Anne Valente brings wonder and reverence to stories of family and coming-of-age in her debut collection, By Light We Knew Our Names. Of these thirteen stories, roughly half employ a kind of magical realism or fabulism as illumination of their themes: in “Latchkey,” the opening story, children find that they are bonded together by the fantastical manifestations of strengths each possess, which are brought into relief as they cultivate a world together after school, restricted by realism but no less wondrous; in “Dear Amelia,” the young female protagonists must come to terms both with the helplessness they feel as their developing bodies shape-shift into bears, and with the helplessness they feel being born female into an America embarking on World War II; and in “A Very Compassionate Baby,” a father must appreciate the mystical sympathies his infant possesses while learning uncommon compassion himself as “he wonders . . . if the baby will remember this at all once he’s grown, with no flower to recall and only a world of sadness before him, its sorrows to keep like gemstones, to enfold in the pockets of his small, vast heart.” Just as similar empathetic moments bloom from magic or fabulist tangibles, likewise, all of the stories begin in grounded realism and expand outward in transcendence, whether to redeem the characters, inspire them, or strengthen their familial relationships, often all of the above. The result resonates with hope and awe:
Ben laughed, and the lines of worry on Maple’s face melted away and she began to laugh too, and soon they were both giggling so hard it hurt. The sound pierced a dull ache into the center of Ben’s chest. He felt the wish inside him then, just for a moment, for his own jar to keep. Not for ghosts, not daffodils, but for the sound alone—to hold his daughter’s laughter inside a Mason jar, to bottle and store, to set on his nightstand like fireflies, to hold light to the black.
Such is the resilience and heart in these stories. We highly recommend picking up a copy of this wonderful collection today!
Since many of our contributors and readers are putting together first collections of their own, we asked Valente to share a few words of advice for them.
LS: How long did you work on this book, and what was the most helpful advice you received on putting it together?
AV: All of the stories in the collection were written between 2008 and 2012, so I worked on the book for about four years. I began building the collection in 2010 and in between then and 2012, when the book was selected for publication, I switched out stories, reworked stories, revised the order and wrote new stories to include. The most helpful advice I received about putting it together was to consider the movement of themes and images across stories, and to choose the order that best enhanced these themes—one story to the next—without allowing for too much back-to-back repetition of specific images or words. When putting the book together, I tried to consider the movement not only of theme and imagery between stories, but also shifts in point-of-view, narrator and setting.
LS: What advice would you give writers who are putting a collection together?
AV: I’d suggest looking at how all of the stories fit together—what are their common themes, concerns, worldviews, images?—and from there, determining which stories belong and which don’t. It can be a hard choice to cut a story from a collection, and it’s definitely something I did in the process of editing this book. While the stories in this collection aren’t linked by character or setting, they do share similar sensibilities and I had to look hard at which stories felt out of place, which seemed weaker than others, and which might be better left out of the collection. With that said, among the stories that stayed, I looked closely at how they were connected and how they differed, and which order would best enhance their links and differences all at once.
More praise for By Light We Knew Our Names
“The warmth and fluidity of Valente’s prose and her eye for the detail have genuine resonance.” —Publishers Weekly
“In these wonderful stories, Anne Valente shows again and again her talent for extracting the obsessions and anxieties and wonder of childhood, then extrapolating them across the whole of a life: Here feelings manifest as objects, relationships exist as gifts physically given, and every page contains a thrilling combination of sadness and joy, humor and loss, science and mystery and magic. By Light We Knew Our Names is a striking debut, reminiscent of Aimee Bender and Lorrie Moore, but with a bright promise all its own.” —Matt Bell, author of In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods