microreview: Cenote City by Monique Quintana

review by José Angel Araguz

cenote city

Monique Quintana’s debut novel, Cenote City (Clash Books), is a stellar addition to the Latinx storytelling tradition of texts born out of exploring the intersections where folklore, politics, cultura, and literature meet. Told through fable-like short chapters, Cenote City presents the story of Lune whose mother, Marcrina, cannot stop crying to the point that she has become a tourist attraction, relegated to the nearby cenote, a natural pit or sinkhole that contains groundwater. In the character Marcrina, one can see a variation of the folklore figure of La Llorona (whose own tale has her become a ghost forever crying by the side of rivers after drowning her own children as an act of revenge due to her husband’s infidelity). Quintana draws from this connection and creates a character imbued with a similar sense of sorrow and mortality. What distinguishes Quintana’s Marcrina is the empathetic role she plays in the lives of the community of Cenote City as a deliverer of stillborns. Mediating the humanity of this motherhood experience in one role and serving as a human avatar of endless sorrow in another, Marcrina stands as a symbol of resiliency and depth against The Generales, the police force entity of Cenote City.

Marcrina is just one of a number of characters that inhabit the world of Cenote City; others include a clown able to make children disappear, and a “tiny coven,” one of whom’s members is able to set up a mannequin’s hair into a beehive style and then cast a spell that makes bees appear from it. With radical poetic impulses and flourishes reminiscent of Arthur Rimbaud, Quintana moves the narrative along mainly through the impressions evoked from images and the inner world of her characters. This approach allows her to make full use of the rasquachismo aesthetic, a Chicano sensibility that works to “[transform] social and economic instabilities into a style and a postitive creative attitude.” This aesthetic makes use of collage and places at the forefront the struggle of the oppressed. As a form of storytelling, rasquachismo offers Quintana the use of fruitful and evocative juxtaposition. While this approach at times leads to a dense prose style, the risk is ultimately worth it for how engrossing and captivating the reading experience becomes.

An example of what I mean can be seen in “The Daffodil Dress” (below). In this chapter, readers are presented with a memory of Lune finding Marcrina floating in a pool of water as well as the ensuing panic and recovery. One choice use of juxtaposition occurs around the images of insects coming out of the mother’s mouth. Having insects stand as words in the text lends the narrative a startling new understanding of language. Even when Lune cannot hear what her mother and father say between them, the presence of words is seen as alive and restless.

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Monique Quintana

The Daffodil Dress

The spring after Lune’s father left them, she found her mother in the backyard of their house, floating in a plastic baby pool, her dress blooming around her body like a daffodil. Lune had been to a birthday party in Storylandia. She began to scream and tried to pull her mother out of the water. The warmth of the water was a shock to her hands and it soaked her party dress, making the skin on her legs burn and itch. She clawed at her own skin with her nails, painted pink by her mother with care. If the clouds could bear witness to that afternoon, they would say that Lune was a swirl of ribbons and brown skin, her kneecaps scraped by the sea of grass, bluish green and bleating, not willing to give up their secrets.

Lune’s screams were loud enough to bring the neighbors, to bring the ambulance, to bring the police, to bring Lune’s father. The paramedic, a young woman with slanted eyes and bright hair administered CPR, while the next-door-neighbor clung to Lune in the sway of bodies, and Lune held her hands in a fist, ready to curse anyone who would let her mother die. The red haired woman hovered over Lune’s mother like she was a kite, blowing the air, willing her to live. Lune’s mother had full round breasts buried under the daffodil dress, and her hair was matted to her mouth like clods of dirt. Lune thought she could see insects fly from her mother’s mouth and ears, when her father appeared and knelt beside her mother and the paramedics. The paramedic’s hands were shaking on Marcrina’s face when Marcrina began to cough up water, the baby pool tipped over and made a bigger pool in the grass, barely touching Lune’s toes again, the tight leather straps of her sandals burning her ankles. She clawed at her own ankles, pulling the sandals off her feet.

