Wednesday, July 26, 2023

Review: Our Shadows Have Claws

A journey through the hidden corners of a continent's imagination

Edited by Yamile Saied Méndez and Amparo Ortiz, Our Shadows Have Claws is a bone-chilling anthology that gathers folk monsters from all corners of Latin America. Now, before I proceed to reviewing this book, I feel I have to insert an important note. At Nerds of a Feather, I've previously covered other collections of speculative short fiction from the Latin diaspora, which I'm always excited to do; I see it as my small contribution toward increasing the visibility of Latin authors. Like many contemporary writings by bilingual migrants, those stories contained bilingual dialogues; by now it's become increasingly accepted that people who publish in English and come from cultures where English is a foreign presence shouldn't have to treat their own mother tongue as the weird Other. As an aspiring writer myself, with English as my second language, I can appreciate the empowering effect of demanding English to accommodate our words instead of the other way around.

However, in Our Shadows Have Claws I find a substantially higher proportion of untranslated Spanish compared to previous collections I've reviewed, which will doubtlessly make the stories hard to follow for the monolingual reader. On discussing this point I must be mindful of my own position. I'm not a member of the diaspora, so I'm not qualified to evaluate the verisimilitude of Spanglish and successive code-switching in the context of the geographic settings where those dialogues occur. Speaking only for my experience as a reader, I had no difficulty with the book because I grew up with Spanish; your particular mileage may vary. The authors' (and editors') choice to include this much untranslated Spanish places the book in the middle of a conversation about intended audience, a conversation that was already intense back when Junot Díaz miraculously convinced The New Yorker to print his Spanglish untouched by the editorial hand.

All this is to say that Our Shadows Have Claws is unapologetically not meant for the incurious gringo. In a way, it's fitting for a collection of spooky fiction to make itself a bit elusive, partially out of the reach of unprepared eyes. So let's get to the stories.

The Nightingale and the Lark by Chantel Acevedo, about the doomed love between the respective descendants of a lineage of cryptid rescuers and a lineage of cryptid hunters, leans on Latin America's thorny baggage of civil wars to comment on the regrettable ease with which inherited grudges can continue to poison social ties.

I tracked my father the way I'd been taught to
track monsters—silently, on alert, like a woodland
creature. I could smell his aftershave, hear the faint
crackling sound his left ankle made every few steps,
spot the places on the earth where he'd knelt down.

¿Dónde Está el Duende? by Jenny Torres Sanchez, about a girl haunted by the sound of nighttime scratching during a visit to her profoundly disturbed cousin, takes advantage of the stylistic arsenal of first-person narration to draw the reader into the perspective of a second-generation immigrant gradually losing her memory and identity.

I don't know how much time has passed when I suddenly sense
something else in the room. A heavy, threatening presence that
thickens the air and makes my mind feel muggy. Some part of me
tries to scream, but my mouth won't open. My voice won't work.

El Viejo de la Bolsa by Alexandra Villasante, about an unofficial foster home that welcomes the children of missing political dissidents, makes Cold War dictatorships pass through the lens of allegory to portray with an understated expressiveness how the loss of basic civil rights can feel as dreadful as an urban legend told to make children behave.

Making people disappear is like balancing
an equation; one half is the taking of a person,
the other half is pretending not to see.

Beware the Empty Subway Car by Maika Moulite and Maritza Moulite, about a teenage mutant cannibal shapeshifter on the loose in Manhattan, deftly weaves together the desire for prey and the desire for human connection, thus subverting the power dynamic that occurs when comfortable New Yorkers choose not to see those in need among them.

As he shifts back in his seat to eat a slice, his scent
meets your nostrils. He smells sweet but not sickly so.
Your mouth waters. You take a bite of pizza and try
not to wonder what it would be like to do the same to him.

Dismembered by Ann Dávila Cardinal, about a grieving granddaughter who returns to a childhood home where things start to go bump in the night, suggests an original, gentler tweak on the trope of ghosts with unfinished business.

I was heading to my room, trying not to think about the fact
that I was alone in the house, when I heard a dragging sound
outside the front windows. Like someone was hauling a full
garbage bag across the gravel with long, scritching noises.

Blood Kin by Ari Tison, about a family physically and spiritually wounded by territorial encroachment on their Native reservation, balances the tragic tone of its ending with a resounding plea for drawing strength from the struggles of those who resisted colonization before us.

His eyes are horrified, and he begins to pull himself
away, half mauled. But I have no doubt what to do.
No doubt to finish. To let my ever-present fire pour on
him. I tear him apart. Limb by limb until he is no more.

