THE JUNGLE AROUND US: STORIES probes the mysteries of people and places

the-jungle-around-us

The Jungle Around Us: Stories

By Anne Raeff

University of Georgia Press: Oct. 1, 2016

$24.95, 140 pages


The folks at the University of Georgia Press who administer the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction have done a stellar job of “discovering” new talent. The list of winners includes Dana Johnson, Lori Ostlund, Ha Jin, Bill Roorbach, Amina Gautier, Antonya Nelson, Debra Monroe and, in the last few years, Monica McFawn and Karin Lin-Greenberg.

One of the two 2016 winners was Anne Raeff, an English teacher at East Palo Alto Academy. UGP recently published The Jungle Around Us, a collection of Raeff’s stories, which were previously published in literary journals like Guernica, New England Review, and Antioch Review.

The Jungle Around Us is a darkly compelling series of stories set in places we rarely visit and know little about, from southern Mexico and Nicaragua to Bolivia and Paraguay. The characters share a sense of dislocation, literally and figuratively, and Raeff coolly probes their psyches and actions as they try to orient themselves to threats both real and imagined. Yes, there is jungle, as well as war, heartbreak, loss, memory, and identity, all surrounding, oppressing, and confusing these characters. Raeff’s narrative voice and prose style are calm and hypnotic, a contrast to the intensity of her characters’ struggles.

The centerpiece of the collection is a quartet of stories featuring sisters Juliet and Simone Buchovsky, in which we observe the two young women as they try to make sense of the mystifying adult world.

In “Keeping an Eye on Jakobson” they encounter the man who is only referred to by his surname, sitting in their back yard and smoking big, smelly cigars while discussing the Vietnam War with their father Isaac and his woman friend, Mrs. Tuttle, whose son is off fighting in the war that has so disturbed Jakobson.

In “The Buchovskys on Their Own” their father, forced to travel to Russia to do research for his book, leaves the girls in the care of his friend, Katja Ladijinskaya, whom he has known since their families immigrated from Russia together in 1941. During his time in Russia, Isaac and his daughters discover that people and places are not at all what they expect.

“Maximiliano” finds the adult Simone, now a home health care worker, visiting Juliet in Asuncion, Paraguay, where she is living with an older man and his precocious young son, Maximiliano. In a setting unlike any she has experienced, Simone is perplexed by Juliet’s choices and the mysterious comings and goings of Raul but intrigued by his son’s gentle nature and fascination with birds. The sisters find each other inexplicably foreign after years in which one has lived in New Jersey and the other in places like Paraguay.

“Chinese Opera” concludes the collection with an exploration of the effects of the murder of their neighbor, Danny McSwene, with whom the sisters once listened to music and practiced dancing.

“After the War” concerns Karl and Margot Epstein, who fled Vienna to avoid the Nazis and ended up waiting out the war in the jungles of Bolivia. After six years, they immigrate to New York City, where they struggle to adjust. Although New York City is not unlike the Vienna of their memories, they have been marked by their time in Bolivia and it has affected their marriage. Karl had tried his best but he never felt part of Bolivia. He found some solace in his friendship with the drug addicted priest Antonio, in scenes that remind one of Graham Greene’s work. But the ghosts of the past follow Karl and Margot to their new life in the new world.

In “Sonya’s Mood,” we meet the daughter of Karl and Margot, living in New York City in the late 1980s, as AIDS decimates part of its population. She was 11 when they left Vienna and 17 when they moved from Bolivia to New York City. Now, approaching her 60th birthday, she still daydreams about Bolivia and listens to her “scratchy old 78s. They sound right to her, even though they are full of static and skips.” The music recalls her first love, Luis. Despite her long marriage to Dan Cohen, her moods have only worsened rather than faded. She meets a gay friend, Rick, for lunch, and his stories of heartbreak and newfound romance add kindling to her low but long-burning flame.

