Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor

31XkWuncUYL*Originally published in Latino Book Review at latinobookreview.com*

Fernanda Melchor’s debut English-translated novel is a haunting masterpiece reminding us that there are no winners when it comes to intolerance. In a rural Mexican village marked by misogyny, addiction, machismo, and homophobia, the Witch is a lifeline for the local women and the target of violence by men who are threatened by her audacity to live outside of their sphere of power. As the second-generation resident witch, she knows she is safest only on the fringes of society. When she is violently murdered and tossed in the irrigation canal, the twisted events leading up to her death and the ugly aftermath reveal how deeply her existence was intertwined in the dysfunctional community relationships.

Through the unfiltered, rambling consciousness of her troubled characters, Melchor reveals the depths of human greed and the desperate actions it drives us to commit. In this place dominated by poverty and violence, the only redemption is the persisting memory of the Witch of La Matosa, a tormented woman who recognized a shared pain among her comrades and had the inexplicable compassion to heal others despite her own suffering. The Witch is both everywhere and nowhere in our society. She is the queer outcast who never got to tell her own story. She is the living fantasy and greatest fear for those oppressed by the patriarchy. She is like so many victims of femicide in Mexico for whom there is no justice.

 

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Erosion: Essays of Undoing

What if beauty dwells in the margins of our undoing and remaking?

downloadErosion is a collection of essays depicting the ways that modern priorities and lifestyles have led to the spiritual, physical, and political erosion of communities in the United States. At the core of Williams’ melodic, impassioned writing is a deep connection to her homeland of Utah and an earnest empathy for all living beings. Written over the last several years, Williams examines environmental legislation and the political environment that enabled the gutting of national monuments and the auctioning of public lands to the Big Oil industry. These acts of aggression are emblematic of new incarnations of colonialism that deny indigenous sovereignty and the right of the American people to access wild spaces that are central to cultural identity and vitality.

Informed by her own journey from the Mormon church to a unifying “cosmic faith”, Williams unravels the delusions and misplaced priorities that led to the oppressive, consumerist culture that is threatening life-giving systems. Her stories encourage readers to embrace the entire spectrum of human reactions to the long-term and everyday tragedies we are living through—sitting with our sorrow and grief, remaining hopeful, and pushing the boundaries of what is comfortable and normal to us in order to make progress.

Williams writes about the landscape not as a privilege to be cherished, but as the very lifeblood that enables us to flourish. To ignore its needs is to ignore our own during this precarious transition into ecological and political collapse. Erosion is both historical, and deeply personal—a glimpse into an individual’s heart as well as the collective consciousness of a nation.

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Not until we begin to understand the true costs of what we have lost and the pain we have inflicted on people and nature through the destruction of fragile landscapes and communities in the commodification and extraction of the Earth, can a healing between us take place. Our collective crisis of conscience and consciousness in this era of climate change is based on self-delusion, privilege, and our sense of entitlement, all of which continue to fuel the power and rapaciousness of our appetites. It is killing us.

Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture edited by Roxane Gay

9780062413505_p0_v4_s1200x630Roxane Gay began this anthology in an attempt to unravel the nebulous concept of “rape culture”– to engage with the question, “What is it like to live in a culture where it often seems like it is a question of when, not if, a woman will encounter some kind of sexual violence?” Ultimately, this piece became a place where diverse individuals across the gender spectrum could reclaim their own stories, free from expectations about what it means to carry the burden of trauma.

Gay and the contributing authors created a space where it’s okay to say, “It WAS that bad. It still is.” This anthology does not offer simple truths about sexual violence or a literary tonic for those scarred by it, but it does provide insight into why these kinds of stories are silenced and why every one of them matters. The authors, so far beyond vulnerable, offer readers the broken bits of themselves so that their experiences might become something more than a car crash everyone likes to observe in a most unhelpful way.

