Archive for the ‘Engel, Patricia’ Category

Vida, by Patricia Engel

July 20, 2010

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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