MARIA’S BOARDINGHOUSE FOR SHADY CHARACTER’S

MARIA’S BOARDINGHOUSE FOR SHADY CHARACTER’S

Miami Herald
by Diana Abu-Jaber

Who can resist a title like My Grandmother’s Erotic Folktales? This latest offering from Robert Antoni, author of “Divina Trace,” which won the Commonwealth Writers Prize, and “Blessed Is the Fruit,” is as sly as it is funny and as revealing as it is bold.
The word “erotic” in this case turns out to have an ironic ring. These stories; which might be more accurately described as ribald and freewheeling, are just as often heartbreaking, mysterious and indignant. Maria Rosa de la Plancha Domingo is the name of the spirited 96-year-old grandmother in question, and she tells these sneaky tales to her eager grandson Johnny when his parents aren’t around.

As a young widow, Maria Rosa lived with her 11 children on the island of Corpus Christi, off the coast of Venezuela. She inherited a cocoa estate from her husband, but it is seized and mowed down during World War II to create a U.S. military .base. She’s promised money, but none materializes. This early encounter with bullying and double-crossing sets the tone for a series of con artists who move through Maria’s stories, trying to separate her from her money.

Maria sets up a boardinghouse for G.I’s. The ariny attracts an unfortunate entourage of prostitutes and shady characters, but they also provide Maria with some excellent bodyguards. The tension among Maria, her female compatriots; soldiers and the various con men provide all sorts of grist for the literary mill.

An interesting theme arises from all this horseplay, illustrating the connections between chicanery and colonialism, the ways in which imperialism can be viewed as just another form of cheating people out of what’s rightfully theirs. The grandmother informs Johnny that she was a beautiful young woman, so Maria’s seductive allure becomes one of her main forms of power in attracting and then combating the hucksters.

Some have compared Antoni’s style to that of Jamaica Kincaid, and this connection may be true in terms of the freshness and boldness of their narrative voices, but the comparison ends there. Antoni, who formerly taught in the University of Miami’s Creative Writing Program , produces work that is much less internal than Kincaid’s, and it draws more on island dialect that lends a good deal of vibrancy to the prose, as in this section in which Maria describes a visit from a surprise guest:
“So the King came inside, and when I told him that I must go and check on the pastelles I had boiling in the kitchen, he pushed a chups like if he didn’t wait on nobody. But when I came back again the King was smiling ear-toear like if the chair ain’t paining he soft bamshee no more, and now he started off to talk and talk and talk like he just ate parrot”

In fact; these folktales have a strong-spoken quality – they’re spontaneous and big. One of the drawbacks of writing down oral narrative; however, is that some of that power gets lost in the translation. Without the theatrics of voice, expression and gesture, the stories become repetitive, the con men become predictable, and even the big voice starts to lose its drama and surprise.

This collection should be visited in much the same way that Johnny listens to his grandmother – in bits and pieces. Taken independently, there is great joy and revelation in these stories that intermingle classic folkloric figures with bits of popular culture. Talking animals and spirits make an appearance, as do Hemingway, Colonel Sanders, take-out pizza, television and President Eisenhower. And if you’re not careful, you’ll find that My Grandmother’s Erotic Folktales does a lot more than titillate; it entertains and educates as well.

Diana Abu-Jaber, author of Arabian Jazz, is writer-in-residence at Portland State University.

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