by Santiago Vaquera-Vásquez
Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2015.
121 pages. $18.95 (paperback)
Santiago Vaquera-Vásquez’s debut story collection, One Day I’ll Tell You the Things I’ve Seen, opens and closes with an image of a border crossing. In between lie stories of interconnected characters who move and wait and move some more. The crossings in this collection are superseded by moments of waiting; the arrivals are trumped by the travel itself. Vaquera-Vásquez’s stories move their characters through time, space, countries, childhood, music, languages, and relationships only to find themselves where they began — changed, perhaps — but always still in motion.
The stories that negotiate the territory of childhood all are standouts. In “Despedidas,” Daniel and his sister Diana are growing up in California with parents who have crossed the border and bought a house “not in the Mexicano section of town” (68). Readers are told, “Clara’s arrival coincided not only with Diana’s birthday but also with the day that we moved into the new house” (68). Clara is described by Daniel as pure nightmare: “Clara and her Frankenstein arms” and “that blonde giant who chased us around the house” with “an awkward gait” reminiscent of “Frankenstein’s monster or a robot” (67). The siblings run from Clara, and the parents look on, laughing. But as the family dynamics turn darker, so do the descriptions of Clara, until Daniel and Diana plot to end the terror with a machete.
By this point in the story, yes, readers will have figured out that “the tall white girl” is a Cathy Doll. But the children’s sense of fear, of menace, still is palpable. Once, the children try to leave the doll behind, and a park ranger returns it to them, saying, “She’s so pretty, isn’t she?” (70). The satire operates so well here because of the reversals, that when Vaquera-Vásquez jumps to later years, to Diana’s cancer “like a meteor,” we are still laughing over that doll. But now it is uneasy laughter. When we see Diana, after the cancer but before the car accident, she’s with a woman — white, blond, doll-like — who most likely is a girlfriend. The layers of complication exist alongside the humor, moving readers from the earlier moments of “two little brown Mexican kids in fear of the tall white girl” to the moment when Daniel realizes Diana is happy alongside this doll-like friend (68).
Vaquera-Vásquez uses similar techniques of time compression, strong imagery, and humor to balance tension and sadness in “Days without Paracetamol” and “Lupe and the Stars.” A father is remembered with equal parts beauty and sadness as “a few loose memories, blurry photos kept in a box,” but also as the man with a terrible job whose son sees his father for the first time in years “out in front of the Hickory Farms, that place that sells cheese and smoked sausages. He was there in front of the sausage” (84, 89-90). A brother’s loss is balanced by the humor of remembering better days: “His favorite was to claim that Green Lantern — one of my favorite superheroes — was actually a border-patrol agent” (109). All the stories know sorrow and survivor’s guilt; all use beauty and music and art as balance.
Many of the collection’s other stories exist almost as a montage. Characters travel from San Francisco to Madrid to Ankara to Munich, round and round. Their lives intersect in airports and bars, over music and intermittent affairs. As the narrator says at the start of “Walking Spanish,” “Sometimes I would wake up in the middle of the night and think about those people who, for whatever reason, had dropped out of my life” (77). When the characters drop back in, readers learn they’ve grown up to work in finance and marketing, are college professors and photojournalists.
This is one of the collection’s strengths — how the characters move between the worlds of their less financially stable childhoods and their professional lives in adulthood, not with ease, exactly, but not with static notions of tragedy or false exaltations of the American dream, either. Their realities are too complex and also too transitory for such platitudes. They remember, they almost connect with one another, and then they keep moving.
Reviews and scholarly articles on fiction by non-white writers often put forward a fixed, static notion of what’s been portrayed. They position the characters like that zombie Cathy Doll, all plastic smiles and sameness. The stories in Vaquera-Vásquez’s collection resist such treatment, in part, through their series of reversals, through the surprises: the travel is more interesting than the destination; the precious, blond doll is the monster; the language is delivered with equal skill and care in English and in Spanish, and at times, in a blending of the two, but is not mediated or explained. These choices leave readers with vibrant, contemporary characters who refuse to keep still.about the author