Southwestern Gothic

Christine Granados' literary debut makes good on her big promise, skill

These are a few of my favorite things about Christine Granados.

She's participated in a séance to summon the spirit of LBJ with Leslie Marmon Silko, noted Native American writer and MacArthur Fellow. Dagoberto Gilb, author of the award-winning short-story collection The Magic of Blood, once told Granados a revision she did for a workshop was "shit," so she worked harder to let go of people-pleasing and found a way to stay true to her voice and audience--"people like my mom and sister," the 37-year-old writer says from her home in Rockdale, Texas. And her funny family is often fodder for her fictional material, including a mother who says Granados' writing style, "just comes out of her, you know, like a pedo."

Granados published her mother's scatological quip in the acknowledgements of her debut collection, Brides and Sinners in El Chuco, which came out last month. Granados knows funny and writes funny, even if--especially if--it's at her own expense.

But Granados' short stories in Brides and Sinners are not flatulent little verbal pirouettes. Far from it. Her stories have real, executed talent at their core. They seek not only to tell what it's like to live in El Chuco, aka El Paso, but also to add another voice to an American canon that badly needs--let's still face it--a lot more color, culture and class to inform it beyond the privileged voices many of us grew up reading.

Much like Southern Gothic writers use aversion to tired stereotypes and a portrayal of characters in new and realistic contexts, Granados uses deeply flawed characters to not only highlight unpleasant aspects in Mexican-American culture, but also to move beyond the "poignant, romanticized goody-goodyism" of Chicano literature her tough-love mentor Gilb challenged her to transcend. Breaking from the genre that made Southern writers such as Flannery O'Connor, Eudora Welty and Carson McCullers famous, Granados is not detailing cultural decay, but rather an intricate, diverse, place-specific continuum of Chicano characters who show readers how to survive and thrive, switching codes and cultures.

It would be naïve and offensively limited to say Granados is just a Chicana writer. She's a writer without modification. In many ways, her short-story collection reminds me of short-story master O'Connor's maxim: "Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days." Granados even masters some of O'Connor's stylistic predilections: regional settings and grotesque characters, such as Manuela of "Enough," who is alcoholic, manic and disappears for days, yet provides the only stability and love her young, nameless narrator-niece receives.

Granados navigates most of her stories with the insights of child narrators, such as tomboy "walking-and-talking birth control device" Lily, who tells the story of her older sister Rochelle's rejection of Chicano culture through Ro's magazine-perfect adolescent wedding plans in "The Bride." Or 11-year-old Jenny, the sole girl in a family with three brothers who maintains the voice of reason and reflection while her parents are away in the three-part series, "The Latchkey Chronicles." But Granados knows that she needs to work at diversifying who's telling the story.

In future works, I anticipate Granados gaining ground and skill in crafting narrators who go beyond girl-child perspectives. Not every narrator in this novice collection possesses Harper Lee's Scout-like clarity or years, but most of Granados' young narrators deftly explore the liminal space between childhood and adulthood, intimate, familial culture vs. mainstream, exclusive society, and great expectations and disappointing reality.

Sounds bleak, right? But Granados journeys through this betwixt-and-between space with grit, grace and laugh-your-ass-off humor. It's hard to make incest, assault, infidelity, abandonment and alcoholism funny, but Granados deals with these issues by stripping off the saccharine-stained sentimentality that so many woe-is-me writers use. Granados tells her stories without flinching by crafting characters who are not just sad sacks.

For instance, Dora in "Love Web" is an obsessive, Rubenesque secretary who lusts after her fellow cubicle-monkey, James Morris. Dora fantasizes about him seeing the real woman beneath her breakfast-taco-stained blouse. But Dora is not a pathetic character; she fights back, both in her fantasies and in her gatekeeping of James' phone calls. Dora goes to lengths both hilarious and disturbing to garner James' attention, and what the reader is left with isn't an "end" per se in the traditional story-speak of "arc," but more of a yearning, awkward conflict documented, teased and picked apart by complex characters.

Thank god for Granados' attention to complexity and wit, because the lives she writes about, and the ones we as readers lead, are more multifaceted and playful than what's currently in favor: social-realist renditions of motivational-speaker memoirists and thinly veiled autobiography-as-fiction, life-sucks-and-then-you-die humdrums. Granados' debut is a strong one, and the 14 tales she tells in this collection convince me there will be more, and better, stories to come.

Comments (0)

Add a comment

Add a Comment