When I was perhaps 11 years old, I stood with my father looking at a sculpture in a garden outside a museum. The sculpture, including its shoulder-high pedestal, was about three times my height. It was simple: a long, narrow silver cylinder bent into three or four distinct curves. My dad gestured for me to follow him, and he walked to another side of the sculpture, where we paused, facing the work from this new angle. It was a different shape, a different sculpture. I followed Dad to another side, and it was again a new sculpture. I walked slowly around it, watching, and now the sculpture was animated, twisting and reshaping itself as I moved.
The enormously smart, rich, and giving element of Victoria Buitron’s memoir A Body Across Two Hemispheres is its shifting perspectives. Rather than tell her story in one voice, from one point in time, each of the 26 pieces of Buitron’s book presents the same life and people from a new, surprising, and richly yielding vantage point.
In the book’s opening piece, “Bodybreak,” Buitron recreates the voice and largely the viewpoint of her 15-year-old self, unable to eat, suffering the sudden dislocation of a move back to her hometown of Milagro, Ecuador, from her home for the past 10 years in Connecticut. With loving detail, this voice describes teenage Buitron’s meeting with the shaman who has been engaged to reawaken the body that has shut down: “His voice became a song, strong enough to be heard at a stadium. Long vowels weaved into one another, short whoops and guttural sounds rang from his throat. I had my eyes closed, and just as I opened them, he brought the bottle to his lips and sucked the liquid into his mouth. I knew what was coming, and my body tensed as though a soccer ball was being aimed at my head.”
In “Changes,” reportorial perspective is turned on its head, as we see a similar point in Boitron’s life from three remarkable perspectives simultaneously: present-tense recording of a moment, anticipating the moment, and reflecting on the moment. An example: “I sense when an iguana is on the roof, the strides heavy-footed as if it’ll fall through and land in my room at any moment…. These sounds—needing to live among these animals—won’t cross my mind until it’s happening.”
In “Heartbreak,” Buitron adopts a similarly intimate but also analytical approach, this time in the second person, to describe the experience of a developing love: “In Spanish you have gustar (to like), querer (more than like, less than love, synonym of want), and amar (to love)…you find yourself using those three words to describe him and what he does to you. You _____ how he uses his hands to explore your body. You _____ it when you say, ‘no, stop,’ and he doesn’t question it.”
In “Chain Migration,” Buitron covers multiple decades with tender but firm omniscience, shifting among present-tense depictions of her mother’s and aunt’s lives (“She pours lice shampoo on their small heads, caresses their scalp, and makes sure none of it seeps into their eyes.”), interjections of her own viewpoint (“I can’t imagine how it must have felt to know that your father is still alive, thousands of miles away, unwilling to reach out.”), and quotations from secondary sources (“A child born outside of the United States and its outlying possessions acquires citizenship at birth if the child was born before noon (Eastern Standard Time) May 24, 1934…”).
And in “(Un)documented,” Buitron puts forward the firm footsteps of her own conclusions: “There is no ending. This essay doesn’t end. The end will arrive when the eleven million undocumented people can feel safe in their homes.”
The many perspectives, seized moments, and examined themes in A Body Across Two Hemispheres naturally yield sensations that are key to the book’s power and ultimately the presence of Buitron herself as a human in our midst.
One is patience. Experiences that are jarring, disorienting, sad, infuriating are disassembled, examined closely to peer into their essence, and assembled before us in a new sequence and in a new light.
Another is courage. The book’s willingness to see the intricate detail of each experience evinces a fiercely unshakable mien.
Another is generosity. This book is Buitron’s story, but in her story Buitron embraces all who surround her, no matter how questionable their motives, or damaging their presence… or absence. In the book’s epilogue, “A Letter for My Father,” Buitron writes, “This is what I envision when I think about the essence of you. Not lingering in the past. Not thinking about the what-ifs. Al andar se hace camino. Just doing. I’ve always envied you for that.”
Buitron’s generous soul delivers a richness of patience, courage, and generosity, a richness of, acceptance, outrage, and love that constitute a new kind of memoir.
Robert Fromberg is the author of How to Walk with Steve (Latah Books, 2021), a memoir of autism, art, death, and embarrassment, and the essay collection Friends and Fiends, Pulp Stars and Pop Stars (Alien Buddha Press, 2022).