Lune thought that her mother had been dead and had been revived because her father had returned to them. There was a tourniquet wrapped around Marcrina’s arm and a stethescope placed at the rise and fall of her breast. Lune thought that her mother’s dying would make her skin turn blue, but it remained as brown as ever, and the daffodil of her dress lay shaking on her hips and her breasts. The paramedics tried to make Lune’s mother go to the hospital, but her father wouldn’t let them take her. He undressed her in the warm glow of the bathroom, the light of the ceiling, making new daffodils on her body. Lune saw her father put her mother in the bathwater, saw him pull her hair away from her face, her shoulder blades shuddered at the touch of the water. Lune could hear them whispering to each other and those whispers became the things that flew out of her mother’s mouth like insects. She tried to make out the lines of the wings and the plump black segments of their bodies, but the insects were hazy and only the buzz of letters could be recognized. No full words. Just moving mouths and shoulder blades and the slow crashing of bathtub water.

After he helped put her mother to bed, Lune’s father heated up cold cocido in a pot and they ate together in their kitchen nook. Lune’s father put his wife’s insects in his mouth and ate them. He ate the secrets and Lune and her father ate the soup together, and they were happy that she wasn’t dead.

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To learn more about Monique Quintana’s work, visit her site.
Also worth checking out: Blood Moon Blog, where Quintana writes about Latinx literature.
Copies of Cenote City can be purchased from Clash Books.

fiction feature & interview: Maria Alejandra Barrios

For this fiction feature and interview, I am happy to present a story by Maria Alejandra Barrios. This story is followed by an interview with the author on the piece as well as on her work in general.

In “A Girl Cooks,” Barrios presents a narrative that interrogates traditional roles within families, specifically between daughters and fathers. The narrative develops around the act of cooking and braids memory with present circumstances, a move that creates tension within a personal, intimate framework. Another engine at work in the story is the role of naming. Each time a food is named, the narrator gives presence to memory and to herself.  It is this latter empowerment that is the thematic arc of the story. The reader follows the narrator’s inner realizations to its powerfully nuanced conclusion.

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A Girl Cooks
by Maria Alejandra Barrios

I knew that I wanted to cook something simple and not necessarily typical of Colombian cuisine for the occasion: maybe some pasta pomodoro or maybe some beef with asparagus. As soon as I heard my dad was being released from prison, I bought the first ticket to Colombia I found, and I rented an apartment so we could spend some time together. We communicated all these years through long distance calls. When I told him I had moved to the United States, he went silent for what seemed like a long time. And I ran out of credit, so the call ended. I feared I would spend all my money on silent calls, so we never spoke about it again.

The night before being released from prison, my dad told me that he didn’t want me to pick him up. He would take a taxi from prison to the apartment. I didn’t say anything because I knew it might be a thing of pride or an attempt to protect me. Instead, I thought about how in American movies people always change in prison, I wondered if he had changed much, he had never been the protective kind.

I thought about what to cook. When we still lived with my dad, my mom always cooked Colombian dishes like arroz con coco and patacones with some fried fish or a frijolada con tocino. He didn’t like anything at all: he said that everything was too salty or not salty enough, that the rice was sticky, or the patacones were greasy. My dad would even get mad at me when I finished all the food or had something good to say about el arroz con pollo.

So no Colombian food, I thought. Even if I wanted to, I didn’t have anyone to call on the phone like I used to call my mom when I was making buñuelos: “Mija, the important thing is that you find good cheese.” In bodegas, I found fresh Mexican cheese that was similar to Colombian cheese but never the same. The buñuelos would always taste like a modest version of home, and I would eat them while talking on the phone to her. I would lie and say that I found the right kind of cheese and that they tasted exactly like the ones at the pueblo. Through the phone, I could hear her smiling.

My dad said he would arrive at 2 pm. I served two plates of pasta pomodoro and some cheese on the side. I put a bottle of wine between the two plates and some red flowers in a vase. I took one last long look at the table before opening the door.

“Papi,” I said.

He hugged me. His hug was tight and desperate like he was thinking about hugging me the whole time he spent in the taxi.

We sat down at the table. “We should eat now while it’s still hot.” I was nervous, exactly how I would imagine my mom had been before every meal we shared with him. I wanted every bite to be perfect.

He started gulping the food. At some point, he placed the plate closer to his mouth so that he could eat faster. My dad finished his meal before me and poured himself a generous glass of wine. He didn’t offer me any, so I poured myself a more modest glass.

