Vida, by Patricia Engel

Review copy courtesy WordFest

What only a few years ago looked to be a subset of the American short story world has now emerged as a fully established genre: the diaspora experience of (name country here). Jhumpa Lahiri won a Pulitzer Prize for Interpreter of Maladies in 2000, a story collection based on the Indian experience, and followed it a few years ago with Unaccustomed Earth, a collection on the same theme. Junot Diaz had earlier introduced the Dominican Republic diaspora with the short story collection Drown (1996) – he returned to the theme in his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, in 2008. Chimamanda Adichie last year explored the Nigerian version with The Thing Around Your Neck. I am sure there are others – and certainly if we look back in American literary history there are precedents (most notably Irish and Jewish), so the phenomenon is not really that new. The homelands may have changed and the world may have moved on, but many of the elements of the story are similar.

The latest addition is the Colombian diaspora and it comes in the first book for 33-year-old Patricia Engel, born in New Jersey to Colombian parents. Her nine story collection, Vida, is set there and in New York and Miami, with occasional flashbacks and holiday trips to Colombia itself. What is different about Engel’s work is that all nine stories feature the same central character, Sabina, whom we first meet as a school child, although most of the stories involve her experiences as a young adult.

In many ways, the first story, “Lucho”, is a prologue which sets up the rest of the book:

It was the year my uncle got arrested for killing his wife, and our family was the subject of all the town gossip. My dad and uncle were business partners, so my parents were practically on trial themselves, which meant that most of the parents didn’t want their kids to hang around me anymore, and I lost the few friends I had.

We were foreigners, spics, in a town of blancos. I don’t know how we ended up there. There’s tons of Latinos in New Jersey, but somehow we ended up in the one town that only kept them as maids. All the kids called me brownie on account of my permanent tan, or Indian because all the Indians they saw on TV were dark like me. I thought the gringos were all pink, not white, but I never said so. I was a quiet kid. Lonely, and a hell of a lot lonelier once my family became the featured topic on the nightly news.

Sabina’s family is not poor; indeed, they employ a succession of maids. When we meet her, she is 14; the Lucho of the title is her first boy friend – he’s actually from California but acquired his name from the Argentine who fathered him and then promptly departed the family. Sabina’s casual relationships with questionable men will be a constant factor in the stories.

In the second story of the volume, “Refuge”, Engel takes a risk that almost led me to abandon the book (and I am glad that I didn’t). The year is 2001 and Sabina has a job as a receptionist at a financial firm in New York (I’m sure you can see what is coming):

This morning the Towers were hit and I was in bed – not at the office in Tower One – because I called in sick again. My brother phoned, said turn on the TV and I watched it all, everything I don’t need to describe here now. Before the phones went dead, I made contact. Parents, a few friends. Trying to decide how to handle this mess but I’m in no position to make a decision which is a good thing because Luscious Lou (his stage name), my guitar teacher of these past few months, showed up at my door, all seven feet of him in his usual black leather and suede, leaning on the frame, that sleeping crow of hair on his head, diagonal nose like a dragon’s tail, tiny gray eyes folded into hard wrinkles. Moist bellowing voice: “Sabina, I knew you’d be home.”

He told me to go with him, that I live too close to the scene.

While her execution is somewhat clumsy, Engel is making a point with her use of 9/11, a point that will be underscored in a later story when we discover her parents lived in the drug centre of Medellin before immigrating to the United States. The impact of these “global” events is almost coincidental for her characters – they are so far out of the power loop, that the events exist as almost peripheral disruptions to immigrant life. Life is much more about weaving a way to survival.

Most of the rest of the stories are about what is involved in that weaving. In the title story, “Vida”, Sabina is hanging out in Miami with a new sometime boy friend with East European roots. Vida is another Colombian, the girl friend of Sabina’s boy friend’s mate. The two become close and Vida reveals that she was “sold” as a prostitute when she arrived in America — her boy friend was the brothel guard who “rescued” her, although that turns out merely to be an exchange of imprisonment. How Sabina helps her weave a route to survival is the major theme of the story.

By using Sabina as the central character and focusing on the “survival” theme, Engel creates a novel-like feel to the collection. She is a confident writer, with a narrative style that well suits the relative lack of action in her plots – what is a big deal for Sabina is not really a big deal for the rest of the world. Much like Lahiri’s stories, that’s the central point of Engel’s stories.

The result is a worthwhile book, although I suspect not to everyone’s taste. Readers who are interested in the immigrant experience – particularly as seen by the second generation – will find much to contemplate in this collection. With her focus on a single individual, the author succeeds in exploring a highly personal, rather than political, story.

