In Other Words
Long Stories Cut Short: Fictions From the Borderlands by Frederick Luis Aldama
To show us how people exist in the shadows of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, writer Frederick Luis Aldama goes short. In pithy stories that rarely top 750 words, we get unsparing pictures of lives at their most tender and precarious. The work may come as a surprise to Aldama’s fans, who know him primarily as an academic who writes accessible books on Latino pop culture and art. A humanities professor at Ohio State University, Aldama has written or edited 27 books, including his best-known work Your Brain on Latino Comics: From Gus Arriola to Los Bros Hernandez (University of Texas Press, 2009).
In “Family Man,” which fits on one page of this 5-by-7-inch book, we find Carlos raising a family in the U.S. 10 years after his border crossing. Aldama tells the tale with countrymusic lyric precision: “They couldn’t afford a house but could make kids. They did. Carla and Carlos Jr.” You begin to root for Carlos’ kids — Carla, who mixes Kurt Cobain lyrics into her poetry, and Carlos, who seems to be successfully navigating the racial politics of a high school torn between brown and black. But Carla gets pregnant and miscarries and Carlos gets jumped by classmates. By the end of the story, “Both were lying in hospital beds with tubes sticking out of stomachs and into mouths.” Aldama excels at creating this kind of jarring imagery and rush-delivering it to the reader in a deeply unsentimental manner.
In “Ego Sum, Qui Sum” (I am who I am), we are brought to the front porch of a drug dealer’s psyche. He makes no claims that poverty or a broken home drove him to become an operator, “known for using tractor trailers to move ... enough coke to float an island.” A star high school quarterback with married churchgoing parents, the American raised Javier Jiménez Jiménez jumps into the Mexican drug-dealing world for the hedonistic pleasures it promises: “It was the goddamn border and all that it offered on el
otro lado. Chicks nobody cared about — no one to see if they made it home or not at night; easy access to drugs that I could bring across without anybody raising as much as an eyebrow. You name it, it could be done. And I did it.”
There’s a clear precedent for Aldama’s work in the flash fiction and microfiction that electrified the experimental literary crowd back in the 1980s — perhaps even further back to the “six-word novel” dubiously attributed to Ernest Hemingway: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” The writer takes on a few sentence-long stories as well, though he falters at this most extreme edge of literary minimalism, crafting lines that feel less like a compacted story than the first sentence of an alluring novel: “The threat, real or imagined, is still the permanent companion,” reads one story. “Your child will be born in six weeks,” says another. But the flash fiction provides a canvas for the author that matches his no-frills approach to depicting the lives of those who live in border towns. In the book’s postscript he notes, “The Latino experience is so often sentimentalized or sugarcoated. When I set out to write these flash fictions, I wanted to hold sentiment at arm’s length . ... This allowed for the creation of a series of nonjudgmental narrators — even when I was conceiving the most morally bankrupt of characters.”
Although the English and Spanish narratives sit side by side, they are far from faithful translations of each other. As Aldama writes in the postscript, “There is no original (English) versus duplicate (Spanish) operating here . ... In each case, the Spanish translation not only carves out new sound systems but also deploys new narrative and rhetorical strategies to engage the readers.” It’s a fancy way of saying that the Spanish and English versions both omit and include bits of story and character details not found in the other — just as we do when we switch languages in a conversation.
Paired with comic-like illustrations from Mapache Studios, a collective of Chilean graphic artists, these bilingual stories — all of which can be read in under three minutes — are the work of a confident writer, one who is not fazed by social media but influenced by it, picking up poetry from Twitter and finding unexpected pathos in Instagram selfies. Flash fiction is a pitch-perfect form for depicting marginalized lives whose joys are fleeting — and whose deaths are often forgotten by the broader culture in both Mexico and the United States. — Casey Sanchez