her situation, building suspense and evoking sadness in the reader. While the underlying theme is important in this story, I often find it is a compelling piece to use in the classroom as a means of exploring the language and craft of the short story form.
“Spilled Water” by Djamila Ibrahim [found in Things Are Good Now]
Born in Ethiopia, Ibrahim immigrated to Canada in the 1990s, and the short stories in her debut collection examine the weight of the migrant experience on the human psyche. What I find extremely powerful about these stories is Ibrahim’s portrayal of the complexities of being an immigrant in a foreign land: the often daily humiliations and hidden struggles. In “Spilled Water” the narrator is a young Ethiopian orphan who is adopted by a Canadian family. As she tries to navigate the daily cultural shocks, the reader sees the familiar through a new and surprising lens: everything from simply shopping at the mall to the more unique tradition of celebrating Halloween. This opens up great opportunities for discussing what might be usual in our own cultures, but seem strange to others.
As explained in the cover blurb, Mia Alvar “gives voice to the women and men of the Philippines and its diaspora… [her] stories explore the universal experiences of loss, displacement, and the longing to connect across borders both real and imagined.” To me, her short story, “A Contract Overseas,” epitomises these crucial themes. The young female narrator, living in Manila, wrestles with her own identity as budding writer, feelings of isolation in her own family and surroundings, and her relationship with her brother who - like many Filipinos - moves to Saudi Arabia to work and send money home. The characters in this enthralling story are bold and beautifully-defined, which opens opportunities for teaching characterization. That said, the protagonist herself grapples with fleshing out conflicts in her own stories, which is intriguing to explore in the classroom.
“The Medicine Bag” by Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve [in Grandpa Was a Cowboy and an Indian and Other Stories]
Written in 1975, this may be one of the older stories in the list, and more commonly taught in middle/high schools already. Yet it is well-known for good reason. The young protagonist struggles with his own sense of cultural identity as he is confronted with his conflicting feelings surrounding his Native American heritage. When his worlds collide and his Sioux grandfather comes to visit their Iowa home - far from the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota - the protagonist wrestles with his own adolescent feelings of pride, shame, and confusion. Raised on an Indian Reservation herself, much of Sneve’s writing is concerned with dispelling stereotypes and negative images of Native Americans. Due to its dealing with issues of personal struggle, “The Medicine Bag” provides engaging opportunities for exploring characterization, conflict, and shifts in perspective.
“War Years” by Viet Thanh Nguyen [in The Refugees]
Viet Thanh Nguyen - Pulitzer prize winning author of The Sympathizer - has written a timely and weighty short story collection called The Refugees, and aptly dedicated to ‘all refugees, everywhere.’ In the story "War Years" Nguyen conveys the fictional account of a Vietnamese family who fled to the US because of the war in their home; yet when they are confronted with a fellow immigrant - a zealous anti-communist woman trying to raise money for an uprising back in Vietnam - they find that they cannot leave the past behind them. The story explores how these different characters have been afflicted by the horrifying impacts of war: both directly and indirectly. Thus conflict is central to this story, and serves as a helpful lens for analyzing the narrative’s deeper themes of loss, grief, and the lasting impact of war.
“A Ride Out of Pharo” by Dina Nayeri [read it here: LitHub]
Nayeri, an author of Iranian descent, won the prestigious O. Henry prize for this captivating short story. In it, Shirin, a once-prominent doctor in Iran, moves her life to Thailand to work as an English teacher, having already spent many years as in the US. While the story clearly explores cultural identities across continents, it also deals with more personal, universal issues of motherly love, aging, the complexities of building relationships, and one’s sense of purpose. In this way, it can be an absorbing story for teaching theme. As the protagonist battles with her own adult-daughter - who was brought up in America - the author presents the differences in culture and the impact of society on one's preferences; it is thus an interesting story for exploring unspoken cultural practices, and the influence of place on one’s identity.
*Please note that there are a few profanities in this story.
“Ishwari’s Children” by Shabnam Nadiya [read it here]
Nadiya is a writer and translator from Bangladesh, whose story, "Ishwari's Children" explores the culture and social practices of a rural Bangladeshi village. The protagonist is a 6 year-old boy who journeys with his grandfather to visit of group of isolated, vulnerable people. The complexities of power, privilege and societal status are explored in this story, and done so with vivid imagery and delicious descriptions. Interestingly, the author has written about her underlying motivations here, which makes for a great class conversation: so often we discuss the author’s underlying message, yet rarely do we actually get hear their thoughts about their craft directly.
While I believe that all these authors’ works would be valuable additions to any classroom library, if you are looking to buy just one book, I would highly recommend One World: A Global Anthology of Short Stories. Plus, all the authors’ royalties for the book are donated to Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctor’s Without Borders).
If you are looking to read more about diverse literature, please check out this great post from Danielle about YA novel suggestions, and this helpful post about building a diverse classroom library from Brittany, The SuperHERO Teacher.