A Secret and Threatening Reality: On Liliana Colanzi’s “You Glow in the Dark”

By Drew ZeibaMarch 7, 2024

A Secret and Threatening Reality: On Liliana Colanzi’s “You Glow in the Dark”

You Glow in the Dark by Liliana Colanzi

A YOUNG ICE AGE woman trips into a cave while hunting a rabbit. She’s pregnant—from ritualistic group sex—but she doesn’t care by whom. She only cares about not being pregnant anymore: “What she cared about was being a smart hunter and a fast runner, and everyone knew that females with a burden were slower and sure to get left behind.” She takes her knife and slices a trapped rabbit’s neck. But she has barely a moment to rest. A “damp salamander” slivers down her thigh: the birth has begun. Twins. “Something terrible had just happened to her.” She uses her knife to cut their umbilical cords and draws them to her breasts, and they suck. “A coyote sang in the distance: night was coming at a gallop.” She knows she doesn’t have much time—though we readers don’t yet know exactly what for. She takes the “almost translucid” babies into the back of the cave and, “moved by curiosity or playfulness,” imprints their bloody feet on the wall: “The symmetry of the prints on the rock gave her a sense of achievement.” That’s enough. She slices their necks as she had the rabbit’s. “Before the darkness covered them, they let out a soft mewing.” Unburdened by her “lump,” she steps into the snow. The section ends. I sense she is free.

This opening sequence in Liliana Colanzi’s 2022 story collection You Glow in the Dark (in Chris Andrews’s English translation, published last month by New Directions) might be describing the creation of the first work of art. The story “The Cave” unfolds from there in numbered sections, each with different protagonists—or even no human characters at all. In the story’s second section, a 22-year-old tamale-stand worker named Xóchitl Salazar stumbles into the cave, disoriented by a late-night storm. Xóchitl discovers a “prehistoric fresco” painted over the ages. She rushes to tell her boyfriend once the rain clears the next morning, but she doesn’t get the chance: “Her boyfriend, sick with jealousy, was waiting behind the door with a baseball bat.” The story continues back and forth through millennia in the seven sections that follow, telling the tales of many beings—plant, fungus, animal, and none of the above. Unlike more traditional works of short fiction that focus on singular subjects, Colanzi’s stories investigate the ways that ecological, geological, and social realities form subjects, as well as the choices they can and cannot make.

“The Cave” indicates, though hardly contains, the range of this book’s seven stories. In You Glow in the Dark, places, molecules, and species sprawl and mutate. Centuries-long retrospection, cyberpunk grit, first-person dream narrative, and religious fantasia fit together, simultaneously fabulist and real, vivified by Colanzi’s mysteriously lucid prose. While “speculative fiction” might be the easy term for this, “speculation” for Colanzi equally means a passage following a guy accidentally time-traveling to the Jurassic Period as one about spores of moss. Characters pray to nuclear martyrs; they distrust authority, spurned as they are by Orwellian dictatorships; they refuse colonial assertions, hiding pre-Columbian symbols in Catholic convention. By creating alternative realities from a place of fantasy, Colanzi’s stories reckon with the fact that reality contains realities. There is not a “world” but many worlds, coexisting, enduring through time.

Writing on Colanzi, as well as authors such as Ximena Miranda and Catalina Infante, for the journal Chasqui last year, Gabriel Saldías Rossel, Carolina A. Navarrete González, and Claire Mercier argue that these “borderline” and “posthuman” stories “emphasize the barely circumstantial role of the human being in a cosmic ecosystem that burdens and subordinates them. Under these conditions, human participation depends, in a large way, not on what one can do, but, rather, on one’s capacity to know, read, adapt, and transform oneself.” But in these clear-eyed, surprising stories, human systems also subordinate: corporations, colonization, poverty, violent cops, language itself. Still, people play music and paint and have children. In Colanzi’s oeuvre, which in English translation also includes the collection Our Dead World (Dalkey Archive, 2017), the Bolivian Altiplano and the Martian desert are alive with multifarious, even irreconcilable, metaphysics. Fiction becomes a place to engage—though not integrate—these coexistences.


In an interview with Latin American Literature Today, Colanzi said,

[Argentinian poet] María Negroni sees the Latin American fantastic as a derivation of the gothic. In the gothic tradition (and in much of the Latin American fantastic), the “other” is presented as a threat, as what produces fear and friction, unlike in the English fantasy genre where the strange element is incorporated as if it were natural, and a talking animal or dragon can form part of a world rather than exist as anomalies.

Anglophone fantasy and speculative fiction often normalize, and thus defang, the tension between reality and unreality. These post-gothic traditions, to which Colanzi’s writing belongs, heighten the underlying eeriness of everyday life, thereby denaturalizing the parts we might take for granted or consider normal. This literature asks if realism was ever depicting anything like lived reality. In You Glow in the Dark, modes of knowing and reporting vibrate against one another: folk Catholicism, science and medicine, the false memory of dictatorship, legal discourse, journalism, macumba, hard sci-fi, Aymara language, repressed desires, dreamscapes, Indigenous cosmovisions, and so on. For Colanzi, a single perspective, a single way of writing, or even a single metaphysics never dominates.

Indeed, Indigeneity is baked into the European gothic: motifs that Bram Stoker used in Dracula (1897) can be traced to the bat-man of precolonial Latin American cultures, for example. As Carmen A. Serrano argues in Gothic Imagination in Latin American Fiction and Film (University of New Mexico Press, 2019), the original gothic wave in Latin America never merely mimicked European authors but reconfigured the genre for a variety of social and political contexts.

