Radioactive as in Radiant: On Liliana Colanzi’s “You Glow in the Dark”

By Ruth JoffreMay 3, 2024

Radioactive as in Radiant: On Liliana Colanzi’s “You Glow in the Dark”

You Glow in the Dark by Liliana Colanzi

WHAT IS BOLIVIAN literature? Most readers in the United States would be hard-pressed to give an answer—and for good reason: translations of Bolivian books into English are few and far between. When I was growing up as a Bolivian American kid in the 1990s, virtually none of the authors I now associate with contemporary Bolivian literature had been translated into English. Edmundo Paz Soldán’s La materia del deseo (The Matter of Desire) was first published in Spanish in 1991 but not translated into English until 2004. Giovanna Rivero had been writing steadily since the late 1990s but appeared in English for the first time in 2023 with her short story collection Tierra fresca de su tumba (Fresh Dirt from the Grave). Even though Liliana Colanzi’s first book of short stories, Vacaciones permanentes, was released in 2010, her work would not appear in English until 2017, with the translation of her second story collection, 2016’s Nuestro mundo muerto (Our Dead World).

Born in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, in 1981, Colanzi—not just a writer but also a publisher and professor—teaches at Cornell, where she also earned her PhD in comparative literature. Vacaciones permanentes, published in Spanish by independent La Paz–based press Editorial El Cuervo, still has no English translation. Thus, my introduction to Colanzi’s work came via Our Dead World, a slim volume that, within its short length, manages to push the boundaries of what short stories can do, blending realism and horror, magic and absurdity. One story is set on Mars. Another takes place on a college campus, where the force of a mysterious wave drives a string of students to suicide. In these short stories, death is never far, the ground is never stable, and reality is never quite as sure as we would like to believe. Our Dead World provided me a tantalizing, timely glimpse of Colanzi’s authorial vision. This was 2017, a year into the Trump administration, and it felt as if the fabric of what we call society had worn thin, like an old sock full of holes. On a personal level, I was preparing for the publication of my own book and wondering what kind of writing career I wanted to have. What kind of stories did I want to tell? And what did it mean to be a Bolivian American writer?

Much has been said about the importance and pitfalls of representation in literature and other forms of media: how it can be both validating and restricting, how it can light the way for those who come after you but also make it harder for emerging artists to forge new paths. For myself, I can say this: I have never seen the totality of my experience as a fat and queer Bolivian American woman represented in the media. Not once. I’ve had to parcel out my identity in order to find models and mentors. To locate myself within the traditions of queer literature and intersectional feminism. To seek out loving representations of fat bodies. To cobble together an education on my heritage via what information I could find in books and movies. In that process, I’ve tired of the desire for a perfect reflection, of the search for a single, straightforward answer to what it means to be Bolivian. Of course, there are many answers. There is no one way to be Bolivian just as there is no one way to write a short story. In this light, the most important question is not “What is Bolivian literature?” but “What could Bolivian literature be?”

Judging by the futuristic and genre-bending stories in Colanzi’s third collection, You Glow in the Dark (New Directions, 2024), this question of possibility looms large in her mind too. In the collection’s first story, “The Cave,” Colanzi brings readers to a darkened cavern just outside Oaxaca, Mexico. Here, the reader becomes witness to events alternately wonderful and terrible: a premature birth followed by a startling, swift pair of murders; a strange chrysalis that gives rise to a mutant species of bat wiped out by viruses brought by colonizers, golden moths and tentacled creatures, and portals originating in the distant future, permitting time travelers to visit the age of pterosaurs. Of note is the brief section of the story devoted to troglobites, who live in the deepest part of the cave, “[a] parallel world with no memory of sunlight.” In this exploration, we see clear echoes of Plato’s allegory of the cave, wherein prisoners chained to rocks inside a cavern witness only shadows of what happens outside, in the real world. One of the prisoners escapes, and when he returns to tell the others what he saw, they wrongly assume, because he’s momentarily blinded by the darkness, that whatever lies beyond their narrow experience of the world is dangerous, so they kill him. By alluding to this famous allegory, Colanzi seems to thumb her nose at the idea that the cave itself is a limiting experience. In her vision, it’s full of life and death, horror and wonder, and ways of being that extend beyond the human. There is so much more in here than out there, the story says, regardless of whether or not you look.

