February 25, 2005

Haunting and Mature: Lisa Gonzales’ Arroyo a remarkable, startling little book

By Daniel A. Olivas

In the editor’s note to Lisa Gonzales’ book of short stories, Arroyo, Francisco Aragón lets us know two things. First, the mission of Momotombo Press “is to promote emerging Latino/a writers” in a chapbook format. Second, the press intends to cast a very wide net and “opt for a spirit of inclusion.” How inclusive? Aragón tells us that Gonzales, who grew up in Fairfield, California, listened to her mother’s stories which included migration. But not “migration from, for example, Michoacán to Bakersfield—but rather: migration from Portugal to Hawaii, from the Philippines to Hawaii.” Aragón also notes that Gonzales’ desire to write was sparked by two Latino/a writers: Sandra Cisneros and Junot Diaz. Aragon had no doubt that Gonzales was nothing if not a Momotombo author.

Arroyo consists of three short stories all of which take place in Hawaii. The title story begins: “On the day my father killed the neighbor boy, my mother took me upstairs, undressed me, and put my clothes in a trash bag. I stood naked in the bathroom, arms at my side, and tried to settle my thoughts, flatten them out, make my mind as smooth as the white-tiled floor.”

With such a beginning, it is impossible not to read on. The “I” in the story is Teresa, a young girl in a Hawaiian neighborhood where the people speak Portuguese. Teresa, however, is a “haole” because her father is white. Before the incident, her father often had said that Arthur, the dead boy, “was deaf and dumb, but my mother said he wasn’t dumb, just slow.” The story bounces back and forth in time as Teresa tries to understand Arthur’s death and to make sense of her life in general. Through all this, no one speaks directly of her father’s actions; Teresa is forced to gather scraps of information from adults who think she doesn’t understand what they’re saying. The ending is haunting and displays a truly mature talent for lyrical subtly.

“The Hawaiian Band” revolves around Teresa’s neighbor, an unnamed narrator who tells us that she and her sister Ruby laugh about the Hawaiian Band but it has nothing to do with the joy of music. Sure, there was plenty of musical talent in the house including “Auntie Lally, her painted fingernails clicking the keys like chips of red bone….” But the Hawaiian Band in their household was “when someone turns the radio up to drown the hollers of a child getting lickings.” The physical abuse continues until one day when the narrator brings it to an abrupt and surprising end.

In the final story, “Love in the Blood,” the narrator is an old woman who never could have children of her own. When her mother dies in childbirth, she becomes the de facto mother of her baby brother, Anthony. Despite being a young girl, she takes on this task with encouragement from her mother’s spirit: “[T]hat night she come to me. Not her whole self, just her voice. I’m in bed when I hear her so close to my face like she’s my pillow. Real soft, she whisper, ‘You the mama now.’” She raises her “son” who is eventually killed in war. Another chance to become a mother comes when her sister has yet another boy. Her sister agrees to allow the narrator to raise this child, named Daniel, as long as the boy knows that he’s being raised by an aunt. The narrator’s husband, who is angered by his wife’s inability to get pregnant, dislikes this arrangement but finds that he has no choice in the matter. When Daniel is ten, his mother dies. His father visits the narrator to retrieve what was given away, apparently against his wishes. The narrator tells her heartbreaking story in broken English and without a hint of self-pity.

Arroyo includes an insightful introduction by Helena María Viramontes and a striking cover design by Puni Kukahiko. The chapbook can be obtained by visiting www.momotombopress.com. Arroyo is a remarkable, startling little book that showcases Gonzales’ craft as a short-story writer and keeper of family tales.

By Lisa Gonzales
Momotombo Press, University of Notre Dame
ISBN 0-9710465-5-7
32 pp. (2004)

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