“The Boys of El Tambor” takes us to Coatzacoalcos, Mexico, a coastal town near Veracruz.  Ester, a painter, writes to her former lover, Amy, a writer, back in Albuquerque, about her sudden decision to pick up and leave after experiencing personal and artistic frustrations, in part because Amy insists she needs both Ester and her boyfriend, Gilbert. Ester has stopped in Coatzacoalcos and taken work as a domestic of sorts. She enjoys her anonymity because no one asks about her painting or Amy, and she finds comfort hanging out at El Tambor, “a sleazy bar where all the drag queens hang out” and where a lesbian is welcomed as “one of us.” She enters into an arrangement with Marta and Rafael, her employers, mirroring Amy’s circumstance but without love or passion. The middle-aged homosexual who owns El Tambor offers Ester a moment of solidarity that begins to set her back on track. Interestingly, “The Boys of El Tambor” connects with “Sonya’s Mood” and “After the War” when Ester notes in passing that she might return to her hometown of New York City or even Bolivia, “where my mother and my grandparents spent the war years.”

“Carlito on Pink” introduces us to Kenard, a 16-year-old American student in Nicaragua who is equally possessed by his new passion for photography and the developmentally disabled son of his host family, Carlito. At home, his father is in jail for murder and his mother is going through a series of boyfriends. Kenard’s life at home is limited to school and the Boys and Girls Club, so the school trip to Nicaragua offers him escape and time to think. Carlito becomes his preferred subject.

Raeff’s stories are subtle and haunting, and I occasionally felt as mystified as her characters in sorting out the import of people and events. I was rewarded by second readings, a sign of rich, complex stories that, like the characters within, don’t reveal all their secrets at first meeting. There is a quiet confidence to Raeff’s writing that belies a fierce intellect unafraid to confront the darkness in the jungle around us.

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THE BOOK OF UNKNOWN AMERICANS gives powerful voice to America’s quiet minority

The Book of Unknown Americans  Cristina Henriquez

The Book of Unknown Americans

By Cristina Henriquez

Vintage: March 3, 2015

304 pages, $14.95

Some books are published at just the right time. While immigration has long been an important and contentious issue in the United States, the current situation with Central American child refugees playing out at our border makes Cristina Henriquez’s The Book of Unknown Americans even more timely and relevant than it would have been if it had been published in the last few years. The broader immigration issues remain, and this riveting novel provides some context for moving forward.

Fifteen-year-old Maribel Rivera has sustained a serious head injury and needs special treatment and schooling that are not available in her home state of Michoacan, Mexico. Her parents, Arturo and Alma Rivera have brought her to Wilmington, Delaware — of all places — after waiting a year for Arturo to receive a work visa. They have left most of their belongings behind and come to the U.S. with little more than hope and prayers for their formerly feisty daughter’s recovery. They share a run-down apartment building with neighbors from across Latin America, including the Toro family from Panama. We get to know Celia and Rafa Toro through the eyes of their sensitive teenage son, Mayor (“my-yor”), who is smitten with Maribel from the moment he sees the beautiful but shy new girl at the store.

The Riveras have their hands full trying to adapt to the strange world of the United States, not the least of which is learning English. Arturo works punishing hours in the dark at a mushroom “factory” across the state line in Pennsylvania (it seems he is always crossing a border). Alma has to overcome a few obstacles for Maribel to gain admission to the Evers School for students with special needs. Loneliness and homesickness are her frequent companions.

But the open hearts of a few people keep Alma afloat. She is befriended by Celia Toro, who serves as something of a guide to this perplexing new world — or at least to the neighborhood and Wilmington. Mayor soon realizes that Maribel is not a “normal” girl, but he finds that he likes her nonetheless, and they develop a special friendship as well. The two families become increasingly interconnected, for good and ill.

In addition to trying to make their way in the U.S., the characters deal with problems that are not just limited to immigrants. Alma is punished by her guilt over the accident that led to Maribel’s head injury. Alma and Arturo worry constantly about Maribel’s physical health and emotional well-being, including her friendship with Mayor. Celia wants to work, but Rafa is adamant that it is his job as the man to take care of his family.

A teenage bully with a surly manner and an omnipresent skateboard harasses Alma, Maribel, and Mayor (whom he also bothers at school). A snooty neighbor turns from a friend into a jealous gossip and passive-aggressive backbiter. Everyone is strapped for money during the difficult years of the recent Great Recession. And the relationships among the building’s other residents display the universal characteristics of such relationships anywhere.

