“Tell Me What You See” Is A Timeless Collection About Unprecedented Times

In the darkness of the 2020 COVID-19 shutdown, I have a feeling that many readers shared the same thought: “I can’t wait to see what kind of writing comes out of this pandemic.” Enter Terena Elizabeth Bell’s short story collection Tell Me What You See. Though a concise ten stories, these works show Bell’s authorial range, as the genres span from apocalyptic to sci-fi to the revision of a Biblical story and more. The collection is engaging and provocative as well as sensitive and spot-on.

Tell Me What You See is disarming from the start. The first story, “Welcome, Friend” (a 2023 Best of the Net nominee), told from the second person perspective, puts the reader in an empty apartment, practically gagging on the stench from a rotten refrigerator, as the inhabitants are simply gone. It’s an opening well-suited to a collection that puts the reader in situations that are all-too-familiar in the modern world of COVID-19, a world where life has been interrupted, and often feels like a scene from an apocalyptic or dystopian setting.

Readers will easily compare Bell with many greats of our time. While they may find the opening story to harmonize with Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven, it’s just as easy to recollect NK Jemison or Octavia Butler in the following work, “The Fifth Fear.” Readers must figure out the circumstances of the characters who are going through a portal, into what world, we don’t know, but we have the sense that the narrative is coming from the past which is also the future. Bell has a deft hand with footnotes and definitions that create a sense of verisimilitude, as if we have stumbled upon a historical document.

The third piece in the collection pivots into another style, the modern epistolary, in which the story unfolds in a series of texts, emails, pictures, screenshots, memes, and tweets. “#Coronalife” pulls the reader into the world of Maggie, circa March 2020, when New York City is shutting down due to the virus. While Bell does not shy away from the sobering reality of the New York death toll, she adds humor by including overbearing high school friends and worried cousins Milt and Jodi, who consistently reach out to Maggie offering advice. When reading this piece, it’s hard to remember that it’s a work of fiction, and I expect readers will appreciate how true-to-life this story is to the early days of the pandemic.

The titular story, “Tell Me What You See,” (2021 New York Foundation for the Arts City Artist Corps winner), is punctuated with images of the optometrist’s eye chart as he assesses a young child’s ability to see what is not there. While a reader may be unclear about the time period or motivations of the doctor and his assistant, it soon becomes clear that correcting the child’s vision is for ideologically nefarious purposes.

These stories are united by the theme of passing through: passing through a home, a portal, a pandemic, a disease, a relationship, an examination.  As readers go through these works, they will recall their own experiences as well as bear witness to new perspectives and situations. Bell’s collection is not only a testament to what a fine author can do with a difficult time in history, but it is a work that transcends time and circumstance.

Tell Me What You See
Terena Elizabeth Bell
Whiskey Tit
Published December 4, 2022