- Don't Come Back by Lina María Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas
Two pet hamsters die in the prelude of Don't Come Back, a collection of linked personal essays by Lina María Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas. The book is about living in the spaces between the narrator's 1980s Colombian birthplace and her adult residence in the US, or more accurately, between the site of her heart and history, and her later landscapes of education and opportunity. "Don't come back," her mother begs, sending her daughters away from Bogotá to the United States, to keep them safe. The hamsters' deaths are the least of their losses: late twentieth-century Colombian cities are violent, Colombian lives squeezed between political unrest and the illegal cocaine industry. This book is composed between the twin pressures of her mother's admonition to stay in the North and the US government's insistence that she return. Out of this tension comes a linked collection made of lush and passionately forged fragments connecting memory, violence, language, and mythology.
The subject of Don't Come Back is more fraught than the common storyline of a woman looking back. These tales are an epic melding of character, history, and magic, with echoes of that other Colombian storyteller Gabriel García Márquez, as well as Chilean-American Isabel Allende. But Cabeza-Vanegas, an alumna of the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa (and Don't Come Back one of the first books in the 21st Century Essays series at OSU Press) is also on par with contemporary documentary and memory-based literary innovators. These affinities are evident in the book's braided and collage-like structures, as well as in the inclusion of visual elements, from anatomical sketches to diagrammatic translations.
The violence-based trauma the author and her sisters will always carry are made of colonial and post-colonial legacies. Guns and bombs and sudden deaths of animals and humans, and the ongoing expectation of the same, is a constancy articulated through the use of fragmented forms that allow, for instance, the simultaneous experience of stories about the Soviet dog sent into outer space, a girl's desire go to where the astronauts go and her mother's response that she'd better study her math first, a revolutionary siege of the Bogotá Palace of Justice, political memorabilia from her mother's youth, a grandfather's downed plane, and the sound of a beloved neighborhood dog strung up on the school yard fence. Stories that are funny, or sweet, are always interrupted with political conflicts or drug lord kidnappings, or with rages against memory itself.
The kids drove [the dog] up and down the streets of my childhood neighborhood as if they could erase the roads with his body. "Why?" I think, and "What for?" […] not a single head against which to press the cold muzzle of their rage—not really. The peasants? The manifesto-writers? The kidnapped sons of oligarchs and plutocrats? The drafted soldiers? The hired guards? The men in the jungle? The jungle? The drug? The men growing the drug? Taking the drug? […] The Spaniards who left us a mess? The Soviets who left us a mess? The conservatives, the liberals, the narcotraficantes, who left us all a mess?(87–88)
The reinvented creation story is another of the author's methods. What kind of allegory explains her Colombia? Each section begins with a revised fable.
At the beginning of everything, before there was anything, Chiminigagua dreamt he felt a hand being placed on his shoulder as he heard the whisperings of another being stirring in the dark beside him [.…] He cleared his throat, and as he crossed his arms to stretch his back, he inadvertently touched the spot [End Page 135] where the dream hand had been placed. Something like longing and urgency. Something that immortal beings hardly ever feel.(3–4)
Cabeza-Vanegas is not the first essayist to use reinterpreted myth as a humanizing lens. Audre Lorde, Maxine Hong Kingston...