Heart of the Matter: A Review of “Corzo” by Brenna Gomez, originally published in Prairie Schooner, republished online in The Dark Magazine

B. Nathanial Steelman

Dare I say, my Laurel Edition of Anna Karenina provokes as much by the epic narrative as by the former owner’s liberal, however often derisive, edits. Before one even opens this classic, “LEO TOLSTOY’S GREATEST HEROINE” on the cover has been revamped (or revitalized? vandalized?) into “LEO TOLSTOY’S GREATEST HEROINE flop.” And on the first page of the front matter, “LEO TOLSTOY” has (d)evolved into “Leo the Lion.” Sure, these two possibly droll, certainly cheap alterations are of the ilk you’d suspect to find, insofar as they are legitimately juvenile, lurking in the stacks of a high school library. That said, there is a platter of amendments housed inside my copy and many of them steam with bona fide, if nihilistic, cultural criticism. Here is the crème de la crème: etched into the very sentence among those in the pantheon of story-starters, the reader observes that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” has, indeed, become “Happy families are all alike sick; every unhappy family is unhappy dead in its own way.”

Touché? For better or worse, family is, as a fountainhead, a framework, that experience and structure we humans can neither shake nor escape, if only on the procedural—that is, subconscious—level. It’s too deft and deep. Even if a family has absented from a person’s life, a boy’ll still stretch into those voids to feel, as he yearns, for attachments. Family makes us who we are. Take Brenna Gomez’s debut short story, brilliant and tragic. Published originally in print by Prairie Schooner in Spring 2017 and republished online by The Dark Magazine in May 2019, “Corzo” is about nothing other than a family struggling to find equilibrium. Specifically, you could say it is about heart

I may never forget the opening scene. I had thought it was a dream, at first, or a sort of horror that Fuckhead gets himself into in Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. A young daughter, yet one matured by the dint of parental dysfunction, arrives home after school and sees in her father “a ragged chest wound the size of a plum”; he asks her to help him cut out his heart. After mija refuses, her father, Eduvigo Herrera III, implores her, “‘Please do this for me. I never ask you for anything.’” Accordingly, mija—Sara—identifies the falsity of this claim, inasmuch as she, being the daughter and the big sister, frequently is asked to do too much by and for her parents who religiously partake in “epic screaming matches” and methods of self-destruction; incumbent upon her is, too, the pressure to get “straight As, to never be in trouble.” But—because she is, precisely, the daughter—she relents and seizes her father’s heart: “It was soft around the edges and firm in the center. Every so often it shuddered like it didn’t know it wasn’t being used anymore. It was a deep purple so dark it looked black.” And if the premise thus far hasn’t compelled me to see what happens next, this specificity of imagery convinces me of the narrator’s rectitude, and the author’s, to boot, which I oblige to trust and honor by reading.

Flannery O’Connor ascribes such images to so called “anagogical vision”: “the kind of vision that is able to see different levels of reality in one image or one situation.” In her lecture “The Nature and Aim of Fiction” from the collection Mystery and Manners, the storied writer banishes the notion that fiction is predicated upon the abstract, and rather champions the notion that the art form is “about everything human and we are made out of dust.” The form is about, in other words, a human’s experience through her senses; and the form achieves any meaning by the overall medley of these senses as they experience circumstances over time. And so, when Eduvigo requests, additionally, that mija cut his heart up like dinner meat, to squeeze the pieces through the mouth of the empty Corzo tequila bottle—and when the mother, Izzy, arrives home and declares that Eduvigo shouldn’t have made the daughter do it, and when the knowledge is made known that Eduvigo’s grandfather had taught him the ancient cultural practice of excising a heart to punish loved ones—and so on and so forth goes the medley—the image of the heart inside the Corzo bottle embodies, literally and metaphorically, the heart of Gomez’s story: an Hispanic family centered around patriarchy and its pathology. Don [Somebody], the former owner of my copy of Anna Karenina, wouldn’t, I imagine, be astonished.

