- Love Lies Large
176; Print, $16.95
In her debut collection, Ivelisse Rodriguez shows us that love and war do not exist as binary opposites—they are not even two sides of the same coin or any other cliché that points to a line, a division between the two. Love is war, an amorphous, shifting mass that stains forever what it does not consume.
Readers should mark that a Julia de Burgos quote opens the first story, and that is a clue to what follows. The famous Puerto Rican poet—champion of women and independence, disappointed so many times by love and lovers—will show up here and there throughout the pages that follow, an inspiration to the characters as well as Rodriguez herself. That several biographies trace a straight line from de Burgos's heartache to her early death is lost on no one.
The adolescent voices in Rodriguez's stories are perhaps the sharpest. She captures all the agony and longing that marks those years, when hopes are at their zenith and, therefore, their most brittle. In "El Que Diran," set in the 1950s, Noelia is poised on the edge of her Quinceañera, trying to solidify her relationship with the beautiful and cruel Ricardo. At first, she ignores his violence, caught up in the imagined fairy tale so many girls, in so many places, are taught to believe. "Each time, I was struck by his beauty," she narrates, "wavy hair and dimples. Broad-shouldered and a self-satisfied smile." She imagines "Ricardo holding [her] in his arms, [their] bodies touching." She doesn't dwell on how he treats her: "rigid eyes, blazing nostrils, coiled lip.... he'd grabbed [her] arm at school, turning [her] skin red under his fingers." Like her Tia Lola's situation, Noelia's does not improve.
"Summer of Nene," another story featuring passionate and frustrated teens, gives us one of the collection's many gifts. Here, Rodriguez portrays a closeted homosexual relationship between two friends, Jimmy and Nene, whose social survival depends on their tough reputations—made all the more difficult because Nene is disabled and chronically ill. The boys do not name their love; they never even acknowledge it in the bright light of day. Like Rodriguez's other characters, they simply let it ache between them. "We never speak about what we do," explains Jimmy. "Our words come in the form of knots in our hearts, glances, and brief touches on the hot of my back." Love, Jimmy has learned from his mother, from his neighborhood, from Nene, too, is not something you can keep.
These adolescents and new adults exist between cultures and communities in myriad ways. They are torn between the desire to blend in with mainstream society and the call to honor the notions of their more traditional parents. They want independence while they long for all-consuming love affairs. They switch effortlessly between English and Spanish, these Puerto Rican girls growing up in American cities, negotiating how much space they can take up in their schools, in their neighborhoods, in their homes.
Though this cross-culturalism is an obvious theme in the collection, Rodriguez does not stamp flat stereotypes onto the pages—her characters' identities are complex and layered in various ways. In "The Simple Truth," we meet a Barnard graduate scornful of her mother's feminism but fixated on de Burgos, someone who lectures to her mother about unconditional love while self-consciously idealizing de Burgo's ill-fated affair with Dr. Juan Isidro Jimenes Grullón.
In "Holyoke, Mass.: An Ethnography," we are given Veronica, who is of course one character, but who could stand for an army of disadvantaged young women of color growing up in America. How many racist Miss O'Donnells must these girls face in their lives?
Veronicas, Rodriguez shows us, do not start off as hard-punching, smack-talking, bleach-haired tough girls. Like all of Rodriguez's "chimeras," like de Burgos herself, the world's Veronicas and this Veronica embody multiple truths, depending on who is listening...