I used to enjoy it when my well-traveled comp students would tackle a cultural comparison essay as one of their assignments. Therefore, I’m really excited when a writing colleague as accomplished as Deborah Clearman takes on a country as fascinating as Guatemala and topics as significant as baby brokering and sexual politics in all its tragicomic permutations.
Clearman’s novel Todos Santos (Black Lawrence, 2010) introduced us to the titular rural Guatemalan town; her new story collection, Concepcion and the Baby Brokers (Rain Mountain Press, 2017) takes us even deeper into a culture the author understands, loves and has resided in, off and on, since 1978; plus, she has the gift of making readers appreciate it and love it, too. Her themes are rich and fascinating, dramatized by an array of colorful, tragic, funny and always interesting characters.
Baby Brokering: A Sad Practice
At the forefront of the collection, Clearman ambitiously examines the sad practice of Americans adopting babies obtained illegally by Guatemalan dealers in the novella “A Cup of Tears.” The story is well researched and constructed, highlighting an important, timely issue all Americans should be educated about. The plot eventually focuses on an American woman whose wrenching decision brings the story to a stunning finale. However, compelling as “Cup” is, I found myself preferring the other stories: varied yet overlapping and quite a literary feast.
Race, Class . . .
I especially enjoyed the cultural comparisons between Guatemala and the U.S. Despite important differences, the two cultures are uncomfortably similar in ways. For example, race and class issues. Most of the principal characters are Mayan, oppressed beneath the lash of mixed-race Ladinos who have occupied the upper echelons of society for 500 years. Sound familiar? In “Fathers and Sons,” Amilcar’s father moves into town so his eight-year-old son can attend school. Sadly, his peers mock his clothing and his Ladino teacher slaps him for speaking Mam, the only language he knows, rather than Spanish. I experienced some of the same prejudice in the small West Virginia town in which I came of age in the 1960s.
. . . and Sex
But, as important as racial and class issues are, I found myself enjoying most the myriad cultural complexities surrounding sex, especially sexual infidelity. “The Flor” is a wonderful exploration of cuckoldry, Guatemalan style. Dona Clara Luz’ pastor-pharmacist husband has been cheating on her with Hilda Florencia for some time; when young Felix wrecks his bus, Dona Clara appoints herself his “physical therapist” and (hilariously) his bible teacher. As his and his siblings’ caretaker, Dona Clara uses the young man’s recovery as an opportunity to restore his health and her marriage in a creative act involving her own infidelity. Tragedy is averted; humor, forgiveness and acceptance reign.
Mayans, Big Macs and Becky Sue
My favorite take on Clearman’s sexual theme, however, occurs in “English Lessons,” which begins with the wonderful sentence, “I hate English.” The speaker is George, a transplanted Guatemalan living in Washington, DC, married to Roxie, an academic. As in the former stories, there’s plenty of humor; as George says, “I have the hooked nose, wide cheeks and Asiatic eyes of a Mayan, and the big round belly that comes from eating lots of Big Macs.”
The main conflict concerns whether the childless young couple should go into debt for a fertility specialist or whether George should buy the truck he needs for his gardening business. (An irony, when babies are so abundant in Guatemala.) The story takes on the machismo stereotype, but with complex variations when George finds himself attracted to Becky Sue, his enigmatic English teacher. In Clearman’s capable hands, the relationship is not your typical illicit romance with definite winners and losers. (One of her major skills as a writer is her great endings.)
A New Life Forever
“Saints and Sinners” provides a symphonic closure to this substantive collection. Many major characters return for a multigenerational climax involving once again the sexual theme. Don Roberto, about to retire as principal at the local school, has apparently impregnated his adoring student Magdalena, an event that at first seems destined to ruin both their lives and cause great scandal. However, the gods—as well as a saintly American mentor Noah—intervene for a surprising and satisfying outcome.
There is great redemption in the final scene, depicting modernization in Todos Santos, but, more importantly, new life: “Flor had fallen asleep at [Magdalena’s] breast; the satisfying tug on her nipple had released into a gentle pressure, a reassurance that this life belonged to her forever.” As grandmother Rosalinda looks on, the orderly continuity of generations (after much upheaval in this and the other stories) is intact.
Portraits in Courage
Readers are under no illusions by the time they reach the last page; Clearman has truthfully shown that life is extremely hard in Guatemala’s countryside as well as in its cities, with grinding poverty, unemployment, drugs and gang violence, plus the heartbreaking outflow of young people to the U.S.; however, she balances those problems (which, let’s face it, exist in the U.S., too) with moving, convincing portraits of courage, compassion, faith and, above all, humor. Laughter; sensuous, sacred love; and family seem to be the holy trinity to these hardy, enduring people I come to admire. Lively, rich, meaningful and beautiful: Clearman’s collection is highly recommended.