Painting Their Portraits in Winter by Myriam Gurba (Manic D Press, 2015)
Reviewed by Rebecca Valley
Myriam Gurba’s stories are short, but her titles are long – her collection’s full title, How Some Abuelitas Keep Their Chicana Granddaughters Still White Painting Their Portraits in Winter, gets its name from the first story in her collection, in which a Mexican grandmother tells her granddaughters terrifying fairy tales about cannibalistic tamale makers and German Shepherds from hell. This story, and all of the stories in Gurba’s collection, strike a sometimes jarring balance between the modern and the ancient, tradition and reality. The book is simultaneously an ode to an older generation and a reinvigoration of old tales through a modern voice, and the juxtaposition of those elements give the collection a self-reflective edge.
What I loved most about Gurba’s stories was the frank and unapologetic way they discuss what it means to be a woman. In her piece “Some Orphans Have Parents,” the story wanders alongside three orphaned girls, occasionally interrupted by the ghost of a mother who has drowned her babies. In this story, Gurba describes Death as “infinitely, infinitely, infinitely female,” (35) elaborating,
The orphans were talking about their country’s most famous ghost. She lives in every one of its towns, cities, villages, and imaginations, anywhere there are people who understand and misunderstand women. … the creature who makes this story tick is a woman. A woman destroys. She creates a tiny apocalypse, the worst kind (42).
The beauty of Gurba’s prose is that she seems to understand this woman, who would drown her children, or appear as the spirit of Death and whisk away innocents with a grin on her face. She has a deep fascination with this image of a woman pushed to the brink, and it appears again and again in more real ways, when she tells stories of her auntie or her grandmother or mother. As the collection progresses, these female characters are united by their selfishness, that trait which opposes all of our cultural conceptions of motherhood but is ever-present in even the most doting mothers. With her stories, Gurba creates a space for women to be selfish, to be macabre, to be the opposite of life-giving; this is one of the many ways that she simultaneously embraces and negates tradition.
Gurba’s battle with motherhood continues in other ways in her collection. In many of her stories, Gurba’s narrator is a lesbian, and she struggles with the ways that her sexuality makes it impossible for her to become a mother.
“After my confession, Mrs. March told me in a soothing but staunch voice, ‘I’m fine with you being a lesbian but I feel sad that you might never have children’” (46).
These stories are both critical of motherhood and the way it comes to define women and cogniscent of its importance, particularly in the creation of these stories; Painting Their Portraits in Winter reads like an ode to Gurba’s grandmother, and draws heavily from the tales that she passed to her granddaughters.
At their essence, Gurba’s stories break from tradition precisely at the moments that they tie themselves to it. The stories are magical, they are full of ghosts, again and again they call back to Mexico, to mothers and grandmothers and the stories they tell. At the same time though, these stories are distinctly modern. They are vulnerable, and perhaps most satisfying because they don’t romanticize cultural memory. Gurba’s stories are not folktales. They are living culture; a beautiful and unique representation of what it’s like to be a chicana woman in America today.
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