[Deep Vellum Publishing; 2021]
Tr. from the Spanish by Lily Meyer
I have tried several times to keep a dream journal — once as a child plagued by nightmares, and once in my twenties, plagued by a conviction that my dreams were a kind of code. Most recently, and least productively, I tried to keep one out of a hard-bitten scheme to mill my dreams into saleable stories. Some entries were long, though they were rarely gripping enough to justify their length. Some were blessedly short, others were disturbing, and were in the scrawl and lazy diction of someone who just woke up.
Reading Little Bird by Claudia Ulloa Donoso is a bit like reading a dream journal by someone who took her dream journal very seriously: someone who never got bored or cynical, someone who remained committed to communicating with her subconscious, someone in love with what language can do to reality. Donoso is Peruvian, raised in Lima and currently living in Norway, where she teaches several of the languages she’s mastered. In 2017, she made the Bogota39 list, which recognized her as one of the top writers in Latin America under the age of 40. Little Bird is the English translation of her book Parajito (which literally translates to “little bird” or, as google translate suggests, “birdie”). It’s one of her three books, the others being the story collection, El pez que aprendió a caminar, and Séptima Madrugada, which is based on her blog. Little Bird itself, while a collection of stories, also occasionally includes snippets of Donoso’s blog posts, heightening the journal element of the dream journal effect.
Of course, all fiction is dream-ish, or perhaps dream-like — an invitation to both wander and wonder. As John Gardner had it in his classic craft book, The Art of Fiction, the process of writing a good story is the process of summoning a vivid and continuous fictional dream in the reader. But Donoso’s fictive dreams are really weird. But above all, they are notable for their surreal logic, which is not to say their lack of logic. For example, the narrator of the title story brings a dying bird to a work interview; in another story a woman takes a vacation inside her cat; in another, a woman transforms fireflies into men by speaking to them. All of these stories run on surreal association rather than the cause and effect of realism. In Donoso’s world, something might happen simply because a character was thinking about it, or was in a particular mood. Rather than reacting to external forces, the characters often drive the stories forward by reacting to their own associative experiences. Donoso’s story logic is the fictional equivalent of typing into a spreadsheet at work, staring a little too long at the sharp grid, and finding yourself suddenly in the grip of a dream about being wrapped in wire fencing. In many of the stories, I experienced that queasy sense: the more I wanted to lean away from a particular line of association, the more Donoso’s dream would investigate. The narration moves like a dream, too, which is to say that there’s no dawdling over loose sentences, no leaving time for the reader to think back to that spreadsheet she’d been sweating over — Donoso commands a feverish continuousness. But that slipperiness serves her well. Often, after finishing a story, I felt compelled to flip back to the beginning to see where it had begun. In translator Lily Meyer’s introduction, she likens the displacement to “that bemused, sun-dazzled feeling I associate with leaving a movie theater during the day — where am I? What time is it? How did I get here?”
If the associative logic of these stories is the engine that powers their incredible effects of displacement, then language is the fuel for those associations. Donoso and Meyer favor simple sentences, small steps that took me, nevertheless, from one plane of existence to another:
“The plague of fireflies began several years ago. She didn’t want to call the exterminator. Instead, she turned the building’s communal patio into a garden, thinking the insects would rather light up in nature than in her room. But even when the garden was in bloom the bugs didn’t leave, and this is what happened next: she started to talk to them, and, as if they couldn’t resist her words any more than I could, the fireflies turned into men.
She tried to get to know these people she’d created, but though the firefly-men could speak, they couldn’t have a conversation. If they talked too much, they fell apart. Their bodies withered on her floor and then rotted. She mourned them every time.”
Long, elegantly constructed sentences often have a habit of turning inward, of reminding the reader of themselves as not only readers, but thinkers. Balletic as they may be, complex sentences can act as the hands we throw up in front of our eyes when we’re scared: thoughts and words can help to block out the world. Whereas short, concrete sentences frequently do the opposite, disallowing the reader little nooks to hide in, and instead revealing the author’s chosen vistas with sharp clarity. Donoso’s writing, which wishes to show the reader a truly strange world, does well to deliver itself in such small, unavoidable revelations.
Although, not all of Donoso’s stories slip away into another plane of reality. The book is organized into six sections, which group stories by theme: “Work Experience,” “Between Us,” “Here and There,” “Placebo,” “Blood and Water,” and “Å Håpe”. “Here and There,” for example, focuses on the experience of leaving and living in different countries. These stories are full of fish-scented memories of a childhood in Lima; the tribulations of a recent transplant to the Arctic Circle — a lover of darkness confronted with the midnight sun; forgetfulness and nostalgia. Other stories in the collection — particularly in the “Placebo” and “Blood and Water” sections — deal with injury, illness and diagnosis. Characters grapple with nosebleeds (bleeding of all kinds, actually), broken fingers, instability, schizophrenia, depression. These stories are also populated by cures, which are almost never pharmaceutical, nor are they ever totally effective. These illness stories, even the stories that involve mental illness, are visceral but do not avoid the representation of illness as metaphor. Instead, Donoso often gives herself fully to the figurative:
“There are mornings when you get up and your body hurts like last night you binged on pain. Your limbs are so heavy it’s like your blood has turned to mercury. It’s as if you’re trapped in an explosion, no, an explosion is trapped inside of you. You can’t hear. Your eyes are dry sockets. Your hands are hot and empty and your thoughts burn up like gas.
You go through your day like this, in pieces, your silk scarf and your best jacket soaked with pain.”
The metaphors pile on top of one another in portraits of illnesses, portraits which often become extended metaphors themselves. In the story above, titled “Placebo for Bleeding to Death”, the narrator moves from describing what seems like her reality (a life with chronic pain) to a surreal parable about watching a lonely woman bleeding out in a food court, unnoticed by her friends. The narrator, who is herself separated physically from the people she is watching, doesn’t call out to them or insert herself into their group in any direct way, but again she uses this power of surreal association:
“Yesterday I saw a girl bleeding in the cafeteria.
She was eating a salad, talking with a woman at her table and a man who might have been her husband. Their rings matched, anyway.
Blood dripped over the sides of the chair. It soaked into her purple sweater, dripped from her ponytail, ran down the seams of her pants.
My table was across from hers and so I could see it all.
Every so often she stopped talking, cut her bread with a knife, mopped up salad dressing and ate the bread in bits, staring into space.
She stayed quiet for a while, looking into the cafeteria’s kitchen, while her companions kept talking. Then she got up and walked to the water fountain.
She left a trail of blood on the cafeteria floor.”
Donoso’s metaphors, whether cascading or solitary, become another way for her characters to exit the world of cause and effect and enter into the dream world of association that lets them take control of their stories.
Meyer notes in her introduction that “the stories collected here are grounded more in personal fact than a reader might guess. Claudia wrote them after moving north of the Arctic Circle; her first summer there, she suffered severe insomnia from the endless daylight, which created the feeling of dislocation so many of her characters express.” Still, for all Donoso’s interest in the first person, in blogging and autofiction, her stories ultimately point outward rather than inward. A person who takes her dreams seriously is not necessarily someone who takes other people seriously, but Donoso manages both with style. Like the narrator of the title story, tucking a mangled bird into her pocket for safe-keeping, Donoso treats all her characters — narrators and their mothers, lovers, cats, strangers on a bus, landscapers and firefly men — with tender care. And therefore, by extension, she treats her readers with care, too — a compassion not easily found in our waking world.
Amelia Brown is a writer living in Boston. She holds an MFA from Bennington College, and is a regular contributor to the Ploughshares blog. She is at work on her first novel.