national anthology of the best undergraduate writing 2011

“The Year of the Dead Dog”

The title says it all: fiction editor Michiel Considine reflects on his poignantly grotesque experiences reading and editing fiction selections for plain china 2011, below.


 

    The Year of the Dead Dog

My family hit a rough patch in my childhood when it came to dead pets. Hamsters were wrapped in napkins and dropped in trash bins. Our cats made meals of our frogs. We flushed the toilet once a week to say farewell to a speckled minnow or some other tropical fish that couldn’t handle the brackish New England cocktail we offered as a passable substitute for the Caribbean Sea. Luckily, we never partook of extensive backyard pet cemeteries, or the relics would have surely overrun the lawn furniture.

As a writer, I’ve yet to wrangle the courage to tackle this early trauma, choosing, instead, to save such a sensitive topic for an older and wiser version of myself—someone who can demonstrate keeping his cat alive for more than four years (and still going strong!). But while reading through this year’s selection of journals for plain china, our fiction committee discovered early on that other young writers had no qualms about plastering their dead darlings to the page.

In the few months of reading, we encountered: numerous dead dogs, victims of shootings, poisonings, and domestic disputes; a skinned horse; an eastern mole stuffed and mounted; earthworms hacked in two; a litter of kittens with their necks rung; a malnourished chick smothered by hand; and a whitetail deer drowned beneath the solar cover of a swimming pool.

The sheer cornucopia of dying pets was somehow enthralling. For whatever reason, we kept choosing these inhumane pieces to be included in the anthology! It was a disease, a sickness; we were bad people. But after it became a running theme in our fiction meetings—that we had chosen, yet again, a cruel piece of fiction—we had to ask ourselves the serious question: What exactly was it that we saw in these pieces?

As the cruel-hearted gatekeepers that we are, selecting what gets into plain china and what does not, we have to defend why we feel something is worthy of inclusion. Ultimately, we believe the two pieces chose do a great deal more than just off the family pet under dubious circumstances.

In each of these stories are characters who, while capable of at least imagining such brutality, are still imbued with that human struggle we see in ourselves—that dichotomy between right and wrong and how it exists, more often than not, in a murky middle ground. We read these pieces and marveled at how believable these characters were, how darkly funny and lifelike their conundra, and how astounding these young writers were for making them so. We empathized with the suburban dad who just wanted a decent night’s sleep, and we could understand how a strained sisterly dynamic could push a character to the point of murdering her mother’s pet. It was cruel, in a way, but it was never cruelty for cruelty’s sake; there was value in the writer’s willingness to challenge us to relate to people acting in frightening ways. Isn’t that part of what good fiction is all about: taking us one step farther than we might imagine ourselves being capable of?

As a fiction committee, we thought so. And that’s why you can read them here in our final issue of the 2011 anthology, because we think they exemplify some of this year’s best undergraduate writing.

 


To read the pieces Michiel and the rest of the fiction crew so thoughtfully selected, check out “Those Dogs,” by Cassandra Hartt of Dartmouth College, and “Projecting,” by Vincent Scarpa of Emerson College. Both pieces involve dead dogs, and can be found in Issue 3 of plain china 2011.

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