The publisher’s promotional material states that they have a novel under contract as well, so Engel would seem to be following the Diaz route. There is every reason to look forward to her next book.

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11 Responses to “Vida, by Patricia Engel”

  1. Max Cairnduff Says:

    That sounds very interesting Kevin.

    I can see why you near bailed at the 9/11 section, but it’s interesting to see the point being made and it feels true. For most people, not just immigrants, the most important global events are mere backdrop to the real matters of consequence in their lives.

    I agree the exeution’s a bit clumsy though, particularly having her actually work at one of the towers.

    The focus on a connecting individual I suspect is a strength, all human stories are after all in the end personal. That can sometimes be lost by widescreen novels.

    Anyway, an interesting review of what sounds like an interesting book. Not sure if I’ll pick it up or not, but I’m certainly a lot more likely to now.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: It is a well-done book and I am interested in the premise (as you can probably tell from the lengthy list of comparison books at the start — and I didn’t even include any Canadian ones). Given the immigration issues that are at play all over the world, I think the subject is an important one. And I salute writers like Engel for addressing it. There is a part of me that does wish it was better-written, but I think the commitment to exploring a “dis-located” individual’s experience is a worthwhile one.

    As for reading it…. I always seem to be saying “next time you are on a plane to North America”. It is that kind of book — if New Jersey or New York is on your horizon (more work than pleasure), I’d recommend this just for context.

  3. theliterarylollipop Says:

    I must say, I’m rather seduced by the cover. After visiting Miami only once and completely falling in love with the city, any book that takes place there (even momentarily) has caught my attention.

    Although I have a tough time with short stories in general, I would be tempted to try this one because the subject matter seems quite well executed and, from what I get from your review, interestingly done.

    Great review!

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lollipop: I haven’t actually seen the cover (I read an ARC) but I agree that the design looks very interesting. And I also appreciate your comments about Miami — I don’t like the city that much myself (although I sure love the cuisine) but I think it is a very interesting “literary” city right now because it is at the crossroads between North and South America. Engel’s book extends well beyond that but I do think that is at the heart of her fiction.

  5. Guy Savage Says:

    The families of illegal immigrant workers who were caught and subsequently died in the towers comprised one of the more difficult situations in the fallout of 9/11. So I can see the validity of a story from the viewpoint of immigrants. But that said, I am at the surfeit point with 9/11 books.

    Thanks for the review.

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I too have had as much 9/11 fiction as I want — and perhaps I should not have paid so much attention to that angle in this review, since it only comes into play in one of the stories. The more persistent theme (that of “how do I get by?”) is more interesting.

  7. Isabel Says:

    Julia Alvarez’ first novel, How the Garcia Girls lost Their Accent, was also about hot-blooded Latinas. My girlfriends and I of Hispanic descent didn’t like that aspect of the novel; we were so insulted! Not all of us are so, well, “easy”.

    Alvarez’ novels had better themes as she wrote more.

    That part of the plot in VIDA seems like Alvarez’ book.

    NJ (nearest to NYC) is not the nicest place for anyone, especially Hispanics. Everyone thinks that you belong to a gang or are a criminal.

    I’ll keep any eye for Engel’s novel.

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Isabel: Your concern about the Alvarez novel is relevant here — one of the aspects of the collection that I rather did not like was the “hot Latina” (actually more sex-dependent in this book) aspect that was present in a lot of the stories. And I suspect that were I a female of Latin descent it would have bothered me a lot more.

    I also think your thought about New Jersey is relevant. It has been home to immigrants for some generations (both Roth and Bellow have set significant work there) and continues to represent, in fiction at least, the first destination for many of these stories (since Diaz’s work is also set there). In the blogging world, of course, we have the opposite version of Trevor moving from Idaho to NJ. (That story has its own reflection in Davis’ A Meaningful Life, but I digress.) Trevor is a very faithful poster, so I am sure we will see thoughts from him eventually.

    And somehwhat off topic, a) how is the N.O. summer weather and b) more important, what are Isabel’s cold-weather novels of the summer of 2010? I love the notion of someone who saves up cold weather reading — lord knows, I read my share of hot weather novels in the winter.

  9. Isabel Says:

    I think Trevor lives in the Nicer part of NJ. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis went horseback riding in NJ but probably not Newark :]

    I’ll answer your other questions when I get home. A tropical depression is in the Gulf of Mexico right now, so I have to check where it’s going.

  10. Isabel Says:

    Kevin, here’s the answer to your question.

    http://booksandotherstuff.blogspot.com/2010/07/stuff-my-summer-readings.html

    The former Bonnie depression downgraded to a rainmaker, so it should be cooler tonight.

  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks for the update, Isabel — a truly cool list!

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