Now We Will Be Happy
By Amina Gautier
University of Nebraska Press: Sept. 1, 2014
128 pages, $16.95
One of the most encouraging developments in contemporary literature is the increased attention being paid to Afro-Caribbean writers. Writers such as Julia Alvarez (Dominican Republic), Edwidge Danticat (Haiti), Jamaica Kincaid (Antigua), Esmeralda Santiago (Puerto Rico), and Tiphanie Yanique (Virgin Islands) are acclaimed for their distinctive contributions to this literature of both a place and a way of being. Amina Gautier now stakes her claim to join this esteemed group of writers.
Gautier, who is of African-American and Puerto Rican descent and who understands both cultures intimately, has published more than 75 stories in some of the country’s most prestigious literary journals. She won the 2011 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, leading to the publication of her first collection, At-Risk, in 2012. That volume probed the lives of African-Americans in Brooklyn with empathy and passion.
This September saw the publication of her second collection, Now We Will Be Happy, which won the 2013 Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction (awarded by the literary journal at the University of Nebraska). This time, Gautier has shifted her focus to the question of what it means to be Puerto Rican in America. Her characters are mainland-born Puerto Ricans (“Nuyoricans”) and native-born Puerto Ricans, including those of African descent, who are often overlooked.
In these eleven finely wrought stories, the characters face questions of identity raised by family members and society but most often by their own divided hearts and minds. They struggle with remaining authentically Puerto Rican while embracing the idea of being an American. Does that require frequent trips back to the island, having a wide circle of PR friends, speaking Spanish (how much?), attending cultural events and waving the flag literally or figuratively? Who decides? How can one be comfortable in his or her own skin when dealing with matters of nationality, culture, race, ethnicity, and language? And these complexities are not simplified by the fact that Puerto Ricans are American citizens.
So the conflicts are compelling and multi-faceted. Gautier elevates these stories to literature through the quality of her characterization and the polish of her writing. Nearly every character is a living, breathing person with idiosyncrasies that are either endearing or infuriating. Gautier’s writing is perfectly suited to the characters and conflicts; her prose style is elegant without being formal; nary a word is wasted or misplaced. The dialogue is Hispanic without coming off as stereotypical or sitcom-level. As a lifelong Californian, I don’t know many Puerto Ricans, but I know countless Mexicans and Central Americans, as well as hyphenated-Americans with a history in those countries, and the dialogue seems just right to me. Gautier’s people are passionate, open-hearted, angry, confused, bitter, and funny.
In the opening story, “Aguanile,” a Puerto Rican-American granddaughter becomes a pawn in a family struggle with the grandfather who long ago abandoned his wife and returned to Puerto Rico.
“They had made a gift of me, sending me to him the summer I was twelve…. I had hoped never to meet him. He was the husband my grandmother had chosen not to remember, the father my mother and uncles refused to claim, the grandfather I knew only through pictures. I was to be a peace offering, an olive branch extended between families, sent across the ocean to knit back wounds whose ragged edges had grown frayed with each passing year. Too bad I knew nothing about peace or diplomacy.”
She learns about her family’s history and heritage and is immersed in her abuelo’s love of Latin jazz artists like Charlie Palmieri, Ruben Blades, and in particular, Hector Lavoe, whose “Aguanile” is a classic of the genre. The only time her grandfather had returned to the U.S. was to attend Lavoe’s funeral in the Bronx; despite the fact that his estranged family lives in Brooklyn, he fails to call or visit them. Although peace is not restored to the family, the music builds a bridge between grandfather and granddaughter.
“Bodega” explores the lives of Nelida and her husband, who run a small convenience store across from the housing projects. They are raising the child of their son, Esteban, who joined the Army six years ago and then fled to Puerto Rico, which they had left when he was 14. He has been stubbornly uncommunicative and appears to have settled on the island, despite his young son waiting for him in New York. They had dreamed of their son taking over the business and perhaps expanding it, opening other stores, and making a good life for himself and his American family. But perhaps, Nelida thinks, they had hoped for this with too single-minded a devotion, suffocating their son until he felt he had to get out. Her husband blames it on ingratitude and overindulgence.