“I wish Marta was here,” My dad said after taking the first sip. The last time my dad saw my mom, ten years ago, he threatened to slap her. I took a sip of wine too, and I thought that maybe my dad had forgotten about everything that had happened before he went to jail. I wondered if I had forgotten too.

As I was looking from across the table at my dad, I thought about how my mom always used to make tamales for my dad on his birthday. Before making them, she would always look for all the coins in the house: she would look behind sofas and underneath pillows so that she could buy the biggest piece of meat she could afford at the tienda. After that, she would kill a chicken in the backyard. The smell of the herbs and the spices marinating the meats was so intense that Marina, the neighbor, always knew what she was cooking. Marina would beg for the recipe, but my mother would shake her head and say: “That’s a gift for mi hija. When I die, she’s the only one who’s getting the recipe.” When sitting at the table, she would look at my dad’s face first, waiting for a word of approval or an expression of pleasure. When it didn’t come, she would look at me. When eating with my parents, I was always nervous about my dad’s reactions to mom’s cooking. But when eating tamales I could never hide my joy. I would eat them fast, with my face so close to the plate you would think I was about to kiss it.

It never occurred to me to cook dad tamales for lunch. Pasta was easy, and tamales took hours and left my hands smelling like onions for days. Maybe papá had changed, in his sleepy eyes I no longer saw the young man that had made mami suffer so much. Looking at him, I saw that something in him had switched off, I just didn’t know when.

Afraid that he would be sleeping with his eyes open just like abuelo used to, I looked at him and asked the question that had been burning on my throat since I learned he was being released from prison:

“Do you remember mami’s tamales?”

He stayed silent, and I decided it was time to stand up. As I was picking up the plates, I realized I would never make tamales for him. It was the only thing my mom had left in this world that was only for me.

this story originally appeared in Reservoir Journal

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CalderapicInfluence Question: How did you get started in writing?

Maria Alejandra Barrios: I started writing with some kind of discipline when I was 15 years old.  I read a book called “Opium in the Clouds,” by Rafael Chaparro Madiedo and it got me really into reading and most importantly, into writing. I started writing very romantic stories that I would describe now as magical realism. I started uploading them into MySpace (which was really popular at the time), and people started messaging me and commenting on my stories. It was the first time I felt part of a community and that I felt confident enough to put something I created out in the world. Maybe this was also because I didn’t think about it as much as I think about it. All I cared was about me having fun with it and connecting with others. Looking back I think these stories were a lot about heartbreak. Or what I thought heartbreak was.

Influence Question: How does this particular story fit into your larger body of work?

Maria Alejandra Barrios: In recent years, I started writing more about my hometown(Barranquilla) and my country. When I lived in Colombia, I wrote about the places I dreamt about living in. Now, with some distance, I think I am able to write more about the things that I love about my country but also the things that upset me and that I’m still trying to understand. Relationships between fathers and daughters and the role that fathers have in the society I grew up in is one of those things that I’m still trying to figure out. I think this short story was the first step into me exploring the subject and hopefully having a bigger perspective on it so I can hopefully write a longer story about it in the future.

Influence Question: What are you working on now?

Maria Alejandra Barrios: I’m working on finishing my first short story collection of interlinked immigration stories. I’m working on edits and working on the final story that I hope ties everything together. I also started writing my first novel, which has been a scary process because I consider myself more of a short story writer. However, I have always been attracted to the idea of writing about love, and I think this novel might be a way of exploring that while also keeping the voice-driven first-person narration that I love so much.

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Special thanks to Maria Alejandra Barrios for sharing her thoughts on this story and her work! To find out more about Barrios, check out her site.

Maria Alejandra Barrios is a writer born in Barranquilla, Colombia. She has lived in Bogotá and Manchester where in 2016 she completed a Masters degree in Creative Writing from The University of Manchester. She was selected for the Immigrant Artist Mentoring Program: Performing & Literary Arts for the city of New York in 2018. He stories have been published in Hobart Pulp, Reservoir Journal, Bandit Fiction, Cosmonauts Avenue, La Pluma y La tinta New Voices Anthology and The Out of Many Anthology by Cat in the Sun Press. Her poetry has been published in The Acentos Review and her fiction is forthcoming in Jellyfish Review and Lost Balloon.  Her work has been supported by organizations like Vermont Studio Center and Caldera Arts Center.