Among a crowded field of nine excellent books by Mississippi writers, Starkville’s Becky Hagenston emerged victorious. The Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters recently announced that her 2021 collection of short stories “The Age of Discovery” won its annual Fiction Award.
This is one of many accolades for Hagenston’s latest work. In 2020, “The Age of Discovery” won The Journal’s Non/Fiction Prize, which led to its publication by Mad Creek Books, an imprint of the Ohio State University Press. Hagenston was also featured at the Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium last year at Mississippi University for Women.
Hagenston is Professor of English at Mississippi State University. “The Age of Discovery” is her fourth book.
Hagenston specializes in short stories, and in “The Age of Discovery,” many of her stories take place in a dystopian near-future.
“Perishables,” which opens the book, feels as if it is in conversation with Rumaan Alam’s disaster novel “Leave the World Behind,” but instead of Alam’s setting in a wealthy enclave of Long Island, New York., Hagenston places her characters in the middle-class neighborhood of a small Mississippi city that could be Starkville, Columbus or West Point, dealing with the fallout of an interminable blackout.
“Hi Ho Cherry-O” and “In the Museum of Tense Moments” are two other standout stories that give the reader the sensation of seeing into the future and wondering if our modern lives aren’t so modern after all.
Those who joined the pandemic craze of baking sourdough will wonder if stories like “Rise,” with its elements of magical realism imbuing a baker’s handmade loaves of bread, were inspired by real life events during the COVID-19 lockdown. But Hagenston notes in her interview with The Dispatch that all of her stories were written well before our new reality set in.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What did it mean to you to win the Fiction Award from the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters?
It meant first of all that I was shocked — the nomination list was filled with terrific books by wonderful writers. The stories in my collection exist because I live and teach here in Mississippi, so it means a lot to have my book recognized by the MIAL.
Several stories in “The Age of Discovery” have a COVID-era feel. Were any of them written during the pandemic? If not, where did the foreboding atmosphere of these stories come from?
They were all written at least a year before the pandemic, but the world has felt foreboding in many ways for a long time. One of the reasons I write is to explore the things that make me anxious, and I what-if my way into stories.
What draws you to short stories versus other forms of writing?
I love reading short stories — and novels, too, and poetry, plays and nonfiction. It’s fun to experiment with point of view and chronology and structure, and I find that easier to do in a story than in the other forms. I also love looking closely at small moments, and short stories are good for that.
Who are your favorite writers to teach in your classes at Mississippi State?
Two of my favorites are poets Natasha Trethewey, who was born in Gulfport, and Aimee Nezhukumatathil, who teaches at the University of Mississippi. For example, we’ll read Trethewey’s pantoum “Incident” and the students will write their own pantoums. We’ll read Nezhukumatathil’s “One Star Reviews of the Taj Mahal” and talk about found poems.
Although you grew up in Maryland, you’ve been in Mississippi for a long time now. What does being a Mississippian mean to you?
It’s strange to think that I’ve lived here longer than I’ve lived anywhere else. What makes me feel lucky to be a Mississippian is what brought me here in the first place — my teaching job at Mississippi State. At the risk of sounding sappy, I really do learn so much from my students, and that’s what makes being a Mississippian most meaningful to me.
Emily Liner is the owner and founder of Friendly City Books, an independent bookstore and press in Columbus, Mississippi.