Trigger warning: The review briefly touches on things like abortion and misogyny, but more prominently, child murder/dismemberment comes up in a story and is discussed here.
I’ve been working on breaking a reading slump, and the last while, I’ve kept running into upsetting things in books that I wasn’t warned or prepared for, leaving me uninterested in continuing and disenchanted with books for a little bit. So it was a bit of a surprise that this short story collection that I knew absolutely nothing about, was what broke the slump for me. The Moths and Other Stories is a collection of translated stories originally written in Spanish, by Mexican writer Helena Maria Viramontes. Despite what I initially thought, it’s an older collection (1985) and literary fiction to its core; while there are speculative elements here and there, they’re vague and not a central part of the writing.
At its heart, The Moths and Other Stories is a set of stories about Chicano women. Cisgender and heterosexual women, I will add, although Viramontes isn’t nearly as obnoxious about it as many other cis female writers. Two of the stories touch on abortion, and its fraught nature within religious Chicano communities (Birthday, The Long Reconciliation); others explicitly tackle the sexism that girls grow up with and that women have to endure and internalized (Growing, The Broken Web). One thing I found particularly interesting about these four was how Viramontes’s position as an in-group writer, rather than an outside observer, comes through so vividly. None of the stories take a simple, FeministTM approach to their topics; it isn’t as simple, within communities with their own traditions, as telling abusive men to fuck off or deciding that women Should get to do this, or Shouldn’t have to do that. Nor are the stories about abortion or modesty screeds about why it is Wrong and Bad. Instead, Viramontes actively sits with the emotions involved. What does it feel like, to go through this? What is the experience actually like?
The Moths, the title story, is one of my two favourites. It’s a parable about death and grief, with a touch of magical realism that isn’t nearly as present in the other stories, and what I identified with the most within it was how the central character is picked on for her looks, and responds with violence. No genteel or fragile victim crying in the corner – she responds with punches and kicks, and it makes her situation worse, and she does it anyway.
My other favourite, however, is the famous The Cariboo Cafe. Admittedly, I only found out after the fact that this story is well-known, since I never ran into it while I was in school. The first time I read it, I was emotionally affected, but confused as to what was happening; there are three sections of the story, all told from different perspectives, and the third is from an omniscient third person perspective which is hard to pull off at the best of times. Viramontes does, and it’s excellent, but it takes a second reading for it to sink in. However, the other reason why I had to read up on the story to have it affect me fully was simply because I’m not Latino or Chicano or Central American; and I’m also young enough to not have a piece of essential history. The story of The Cariboo Cafe is this; two kids, the children of undocumented immigrants, get locked out of their house by mistake and try to hide. It’s left unclear what happens to them, but in the second part, the man running the Cafe sees them come in with a woman he assumes to be their mother. He then sees a poster about two missing children, and debates telling the cops about it – but the cops mistreat him after he tries to cooperate about something else, so he doesn’t bother. The third part of the story, however, dips into the mind of the woman who apparently kidnapped the two children from Part One. She used to live in Nicaragua, sent her child out for a mango, and he never came back; we see her talking to somebody who tells her that he was working for the Contras, despite being four or five years old, and it only gets more graphic from there. She mentions terrible details such as him being dismembered, his penis nailed to her door, and how much is true is hard to tell considering how brutal the Contras and the people working against them were. This is where I didn’t have the background – I didn’t know who the Contras were until I looked it up. (And promptly was both glad I did, and wished I didn’t. Fuck the USA.) Driven mad by grief, she illegally crossed the border into the USA, but upon seeing the little boy from the beginning, snatched him away because she thought it was her son. And when the cops try to arrest her, she throws hot coffee on them, desperate to save her son at least this time around.
No summary can give Viramontes’s incredible prose any competition. But as somebody who knew nothing about the Contras other than the vague term “Iran-Contra affair”, it was a haunting read – and incredible, incredible work. The other stories in the collection are good, but The Cariboo Cafe talks about immigrants intersecting with each other in a light I’ve never seen before, and it’s the one that will stick with me.