As a Latino reader, I like to keep up with the latest in Latinx literature, but you don’t have to be Latinx to appreciate Variations on the Body by Colombian American author María Ospina, translated by Heather Cleary. Latina identity serves as the foundation for Ospina’s powerful debut collection, and its six stories explore what it means to occupy a body bound by that identity. Each tale tackles a different angle, at turns pondering ownership of the body, how a body is tied to history, and why connection between bodies is so important.
Ospina’s characters are all Colombian women struggling with their bodies, though not with body image but rather the actual experience of living in human form. For example, the protagonist in “Occasion” is a young pregnant woman who’s working as a nanny, and between the needs of the child in her womb and the demands of the child she is paid to care for, the woman barely has any autonomy. Throughout the story, Ospina shifts the narrative’s perspective—sometimes the woman speaks, while other times the child she’s caring for does—to illustrate the precariousness of ownership.
This polyvocality repeats and is rearranged several times throughout the collection. In the first story, “Policarpa,” a former guerrilla fighter is silenced by the editor of her memoir, and in the third story, “Saving Young Ladies,” an isolated young woman projects her desire onto those she doesn’t know. In every story Ospina outdoes herself, and each time the message is profound and vital.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic and increasing awareness of overlapping systems of oppression, Variations on the Body is undoubtedly timely as a poignant portrait of people on the margins whose bodies are trapped in space and time. While that may sound like science fiction, Ospina shows how real these experiences are, and she challenges everyone to empathize.