September 2010

A fresh take on stories of immigrant life

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Vida is the debut collection of nine linked stories by Patricia Engel. But don’t let the slimness of this volume fool you. The stories pack an emotional wallop that will leave you spinning. The subject—two decades in the life of a Colombian-American girl and her exploration of personal landscapes and cultural geography—makes for memorable fiction.

Sabina is the daughter of immigrants growing up in a New Jersey town where the only other Latinas are maids. Her parents’ accents and her own skin color makes her the butt of neighborhood jokes, and after her uncle is arrested for killing his wife, it just gets worse. The stories in Vida flow, though not chronologically, over two continents and 20 years and are peopled with a wide cast of family and friends on both hemispheres.

Whether writing about Sabina’s Colombian cousins or recording a tense conversation with an old boyfriend in a Miami hotel lounge, Engel’s precision as a writer and her unsparing gaze brings Sabina startlingly to life. In fact, Sabina’s voice is so vivid and familiar, readers might find themselves wondering if they went to school with this fictional character or maybe worked in the same office after college.

In the opening story, “Lucho,” Sabina is befriended by the town bad boy who doesn’t care about her skin color or her uncle’s trial. He is the first of many men in Sabina’s life, drifters like those depicted in “Diego” and “Dia,” looking for love, ready to run, and hiding their own raw secrets. Sabina herself plays fast and loose with monogamy—several of the stories such as “Refuge” and “Cielito Lindo” hint at her wandering eye.

Sabina moves from suburban New Jersey to the urban landscapes of New York and Miami and Engel may be suggesting that the life of the bicultural citizen can be one of constant motion. The complexities of identity are recounted in “Madre Patria,” a story about a family trip to Colombia where the constant bickering between Sabina’s mother and aunt plays out against visions of extreme poverty in the Bogota streets that further confuse Sabina’s loyalties. In the magnificent title story, Sabina discovers that her friend Vida was forced to work in a brothel after coming to the United States, and her ambivalence and delayed response to Vida’s plight echo her conflicted emotions about country and nationality.

Many have written about immigrants coming to the United States, but the manner in which Engel explores the shifting identity of a first-generation Latina may forge a new pathway in immigration literature.

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