La Boca del Lobo by M. García Peña, about a girl dangerously fascinated with a particular spot in the woods near her parents' former home, invites the reader to walk through her dreams and daydreams as she reconnects with her half-forgotten wild side.

A stabbing pain juts into my back reaching out
through my hands, my feet, my mouth. My body arches
forward, raising me up to my tiptoes, I feel the crack
of each individual finger breaking, shaping, growing.

Blood-Stained Hands Like Yours by Gabriela Martins, about a homeless orphan desperate to prevent her family curse from hurting the girl she loves, builds slowly toward a triumphant affirmation of our ability to redefine ourselves beyond the evil we've inherited.

She wakes up choking in sobs, overwhelmed by a heavy
smell she couldn't identify at first. She touches her face, and
it's slick, but… not with tears. Her fingers come away red.

The Boy from Hell by Amparo Ortiz, about a young slayer pursuing the clues to a vampire who's been stalking her classmates, proposes an interesting parallel between the abstruse politics of vampire clan rivalries and the equally arbitrary dynamics of Latin-on-Latin racism.

The deeper I get, the thicker the bushes are; there's
barely any space for solid footing. Cows moo at me a few
feet away. None have obvious bite marks, so I'm safe from
being attacked by four-legged bloodsucking mammals.

La Patasola by Racquel Marie, about an avenging spirit who seeks unfaithful men to brutally punish them, is curiously set far from the Colombian mountains where this folk monster is said to roam, which, for all the gore in its plot, suggests the comforting notion that the power of our stories can still sustain and protect us wherever we go.

She emerges from the shadows slowly, crawling across
the ground on her hands and foot. As grotesque as her
flesh is, her body moves fluidly. Like she learned to prowl
from the very pumas whose teeth tore her to shreds.

The Other Side of the Mountain by Claribel A. Ortega, about a young man who goes on a quest to rescue his sister from the witch who kidnapped her, plays with the standard hero's journey and puts it on its head, warning that in the jungle there are forces you can't defeat.

Her skin was not skin, but feathers. Her hair
stringy and thin against a visible scalp, with
large bulging eyes and lips sharp like a beak.
Her fingernails long and twisted like claws.

La Madrina by Yamile Saied Méndez, about a house built on the road between life and death, where a personified cosmic force gives succor to those uncertain of their journey, descends upon the reader like a soothing balm before sending us back on our quest.

I stumbled toward the witch light. Somewhere in
the brambles, I lost one of my shoes. Thorns tore
through my soles. Blood seeped through my nylons.
The earth drank it thirstily, like a payment for a grace.

Sugary Deaths by Lilliam Rivera, about an unrepenting womanizer who one day makes the poor choice of messing with the wrong girl, is a straightforward but impactful revenge fantasy set in the streets of a 1980s Nuyorican neighborhood.

Across the street, the stone gargoyles on her building stand
as they always have, but instead of their usual poses,
one holds a handkerchief as if crying, another appears
to be shouting, while another holds a spiked club.

Leave No Tracks by Julia Alvarez, about a secret community of river spirits with a natural defense against the exterior world, has in its biracial protagonist an example of how you can fight for your homeland and your heritage even if you already have a life settled far away from it.

When he saw me, he didn't chase after me.
Instead he sang me a song he made up on the spot.
Day after day he returned and sang it. That's
when I realized not all humans are inhuman.

The Hour of the Wolf by Courtney Alameda, about a high school mean girl haunted by a savage presence she unwittingly summoned, closes the book with a terrifying game of cat and mouse that honors the wave of supernatural flicks that swept the 1960s.

The Tukákame is a god of death and cruelty. At night, he
comes forth from the deep places of the earth to hunt, taking
the form of a wolf. But his true form is that of a skeleton,
and he garbs himself in the skins and bones of his victims.

A common thread in many of these stories is a warning to the gringos to not mess with what they don't understand. One by one, colonizers, exploiters, harassers, bigots and plain vanilla jerks meet their demise at the hands (or claws) of the beasts that roam our mountains and jungles. This is not only a collection that showcases our folk monsters, but one that explores the specific unequal relationship between the United States and Latin America. I'm usually not very moved by revenge fantasies, but there are some days when white Latinophobia gets so irritating I would just like to roar it into shreds. Perhaps you've heard of the classic Mexican Llorona. Now meet her extended family. Read, and tremble.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.

Reference: Méndez, Yamile Saied and Ortiz, Amparo [editors]. Our Shadows Have Claws [Algonquin Young Readers, 2022].