Subsequently, the Herreras are haunted by a man who loiters both alive and dead. Izzy begins to habitually recite the Hail Mary; suddenly, to Sara, she looks old; and she painstakingly attempts to tip off those bygone screaming matches with her husband, however great with rage they had been. Freddie, the little brother—whose name is poignantly close to Ed, as if to insinuate an Herrera III will, of course, pass on to an Herrera IV—prattles on at school about zombies. While Sara, the point of view and the narrator, imagines pressing a hot iron to her father’s face—“Would he even feel it?”—and she cannot concentrate at school; and the trauma could explain why she misreads a boy’s foul intentions for fair. Meanwhile, Eduvigo, heartless, bleeds through his work shirts; he no longer laughs, yells—in a word, feels. Subtle but sure, the irony regarding masculinity plays convincingly. In America, we have inculcated an archetype of masculinity, that a man is austere, stoic, among other things. In “Corzo,” a man has to die—in a manner of speaking—to become this way; and his wife wants the former—we suppose volatile—man back, because she does not know who, nor what, this other man in her kitchen is, nor doing, the fountainhead of familismo having now been compromised. 

On a yellowed notecard, scrawled in faded blue cursive, Don holds forth two inquiries re: the following cultural constructs: What is a successful marriage? and Why love? Honest questions, to be sure, no matter intonation. There are certain regions of the mind made gray, we know, by altogether bewildering, embattling percepts in our everyday lives. Nurses who smoke like chimneys, for example, or spouses who berate, but who “love,” each other—as in “Corzo”—epitomize the conundrum of not practicing the preaching. Why upkeep institutions, such as marriage—even love—if their abuse dwarfs reward is a premise always worth writing about, insofar as wellbeing hangs in the balance. Gomez owns it. She’s shaped a short fiction through the sensibilities of a young narrator whose upbringing by all means substantiates O’Connor’s zinger that “anybody who has survived childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.”

“Corzo” is, ultimately, a reflection. Set in the past, over approximately a couple of weeks, mija—which means daughter in Spanish—still at this late date needs to know just what happened. To her father, sure. But more to her little brother, Freddie, it seems. Toward the end of the story, after she and Freddie arrive home during another screaming match, Freddie takes the bottled heart to his father and says the he still wants his dad. Freddie hurls the artifact over the apartment’s railing, the glass—a motif—shatters, as glass iconically does when it collides with just enough stubbornness. His father does not react. The most striking line of all the story: “‘Dad,’” Freddie says, “‘didn’t even get mad and nothing happened to him. He’s like invincible.’” And the most striking response of all the story, from Sara: “‘Damn it, Freddie!” she screams, “‘Just eat your dinner.’” Because trauma, so easily and cunningly, is transmitted generation to generation at some, and yet every, point.  

A Response to Disaster: A Review of “Aminatu” by Olufunke Grace Bankole, published in Michigan Quarterly Review

Written by B. Nathanial Steelman

The world as we first see it, as we first are led to believe in it, is anguished, starved: instinctual. In media res “drunken dogs” are enduring, as the humans in their milieu they hollow to tissue and bone. They growl; yet “in that grayish-blue darkness” their “eyes droop heavy with shame,” as if Man’s Best Friend well knows the consequences of his (re)wilding in these circumstances post-storm inside the dome. Things will not be the same. In “Aminatu,” Olufunke Grace Bankole’s poignant, gusty debut short story published by Michigan Quarterly Review, first in print in Fall 2006 and again online in August 2020, a reader is learned in the wake of the US’s costliest natural disaster for whom life is most fragile.

Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 nearly rendered the city of New Orleans like mythological Atlantis. Gales thrashed the metro and made a house of cards of apartments, churches; but it was the ensuing deluge to which the civilization nearly succumbed. It was a disaster in the truest sense of the term: disaster, disastro: apart star, ill fate: inevitability. The city had been evacuated, but tens of thousands could not leave, because exodus is not free. In her modest essay, “Going Solo,” Bankole speaks to, although does not reference by name, “Aminatu”: “Having just moved from New Orleans, and witnessed with the rest of the world, the horror of Katrina and its aftermath, I clicked open a blank page,” Bankole says, “and tried to imagine how the hours between night and dawn, inside the Louisiana Superdome, might have been for someone who hadn’t the sort of choices that allowed me to leave the city in the first place.”