“I’m writing this so it can be a part of the compendium of other sad and bad stories like these, because maybe the compendium will say something in totality that we cannot say alone.”

These stories are brimming with emotional chaos and contradictions, but together, the voices ring true in a kind of perverse harmony of pain and healing. Together, the survivors scream unapologetically that each of us matter, and this can’t continue. Every time someone musters the courage to speak up, every time we refuse to diminish our own pain for the sake of others, the Movement is that much closer to holding people accountable for the suffering they’ve inflicted and a little bit closer to a cultural revolution.

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“It’s time to pull out the scalpel and turn it around. Slash vents in the paper walls of this master’s house of heteropatriarchal colonialist mass hallucination that claims to be our reality. Give vent to our rage. Be bad. Dare to survive.” –So Mayer 

The Affairs of the Falcóns

514R75L5G6L._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_In the Affairs of the Falcóns, Rivero illustrates the complex politics and emotions at play within a single family trying to make their way as immigrants in a the US: the racism and classism within the Peruvian community, strained loyalties and the dissolution of marriages, children being raised as Americans but frequently reminded that they are outsiders, the economic and political regimes that cause widespread displacement, and the sacrifices people will justify in the name of love and survival.

In Peru, Ana faces constant discrimination and disdain by her own people. As an indigenous, dark-skinned woman from the campo with no assets and the wrong accent, even her own husband’s family is ashamed of her. For Ana, the opportunity to live in New York as an undocumented immigrant is her only pathway to a dignified life where her family is safe from the violence of civil war. No matter how much she struggles to provide basic needs like food, medicine, and a home for her husband and children, it is this desperate hope for a better life, and no fathomable alternative, that drives her forward at any cost.

This novel puts into perspective the nuanced experience of immigrants in the US. Ironically, the fact that Americans have a tendency to group all immigrants into the same identity and social strata is precisely what Ana appreciates about being in New York. She still has no socioeconomic status, but the simple ability to blend in among the immigrant population, to be on equal footing with other Peruvians and Latinos, is a privilege she is deeply grateful for.

The story of the Falcóns is painfully human and inspirational at the same time, as Rivero captures a feeling of desperation and imperfect love in a genuinely empathetic way.

All her life, she’d been made to feel small and inconsequential. Whenever the feeling was too much to bear, she ran. Outside of Santa Clara, her skin, her hair, the way she spoke—all of it only exacerbated those feelings. She couldn’t help but fall into the trap. Lose that accent, lighten those strands. Marry up. Marry light. But marrying Lucho only reinforced how little the world thought of her. She was now the chola in the family.

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Native Country of the Heart by Cherríe Moraga

 

**Originally published on Latino Book Review

9780374219666From the beloved queer Chicana feminist writer Cherríe Moraga, Native Country of the Heart is a memoir told in parallel with the memoir of her Mexican mother, Elvira. Elvira is the foundational stone on which Moraga builds her own Chicana feminism and family, a woman whose beauty, rage, and fuerza incansable were unmatched in the eyes of Cherríe. Cherríe Moraga’s life story is one of reclamation and resistance: reclaiming her indigenous Californian and Mexican roots in a Gringo world, while resisting the shame and guilt forged by the patriarchy and religion of her family’s culture.

With Spanish words and phrases infusing her prose with a poetic precision that only the two languages combined can achieve, Moraga takes us from the 1930’s in Tijuana, Mexico to the 1960’s in San Gabriel, California, and beyond.  Alzheimer’s disease eventually takes the wheel of Elvira’s life, both incapacitating her at a functional level while simultaneously revealing her most repressed desires and authentic self. Cherríe, becoming a mother to her deteriorating parents, grapples with the feat of relinquishing control and surrendering her mother through the haze of dementia to the spirits of her ancestors.

From her childhood experience of being isolated and fearful that her identity might be the thing that tears her family part, to her mixed-blood experience of feeling always on the edge of two cultures, to the prolonged, painful loss of the matriarchs of her family, Moraga’s storytelling embodies both an immense grief and a powerful life-force.

