This one has been on my TBR since it came out. So. Really not that long, but many great reviews and lots of award nominations made me want to read it ASAP. In fact, it’s on the longlist for the Aspen Prize for Literature, which, after hearing about this award for the first time last year, has basically immediately become my favorite. The books that make its’ longlist have been some of the most diverse that I’ve seen and I loved all the ones I read from it last year. So this year I’m making it a goal to read as many as possible (within reason/within my mood-reader limits). Regardless, this is one I knew I wanted to read but none of my libraries has it (yes, I belong to more than one) which is insane to me since it was also National Book Award long listed and I live in a super open/liberal community. I mean, UGH. Anyways, I requested that all my libraries buy it and stalked their catalogs until I saw one had done so. I immediately added it to my holds list and, in a situation that I have some big nerd pride in, I think I was the very first person to get it checked out.
I always review each short story in a collection as I read it…it helps me keep track of them (which gets hard when in the space of meeting one set of characters and setting and plot, normally, we meet 10-15), spot themes, and allows me to report back both individual and overall impressions. Anyways, enjoy these little blurb reviews and pull quotes or scroll to the bottom for my overall/finishing impressions.
Sugar Babies – What an opener to set the tone. Atmospheric in a desolate sort of way, Fajardo-Anstine’s language and style are such that the words she writes just seep into your bones. This is a lovely little story with some observations on motherhood that get you thinking, but nothing too heavy topically, so it’s interesting, and a testament to the writing, that I feel so weighed down by it after finishing. “Sometimes a person’s unhappiness can make them forget they are a part of something bigger, something like a family, a people, even a tribe.”
Sabrina & Corina – It’s only the second in the collection, but I can see why this one is the titular story already. This one hits hard in the gut, looking at the intergenerational cycle of violence against women and the trapped hopelessness and choice-less-ness it inspires. Quietly unforgiving, this story leaves behind a longing and tragic feeling in the pit of your stomach. “People will find the loveliest part of you and try to make it ugly. And they will do anything […] to own that piece of you.”
Sisters – This story too focuses on, but with a less oblique look than the previous story, violence against women. Looking at the way a woman’s worth is measured by whether or not she can get a man and that settling in order to be “taken care of” is not only alright but potentially all that matters. And finally, a metaphorical commentary on the fact that this type of violence is so commonplace, and the narrative so owned by the abusers, that it’s not objected to or questioned at all anymore. Deeply disturbing. “…I think even the ugly things deserve a chance to live. It’s just about making sure things can live together without destroying each other.”
Remedies – I love reading about home/traditional remedies for ailments. I’m not sure why, or what it is that appeals to me, but I’ve always loved when those are thrown into stories. So, I loved that aspect of this one. Other than that, the insidiousness of lice, as a metaphor (as I read it) for the nature of the aftermath women are left with at the hands of rotten/deficient men, was executed beautifully here. And as a side note, I loved the ending of this story, and the especially little “nice hair” moment that half-bother and sister shared, years later.
Julian Plaza – A heartbreaking little story about two young girls slowly losing their mother to breast cancer. Exploring how children must grow up too fast under these tragic types of circumstances and the unreal strain such drawn-out illness places on families already struggling with/walking the line of poverty (and the things they must resort to, in order to survive the circumstances). Not my favorite story of the collection, but still a moving snapshot of family, specifically mother-daughter, connection and loss.
Galapago – This story seemed quieter than the rest, for some reason. There was less obvious force behind it, but that made it all the more emotionally impactful, at least for me. A beautiful look at intergenerational family love and loss and making the best memories with what you have. Also, important insight into the harshness and danger of daily life in socioeconomically struggling areas and the lasting impacts of segregation, both purposefully historically, and thus institutionalized as the norm today. So sweetly sad…this one got my heart. “All of it junk, and all of it precious.”
Cheesman Park – This was a really sad one, the deep and abiding sadness that seeps into your soul and makes you cold from the inside out; the sadness of grief and pain and loss and loneliness, both internal and external. Looking at love and loneliness and all the different ways you can find/experience one or both, and what you’re willing to live through in order to have them. And again, as is clearly the primary theme for this collection, violence against women, the cultural acceptance of it, and what it does to the women who experience it, is woven in to every aspect. “Time didn’t feel as long or wasteful in the company of another woman.” “Age has nothing to do with sadness.” “…I didn’t worry so much about being loved.”
Tomi – Intergenerational violence. Childhood trauma. Limited choices and even fewer ways to deal with that reality. Heartbreaking. But this story was also full of more hope than many of the others. There were some truly sweet and poignant moments when the narrator helps her nephew, Tomi, with his reading, and the way her brother’s (Tomi’s father) is there for her because that’s what family does. This one was really about there being a way out of the dark, even if it’s long and hard, and it was uplifting in an understated and perfectly ordinary way.
Any Further West – Whoa. I honestly think the emotion in this story is the most powerful of the entire collection. The personification of addiction, mental illness, the results of the life you’re born into, the coping mechanisms that you fall into, and the intergenerational struggles of mothers and daughters, the powerlessness from lack of options and the way it’s taken advantage of, was so harsh it was tangible here. I don’t know how else to describe it, but wow. And this passage from the end basically sums up the feeling of this entire collection so accurately: “That’s when I knew she was forever caught in her own undercurrent, bouncing from one deep swell to the next. She would never lift me out of that sea. She would never pause to fill her lungs with air. Soon the world would yank her chain of sadness against every shore, every rock, every glass-filled beach, leaving nothing but the broken hull of a drowned woman.”
All Her Names – This one was short, but important in getting to its point. There are so many stories in this collection about daughters (and sons) abandoned by mothers. So the main character’s choices here are key…what harm would growing up unwanted do, that not being given the chance to grow up might protect from? It’s not about age or circumstance, but about the want – and is especially impactful after having read most of the rest of the stories here. And again, the inclusion of traditional/home remedies was a detail I really liked.
Ghost Sickness – What a perfect, beautiful ending. Taking all the suffering and inequality of today, all the re-writing of history and erasure of past crimes, and moving back to before all if it, to the beginnings of the Native American peoples (or at least, one folklore version thereof). A profound message to end this collection on – that colonization and massacre cannot wipe out the strength of a whole people, their connection to the land and each other, and their power to reclaim their own future. “…the story of First Man and First Woman, how they were born of stardust and earth, scrambled out of the underground land of darkness and traveled through many worlds, leaving behind the blackness of their beginnings for a life of sunlight and air.”
And now, for my overall thoughts and reactions. First things first, I want to just say that I completely and totally get the hype and I agree with it. This collection speaks to a variety of hard-hitting themes from a perspective that is under-represented (if at all represented: Latinas of indigenous ancestry) in literature. The focus on women, mothers and daughters, loneliness and abandonment, the truth of the land and its heritage, endurance for the sake of attention and love and support, the particular challenges of intergenerational trauma and poverty and colonization, with its history of abuse against Native Americans and minorities in America are all explored and presented in a way that is subtle in its strength. Each individual story had strong currents that approached an undertow, with their ferocity and strength of emotion – they all pulled me in and touched me deeply and though they didn’t necessarily hit with a bang, they are still raging, spreading, making a home, within me. As with all short story collections, I liked some more than others, but I have to say, there was not a single one that fell flat for me. Stirring and meaningful, I think these stories, their themes, and the feelings they’ve left me with will linger for a long time.