Indiana Review is proud to have the incomparable Aimee Bender judging our 2016 Fiction Prize. If you’re taking a break from preparing your submission, check out the senior editors’ favorite Bender stories. Perhaps her spellbinding prose and uncanny premises will inspire you.
Su Cho (Editor):
“The Healer” from The Girl in the Flammable Skirt opens with a very factual statement: “There were two mutant girls in the town: one had a hand made of fire and the other had a hand made of ice. Everyone else’s hands were normal.” Aimee Bender always manages to present the strange as something extraordinary in an understated yet powerful way. Fire and ice may be familiar to the reader, but we are taken past that and into how the fire and ice girls come to terms with their marked differences and not only heal others but themselves.
Tessa Yang (Associate Editor):
In Aimee Bender’s “End of the Line,” a man purchases a little man from the pet store “to keep him company.” I’m drawn to this story’s careful irony: how the big man’s cruelties reveal his paralyzing isolation, how the little man’s resistance suggests the strength of an entire little world. The final image of the big man with the tiny hat on his “enormous head” is a gesture of sweeping empathy that echoes back through the story. Do I want to redeem him? As in so much of Bender’s work, the bizarre fuses with the poignant to fling us into a space of beautiful uncertainties.
Emily Corwin (Poetry Editor):
I first read “Hymn” in high school and it swept me away, with its whimsy and lyricism, this world where children are made of paper or glass or can change into any object. I love how these children grow into adults and use the bodies they were given, their unique powers to help everyone in the town. There is such a deep sense of community in this story, how we make the best of situations, how we give what we can, how things that can seem unfortunate might actually be a blessing in disguise. The last sentence always stays with me: “My genes, my love, are rubber bands and rope; make yourself a structure you can live inside.” We gather what we have, what we were born with, and we have to make what we can of it.
Maggie Su (Fiction Editor):
Aimee Bender’s short story, “Off,” begins with the line, “At the party I make a goal and it is to kiss three men: one with black hair, one with red hair, the third blonde.” It’s a familiar fairy tale premise made caustic, and from that starting pistol of an opener, Bender races through the story with every scene colored by our narrator’s wry and cynical voice. She is the type of woman who wears an expensive dress to a casual party to upstage the host, who pulls a wounded ex-boyfriend into the bathroom as part of a game. Yet Bender keeps us so close in the head of this character who refuses to be likeable that we’re able to read between the lines; to intuit the deep longing that exists behind her ego and petty actions. What I admire most about this story is the way meaning multiplies; every gesture in this piece acts on two levels. Every sentence is more than the sum of its parts. Just as our narrator paints beautiful landscapes with “glinting kni[ves] hanging from each husk,” Bender creates a careful portrait of a woman who appears completely in control, but truly balances on a knife-point.
Anna Cabe (Web Editor):
In the story, “The Color Master,” we hear, not from the heroine of the fairy tale, “Donkeyskin,” but from the artisans behind the creation of her fabulous gowns, which are the colors of the moon, the sun, and the sky. While fairy tale adaptations are a dime a dozen, Bender takes the adaptation further by focusing on the sheer injustice of the king’s incestuous desire for his daughter. “Put anger in the dress. Righteous anger. Do you hear me?” the titular Color Master orders the narrator, her protégée. While it takes a while for the narrator to understand, when the Color Master dies, she is finally able to channel her rage at the death of a true, unapologetic artist into the creation of the final, sky-colored gown, which encourages the princess to flee. In this story, Bender claims the power of art to inspire dissent. This tale always reminds me that the act of creation is never nothing; to make something is courage in itself.