Other stories offer additional windows into life in Bolivia and other parts of Latin America. “The Debt” follows a woman desperate to hide her pregnancy as she accompanies the aunt who raised her back to their ancestral village to collect some money. In “The Greenest Eyes,” a 10-year-old girl opens a fortune cookie on her birthday only to find promises of wishes being fulfilled and a phone number that leads her to the Devil (known in the story as “the Boss”). “The Narrow Way,” which appeared in The New Yorker in 2023, tells the story of a young white girl who lives in a religious sect of European immigrants with her sister Olga. The devout are trapped behind a magnetic force field, but some folks, such as Olga’s boyfriend Jonas, sneak out at night and keep in contact with the outside using a little metallic ball, which plays Dissident Radio. The faithful, it seems, are full of sin. Colanzi depicts this repressive religious community as a site of visceral and often unsettling strangeness divorced from the politics and culture of Bolivia. In this way, Colanzi’s story is similar to Miriam Toews’s 2018 novel Women Talking, which takes place in a remote and reclusive Mennonite community in Bolivia.

Society’s fractures serve as a recurring theme in the collection, which frequently depicts kids and young adults bucking authority, whether by running away or by questioning the construction of a dangerous nuclear power plant in El Alto, which is the current record holder for highest major city in the world, with an average elevation of more than 13,000 feet (or 4,000 meters). In “Atomito,” reservations about “the Plant,” as it is called, quickly prove true, as workers fall ill and people use “radioactive” as a pejorative—whether the target is affected or not. One day, lightning strikes the Plant, causing an explosion, as well as visions of a boy wearing a blue cape: the eponymous Atomito. This odd, almost cartoonish figure recurs eerily, appearing first in an 18th-century painting of the Virgin Mary, then as the Plant’s mascot, then as a doll, and finally as a real figure flying through the sky after the explosion, like a superhero, if a radioactive one.

Both “Atomito” and the book’s titular story display Colanzi’s fascination with decay, destruction, and man-made means of wreaking havoc on nature, whether that be mountains or the human body. A true event in Brazil partially inspired “You Glow in the Dark”: the Goiânia accident of 1987, in which radiotherapy material was stolen from a decommissioned hospital, then passed around, resulting in widespread contamination and several deaths. Colanzi draws on this history to highlight how corruption, greed, and simple human folly can lead to devastation. She also imagines the future of people impacted by the exposure, envisioning a band called Radioactive Flesh and a sideshow attraction of a man who quite literally glows in the dark. In so doing, she not only presents us with the reality of our broken, disturbing, and amoral world but also points out the fascinating and sometimes wondrous things that can be built out of the ruins. As a whole, You Glow in the Dark is a collection of uncompromising vision, not at all afraid to show us who we are—and what we might still become.

LARB Contributor

Ruth Joffre is a Bolivian American writer and the author of the story collection Night Beast (2018). Her work has been short-listed for the Creative Capital Awards, long-listed for the Story Prize, and supported by residencies at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Lighthouse Works, and the Arctic Circle. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in more than 50 publications, including Lightspeed, Nightmare, Fantasy, TriQuarterly, Reckoning, Wigleaf, and the anthologies We’re Here: The Best Queer Speculative Fiction 2022 and 2022 Best of Utopian Speculative Fiction. A graduate of Cornell University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Ruth served as the 2020–22 prose writer-in-residence at Hugo House in Seattle. She was a visiting writer at the University of Washington Bothell and George Mason University in 2023.


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