Sabrina & Corina: Stories
(One World, 2019)
There’s a lot of talk these days about the need to listen to marginalized voices and yet so many of us continue to limit our reading–by chance, circumstance, or desire–to narratives written by and for a largely white literary audience. At the recent Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) conference in Portland, Oregon, a conference that serves to showcase not only what is being taught in writing classrooms but who is doing the publishing of so-called independent writing, the crowd of several thousand was largely white. Certainly efforts were made toward diversity, but given the location, I expected a host of Native/Indigenous writers and people (re)writing the West. I’m originally from the Pacific Northwest and a return to Portland brought out a deep homesickness in me. In moments like this, I often turn to writing about the West but much of it leaves me feeling flat, frustrated with continued narratives of conquest, repeated myths of pioneers and their great work of survival while erasing the presence of Native peoples. Certainly there is a short list of Native/Indigenous writers whose voices are heard and whose books are successful, but it’s not enough. Rereading these two debut story collections during my time in Portland, I wonder why the conversation around both isn’t larger, isn’t HUGE. These women have powerful voices: they are master craftswomen, brilliant storytellers, and they are telling stories that need to be heard.
Living on the Borderlines: Stories
(Feminist Press, 2019)
In Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s debut story collection Sabrina & Corina we find a different narrative of the West. These are women who inhabit a space between the Indigenous and the Latinx, they are fierce, powerful in their own way, and many have suffered unspeakable trauma. The collection opens with a story about a young girl, Sierra, assigned by her teacher to care for a sack of sugar as if it was a baby. The story opens with a visceral image of the land and the history that lies beneath. The neighborhood boys are playing army with picks and shovels until one of them strikes bone, and “in the ground lay broken pieces of bowls with black zigzagging designs…human teeth, scattered like dried kernels of yellow corn.” For Sierra, the dig site should be open to her and her neighbors, “It’s where we’re from. It’s our people.” But that’s not how the world works and the land is no longer theirs. In the title story, Corina arrives at her family’s home in the wake of Sabrina’s murder. Interspersed with Corina’s memories of her friendship with her cousin Sabrina is the narrative of the preparation for her funeral. Corina’s grandmother demands that Corina use her skills learned in cosmetology school to put makeup on Sabrina’s corpse prior to the open casket. As he discusses makeup with Corina, the undertaker blames Sabrina when he says, “These pretty girls…They get themselves into such ugly situations.” And as we read, we know he’s wrong—it’s not the girls who are at fault, it’s the way we treat them, as Sabrina says, “like we’re nothing.” But not all of the women in these stories come to terrible ends. Some are survivors, many adept at “managing household grief (like just) another task as endless as chores.” In “Galapago,” an elderly woman stubbornly refuses to move to a retirement home until she enacts violence that triggers a change; in “Cheesman Park” a mother tells her daughter that a key to her own survival was in reaching a place where she “didn’t worry so much about being loved,” and in “Ghost Sickness” Ana struggles with a course on the “History of the West” and her mother tells her “You come from this land…Remembering that might help.”
Melissa Michal writes about American Indigenous people with a power that will make you want to read and reread these stories. Michal’s characters are survivors of intergenerational trauma, people often literally living on the borderlines in an America that has largely tried to erase them from existence. A Mohawk man contemplates the evolution and oppression of borders in the title piece: “the line remains invisible. He can see the line, a mind map. But he also knows why the line exists and who placed it across his nation.” His desire is not to resurrect the past but instead he wants “the lines gone (to) Disappear from his vision. One whole nation again among six nations.” It’s a short and quiet contemplation of the brutality of borders, the work conquest has done to split a people into parts that cannot hold. In “The Long Goodbye,” Nala struggles to understand her grandmother’s withdrawn silences, “her grandmother spoke in streams one day and the next day, silence held her.” Nala’s anger is palpable when she learns that her grandmother was taken from her parents and sent to an abusive Indian School. But she learns to move past her anger and comes to a better understanding of what it means to be Indigenous.
For the people in this collection, land, family, and stories are what make up a life. In “A Song Returning” a family rents out their land because their mother had told them never to sell it, despite their desire to leave the past behind. One of the women in the family, Mia, discovers her mother had put a child up for adoption and wrote unsent letters to her every day; haunted by her mother’s perfume, her song, Mia decides to find her lost sister. For Mia it is not the land that matters, it is the people who make up a family.
These stories also feature people struggling with tradition––in finding ways to maintain it in a challenging world and in finding the reasons behind it. In “The Carver and the Chilkat Weaver” a Haida carver contemplates the past while taking pleasure in his work, “Shaping the wood was honor bound, still a privilege to carve something.” In “Calling the Ancestors” a singer closes his eyes to hear the songs of his ancestors and then sings them to teach others. The songs are stories and “hold our traditions, just there.” In “Crowding the Dark Spaces” a young Haudenosaunee woman who grew up off the reservation tries to connect with her people and her late father through caving and receives a life-changing vision. In other stories, magic shifts reality and changes people’s lives irrevocably—one young Seneca woman feels strangely drawn to the language of muskrats and falls gradually out of the rhythms of the modern world until she transforms, and in “The Luck Stone” a young girl’s wish to know her mother comes terribly true.
Despite the tragedy in the lives in many of the stories in both collections, there is a deeper resonance here—a connection with family, with memory, and with story that speaks of a survival that moves beyond any attempt at erasure. These are voices that must be heard, stories that must be read.