In Other Words

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO - by Fred­er­ick Luis Al dam a, Univer­sity of Ari­zona Press, 192 pages

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

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