Today, commentators herald a “Latin American boom,” a “Latin American new Gothic,” or a “new female Gothic,” citing writers like Colanzi, as well as Fernanda Melchor, Samanta Schweblin, and Cristina Rivera Garza, among others. Though, literary scholar Ilse Logie writes, “[t]he flexible, hybrid configuration of this ‘Latin American new Gothic,’ which is both locally anchored and global, has sociocultural roots but also serves marketing purposes,” like any lump term. The popularity in the Anglosphere of this “Latin American new Gothic” coincides with English-original publishing categorized variously as “climate fiction” (also called “cli-fi”) or “New Weird” over the past 10-plus years, as well as horror- or sci-fi-inflected “literary” novels from mainstream and indie authors—not to mention TV series like Lovecraft Country (2020). Centering a genre-blending approach to literature, Colanzi teaches classes at Cornell titled “Cyborgs, Animals, and Monsters” and “Latin American Horror.” In a video from the university, she argues: “The distance between the harmless appearance of an object or a place and its secret and sometimes threatening reality is a feature of speculative fiction and one that has become increasingly relevant to talk about the present.” We live in unprecedented times, with, all this writing attests, a great deal of precedent.


You Glow in the Dark does not demand our attention because it suits some literary trend. It demands our engagement because it gives language to a world increasingly shaped by forces and entities—viruses, supply chains, algorithms, air travel, nation-states, severe weather—out of whack with what we as humans can name and easily sense. The third section of “The Cave” begins with a “silvery flame the size of a ring, sprung from nothing,” floating in the cave. The flame grows into a chrysalis, spinning and turning the cave into “a capsule of vibrating light.” A toad bites it, then burps, spraying luminescent particles that bats devour. They develop a mutation that improves their insect-capturing abilities. These voracious bats free the villagers of bug-borne plagues, and their society prospers, becoming the “center of a small and flourishing empire” whose ceramics and textiles reach “the farthest-flung communities,” and whose villagers record their origin stories with their new writing system. However, neighbors envy this empire and attack the town when its people are distracted by reveries celebrating the Thunder God. The attackers win. The bats thrive for centuries until a Dominican friar, napping by the entrance to the cave, wakes himself with a sneeze. His snot launches a disease that wipes out the bats. Of course, the friar has no idea. Stationed in the Americas to prosecute some Zapoteco Indians “for heresy,” he was busy dreaming of taking a walk in his monastery back home. The bats’ carcasses fall to the cave floor, “delicate as pine needles.” July rains wash them away.

In these few hundred words, entire empires rise and fall, colonization begins, and a species evolves and goes extinct. The narration doesn’t privilege one timescale over another. The friar’s dream lasts nearly as long as a sentence that spans centuries and civilizations: “All that survived of that fleeting civilization were the textiles, kept alive by the slave women and absorbed into the conquering culture.” By this funny equilibrium of prose, how we make sense of agency and duration is recalibrated. In Colanzi’s writing, reality is grander and weirder than we imagined.


In the book’s final story, “You Glow in the Dark,” Colanzi fictionalizes a multiperspectival account of the radiological disaster in Goiânia, Brazil. This real-life contamination accident took place in September 1987, when scrap-metal scavengers inadvertently took a radiotherapy source from an abandoned private hospital. The story, however, doesn’t give us that historical background up front.

Colanzi’s story starts when an as yet unidentified crisis has come to a head—or, more precisely, with someone remembering it. A hotel receptionist, up till then concerned with flirting with handsome guests, recalls suddenly being sent to the Olympic Stadium with her whole town after many citizens had been plagued by odd ailments. At the stadium, the townspeople are inspected for contamination, but from what kind of contaminants, we aren’t told. Some suspect material is detected on her father. He later dies—allegedly from his drinking, but the narrator believes the death relates to what they found on him that day. The receptionist is untainted, but her house is destroyed; when she leaves for a new life in São Paolo, employers rescind their job offers the moment they find out she’s arriving from the disaster site.

The next section leaves this protagonist behind. We instead follow, in third person, Devair, a scrapyard operator. In abandoned hospital equipment, he finds a glowing rod. He plans to use part of it to make a ring for his wife, Gabriela, who is pretty annoyed by the whole experience. The light gives her headaches and keeps her up at night.

Enter an unnamed radiological expert. They are in town for a “government project” when they receive a call: a mystery illness is going around. The expert heads to the hospital. To their horror, upon arriving, they have to stop a young fireman from tossing the radiotherapy source into the river—“FOR THE LOVE OF GOD!” On the streets, townspeople smoke their cigarettes and joke around, oblivious to the toxicity already among them.

The story continues to leap through time, some sections even doing away with a central protagonist. In one section, Colanzi lists the contents of the waste barrels the government buried: the diary of the receptionist’s cousin Gislene, listing “her lovers from 1982 to 1987”; a concrete poem on a napkin; a satin dress. In later sections, in a more hospitable future, the event has become myth: in one segment, a man prays to a nuclear martyr for the return of his pig; in another, an uncanny mural of the long-ago disaster is painted over to make way for a beauty salon.

The stories of this radiation crisis carry other stories too: secret abortions, absent fathers, adolescent rock bands. Each section is like the numbered waste barrels, which can only be filled in by fiction, unknowable and buried as they are (except one, #789, which is empty—“the workers made a mistake”). The very act of crafting stories is the cesium core to “You Glow in the Dark,” and to this book.

LARB Contributor

Drew Zeiba writes fiction and criticism. He has been published by New York Magazine, Interview, Frieze, Fence, and The Kenyon Review, as well as in monographs, including the first of Andy Warhol’s erotic drawings. As an Open Society University Network fellow, Zeiba has taught creative writing for universities in New York, Palestine, Lithuania, and Kyrgyzstan. His work is in the permanent collection of the Power Station of Art in Shanghai and has been exhibited globally. He’s executive editor of Document Journal and a contributing editor to PIN–UP.


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