Review: Denise Chávez. The King and Queen of Comezón. Norman : University of Oklahoma Press, 2014.
October to October, it’s been one of the most productive years in Chicana Literature. Last October, Alma Luz Villanueva's scintillating erotic opus Song of the Golden Scorpion, kicked off this golden year. Spring brings Ana Castillo's sensational erotic novel Give It To Me. Denise Chávez rounds out this spectacular year with a family-safe portrait of a small town where people live up to its name, Comezón.
The King and Queen of Comezón marks a crowning achievement in the writer's career, a long-awaited next novel after 2001’s Loving Pedro Infante. The novel chronicles six months in the lives of this small New Mexico town. The author challenges herself to keep multiple stories careening against each other in complicated sets of connections between richly drawn characters.
Covering the months between the pueblo’s Cinco de Mayo festival and el Diez y Seis de Septiembre, Chávez captures the reader’s interest not only in the number and complexity of interpersonal connections but in her way of keeping interest high through her storyteller's voice, hyperbole, and intersecting views of the same events.
The novel’s structure is a metaphor for a yearning, an itch, a comezón. The author lays out landscapes, facts, and characters. Events in a chapter approach a key nexus only to have the chapter end, the expectation unsatisfied, satisfaction delayed as Chávez switches gears, starts something else then reintroduces an ongoing situation in a different light, stringing the reader along wanting more. The entire book is a delightful self-inducing comezón.
In fact, the delayed gratification of finding out what happened is so delighting, I stopped reading two thirds through, just for a day. The storytelling grows so delicious I want to savor the anticipation of seeing how the author resolves all these matters, some bizarre, others lethal. Although related with a comedic voice, there are dark notes, leading one to wonder will consequences become what the characters or readers deserve?
Complexity abounds in the tiny community, revolving around three key characters, Arnulfo Olivares and his family, a corrupted priest, and a bar owner. A rich cast of supporting characters populate the periphery of the central interactions.
Arnulfo treats his family like crap and his wife takes it. The transplanted Spaniard priest lusts after la coja Juliana. Juliana lusts after el padrecito, but her disabled body makes her housebound and unschooled. Isá lives a slave in the household with love hate relations with the two daughters, doña Emilia, and Arnulfo. Rey, a decent man, doesn’t know the hatred Don Clo harbors against decency.
Chávez describes Rey up as the one likeable man in the world. A redeemed alcoholic and retired migra officer, Rey keeps notebooks of the people he helped deport. One woman particularly moves him. As Comezón spins out of control, Rey stands as the sole source of stability. Rey’s comezón can get him killed, but first Don Clo will enjoy tormenting a suffering Rey.
It's a key storyline. Chávez draws it out, like the other threads, presenting some in direct narrative, other in passing detail woven into one of the other stories. For instance, the reader sees Doña Emilia fall ill and has a stroke as her chapter concludes. Later, we learn almost in passing that the stroke hospitalized her.
Chavez holds anxiety to a low pitch but frequently reminds readers that Arnulfo has cancer, that Doña Emilia appears to accept her husband's absent heart, that el Padre sinks deeper deeper deeper. And, with the devil, Don Clo, heading to Rey's bar, the anxiety from knowing danger lurks around the next page but doesn't come yet is the author’s gift of a comezón to the reader. Turn the page to scratch that itch of wanting to know what happens.
Ultimately, The King and Queen of Comezón is a novel not of longing but of redemption. Sadly, rather than allowing the plots to speak for themselves, Chávez goes out of her way to spell it out in the novel’s final paragraphs. I wonder if the author lost confidence in her own clarity after three hundred pages?
There is, for me, a serious lacking in the novel. The author displays a lack of confidence in her reader through heavy-handed translation. Irritatingly often, when the text says something in Spanish, the writer supplies an apposition translating into English. Chávez does it well, here and there. But mostly the code-switch translation distracts from the prose, sounds unnatural in many instances, and avoidance should be an element of style for writers of Chicana Chicano Literature. The weakness is not Chávez’ alone, this lack of confidence in the readership is endemic to U.S. literature.
