In the Odyssey, Circe promises her famed traveler to “set him a course,” and throughout the short-story collection Are We Ever Our Own Gabrielle Lucille Fuentes offers this same gift to her readers. Fuentes proves an adept cartographer as these stories unfold with ghosts, spells, the relic foot of an elephant, and a professional mourning service. Her pen contains some sorcery in its ink. In story after story, this collection maps various women of the Armando Castell family whose memories and movements originate in Cuba but travel from Marfa to Miami, Havana, Osaka, and Santa Fe, to name a few places. Sharing name only, these women are kin without kinship. Their stories are their own. Inherent in their experienced identity is often loneliness and exile, their journeys at once internal and external. The women of familia Armando Castell are spiritual way-seekers who leave no roads untraveled.
Structurally, the collection is in three parts. Single stories for sections one and three bookend the nine stories that form the center. Narrative form varies delightfully throughout, and as Fuentes has such a deft hand the shifts in style or locale never jar the reader from the journey, but on the contrary provide a deeper intrigue. From Marfa’s high desert to a humid Havana in celebration and crisis, body and belonging resound thematically across all terrains. In an interview about her 2016 novel The Sleeping World, Fuentes was asked about influences on her work and mentioned the cinematography of filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar. This collection is no less cinematically inclined; Fuentes often draws on the language of filmmaking, as in “Palm Chess,” when she writes, “CAMERA OPENS ON: A woman’s face on the wet sand. A wave washes over her face and shoulders. She arches her neck in pleasure.” Her stories are flavored with script cut shots, as well as lists, stories within stories, letters, and footnotes.
“Ana Mendieta Haunts the Block,” the opening story of the collection, is at the same time an exceptional story and a bellwether. Like Chekhov’s pistol, invoking Mendieta’s ghost in the first act means readers will anticipate her return by the third. Anyone familiar with Mendieta’s work and legacy will find her echoes throughout this collection with the nods to performance, body, and identity. Those unfamiliar with Mendieta’s story need not worry, Fuentes will tell you what you need to know:
Caridad doesn’t ask Ana how she died; she would never be so rude. But she too can see falling all around Ana, a body suspended, about to unravel. . . . [T]hough Ana took photos of the impressions of her body made in snow, sand, mud, grass, took photos of her impact on earth for years, when the police arrived and found her body, they took none.
The second section opens with “The Burial of Fidelia Armando Castell” and characters tangled in the violent relationship of history, race, and identity. Disintegrating any notion of logic in war, Fuentes is clear, violence is simply a hungry mouth that consumes. In the story, the body of Fidelia Armando Castell is its meal, but not its satiety. “What is known is what is remembered,” reflects a woman named Rosa. This quote is a lens on her perspective and carries the weight of blame and survivor’s guilt a year after her friend’s rape and subsequent death. Rosa, alone on the celebrating street, finds the colonizer’s vanquishing a hollow victory. The unasked questions in the margins: Who are we if no one remembers to say our names? How else do we recover what is lost to us? How can we know we happened at all? Fuentes throws the gauntlet down on questions like these in the very first story by invoking the ghost of Ana Mendieta and follows up with a story set in Cuba under occupation, in an uneasy pre-revolution era where if a woman is brutalized but not believed, she is left to wonder, did it really happen or worse does it just not matter? What does liberation mean after all that is lost? This second story in the collection is a knowing and universal gaze back at the reader, reminding us that the legacy of violence enacted on women is neither fictional nor past but an ongoing repetition, on some island somewhere, in some alley, some dancehall, boardroom, classroom. Yet here in Fuentes’s version of Cuba, many women will travel to the next world to find answers not given in this one.