How to explain the complexity of this? What it means to be—not just me but us. To know yourself as a member of a pueblo on the edge of a kind of extinction, and at the same time a lesbian lover and mother, where you truly do live your life in constant navigation through whatever part of your identity is being snuffed out that morning—in the classroom, at the community meeting, the gasoline station, the take-out counter—Mexican, mixed-blood, queer, female, almost-Indian. And a poverty masked by circumstance. For all my feminism, this is why I left a white women’s movement in the late 1970’s. So I wouldn’t have to explain anymore, translate anymore.

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Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin

39872813._uy630_sr1200630_.jpgReading Mouthful of Birds feels like occupying some kind of hybrid world of dreams and folklore, where the subconscious masquerades as a stream of characters enacting scenes that aren’t fully coherent with reality, but every moment is vivid and visceral. The short stories are full of nightmarish scenarios, like someone auditioning to be an assassin by proving their capacity for violence, a man being held captive at a train station indefinitely because he didn’t have the correct change for a ticket, or a teenage girl who will suddenly only eat live birds. The protagonists are oblivious to the bewildering circumstances they are about to endure, and like many of us in our truest nightmares, the characters find themselves misunderstood or full of regret.

By depicting themes of violence and depression within unnervingly mundane contexts, Schweblin suggests that the real monstrosity is society’s complicity to and reaction to both of those things respectively. Violence is either glorified as art and entertainment, or glossed over as business as usual. Mental illness and depression are often poorly understood by those not suffering from it, and to witness the characters try to rationalize these conditions is heart wrenching.

As these ordinary people blunder their way through unexpected trials, Mouthful of Birds will leave readers grasping for answers.  Schweblin does not indulge in elaborations but will grip readers just enough to keep one’s mind tossing and turning with infinite interpretations.

What he felt at that moment was the complete opposite of fear—it was something close to madness, but with the absolute certainty he was taking the right step. The exciting anguish of recognizing that what one is doing will ultimately change something important.

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Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

downloadShaker Heights is the kind of community where garbage is stored always out of sight from the street, and every last detailed is planned, from the diversity of its population to the color scheme of each house. When a free-spirited artist, Mia, and her daughter Pearl move to town, their lives become entangled with the members of the Richardson family, each of whom are either enamored with or infuriated by Mia and Pearl’s nonconformity. After a public scandal arises surrounding the custody of an abandoned baby, everyone in town is obliged to take sides in a controversy that will put ambiguous ethics at odds with family loyalties.

The novel has a nostalgic feel from the pre-Internet late 90s, when there was still some mystery in the lives of teenagers, and digging into other people’s past required some old-school sleuthing.  Celeste Ng deftly weaves through different time periods and perspectives, as each of the characters confronts the weight of their past decisions and struggles to move forward without casting judgment on themselves and others.

Set in a suburb founded on the idealism of planned order, the story peels back the façade of a community free from discrimination, conflict, and uncertainty.  Messy emotions are unearthed. Fires, real and figurative, are ignited. Ng takes readers on a journey through uncomfortable gray areas with no clear way out.

“You’ll always be sad about this,” Mia said softly. “But it doesn’t mean you made the wrong choice. It’s just something that you have to carry.”

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Infomocracy by Malka Older

infomocracyAn author and humanitarian worker, Malka Older’s novel Infomocracy comes at a pertinent time– when illegitimate information is being weaponized, and accuracy and transparency of data feels increasingly fragile. In Older’s utopian world of Infomocracy, Information with a capital “I” is glorified in a new world order. Here, groups of 100,000 people elect their own government, and things like the nation-state, guns, and war are obsolete.

As the election approaches, there are underground whisperings of a new threat to global peace, and it’s up to a few idealist individuals – an anti-election rebel, a policy-focused campaign specialist, and a badass employee of the Information bureaucracy—to unravel it before the well-ordered micro-democracy regresses into territorial warfare.

