Daring To Write
is a Sancocho:
A Rich Stew of
Contemporary Women’s Voices
A Review of Erika M. Martínez's
"Daring to Write: Contemporary Narratives by Dominican Women"
ABOUT THIS ANTHOLOGY
“A Scrupulously curated and a vividly brilliant anthology; in its entirety it is a full-throated song, a treasure chest, a diamond, a spell.” — Junot Díaz
With this new Latino literary collection Erika M. Martínez has brought together twenty-five engaging narratives written by Dominican women and women of Dominican descent living in the United States. The first volume of its kind, Daring to Write offers readers a wide array of works on a range of topics, including love and family, identity and belonging, immigration and the meaning of home. The resonant voices in this compilation reveal experiences that have been largely invisible until now.
The volume opens with a foreword by Julia Alvarez and includes short stories, novel excerpts, memoirs, and personal essays and features work by established writers such as Angie Cruz and Nelly Rosario, alongside works by emerging writers. Narratives originally written in Spanish appear in English for the first time, translated by Achy Obejas. An important contribution to Latino/a studies, these writings will introduce readers to a new collection of rich literature.
In the middle of Daring to Write, a new anthology comprised of Dominican women writers, Nelly Rosario reflects on sancocho, the meat stew that Dominicans have adopted as their national dish. It is a savory Caribbean stew of seven meats including pork, chicken, and goat, along with taro, yucca, West Indies pumpkin and a mix of other vegetables and spices. The stew is an apt metaphor for the stories and essays presented in the text.
Introduced by Julia Alvarez, translated by Achy Obejas, and curated and edited by Erika M. Martínez, Daring to Write is an anthology consisting of twenty-five narratives that blend voices, genres, and travel between the Caribbean, New York and Spain. The characters are colorful, thoughtful, and vibrant. Like the delectable national stew, Daring to Write is a rich mixture of prose that, morsel by morsel, reveals the lived experience of contemporary Dominican women.
In Daring to Write, readers meet adult women reconciling with philandering fathers, older women gossiping while drinking beer at a local colmado, a woman who attributes her “lesbiqueerdom” to the resilience of her conservative, humble mother, and a middle-aged aunt who helps her sister adopt a child and is reminded of the tearful partings from biological parents in New York to loving aunts in the D.R.
But sancocho also operates as a metaphor for one of the important themes in the book. According to one of the authors, the stew can be prepared in a number of ways. In fact, Goya, the Latino food specialist, produces a vegetarian version of the soup that can be found in the ethnic aisles of certain supermarkets. But the two homemade varieties are either “blanco” — prepared with white fish, chicken and pork, or “prieto” — the darker version prepared with the full assortment of meats.
It is this latter recipe that rises as a significant theme that is threaded through the text. It is in stories of girls with dark skin and nappy hair, girls who are shamed because of the texture of their locks and are told to stay out of the sun. It is in the mulattas and black women who gain wealth in order to lose some of their dark pigmentation. It is in lighter skinned girls who are envied despite their poverty.
One of the most searing stories in the collection is a memoir piece titled, “The Day I Lost Melissa,” authored by Ms. Martinez, the anthology’s curator and editor. In it, a little girl desperately searches for her younger sister who fails to arrive at a bus pickup as planned. The narrator’s panic at losing her sister is palpable and anguished, not only because she is her sister’s older protector, but also because her sister is their mother’s favorite. Not surprisingly, the reason for that favoritism is the younger girl’s smooth hair and light skin – a contrast to the older girl’s darker features. The whole family is enchanted with the younger sister’s green eyes and fair coloring. These issues, it seems, are a national obsession, one that all Dominican women must navigate at home and abroad.
Yet, the burden of “good” or “bad” hair and skin color does not only belong to Black women. In the story, “Papi,” by Leonor Suarez, a light-skinned girl is teased because she is poor and poor is incongruous with being Spanish and fair. In the story “Halfie,” by Ana-Maurine Lara, a New York teenager manipulates her white mother into allowing her to wear a miniskirt by playing her race card. Later the girl braces herself for a sting when the Dominican boy she is dating realizes that her mother is white.
People of Latin descent often deny their Afro-roots. Yet, generation after generation, these racial tensions persist. In 1988, Julia Alvarez wrote an essay titled, “A White Woman of Color.” In it she described the hierarchy that existed within her family where beauty was the main currency that descended from light to dark. No doubt these issues are bound to the legacy of Spanish colonization and may be found throughout the Caribbean, Latin America, and the Philippines. These themes compel the reader, not just to read the book, but to tease out and ponder its difficult questions. Where do these race and color rules come from and how do they survive? How do contemporary women navigate racial boundaries? Can they truly transcend them by acquiring wealth? How is the hybridity of Dominican identity continuing to change?
Were it simply another book of beautiful prose, Daring to Write would be worthy of recommendation. But in addressing the questions of race, color, and class of Dominican women, it is an important book that calls to be read and deserves a special space on the shelf.
ABOUT GUEST WRITER:
Sara Campos is a multi-genre writer, consultant, and lawyer with immigration expertise. She has an MFA in creative writing from Mills College and has published work in a number of publications including, St. Anne’s Review, Rio Grande Review, Great River Review, Literary Mama, Colorlines, Ciptactli, 580 Split, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Los Angeles Review of Books.