Book Review: Fish Soup by Margarita García Robayo

August is Women in Translation Month, and a good opportunity to explore some new territory. I am one who shies away from reading Latinx authors translated into English, but it’s so hard to get affordable copies in original version in Dallas that I threw the towel and got “Fish Soup” by Margarita García Robayo from my local library. This is actually a collection of two novellas and some short stories.

While reading, the question: “are you plot or character driven” kept coming up on my mind. Her characters are so unlikable, but I read in an interview that that’s on purpose. She wanted her characters to be flawed and real, with common passions and frustrations. And I think she managed that pretty well. I was definitely hooked on the plot, and liked how she set the environment, but these novellas and stories are still not action packed. You get the feeling that everything is left in the air, unresolved. Pretty much like real life.

I could relate to that feeling of frustration and stagnation that comes from being born middle class in Latin America. Nothing seems to happen in the middle, yet we all feel that social climbing is a possibility. Through trapped in a society where your family name and distance to power is the only way to ascend the social ladder, middle classes are still under the spell of meritocracy. If I go to the right schools maybe I’ll meet someone with connections that’ll take me somewhere. If I set up my small corner shop selling trinkets or get a taxi concession, a few years of hard work will reap great results. But in reality, we just barely make ends meet most months, get in debt those when we can’t, and generation after generation fight the same problems, carry the same burden.

Fans of American Dirt will say that this collection is not “Latinx enough”. There’s no drug violence, soap opera stars or migrants on top of trains. Just cabin-crew members with dreams of Miami, widows fighting cancer, fishermen struggling with the effects of climate change and catholic school girls sick of misogynistic messages shoved up their throats. So it might not be the Latin America that lives in the minds of some Americans, but it’s definitely the Latin America I lived in for over 20 years.

Frying Plantain or Growing Up Jamaican in Canada

I have a confession to make. I rarely pick up Caribbean authors. I don’t know of many besides VS Naipaul, who is controversial at best. But it all starts by acknowledging our shortcomings, and I jumped on the latest bookstagram hype and bought a copy of Frying Plantain by Zalike Reid-Benta.

This is the story of a young girl, daughter of Jamaican immigrants, growing up in Toronto. Besides the usual teenager woes, she has to struggle with being bicultural and that uncomfortable feeling of not fitting in with your community at home or in the Motherland. The book develops in a series of interconnected short stories, that to me, resembled the vignettes of quotidianity, peeks into someone else’s life reality-show style. And though this book is definitely about growing up Jamaican in Canada, the everyday life of Kara seems so universal that it is relatable to people from all backgrounds and ethnicities. The most noteworthy part of the story is the tense relationship between Kara, her mom and her strong-willed grandma. I found grandma and grandpa to be the strongest characters in the book.

However, if you as a reader are plot-oriented or love to feel a personal connection with the characters, you might find this book lacking. It is a really interesting story, but very ordinary without thrilling pot-twist and with a variety of characters that rarely show themselves past a chapter or two. Nevertheless, it is an entertaining book that I would recommend.