Tr. by Charlotte Coombe
Last November, the Colombian Ministry of Culture announced the members of the delegation that would head to Paris later that month to represent the country during the celebration of “El Año Colombia-Francia” (the Colombia-France year), the latest installment in a long-running French initiative designed to foster cultural diplomacy between the host country and a guest. One of the high-profile literary events would present ten Colombian authors at the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal de Paris — part of France’s national library — but here a deeply troubling miscalculation of representation became terribly clear: all ten authors were men.
In response, a group of women writers published a manifesto titled “Colombia tiene escritoras” (literally, Colombia has female writers) criticizing the selection process and questioning the criteria that led to such a decision. Among those who signed it was Margarita García Robayo, who, in an interview, elaborated on her reasons for doing so. Emphasizing that such a depiction of the country’s literary culture was not only unjust but simply false, she offered a diagnosis that pointed not to deliberate exclusion but instead to something much worse: “a historically patriarchal inertia.”
Fish Soup, a volume of García Robayo’s work recently released by Charco Press in Charlotte Coombe’s sure-handed translation, serves up stories in which, more often than not, women struggle in situations that simmer with an inertia distinctly patriarchal in flavor. Consisting of two novellas as well as a short story collection that won the prestigious Casa de las Américas prize in 2014, it offers an excellent introduction to this author whose narratives depict her native Cartagena, her current home, Buenos Aires, and a slew of other locations across the Spanish-speaking world. Yet this ability to easily move among different spaces is precisely what many of her characters lack. As she deftly mobilizes themes of mobility and immobility, García Robayo demonstrates not only how circumstances catch us with little promise of release but also how we get caught up in the idea of finding a way to escape.
If, in other words, a school of fish can operate as a net of its own — a more visible one that’s also potentially more suffocating and sinister — García Robayo draws out the ways that, outside the piscine perspective, education is often complicit in making such nets seem natural. And this education happens not only in classrooms but everywhere, a set of recipes seemingly resistant to change and remarkably resilient in terms of producing lingering odors and overpowering aftertastes. Rewriting these recipes is certainly possible; what García Robayo depicts so compellingly are the bitter consequences of refusing to do so.
In “Waiting for a Hurricane,” the first of the volume’s two novellas, a young woman longs to leave her hometown in coastal Colombia. Hardly a whim, it’s more of a longstanding wish: “When people asked me, what do you want to be when you grow up? I’d reply: a foreigner.” And while this desire occasionally borders on desperation, it’s an entirely understandable one given that, as she remarks elsewhere, “if I was rich I wouldn’t want to leave, rich people can live well anywhere.”
This desire to depart becomes interwoven with desires of a different stripe as the young woman’s sexual experiences and attractions revolve around those who offer the promise of an escape. There is Gustavo, an older man who molests her as a young girl but whom she nevertheless repeatedly visits, perhaps because he is a foreigner who traveled much of the world before settling down into a simple shack to live as a fisherman. But there are also lovers her age who help her imagine leaving but also attempt to dissuade her. The most consistent is Tony, the only one to object to what becomes her ultimate way out: becoming a flight attendant. Pointing out the frequent sexual harassment and other poor working conditions of such a job, he voices concerns that the narrator ultimately dismisses: “Tony had a lot of ideas about air hostesses, but I had just one: air hostesses could leave.”
Yet the series of departures and arrivals that constitute the life of a flight attendant never truly allow for a full escape. It’s travel without any real destination, comprised of journeys that always circle back to the same place. And to make matters worse, in her case there’s only a single route: the one that takes her to Miami and leaves her “thinking that I would never go anywhere definitively, that I was doomed to come and go, come and go, and that was the same thing as never having left.” Frequent rains put a damper on not only flight plans but also the possibilities for earning enough money to somehow settle stateside. It’s something she can’t ever envision happening with Tony: in an imagined future, “Tony would cling to my back like a limpet, his arm around my waist, and whisper in my ear: one day we’ll get out of here. Me: we’ll always be here, waiting for a hurricane to come.” The hurricane is less an impending disaster than an event that could shake things up, prompting a rebuilding process that would require reframing the fantasies that can structure horizons of possibility.
The novella’s stunning opening introduces these oscillations between feasibility and futility. “Living by the sea is both good and bad for the same reason: the world ends at the horizon,” the narrator explains. “That is, the world never ends. And you always expect too much. At first, you hope everything you’re waiting for will arrive one day on a boat; then you realise nothing’s going to arrive and you’ll have to go looking for it instead.” Desire, after all, doesn’t deliver; it demands.
Yet, as the rest of the paragraph makes clear, those demands often consist of capital’s relentlessly false promise of a rising tide that will lift all boats. “I hated my city because it was both really beautiful and really ugly, and I was somewhere in the middle. The middle was the worst place to be: hardly anyone made it out of the middle. It was where the lost causes lived: there, nobody was poor enough to resign themselves to being poor forever, so they spent their lives trying to move up in the world and liberate themselves. When all attempts failed — as they usually did — their self-awareness disappeared and that’s when all was lost.” This sense of limbo lurks throughout “Waiting for a Hurricane,” never washed away by the rains.
