12 Apr / Are We Ever Our Own by Gabrielle Lucille Fuentes [in Shelf Awareness]
The BOA Short Fiction Prize promises “collections [that] are more concerned with the artfulness of writing than the twists and turns of plot.” Cuban Irish American author Gabrielle Lucille Fuentes (The Sleeping World) effortlessly displays both craft and narrative in the 11 loosely interlinked stories of Are We Ever Our Own.
Fuentes divides her fiction into three parts, the first and third sections labeled “fantasma,” meaning ghost, which include a spectral single story each. The opening “Ana Mendieta Haunts the Block” deftly mixes fact and fiction: Ana Mendieta was a Cuban American artist possibly murdered by her husband; The Block was the home, now museum, of artist Donald Judd. Fuentes places spirited Ana in the Block, where tour guide Simon witnesses the museum cleaner Paula and her niece Caridad Armando-Mendoza become scapegoats for Ana’s wandering mischief. In the closing fantasma, “The Ballad of Tam Lin,” covered-wagon traveling performers and their peripatetic theatrics – both professional and personal – are recalled by the troupe leaders’ daughter. The nested stories-within-stories each heighten “this disappearing”: a lost father, dead sister, tragic lovers.
The connection between first and last stories relies on names – names shared by scattered members of the Armando Castell family who populate Part II, aptly subtitled “begin again,” as if to offer provenance and then far-flung progression. “The Burial of Fidelia Armando Castell” establishes the Armando Castells, who share a divided-up mansion in La Pieza, Cuba, with the Agüero Gijóns; references to an “occupation” locate the story at the end of the 19th century. Fidelia Armando Castell and Rosa Agüero Gijón grow up closer than sisters; one is silenced by rape, the other by murder. Half a century later, in “Palm Chess,” Carmen Fidelia Beracierto Armando Castell, travels from Miami to La Pieza to film the “history … buried in ground I know nothing about.” That footage is rediscovered in “Loli & Magda,” screened over a Wisconsin lakeside evening of oxtail soup and flowing alcohol. Caridad Armando-Mendoza from the opening “Ana Medieta” resurfaces in the titular “Are We Ever Our Own,” as the contemporary curator/editor of a 1960s epistolary exchange between two artists, one of them another Armando Castell.
These Armando Castell women are imbedded throughout Fuentes’s intricately plotted narratives: most are unknown to each other; many are artists of diverse genres; none ever seem quite settled. With deft precision, Fuentes parses a compelling multigenerational history of womanhood revealed through complicated relationships, disturbing violence, wrenching longing, and sometimes, bittersweet, hard-won autonomy.
Shelf Talker: Gabrielle Lucille Fuentes’s impressive BOA Short Fiction Prize-winning collection showcases 11 intricate stories linking the Armando Castell women through generations.