“No, Nelida knew the truth. It was fear, fear that the bodega would consume his life, fear that he would become as old and trapped as his parents by four leased walls and the hope of prosperity. So easily could the store become one’s prison.”
“Muneca” (Doll) finds a young married couple forced to live with her parents in their Brooklyn apartment when their naive ambitions fail to pan out. Rosa views it as a temporary situation, but for Pedro, every day in which he is dependent on the kindness of these strangers is torture. He begins to lash out verbally and physically at his young wife. He views his inadequate job as an insult to his masculinity and is convinced his in-laws are mocking him. Matters are brought to a head when he finds that a girlfriend has given Rosa a muneca; she has no way of knowing that it will stir up a powerful childhood memory in an already angry and resentful Pedro.
“Only Son” is a prequel of sorts to “Bodega,” depicting the childhood and adolescence of Nelida’s only son, Esteban, why she came to bestow all her hopes upon him and why he decided to run. He is impervious to his parents’ hopes and dreams. The seventeen-year-old observes his life and prospects and is not persuaded.
“He wanted nothing to do with them. Wanted no part of this new life they’d forced upon him. He wanted no part of working downstairs and looking every day into the eyes of men who would switch places with him, men who would gladly trade in their daily jobs to be a merchant’s son. The sacrifices meant nothing to him. He was tired of the stories and he didn’t want to be here. He wanted Rio Piedras. He wanted Ponce. He wanted Mayaguez. He would even take San Juan, tourist trap that it had become. He would take any of the places where his voice was one among a crowd, its cadence indistinguishable and indistinct. Instead, he was still naked and new. After three years on the mainland, he still felt stripped of his skin.”
“The Last Hurricane” captures the divide between the island and mainland Puerto Ricans from the perspective of one who has never left Puerto Rico. She feels patronized when her relatives in America call to express concern about the hurricane that has Puerto Rico in its path. “They want to send you and the children things to ease the guilt that they feel as they sit in their safe condos and co-ops with central air and all the other amenities, as they put their feet up to watch the news for the weather report, smug that they are safe and warm you are … not.”
The last hurricane had caused her husband’s death, and she attempted to join him during the next one, to no avail. “Hurricanes know who they want. You could not get the last one to take you. You stood outside for hours, getting drenched…. When you finally dragged yourself back into the house, back to your hijos (sons), you felt as if you had been in a fight and lost. So you decided to wait for the next hurricane. They come every five or six years, so by then the children would be old enough to take care of themselves.”
When her relatives call to say they are worried about the coming storm, she assures them she is fine. “This is the answer you give because they really don’t care aand they don’t know anything about being a Puerto Rican in Puerto Rico anymore. When it is too cold on the mainland, they take paid vacations to fly over. They spend their money in the mall in Isla Verdes, buying clothing that is too tight for them, buying makeup that is now too dark for their wintry-pale Americano faces. They ask you to go to the cine with them and you sit there in the theater in San Juan, watching movies in English with Spanish subtitles, wondering if the very irony of the situation escapes them, sure that it does…. You have become a postcard to them. Beaches and good food, exotic fruit and salsa clubs; they are no better than the turistas. But you can’t tell them so because they are familia.”
The closing story, “Palabras” (Words) concludes the story of Nelida, her unnamed husband, and their lost son Esteban. He sends an occasional taunting postcard, which Nelida rips up. “When is he going to realize we’re Americans?” she asks her nine-year-old grandson, Esteban Junior. “He wants all of the things we left behind. What does he want all these things for?” Young Esteban takes solace in his unrequited love for Rosa, the young married woman in the apartment across the way, whom readers first met in “Muneca.” Her marriage to Pedro remains troubled, and she has sought solace of her own in an affair with Yauba, a cook in the college dining hall where she works (depicted in the title story).
Now We Will Be Happy is as good a collection of stories as I have read in the past year or two. These are powerful, haunting stories that will have you wondering how the characters are doing weeks after you’ve finished reading it. Anyone interested in how immigrants and their descendants navigate multiple cultures is advised to pick up a copy without delay. And keep the name Amina Gautier on your radar; I suspect we will be reading many more impressive stories and novels from her in the coming years.