Consistent with the novel’s title, the chapters alternate between the first-person narratives of Alma Rivera and Mayor Toro. Short narratives from their neighbors are interwoven to create a tapestry of perspectives through which we experience the dreams and ambitions of these immigrants from Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Paraguay, and Mexico. While the details (and the language) may be different from past waves of immigrants, their daily lives in most ways constitute the universal immigrant experience that exists in virtually every American’s family history.

The feeling of being an immigrant, or the American-born child of immigrants, is captured brilliantly in The Book of Unknown Americans. Mayor describes the feeling of being caught between two cultures when he says, “The truth was that I didn’t know which I was [Panamanian or American]. I wasn’t allowed to claim the thing I felt [being American] and I didn’t feel the thing I was supposed to claim [being Panamanian].” When the Riveras go out to an inexpensive pizza parlor, Alma observes, “[A]round us American couples and families ate slices of pizza and drank bottles of beer. I had the feeling that they disapproved of us being there, drinking only water, taking up space. But when I glanced at the people around us, no one was even looking in our direction, and I felt the way I often felt in this country — simultaneously conspicuous and invisible, like an oddity whom everyone noticed but chose to ignore.”

As a lifelong California resident, I was particularly impressed by the accuracy of the short narrative of Micho Alvarez. “I came from Mexico,” he begins. “But there’s a lot of people here who, when they hear that, they think I crawled out of hell. They hear ‘Mexico,’ and they think: bad, devil, I don’t know. They got some crazy ideas. Any of them ever been to Mexico? And if they say, yeah, I went to Acapulco back in the day or I been to Cancun, papi, then that shit don’t count. You went to a resort? Congratulations. But you didn’t go to Mexico.”

He then addresses the broader, more problematic issue. “And that’s the problem, you know? These people are listening to the media, and the media, let me tell you, has some fucked-up ideas about us. About all the brown-skinned people, but especially about the Mexicans. You listen to the media, you’ll learn that we’re all gangbangers, we’re all drug dealers, we’re tossing bodies in vats of acid, we want to destroy America, we still think Texas belongs to us, we all have swine flu, we carry machine guns under our coats, we don’t pay any taxes, we’re lazy, we’re stupid, we’re all wetbacks who crossed the border illegally. I swear to God, I’m so tired of being called a spic, a nethead, a cholo, all this stuff. Happens to me all the time.”

When he is watched closely in stores, he says, “I have enough money to be in any store and even if I didn’t, I have the right to be in any store. I feel like telling them sometimes, You don’t know me, man. I’m a citizen here! But I shouldn’t have to tell anyone that. I want to be given the benefit of the doubt….I wish just one of these people, just one, would actually talk to me, talk to my friends, man. And yes, you can talk to us in English. I know English better than you, I bet. But none of them even want to try. We’re the unknown Americans, the ones no one even wants to know, because they’ve been told they’re supposed to be scared of us and because maybe if they did take the time to get to know us, they might realize that we’re not that bad, maybe even that we’re a lot like them. And who would they hate then? It’s fucked up. The whole thing is very, very complicated.”

Cristina Henriquez has produced a powerful and moving portrayal of the lives of people we rarely hear from, the “unknown Americans” (all of the characters are legal immigrants). Her decision to use multiple first-person narrators adds an immediacy to the reading experience that makes this a very fast read. The various voices are idiosyncratic and credible and provide a quick glimpse into the range of life experiences possessed by immigrants. The narratives of Alma and Mayor, which make up the bulk of the book, are especially thoughtful and revealing.

Henriquez has smoothly handled the fact that the characters are obviously speaking Spanish to each other most of the time. In that sense, their narratives have been “translated.” Some speak English well, but others do not (depending on how long they have been in the U.S.). But when it’s clear they are speaking English (either to each other or to English speakers), they make second language errors and use bits of Spanish when they don’t know the word in English, adding credibility to the characterization.

The Book of Unknown Americans is not a polemic dressed up as a novel. It’s a compelling story of sympathetic characters in challenging circumstances, both personal and socio-cultural. They are people you will care about and whom you will miss when you close the book. And they will make you think about the “very, very complicated” times in which we live.