Thematically, the Armando Castell women are journeying, across sea and spirit. “Come back, she has whispered for years. Today she hears and answers,” writes Fuentes in “Two-Gallon Heart,” which gives us some of her poetic and heart-wrenching best. “The woman who gave birth and some life to Frankie came at the beginning of a storm. Later it was said that she brought the storm. Frankie says she is the storm.” Fuentes positions the next story, “Palm Chess,” from behind the camera, offering readers “cut to” from the film script to the filmmaker’s journey. On a flight from Miami to Havana and pursued by an unwanted lover, she seeks her ancestors’ home soil to make her stand for autonomy. Along the way, we also meet La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, the patron saint of Cuba. Carmen Armando Castell is attempting to return to herself through a new lens, a new script, and an ancient goddess. “It must be such a gift to jump out of one’s skin,” Carmen thinks about La Virgen. “Not a haunting, but a transformation to salt on the wind, spread over a crowd of outstretched tongues.”
After being sure that several other stories were my favorites, “The Field of Professional Mourning” almost won the day. But this collection is so alternatively stout and singing I might give you a different answer tomorrow. Our heroine, Sasha Armando Castell, has built her own successful personal mourning business with good sense and perhaps the best interview questions I have ever encountered:
What draws you to the field of professional mourning?
a) a desire to connect with people in pain
b) a lack of feeling of connection to other people
c) inability to grieve in the past
d) need to express personal pain
e) family tradition of professional mourners
f) none of the above
g) I don’t know
As crisis is never far from this family, Sasha discovers deceit among her staff that threatens her success, and she fears her business is being usurped by her very best employee, Mónica, whose “keen, coming from that huge torso, was fully developed, though she was only in her twenties. It began deep inside of her, high-pitched and vibrating throughout her bones, like a host of sparrows waking and realizing their roost is on fire.”
Fuentes’s ability for lyricism, mythmaking, and humor is culminated in this final story of Act II. Fuentes is not just giving us a laugh at our culture’s “performance of grief” but also a history lesson. She leaves us laughing, but not too long or too comfortably. Multi-generational and multi-layered, these stories will keep you thinking long after you have closed the cover.
The middle section, “begin again,” offers nine stories where the echoes of Mendieta still resound. Fuentes invites the reader again and again to modes of performance because she, like Mendieta, is not trying to preserve the past, but to perform new perspectives of it. Just as Mendieta burned shapes into the ground, the narrator of “The Field of Professional Mourning” watches as her employee Mónica, “like a single frame spliced into a film reel,” straddles the body of a dead man to perform the extreme ritual of grief, pressing her hands to his chest and vanishing into his tweed suit where “there was no outline of her fists, neither had she somehow sunk into the body. For an instant, a part of her had been completely erased.”
In section three, “el fantasma final,” Fuentes turns loose her full power. Be warned, reader, this is the siren’s song—you may just lose track of time, and crash upon the rocks if you don’t take care. I suggest you let yourself break for all the pleasure it will bring you. “The Ballad of Tam Lin” is a father-and-daughter epic scored with the undertow of Irish murder and love songs. Readers join a traveling troupe of musicians set in an imagined world with razor sharp truths:
The fiddle sounded like the wind, my father said. The wind off the sea that carried the sister away, like the water dragging her under and spitting her back a heap of scraps, like the fishes that eat drowned girls.
Ultimately one of Fuentes’s strongest gifts is grounding the reader in magic to reveal reality. Who could resist a fiddle of finger bones? “How long does it take to kill a girl?” is a question echoed back through the entire work, asked as much of spirit as of body. Because Fuentes, ever the sorceress, is never just telling one story with her ink, but soaking through the pages with many meanings.
This book releases former definitions of body, of belonging, and of liberation. Stellar writing does that to us. It changes us on the journey, as the intuitive cartographer does not fill their oceans with dragons but leaves space for “a different ending . . . a verse that’s never been sung, shaped though it is by the wind and the rain and all the other old forces, a story we still don’t know yet.” Somewhere between Fuentes’s words and the whitespace on the page gathers an extended sense of empathy.
Are We Ever Our Own. By Gabrielle Lucille Fuentes. Rochester, NY: BOA Editions, Ltd., 2022. 208 pp.