AUGUST 14, 2018
THE UNNAMED NARRATOR of Margarita García Robayo’s novella Waiting for a Hurricane goes through her early 20s taking precisely what she needs from men. She refuses to catch the bouquet at her brother’s wedding, resists sleeping with her boss until he has something “to offer her in return,” and rejects her teenage boyfriend’s desire to settle down:
The first time, I came. The second, he did. When we had finished, Tony said: marry me.
I can’t. Why? Because of work. […] Quit your job. Never. But why not? Never in a million years.
Fish Soup, which comprises Waiting for a Hurricane, a collection of short stories called Worse Things, and a second novella, Sexual Education, is full of female characters like this one who are determined to take charge of their careers and their bodies. But these women are continually pressured to conform to the expectations of family, the church, and men, whose violent fantasies threaten everywhere to erupt into genuine brutality. In a year of escalating #MeToo revelations, this new collection by Colombian author García Robayo, translated by Charlotte Coombe and published by Edinburgh-based independent Charco Press, offers crucial reflections on the tension between feminist ideals and the everyday experiences of women in Colombia and beyond.
The protagonist of Waiting for a Hurricane is a young girl determined to escape a childhood blighted by financial woes, sexual harassment, sheer boredom, and the frequent arrival of devastating rainstorms. Disregarding her father’s wish for her to go to university, she instead trains to be an air hostess, thinking this will allow her to travel and build a new life elsewhere. She moves into a flat near the airport so she can be available to fly — preferably to Miami — at short notice and distance herself from her parents’ increasing poverty.
She takes charge not only of her career but also of her sexuality, toying with the numerous men besotted with her. Oblivious to the damage she causes those around her, she expends all her energy trying to find a way to stay in the United States indefinitely. Her hopes are pinned on Juan, a.k.a. “Johnny,” a wannabe gringo in Miami who lives off his wife’s income: “[Johnny] zealously fed his little American dream in fear that if he forgot to feed it one day, it would keel over in front of him like a starving baby bird.”
Waiting for a Hurricane is followed by Worse Things, a section that comprises the seven short stories from the collection of the same name that won the prestigious Casa de las Américas Prize in 2014. Here we get concise portraits of families in crisis and bodies in rebellion: a chronically obese teenage boy struggles to socialize, a cancer patient in remission is sent away by her partner, the sister of a teenage suicide resists reconnecting with her father, a reluctant mother’s pregnancy comes to an end. As in Waiting for a Hurricane, these characters dream of escape but find themselves more often in the empty non-places of late modernity — airports, hotels, the virtual worlds of video games — than on the path to a better life. They are plagued by apathy and disaffection, seemingly incapable of taking steps to improve their situations.
The volume concludes with Sexual Education, a novella not yet published in Spanish that charts a schoolgirl’s response to the implementation of a strict abstinence program intended to stem the tide of teenage pregnancies at her Catholic school. As part of the program, known as Teen Aid, the unnamed narrator and her friends are shown disturbing, graphic videos of aborted fetuses bundled into trash bags. The teenage girls struggle to navigate the strict parameters of their religious education while still making choices about their own bodies and indulging their burgeoning sexual desires.
Fish Soup somehow manages to cohere despite its varied content. Its dark humor is balanced by occasional flashes of violent surrealism, and its constituent parts are held together by a series of recurring preoccupations: abject bodies, the disjunct between male fantasy and female desire, societal apathy, and a pervasive sense of decay.
In all three texts characters are perpetually on the verge of disgust, revolted by the sights and smells of their own bodies or those of other people. García Robayo presents us with pregnant bodies, sick bodies, teenage bodies in flux. People suffering from uncontrollable sweats, unexplained weight gain, dreams in which body parts fall off. Women purge their bodies of “genetic material”: unwanted hair, unwanted children, the “whitish, watery liquid” expressed from a breast after pregnancy. Characters are repulsed by a dribbling child, traces of food in the corner of someone’s mouth, the stagnant water in a beautiful bay, a teenager’s toxic breath.
In the story from which the volume takes its title, a man lies delirious and sick, driven mad by the smell of the fish soup his wife has brought to his bedside. As she tends to him gently, he pictures inflicting on her a variety of bloody deaths for her imagined infidelity. In “Like a Pariah,” Inés dreams that her partner is a dead weight suffocating her, and as he lies immobile she chews through his chest until she reaches his heart, “an engorged bloody balloon that exploded as soon as she sank her teeth into it.” In Coombe’s hands, García Robayo’s prose is concise and startling, her voice versatile and capable of packing a serious punch.
The single-minded female protagonist of Waiting for a Hurricane has counterparts throughout the book. We see her in the protagonist of “Something We Never Were,” Eileen, who is comfortable opening the door to neighbors completely naked and who refuses to call Salvador her boyfriend while taking money from him every time they have sex. In Sexual Education, we see her in teenage Dalia, who is determined to travel the world instead of going to university and who gives up shaving her legs so she can walk around “in short skirts, showing her pale calves bristling with curly black hairs.” And we see her in 17-year-old Karina, who insists that the Virgin Mary has personally given her permission to have anal sex with her boyfriend so that her hymen will remain intact.
But ultimately García Robayo makes it clear that even the most determined, intelligent, independent women must sometimes succumb to domestic, emotional, violent pressures. The protagonist in Waiting for a Hurricane never does manage to escape but rather is “doomed to come and go, come and go,” which is “the same as never having left.” In “Something We Never Were,” Eileen’s conspicuous intellect, confidence, and independence may intimidate Salvador at first, but later these same qualities start to bore him. When he tells her he wants to end their relationship (which, according to her, is not even a relationship) she is furious, but she also reveals her vulnerability: as she rants and pulls away from him, “rivulets of smudged black makeup” run down her face.
In Sexual Education, Dalia’s dreams are put into perspective when friends hear that a younger schoolgirl, Dianita, has been gang-raped and beaten at a party, and that her family has scandalized the community by giving her the morning-after pill. Her life, her classmates realize, will be changed forever. As for the perpetrators,
Most likely, all that would happen is that the boys would be sent abroad for a while. Then they’d come back, go off to study some second-rate degree course at a university in Bogotá, before returning to Cartagena to run their parents’ business, get married and have children who they’d name after themselves.
With Sexual Education in particular, García Robayo articulates teenage hope, presumption, and embarrassment with excruciating accuracy. She also takes a critical look at the double standards of a religious education based on patriarchal norms and paints the universal worries of a 17-year-old (who’s better friends with so-and-so, who fancies so-and-so’s boyfriend) against a horrifying backdrop of sexual violence against women. The outlook isn’t positive for Dianita, who is expelled from school for violating its moral guidelines, or for the girls left behind. “Am I OK?” the narrator asks a friend in the final scene. Her friend just shakes her head.
Researcher and translator Ellen Jones’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Guardian, Latin American Literature Today, Hotel, and The Digital Critic: Literary Culture Online (O/R Books, 2017). She is criticism editor at Asymptote.