Of Orphanages and Grandmas
I admire writers who try new things. Although, realistically, most writers are versatile, dabbling in half a dozen different genres, by and far they rarely share their experimental work with audiences, wide or insignificant. How many journalists have I spoken to who were really aspiring novelists? I know academics with poetry pumping through their veins, and encountered unsung storytellers who may never commit pen to paper.
Think of those who go from poetry to prose, fiction to non-fiction, academic work to heartwreching autobiography. Sometimes the shift is natural, logical, consistent with what's come before. Sherman Alexie's prose reads like his poetry; he repeats the same imagery and themes, grapples with the same issues. Or, in the case of Dagoberto Gilb's collection of essays - incidentally, one of my favorite books from last year - the writer had to establish himself an author, before releasing a career-spanning collection of essays.
Until now, I have known Jimmy Santiago Baca only as an accomplished poet, well-read and respected in literary and academic circles; a far cry from the self-destructive, troubled teen who was arrested for drug possession and emerged from his prison experience a powerful, sensitive, intense man.
While I've read Baca's poetry, it has never resonated with me. What has stuck with me, through his collections like Martin, Meditations on the South Valley and Black Mesa Poems, is Baca's profound sense of place. To me, his verse embodies Nuevo Mexico: the desert, the montañas, Hispano ranchers, Anglo speculators, and a Chicano culture similar to yet so much different from here, deep in the heart of tejas. An exercise in autobiography, Baca's poetry bares his heart.
Likewise, in The Importance of a Piece of Paper, Baca's recently-released collection of short stories, Baca writes what he knows: of abandonment, orphanages, grandmothers who offer salvation and sanctuary; of the cooling Santa Fe desert and of an intense hatred boiling behind the walls of an Arizona prison. He also writes of men at their most predatory and boys who have been victimized, telling tales of love and redemption, loss and longing.
(This isn't Baca's first foray into prose; there's another collection, as well as a memoir, both of which I had previously overlooked. By changing genres an author may encounter readers who might have otherwise not picked up his or her book.)
My favorite stories in this collection, "Matilda's Garden," detailing the last days of a widower's continuing love for his departed wife, and "Runaway," about an orphaned boy and the special bond he shares with his grandmother, bookend the collection. Grandma stories - like Manuel Luis Martinez' Drift, Cisneros' Caramelo, or "What You Pawn I Will Redeem," Alexie's short - evoke the same sentidos in me. "Runaway" is no exception. Nicknamed for his repeated attempts at escape, Runaway leaves the dilapidated childrens' home, with its authoritarian nuns and pederast priest, to check on his grandma, the only relative he has. Poignant and bittersweet, with a hint of false optimism at the end of its too-touching conclusion, the story embodies what's best about Baca as a writer.
Contrast this with the title story, the pretentiously named "The Importance of a Piece of Paper," which humanizes the importance of land grants for the gente of Nuevo Mexico in a modern telling of the conflicting allegiances and legal trickery which robbed property-holding ranchers of their livelihood. Baca expresses the complexity of these claims - the community members' property rights are based on an oral tradition which will not hold up in court - but betrays the central trio of characters by painting them with broad brushstrokes. They form the cliché Chicano trinity: the angry son, full of misdirected rage; the vendido brother, a lawyer, whose selling of his share of the family land sets the tale in motion; and the sister who has sacrificed her dreams to hold the family together.
A twist of righteousness, an ironic comeuppance, perhaps, is fine, as in the none-too-serious "Mother's Ashes." But in "Paper" the contradictions seem too neat, a tidy cinematic juxtaposition which Baca repeats, in similar shape and form, in the feuding brothers and frustrated mother in "The Three Sons of Julia," the preceding story. Elsewhere, such as in "Enemies," about three just-released cons, one Black, one Brown, one white, Baca uses motif and metaphor too transparently- especially for someone with the soul of a poet.
Ultimately, the beauty of Baca's writing comes out strongest in heartfelt stories such as "Matilda's Garden," "Runaway," or "The Valentine's Day Card," also set in an orphanage. Baca shines in these stories, to the point where, even if some of the tales don't fit their happy endings, I wish they did. •