Chávez illustrates how unnecessary translation has become--especially in the age of search engine machine translation and given her likely readership--in the novel’s final pages with a burst of untranslated language wondering how the hanged man in the church had been killed. Hopefully he’d been shot first and then hanged and burned. If not, hijole, se chingó. It was true that Luisito had been a chingadaquedito, but really and truly alguien lo chingó un chingo a la puta chingada madre, and there you had it.¡Chingao!
Persistently unnecessary translating aside, Denise Chávez’ masterwork The King and Queen of Comezón has ample opportunities for joy in the fabric of the novel. For instance, there’s a wonderful roll call of old-timer Spanish names signaling the generations and presence of raza on the land for countless generations.
The first time I spotted Chávez’ use of triplets for emphasis I noted it as clever emphasis in the instance. Then the triplet repetition began cropping up every few chapters and I smiled at them considering the technique stylistic grace notes the author whips out to add ornament to needful passages, to reassert the narrator’s presence over the story.
Chávez then rewards the attentive reader with the queen of all triplets. This time instead of tagging the repetition to the end of a phrase, she leads with the technique. “No good, no good, no good things could come of this” the narrator relates. Later, in case you were paying attention, Chávez pastes in a naturally-occurring cognate of the technique in quoting song lyrics to the expatriate Mexican national anthem, “Volver, volver, volver.”
Indeed, The King and Queen of Comezón is Chávez’ crowning achievement. Future term paper writers will find it a rich lode to mine for essays on literary voice, views on religion, women’s roles, male worthlessness, storytelling, local color, love, code-switching, and comezónes. Coincidentally, there's a beautiful symmetry to this most productive year, in that Ana Castillo is this year's Anaya lecturer. Denise Chávez delivered the 2011 Anaya lecture.
You can order The King and Queen of Comezón from your local independent bookseller. You can order the paperback from the university press direct.
|Denise Chavez greets Librotraficante Jesus Treviño ©msedano|
Rudolfo and Patricia Anaya Lecture Honor Awarded to Ana Castillo
La Bloga friend Teresa Marquez sends news the Rudolfo and Patricia Anaya lecturer for 2014 is legendary Chicana writer Ana Castillo. Castillo is enjoying an Anaya year. She was the featured guest speaker at this year's CSULA Anaya Conference, where her talk included a reading from her sensational novel, Give It To Me. Below read the press release Teresa forwards.
Ana Castillo is this year's guest speaker at the 5th Rudolfo and Patricia Anaya Southwest Literature Lecture Series.
UNM Department of English hosts Ana Castillo for fifth annual Rudolfo and Patricia Anaya Lecture on the Literature of the Southwest
On Thursday, October 23, the UNM Department of English will host the distinguished writer Ana Castillo as the featured speaker for the fifth annual Rudolfo and Patricia Anaya Lecture on the Literature of the Southwest. Castillo will speak at 7:00 p.m. in Room 101 of George Pearl Hall (the School of Architecture and Planning), with a reception to follow. The lecture is free and open to the public.
Ana Castillo is one of the leading figures in Chicana and contemporary literature. A celebrated poet, novelist, short story writer, essayist, editor, playwright, translator and independent scholar, Castillo is the author of the novels So Far From God and Sapogonia, both New York Times Notable Books of the Year, as well as The Guardians, Peel My Love like an Onion, and many other books of fiction, poetry, and essays. Her most recent novel is Give it to Me, and the 20th-anniversary, updated edition of her groundbreaking book The Massacre of the Dreamers: Essays on Xicanisma will be published this October by the University of New Mexico Press.