Taking place 20 years in the not so far future, the genre is mystery, action, sci-fi, and political commentary all rolled into one. As ideological dilemmas and power grabs unfold, Older reveals a nuanced ambivalence towards two things we hold dear in Western society—democracy and constant access to information. Infomocracy is an intriguing glimpse into the limitations of both of those things and why even the most carefully designed systems of governance are susceptible to the “quirks of neurobiology”.

“I suppose we should feel flattered they’re using Information rather than bombs for the moment.”

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Sabrina & Corina by Kali Fajardo-Anstine

9780525511298In this debut collection of stories, Fajardo-Anstine weaves together an exquisite tapestry of Indigenous Chicana women. Set in modern Denver as gentrification morphs the landscape into something unrecognizable, the characters navigate an unrelenting world through sheer determination and lack of any other alternative. These are stories about displacement and female relationships—about physical realities that are easily and carelessly destroyed, as well as the deep roots that persist through generations.

Fajardo-Anstine’s characters have an impressive breadth of personalities and age. They are diverse in their circumstances and yet all linked through their heritage and connection to the land. Whether the story features a little girl tasked with co-parenting a bag of sugar for a class project, or a woman recently released from prison, Fajardo-Anstine brings to life complex familial relationships with heartbreaking clarity.

While these women endure abuse, rejection, loss, and grieving, what stands out the most in these narratives is not their difficult circumstances, but the way others fail to acknowledge or respond to their suffering. On one level, Sabrina & Corina celebrates the way women persevere to hold together the shards of their broken families. But beyond the portraits of female strength, it tells another timeless story of apathy towards violence against women. By telling these stories, Fajardo-Anstine forces ugly truths into the open and gives big voices to those who have been silenced.

This book is truly a cultural gem, capturing the American West and the transformation of Colorado through the lens of its indigenous women.

I thought of all the women my family had lost, the horrible things they’d witnessed, the acts they simply endured. Sabrina had become another face in a line of tragedies that stretched back generations. And soon, when the mood hit my grandmother just right, she’d sit at her kitchen table, a Styrofoam cup of lemonade in her warped hand, and she’d tell the story of Sabrina Cordova—how men loved her too much, how little she loved herself, how in the end it killed her. The stories always ended the same, only different girls died, and I didn’t want to hear them anymore.

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Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

“I do not even struggle to speak; the spark of words dies so deep in my chest there is not even space to mount them on an exhale.”

91ZOrAgmdrLOne thing I love about essay and story collections is seeing the recurring images and ideas that pop up throughout, like the weeds (or wild flowers?) of the author’s subconscious. As the title suggests, Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado is full of women’s bodies—bodies disappearing, falling apart, taking up space. With hints of surrealism, Machado’s stories explore the ways that we are continually haunted by past traumas. She renders the neurotic mania that sometimes takes the wheel when women remain unheard or misunderstood as well as the pain of feeling like a burden to your loved ones. Her characters don’t necessarily find healing and happy endings, but I love that they face their truest selves, no matter how terrifying it is, and fiercely pursue what they most desire.

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In the realm of sense and reason it seemed logical for something to make sense for no reason (natural order) or not make sense for some reason (the deliberate design of deception) but it seemed perverse to have things make no sense for no reason. What if you colonize your own mind and when you get inside, the furniture is attached to the ceiling? What if you step in side and when you touch the furniture, you realize it’s all just cardboard cutouts and it all collapses beneath the pressure of your finger? What if you get inside and there’s no furniture? What if you get inside and it’s just you in there, sitting in a chair, rolling figs and eggs around in the basket on your lap and humming a little tune? What if you get inside and there’s nothing there, and then the door hatch closes and locks?

What is worse: being locked outside of your own mind, or being locked inside of it?