Think about any disaster—or, at the very least, crisis—such as Hurricane Laura in 2020 or the derecho (or any of the outbreaks or any of the shootings or any of the deaths of heroes or any of the obliterations delivered by/embodied in the deluded occupant of this White House in 2020). See roofs peeled open like sardine cans, alarmed neighbors in tents on their lawns among snakes of downed power lines: The undone structures subjugate our focus and the tense is present. We can’t look away. Because the grotesque is so perverse, thrust upon its audience is the impetus of meaning-making. In “Aminatu,” the dogs loiter around the carnage and carcasses strewn across the gridiron of the Superdome-come-grotto. “One has in his teeth and clutched between his skinny legs a blue-yellow damask head tie.” Thus follows meaning-making so much as memory: “A scarf,” the narrator says, “the kind that would adorn the head of a West African woman; and just a short while ago, it did. Her name is Aminatu.”

There appears to be cultural responses to disaster. For instance, after the derecho bulldozed much of Iowa, where I live, folks swarmed with chainsaws and garbage cans the detritus of their houses and lawns. With all the oil and grease of machinery, whole blocks smelled of an amusement park. Spangled across social media were pictures of community aglow with purpose. It was quintessential Iowa Nice. That said, Coming Together displays, and is allowed by, certain culture, certain socioeconomic status. In “Aminatu,” the culture Bankole admirably depicts is that which houses, again, as she says, “someone who hadn’t the sort of choices that allowed me to leave,” the culture, in other words, inhabited by those to whom inevitability arrives faster, as these inhabitants cannot afford protection from and/or to flee various clutches by dint of low socioeconomic status and racial discrimination. Per “Aminatu,” this culture’s disaster response (vide trauma response) is remembrance. Because what else can be done if one has nothing?

Not so much points as characteristics in the middle of the story: Aminatu was the vendor in the small, dimly lit stall in the Big Easy’s French Quarter; she was the woman from Africa in America. Among the fluid colony of market stalls, she was the one with the “permanent space,” seeing that her brother-in-law had bought the stall. She lived in her brother-in-law’s basement, with her daughter, Ghaniyah, and paid no penny of rent, utilities, nor tuition for her daughter’s schooling, because “little was expected of [Aminatu].” And yet she “read the kind of books she had heard black students read at local universities.” She wanted out. A late-twenty-something, single-mother-of-one, she hadn’t been back home to Africa in a decade and now “could not answer for herself where she belonged.” Notwithstanding, when you visited the shop, Aminatu made you feel so “lucky.”

A paragraph of the story: “Aminatu had a way. That way not easily described, but well understood when you met her.”

Not so much backstory as this analepsis is eulogy. And it is eloquent, compelling, and thorough as a eulogy can be, it seems, which is remarkable in light of the fact that the narrator had not been friends with the vendor, never had been, so far as we know, in activities with Aminatu, etcetera. It seems important here to see that the reader does not experience Aminatu move and talk and think. We learn about her. So it goes with eulogies—even with the one I had given of my grandmother, who I had known all my life, with whom I had spent my mornings, afternoons, and summers—that the character never graduates out of static into dynamic; eulogies are synopses. In essence, they convey the informative point that not enough about the person was known or could be. It seems important here, too, to see that the narrator does not attempt to wrest from the fetid, crenellated maw of the dog—as some would—the damask head tie. The narrator lets it be, surrenders it to inevitability. There is so much to “Aminatu”: the irony, existentialism, brilliant language and structure, among other provocative features. I encourage you to give it a read. It can induce reflection on disaster response; for instance, I clean up—tangible debris as well as intangible—I attempt to restore order. (In all likelihood, I confess, I would have tried to reclaim the head tie.) But I am inclined to say this sort of response disallows disaster’s most useful function. Suspension of disbelief is idling; it is avoidance of any critical thinking at the convenient store on the way home from work, and it is forsaking any examination of our mothers at the dinner table. Suspension of disbelief buoys illusion and disaster can snap this. “Aminatu” is tagged in orange, italicized, small font Black Lives Matter. Per suspension, per our culture’s cushion, we do not see that Black lives do, indeed, matter. Disaster can allow us to come back down to earth to see who we have coerced into the trenches. As importantly, it can recalibrate our morals that have altogether been scrambled if not abandoned.