📖 🇨🇱 #48: Dazzling short stories from Chile
A collection by Iván Monalisa Ojeda
Welcome to Bookmarked, a weekly newsletter following my journey as I read one book from every country. If you like the sound of my project, I’d love it if you shared Bookmarked with a friend.
Chilean writer Iván Monalisa Ojeda’s Las Biuty Queens is a collection of thirteen short stories that follow a community of Latinx, transgender, and undocumented people living in New York City in the nineties. The stories are all written in the first person and most of them centre around a protagonist called Monalisa, who is a sort of alter ego for the author.
For the most part, Ojeda’s stories don’t follow any particular narrative arc. Instead, they simply describe events that happen. One of my favourite stories in the collection is In the Bote, which centres around a sex worker called Iván. The story goes like this: Iván is arrested for prostitution; gives the police a fake Puerto Rican name; befriends a fellow Chilean inmate; gets released once their friends manage to raise sufficient bail money. In Ortiz Funeral Home, a performer called Monalisa attends a friend’s wake, where they learn that one of the guests has stolen a bag of cocaine from the dead woman’s hands. In Emergency Room, an unnamed protagonist winds up in A&E after suffering hallucinations, the result of smoking weed laced with PCP. Ultimately they are released.
The only thing I could think of to say was thank you. In less than twenty minutes, I was out. In the street. Walking the two blocks in the shadow of the same trees that had frightened me so much the night before. I carried my shoes in my hands. I went straight to bed to sleep all the hours I hadn’t slept, and while I walked, I thought about the grave mistake the doctors had made when, once again, they let me go.
The majority of Ojeda’s stories neither build nor resolve tension. Instead, they paint a series of connected portraits of fictional members of New York City’s Latinx, trans, undocumented community. Lots of Ojeda’s characters smoke crystal meth and compete in beauty contests. The majority of them of them face extraordinary injustice at the hands of law enforcement.
In these stories, Ojeda paints a vivid picture of a group of friends who share a common set of experiences and repeatedly enact unquestioning loyalty towards one another. Though the topics he/she writes about are often harrowing, Ojeda’s writing is filled with dark humour. In Jennifer’s Carnations—which explores how the murders of trans women are rarely properly investigated—the narrator describes Jennifer as “the kind of beautiful that only a castrated trans woman in her twenties could be.”
At just 163-pages long, Las Biuty Queens is a quick, engaging read that offers an interesting glimpse into a community we don’t hear from enough in published writing. Ojeda’s prose is sharp, uncluttered, and thought-provoking. Though the pieces in this collection are really more like vignettes than stories, I really enjoyed this book. I also thoroughly recommend this Words Without Borders interview with Hannah C. Kauders, the book’s English translator. In it, she discusses the challenges of translating a book which is intentionally written in lots of “different Spanishes”. For anyone who is even passingly interested in the art of translation, it’s truly illuminating.
Las Biuty Queens by Iván Monalisa Ojeda, translated by Hannah C. Kauders (Astra House, 2021, Alfaguara 2019)
More books by Chilean authors:
Here’s a list of other books by Chilean authors:
The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende, tr. Magda Bogin
Never the Fire by Diamela Eltit, tr. Daniel Hahn
The Twilight Zone by Nona Fernández, tr Natasha Wimmer
One in Me I Never Loved by Carla Guelfenbein, tr. Neil Davidson
Theatre of War by Andrea Jeftanovic, tr. Frances Riddle
Seeing Red by Lina Meruane, tr. Megan McDowell
Ten Women by Marcela Serrano, tr. Beth Fowler
The Remainder by Alia Trabucco Zerán, tr. Sophie Hughes
What have you read recently?
If you’ve read a brilliant book in translation or you’d like to pass on a recommendation, I’d love to hear about it! For this project, I’m focussing on contemporary fiction and short stories, with a preference for female authors—but I’m always happy to venture further afield for a good recommendation.
You can get in touch by replying to this email or leaving a comment. I’ll be featuring your recommendations in upcoming newsletters, and I’ll keep a growing list here.
Bookmarked is written by Tabatha Leggett. Thank you to Laura Kaposi, Katie Brown, and Carolina Orloff from Charco Press for their recommendations for this week’s issue. If you know someone who would enjoy this newsletter, please forward it to them!