Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Oye What I'm Gonna Tell You | Review

There were a lot of things in Oye What I'm Gonna Tell You by Cecilia Rodríguez Milanés which made me laugh out loud. The short story collection is not meant to be an especially humorous one, but an underlying snark accompanies a good portion of the writing and some lines were, frankly, far too familiar not to make me laugh. "Arroz con pollo, sin pollo y sin arroz" made me laugh for a solid five minutes, not because the statement is necessarily that humorous on its own, but because we frequently joke in my family about my aunt's "arroz con pollo sin pollo" (and I had not known that arroz con pollo - named as such - was not an exclusively Peruvian dish).

The collection is written with almost deliberate indifference to the notion that the reader might not speak Spanish. It fits the tone - Milanés is telling stories of Cubans and of Cuban-Americans, and at times I found myself thinking that including in text translations would have been intrusive. And the Spanish, while prevalent, is not something you'll feel lost without. And you can probably figure it out from context, even if you don't know Spanish very well.

The truth is, I liked Milanés' writing, but I'm not sure I liked the collection overall. As sharp and pointed as it is in parts, there was a very uniform tone to the stories that made it difficult for me to fully separate them in my mind. Not that they were identical (certainly nowhere near the level of similarity across Kjell Askildsen's short stories, for example...), but there wasn't quite enough separation between the majority. The best stories ended up being those that shifted from the familiar structure - a two paged slip of a story about a gay man suspecting his niece's boyfriend is gay, a story about a Chinese immigrant to Cuba, a story which drastically switches perspectives throughout its 28 or so pages with no fixed loop. These stories lingered just a bit longer in my mind, snagged on something I couldn't quite place.

Milanés broaches a lot of topics in Oye What I'm Gonna Tell You, many of which I found myself not only recognizing and appreciating, but also running through in my head again and again. Most notable was Milanés' almost aggressive focus on race, and colorism, often drawing attentions to features that were more positively viewed (pale skin, slanted eyes, smooth hair). Then there were the more general themes: family, belonging, the immigrant experience... A lot here was quite familiar in the positive sense - a sharp reflection of the world.

And yet I still am not sure that I liked the collection all that much. Some of the stories were deliberately truncated in a way that kept me on edge, others felt dragged out without much justification, and some stories felt utterly dry. Despite the relative shortness of the book, it felt long and tedious far more than it should have. And sharp writing is great only to the point where it can stand alone, and here there was a glossed over uniformity to the entire collection that lessened the effect of the writing. Some of these are certainly stories worth reading, but I'm not sure I would add Milanés to my "must read" list quite yet.

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