Dividing her time between Chicago and Southern New Mexico, Ana Castillo is a celebrated writer deeply committed to higher education as well as contemporary literary culture. Castillo holds an M.A from the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Bremen in Germany. She is also the recipient of an honorary doctorate from Colby College. Along with her own work as an author, she edits La Tolteca, an arts and literary zine dedicated to the advancement of a world without borders and censorship, and she serves on the advisory board of the American Writers Museum in Washington, D.C. Among other teaching positions, Castillo was the first Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Endowed Chair at DePaul University, the Martin Luther King, Jr Distinguished Visiting Scholar at M.I.T., the Poet-in-Residence at Westminster College in Utah, and, most recently, the Lund-Gil Endowed Chair at Dominican University in Illinois. She has received an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation for her first novel, The Mixquiahuala Letters, and her other awards include a Carl Sandburg Award, a Mountains and Plains Booksellers Award, fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts in fiction and poetry, and the Sor Juana Achievement Award from the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum in Chicago. In 2013, Castillo was awarded the Gloria Anzaldúa Prize by the American Studies Association.
The UNM English Department established the annual lecture series on the literature of the Southwest in 2010 through a gift from the renowned fiction writer Rudolfo Anaya and his late wife Patricia Anaya. "The English Department cherishes the fact that Emeritus Professor Rudy Anaya was on our faculty for so many years. A founder of our distinguished Creative Writing Program, he still inspires us with his joyous approach to life, sense of humor, and eloquent articulation of Hispanic culture and the beauties of the Southwest. He has long been an internationally known man of letters, but we take pride in the fact that he began his career in our department," says Professor Gail Houston. "We feel privileged to have received his generous donation, and there is no better venue for celebrating Southwest literature than the University of New Mexico English Department. We look forward to sharing this free event with everyone at UNM and in the community."
The annual Rudolfo and Patricia Anaya Lecture on the Literature of the Southwest features foundational figures such as Acoma Pueblo poet Simon Ortiz (2010), Las Cruces writer and playwright Denise Chávez (2011), Taos writer John Nichols (2012), and Kiowa writer N. Scott Momaday (2013). For further information, visit the Anaya Lecture Series website at http://english.unm.edu/anaya-lecture-series/, contact the Anaya Lecture Committee at firstname.lastname@example.org, or contact the UNM English
News 'n Notes
San Antonio • Oct 1-5 • Veteran, Writer, Playwright Barrios Joins Troupe
Visit the theatre's webpage for details on this performance piece giving Veterans the stage to tell audiences about military experience, from enlisting to basic training, overseas movement there and back again.
Veterans hope to help non-veterans understand living in uniform and what happens after they resume civilian life. The monologists read their own words, for a number of them, like Barrios, decades afterwards.
Telling: San Antonio begins its run this week through Sunday in San Antonio's Tobin Center for Performing Arts at the Carlos Alvarez Studio Theater.
Tickets and details at the studio's webpage here.
Oct 6 • Calavera Poem Submissions, La Voz
La Voz de Esperanza is a monthly news journal out of San Antonio, featuring stories, news, poetry and artwork submitted by the community. The editors issue the following:
Squeeze a song of love or mockery out of your heart, get it to dance in traditional 4-line stanzas of (about) 8 beats per line, or 3 lines of 5/7/5 syllables (17 syllables total) haiku formation, y viola!
Send it to email@example.com by 10/6/2014
No pay, puro glory
Oct 27 • Call for Submissions • La Bloga Day of the Dead On-line Floricanto
from the Facebook group Poets Responding to SB 1070: Poetry of Resistance
CALL FOR POEMS ON THE THEME OF “THE DAY OF THE DEAD”—
Dear Poets, You all are invited to submit poems with the theme of “El Día de los Muertos / The Day of the Dead” that will be posted on POETS RESPONDING TO SB 1070 for the following weeks.
The poems could be “Calaveras” (poems making fun of public figures), poetic remembrances of those who have passed, and memories of past events.
The Moderators will select the best poems for a special edition of La Bloga On-line Floricanto for Tuesday November 4, 2014.
The deadline to send poems to be considered for this special issue is Monday, October 27, 2014. We will continue publishing poems on other themes, as well.
See the Poets Responding page (click here) on Facebook for submission technology.