Always accompanying it are the trips that introduce the narrator not to new locales but rather new forms of sexism and a sickening sense of stuckness. Despite the promise she thought — and that she was taught — being a flight attendant offered, it’s ultimately a route to nowhere. It’s a slowly dawning and damning realization that finds plenty of counterparts in the volume’s selection of short stories, originally published as the collection Cosas peores (Worse Things). While the comparative element in its title naturally leads to the question “worse than what?,” García Robayo reveals this short form to be the ideal one for portraying the moments when characters who flail rather than fail understand that things have already gotten pretty bad.
Stranded in Europe’s largest hotel after an accident at the Madrid airport, Pedro, who works in appliances, attempts to process the tragedy he has just witnessed but turns to all the wrong places in “You are Here.” Separated from his family, he seeks solace in the hotel bar and the people he finds there. García Robayo locates the perfect image for his loss of clarity in a technical distinction Pedro recently learned: the one between “dead pixels and stuck pixels, which were not dead, but which were almost impossible to fix.” As in others from the collection, in this story repair is never really an option — often the only one is resignation.
In the collection’s title story, for instance, a morbidly and increasingly obese young boy occupies a bigger and bigger space in the world without growing to understand his place within it. Lying down one day, he looks up at the clouds: “[he] wished that one would stop and furiously empty itself onto him. Until he was swept away; until there was nothing left.” And in the first story, “Like a Pariah,” there is little left of a cancer survivor’s former life, one that she now recalls in a state of solitude that’s only occasionally interrupted by a neighbor’s insistent invitations.
Facing loss alone also frames “Sky and Poplars,” which recounts Ema’s return home, a place where she no longer knows anyone since, like her, everyone had left. García Robayo skillfully withholds the precise details of the cause of Ema’s grief to instead attend to a more difficult and simultaneously more revealing phase: the way it isolates those who suffer, who can in turn make those who just want to help suffer as well.
“Something We Never Were” features the strongest female character from the collection: a young college student named Eileen who refuses to be labeled. “When Salvador asked Eileen to be his girlfriend, she said no,” the story opens. “She was having none of that boyfriend and girlfriend crap; what she was interested in was questioning certain paradigms.” Salvador’s utter incomprehension of her wishes fuels his infatuation, which Eileen willingly accepts — but only on her terms. In its own way, the story is the chronicle of a breakup foretold, one where a young man decides to end things partly because a young woman has chosen to define them.
Early explorations of sensuality also frame the volume’s second novella, the semi-autobiographical “Sexual Education.” Here a group of young women at an all-female Catholic high school in Cartagena constantly confront desire and its consequences as every day they encounter both abstinence-only campaigns and teen pregnancies. Against this backdrop of unbroken cycles and evidently ineffective solutions, an unnamed narrator, like so many other García Robayo protagonists, dreams of a way to leave it all behind: “I wanted a scholarship to join NASA and slide off the edge of the map forever.” More dramatic and definitive a departure than becoming a flight attendant, it is also far less feasible.
Informal instruction in sex and prophylactics happens only in hallways or outside the school, with the result that it’s sometimes improperly learned. And it leads to a contradiction at the heart of the Church’s teachings that the narrator quickly identifies: “you couldn’t help thinking how little faith the catechists had in chastity. Their message was clear-cut: you must be chaste. But devoting the next lesson to abortion was like admitting they had failed. What this revealed was that sex was a redeemable sin; which is why trying to persuade girls not to do it was stupid. A redeemable sin, God knew full well, was the proven method used by many to become Saints.” An imperfect system, its constant “no”s always yield a “yes”: yes, you can be redeemed.
An unforgivable crime, however, later shakes the school and throws into sharp relief the limitations of its teachings. Parental efforts to terminate a teen pregnancy resulting from a disturbing episode of rape have an unintended side effect: expulsion for the young woman but shockingly few consequences for the perpetrators. Although everyone knows who these young men are, they also know what will become of them: “Most likely, all that would happen is that the boys would be sent abroad for a while. Then they’d come back, go off to study some second-rate degree course at a university in Bogotá, before returning to Cartagena to run their parents’ businesses, get married and have children who they’d name after themselves.” That fate, and the hypocrisy that produces it, differs markedly from the possibilities the narrator and her peers can now envision for themselves: “I glimpsed into the future. A future that looked dull, bland, and dark. I tried to imagine us different; transformed into something else. Atheist. Nympho. Lesbian. Adulterous. Wild. Or sane. I wasn’t able to.” This enervated imagination is the devastating effect of institutions whose members matter less than the preservation of a sickening status quo.
In other words, it’s the same sign of inertia that García Robayo had identified elsewhere. And if Newton’s first law, famously dedicated to inertia, teaches that an object either at rest or in constant motion has to be acted upon by an external force for anything to change, García Robayo instead provides a gripping series of lessons about what happens in the absence of action.
Sam Carter is a writer and an editor at Asymptote, a journal of translation.