Carribean Fragoza joins Alta Live on April 7 at 12:30 p.m. Pacific time.
When I was 21, a burly man poised a tattoo needle over my navel and told me it would hurt. I had found an image that reminded me of a sea anemone in a novel I no longer recall. The dinkus, as such typographical entities are called, also recalled a whirlpool. It would be done in black ink, marking a place on my body that, I’d learned, was my “power center.”
Carribean Fragoza’s debut collection, Eat the Mouth That Feeds You, artfully and graphically renders the various power centers and potentials that live inside a body. The nine works of short fiction here introduce a panoply of characters, many of them girls or women, who have, and often exert, special powers. They are, of course, also subject to the power of others, often men, and sometimes of otherworldly entities. How these characters negotiate power becomes a story with dark, iridescent wings, taking up habitat in the reader’s body.
Fragoza’s stories are full of body. Body horror, bodies devolving, transforming, excruciatingly and in vivid color. “Lumberjack Mom,” which opens the book, introduces us to someone larger than life who grunts, clenches her teeth, breaks, and destroys. In one scene, the narrator describes the scratches that cover a mother’s face as “lined with tiny beads of black blood that shone like unblinking eyes in the sun.”
Her children, who have witnessed her chopping and tearing at both a thorned tree and discarded furniture, are witness to a transformation. I can imagine both witnessing and being witnessed, the blood beading on Lumberjack Mom’s face as its own kind of tattoo. When the mother stands amid the destruction she has wrought, she is in “the center of a ring of thorns with the amputated limbs strewn at her feet.”
Fragoza is also interested in the power negotiation between and among women. In “Vicious Ladies,” she introduces a bookish narrator who reluctantly operates as the “noz mom” at parties—babysitting the kids who take illegal hits of nitrous oxide. The woman who organizes the parties, Samira, is an icon. She is alternately obsidian, bronze, or moist clay. She leaves a scent of vanilla, cigarettes, almonds. Samira tries to reason with the narrator, who is known as “girl” or “mija.”
“Our mothers don’t know shit,” Samira says, establishing her purpose plainly. “What was the last valuable thing your mother taught you? I mean something real. Something you got from her and said, ‘Hell, yeah! This is good stuff, I better hold on to this.’ ” The narrator sees her shadow in the charismatic Samira even as she recognizes her as a void that sucks “the light from everything and made it a reason to party.” The trick, the narrator informs us, “is to keep running across the void like you don’t know there’s nothing there.”
A similar question (lament?) centers “Ini y Fati,” which is built around a moody child martyr: “What is a mother if not a frame to show you what you may become, or what you must avoid?” And yet, mothers disappear, children die tragically of abuse, or even get struck by lightning when no one but the spirits is watching. “In truth,” Ini, one of the title characters, announces to her human counterpart, “the sooner we do away with God, in the all-powerful, all-knowing, Holy Father sense, the better off we’ll be. Think about it, Fati. What have the all-powerful fathers gotten us anyway?”
What indeed? It’s an existential issue expressed most fully perhaps in “Me Muero,” where Fragoza’s narrator undergoes death not as disappearance but as a different state of matter, a falling away into pieces even as her family continues to surround and interact with her, seeing her and not seeing her, somewhat as it was during life. A connection with her mother lingers. “We have always been strange mirrors for each other,” the dead narrator confides as she teaches the older woman about the death of the body by decomposing slowly in and around the house.
The young woman I used to be constantly searched for where her true power might lie. I, too, was, am, a mija, with an awareness that this identity located me in a specific position—girl or woman. In a world that positions women as subordinates of men, I knew I wanted more than that. The girls and women of Eat the Mouth That Feeds You are power centers unto themselves, whether magically or realistically.
Even as I write the word “realistically,” however, I know it can’t encompass all the ways one can take up and wield power. “Realistically” doesn’t acknowledge the spiritual, the ineffable. And the fabulist nature of Fragoza’s stories is also a source of power. Looking through her books in solitude, the narrator of “Vicious Ladies” muses, “I inspect each one, paging through them, petting the paper, running my finger over the words like coaxing out the little nagual animal that is mine to travel, Castañeda-style, way the fuck somewhere else, to another universe.”
Eat the Mouth That Feeds You is just such a book: a work of power and a darkly brilliant talisman that enlarges in necessary ways the feminist, Latinx, and Chicanx canons.