There are two kinds of people in Tembusu: people who overcommit, and people who never commit for the fear of overcommitting. That’s pretty much our relationship with books nowadays. We flirt with the idea of all the books we want to read, but hardly make the time to get to know them. This despite how books give us something of training wheels for the vulnerability and intimacy we’re more wary of in real-life relationships. Valentine’s Day is great, but at least a book won’t ever stand you up. Here are some short stories and poetry about love (not to be confused with romance), with something for everyone no matter your Facebook status or commitment level.
How They Met and Other Stories, by David Levithan
There’s nothing more thematically appropriate to begin with than How They Met, a collection of the short stories Levithan wrote each Valentine’s Day starting his junior year in high school. As you’d expect, most of the stories are about the painfully earnest teenage romance of our youths. There are stories about toxic relationships and heartbreak, about romantic and familial love at each other’s throats, about the love between friends that makes itself known in the most unexpected of moments.
Apart from “The Alumni Interview” and the titular “How They Met’”, a personal favourite would be “Starbucks Boy”, wherein our awkward protagonist falls for, well, a Starbucks boy. Its charm lies in its lack of pretense, its irreverent humour, and in its self-conscious admission to the follies of youth and overly-sweet crushes.
As my Starbucks Boy handed Arabelle her drink, I observed that he gave her the same smile he gave me. I realized how stupid I was being, thinking his attentions were anything more than routine. Then, when he handed over my drink and our hands accidentally touched, I forgot that realization entirely.
There Once Lived A Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband And He Hanged Himself: Love Stories, by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, translation by Anna Summers
He was too cowardly to ask his future wife for directions and just trudged behind her. He was leaving for home on a night train.
Born in Moscow, USSR in 1938 and later exiled alongside her family after her father was declared an enemy of the state, Petrushevskaya’s perfunctory, realist narratives of people searching for love and never quite getting it might seem relatively apolitical. Yet, it’s clear that the romances that fall short of ideals cannot be separated from the disenchantment peculiar to late- and post-Soviet society, where a kind of societal and political claustrophobia manifests itself in the physical claustrophobia of cramped communal apartments. There, the individual’s pursuits come up against obstacles such as familial obligations.
In “Hallelujah, Family!” a fifteen-year-old girl is impregnated by her sister’s husband, who does indeed hang himself, a death that becomes something of a curse hanging over the next three generations of women, all products of extramarital affairs. “Give Her To Me” stars an actress-in-training, whose technical skill never quite makes up for her visual plainness until she catches the eye of her teacher, a struggling composer and a married man. “Two Deities” chronicles the relationship between a thirty-year-old editor and a twenty-year-old part-time student, who is mature enough to impregnate her, but not enough to know its implications.
The ambulance didn’t come for an hour, but when they finally took her, the grandmother was still alive. […] The neighbor’s voice was full of reproach. Two weeks later, having buried her grandmother, Genya vowed to keep the child who was now her only family–a touching but impractical decision.
If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, by Sappho, translation by Anne Carson
But she goes back and forth remembering
gentle Atthis and in longing
she butes her tender mind
Sappho was a lyric poet of Ancient Greece, widely regarded as one of the greatest lyric poets by the Ancient Greeks. She was hailed as “the Tenth Muse”, placing her amongst the goddessess who bestowed divine inspiration upon singers, poets, and artists. Unlike Homer’s sprawling, ambitious epics of heroes contending with gods and the wide world, Sappho was one of the first to compose songs about the individual and her emotions. Yearning suffuses her poems, as does jealousy, desire, pain, and pleasure.
you came and I was crazy for you
and you cooled my mind that burned with longing
Of the 10,000 lines of poetry she wrote, 650 remain, in fragments. All else is lost to us, but perhaps that only romances us all the more. Carson’s clever and liberal use of brackets and space transports the reader to a musty library, squinting at patchworked papyri through a magnifying glass, searching for meaning as so many others must have across the centuries.
[…] oh it
puts the heart in my chest on wings
for when I look at you, even a moment, no speaking
is left in me
So intensely, quietly emotional are Sappho’s poems it feels as if she speaks directly to you, as if the distance of thousands of years and several seas do not exist. The pain that comes from disconnections, from feelings uncommunicated or unreceived, is transformed into an impossible connection.
Zombies vs Unicorns, edited by Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier
Think of it like the best macaroni and cheese you’ve ever had. No neon yellow Velveeta and bread crumbs. I’m talking gourmet cheddar, the expensive stuff from Vermont that crackles as it melts into that crust on top. Imagine if right before you were about to tear into it, the mac and cheese starts talking to you?
This anthology of short stories is organised around two competing themes: predictably, stories about unicorns, and stories about zombies. Admittedly, there doesn’t seem to be much room for love or romance here. Among the Team Zombie stories, though, are some that deal with themes common to the genre, such as romantic desire clashing against baser instincts.
In particular, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” by Alaya Dawn Johnson stands out (and for reasons beyond Johnson’s excellent taste in music). A zombie’s appetite for his lacrosse-playing classmate takes a turn for the romantic, even as he discovers that his leftovers is the child of a zombie-hunter, trained to take down monsters like himself since childhood.
He opens his eyes, and now they’re not buggy at all. They’re hard and fierce and iced. He looks like he might kill you or kiss you. You hold your too-slow breath and realize you don’t care which.
Kissing the Witch: Old Tales in New Skins, by Emma Donoghue
I had got the story all wrong. How could I not have known she was beautiful? I must have dropped all my words in the bushes.
From the author of best-selling Room is a collection of thirteen reimagined fairytales: the fairy godmother gets her own happily-ever-after, the stepmother is a brand of danger harder to resist, and the beast is cursed more by laws of the world than by magic.
As part of oral tradition, fairytale and folktales shape much of cultural memory and how we view the world, including how we view love and romance. In particular, female passivity remains a tradition in fairytales. Donoghue turns archetypal vessels-for-virtue into more complicated characters with a contemporary consciousness, deconstructing and averting many romantic tropes.
Now you may tell me that I should have felt betrayed, but I was shaking with excitement. I should have felt like a possession, but for the first time in my life I seemed to own myself. I went as a hostage, but it seemed as if I was riding into battle.
Nevertheless, the fairytale charm remains, in the form of lyrical repetitions, gestures towards familiar tropes and archetypes, and a style deliberately reminiscent of oral storytelling. While being a collection of discrete, standalone short stories, the book is also inventively structured, with each story being told by its protagonist to the protagonist of the previous story. In Kissing the Witch, love does not come as a guise for female entrapment, but rather as the language for a voice that has always been there.
I knew exactly what love looked like … in seventh grade.
To round things up, here’s a slam poem about love, in all its glorious messiness. It is a poem funny, sad, gross, earnest, frightened, and, above all, hopeful. Maybe that’s really what we need on Valentine’s: an acknowledgement that love doesn’t always come in shiny chocolate foil wrappers, carefully-arranged bouquets or expensive wine. Romantic love is, well, lovely, but even that comes in an endless variety of shapes and forms. Sometimes love is murdering people to feed your obligate cannibal boyfriend; sometimes love is a constantly-deferred marriage; sometimes love is an over-complicated coffee order. Sometimes, love is a good book.
And, well, if all else fails, we’ll always have Gone Girl.
Header and feature image by Lisa Chin.
About the author
Tan Yanrong is a first-year literature major who has all the right opinions on all the wrong things.