Tuesday, November 23, 2021

After I Saw That Wall, I Read the Book

Review: Carolina Rivera Escamilla ...after... Los Angeles: World Stage Press, 2015.  

Michael Sedano



I’ve found many a delightful book through what I called “guided serendipity.” In the library, for example, you can discover a new author by pulling something off the New Books shelves if the spine or dustjacket catches your eye. That’s how I came across Carolina Rivera Escamilla’s 2015 short story collection, …After…, through guided serendipity.


I was getting a guided tour of Rhett Beavers’ Echo Park hillsides when a bright mural on a wall that is built to the cobbled street makes me think we’re strolling some exotic hillside hamlet in Tuscany. That transcendent moment gets magnified by the mural’s undulating curtain running parallel to street grade, seemingly floating figures, occupied in their own world, stand with their backs to the strolling photographer. I post the foto on Facebook and that’s the serendipity part.


Alfredo de Batuc knows exactly where Rhett and I were walking. On Facebook, de Batuc posts, “This beautiful mural is by my friend Rafael Escamilla on his sister the writer Carolina Rivera's casa.”


A writer. That wall. Clearly, there could be more than meets the eye on that corner, I thought. Facebook put us in contact and shortly after posting the foto, the writer mails me a copy of her book.


Twenty stories and a glossary give the writer the opportunity to cover a lot of territory and time, fogging boundaries between story collection and coming of age novel. But …After… is not a novel but a well-connected set of stories that can be seen as one woman’s life, and ultimately, it’s not a valuable question. The book is subtitled “Short Stories” and that settles that.


Unsettling is what you get. Disarming, too. These emotions happen per individual story, and through concatenation of the stories as a whole. This is a good thing, by the way. For me, the book started with wariness and curiosity. Near the middle of the table of contents, Rivera has a story named “Macario.” 


It’s the first I read, curious to see if this is a takeoff on the B. Traven story/movie of the indio who wants to eat a turkey all by himself. “Macario” is one of those what the heck? Experiences. A man spins out a Bocaccioesque story of his life learning a trade, whoring with his employer, meeting his wife. Risqué to dirty, it’s a story told by a father to his girls. Life pulls no punches for the people of …After…


The lead story offers a masterful example of disarming and unsettling. “Alma About Four-Thirty In the Afternoon” feels suspenseful, like a spy story told in the first person. A friend takes a package in hand “Be careful. They need it.” Across town the character goes, by bus, fearing soldiers and searches and getting disappeared.


Rivera explores the relationships between the two friends, across time and in a variety of urban and rural settings, city, university, and home. The two students enjoy performance art on public buses, distributing flyers under the noses of repression. They are revolucionary-lite.


Prepare to be disarmed in a big understated way, and in a writerly masterful way mixing passive and active voice for a lethal laugh from surprise. 


“It began at a meeting where some compañeros informed us about the new American buses arriving in the country.... The next day when the buses are put into service, almost all of them are firebombed. They are “very nice” but they do not really have radios and televisions inside.”


The reader is set up for the surprise and a sudden change in how we perceive the prankster, 


“After Alma and I empty all the passengers out of one bus, Alma postures herself like an eagle ready to fly, and, facing north with a grenade in hand, she yells angrily, “Reagan, American imperialists, we shit on your brains and stick your dreams of technological superiority up your ass! Don't you remember Vietnam?”


The scene concludes with Alma pulling the pin and the two revolutionary students disappearing into the crowd. Rivera’s moving pretty fast now, this character will end the story armed and walking the street a marked woman.


People who read Chicana Chicano Literature are going to enjoy reading these stories. After that opening war story, there’s a story about a girl’s first period, stories about pregnancy, sex, abuse, abortion, death and burial. Common experiences set against Salvadorean chaos are anything but quotidian events, and that fact keeps a reader unsettled. It’s the same only really different!


And this is not Chicano Literature, where war and revolution are twentieth century events, las Adelitas, romantic corridos, ahai! In El Salvador, war waits around every corner where some rapist or soldier can grab a woman and disappear her. Don’t walk there alone.


Carolina Rivera Escamilla isn’t hitting readers over the head with the danger, nor making cultural differences idiosyncratic. There’s a host of valuable political and cultural information in these stories, as well as what’s been called “literature as equipment for living.” Put yourself in this character’s world. She grows up adapting to whatever is thrown in her path, except the consequences  include torture and death. Do what you need and don’t get caught, or leave the country. That makes voting look all the more attractive. GOTV.

World Stage Press link.


Charles Gelsinger said...

Nice review of Carolina's book. Thanks for the nice photo of one of Rafael Escamilla's many murals. He has a bunch in Atwater. rafaelescamilla.com

Charles Gelsinger said...

Stop by the mural house, and Carolina will probably sign your copy.