NY: Seven Stories Press, 2001.
One reason I avoid back cover blurbs is I like to let a text speak for itself. Moreover, I’m often disappointed when high expectations meet a lesser actuality. Yet, I received a gift from an unexpected source, and, on opening the package, find myself turning a book around in my hands, ritually reading the book jacket while signaling my surprise and pleasure at what sounds like a scintillatingly lurid piece of fiction.
The gift is Forbidden Stories of Marta Veneranda, a 2001 collection of ten translated stories written by U.S. Cubana Sonia Rivera-Valdes. A gift to me from an enthusiastic reader, I have mixed emotions in approaching the book because of the back cover blurbs comparing this collection to Anais Nin. “Makes you forget the world around you . . . in human behavior-that which is not sanctioned by society," I’m promised. Nin is pretty hot, I think, but then comes the toughest promises yet. "Slyly heretical . . . most important book of stories since Joyce's Dubliners". By now my head is spinning. Can this book possibly meet such rising expectations? I thank the giver and promise her I'll put it at the top of my "to be read" stack.
Good things come to those who read, and now that I’ve read the nine stories, ten if you count the "Explanatory Note" as a fiction--which I do--I understand the blurbers’ hyperbolic enthusiasm. The stories, it turns out, are feminist, gay erotic literature. How was I to know? The characterizations “gay” “erotic”, absent from the back cover blurbs though perhaps obviously implied in "Forbidden" and the goddess Venus referent, strike me in the opening paragraph where Rivera claims her stories mask identities of true confessors of hidden shameful secrets. The shame, Rivera explains, comes not from criminality or social sanction, but "the way he or she has perceived and experienced it". So it sounds like hot stuff.
The buildup promises more than Rivera's translators can deliver. Or it might be that Rivera never put in the heat, and this is a fully complete translation.
Many of these stories mix hetero and homo sexuality with gay abandon. A woman first discovers she thrills at hairless skin when she kisses a body with passion. An older woman rejects a younger out of age, but relents in the end, leaves New York to Havana and the bedroom of her young friend and the friend knows all the words. A woman meets a Kama Sutra expert who entertains her for a weekend. The woman regrets he will not abandon his gay partner for her, but she expresses gratitude to know hers is the biggest yoni the Kama Sutra expert has seen. And stuff like this. Passionate. Funny. Weird. Sad.
The stories flow with economy and directness. Years and momentous events go by in the spaces between paragraphs. One sentence the character's a struggling factory worker screwing the boss to protect a co-worker's job, the next page she's a college graduate. Sensations, of course, control erotic literature. Here, sharing the thoughts and feelings of her characters, Rivera excels. The story of the enormously fat woman with the yeast infection and kidney problems that give a room-permeating stink provides a vivid reading moment. I wonder how the Spanish expresses the man's arousal as the fat woman slyly seduces him by spreading her huge thighs to fill his eyes and nose with her essence. A few stories later, Rivera refers to the same woman in so mundane a sentence that a reader is advised not to read the book in public, to avoid having to explain the surprised laughter. Or perhaps one should.
Rivera’s heterosexual stories aren’t entirely straight. Here the author blends sexuality with violence against women. I appreciate Rivera's restraint in avoiding the stronger treatment elected by other writers, America's Dream for one, although the dull relentlessness of one woman's story numbed me for a while after finishing the story. Yet, that afternoon I remember asking myself, "Self, why is that woman so stupid?" I don't think that's unkind, but perhaps the only response I'm capable of.
Rivera's translators have made her impressive. She's won awards so she may be. Her tales provide diversion best taken a few pages at a time. For example, I read Marta Veneranda over a month’s time, at lunch each day, a few pages at a time and much as I look forward to getting back to other activities, I regretted having to, as this meant closing the cover until another day. But I thought also, "Big deal. Exposés -- especially sex exposés-- should be more graphic, more exciting." I think of the sex in Villanueva's Naked Ladies for example, and regret Rivera's understatement. I had hoped for lurid prose and got elegant writing instead. Still, when I see "forbidden" I want forbidden.
Seven Stories Press makes it easy to sample the work, as you've noticed if you clicked on the links in the above, or the link in the title of this column. You'll find a Google Books-like fascimile of the work by visiting the publisher's website, or clicking on the links noted.
I hope others will find this collection and share their response, as I'd be interested for a broader point of view. I’m guessing a woman will approach the stories with a different purpose and a different opinion from a sixty-something man.
Gente, there goes the final Tuesday in July 2008! Tempus fugit, carpe libros. In comes August, a wedding anniversary and birthday month.
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