The introduction calls crime a deliberately hokey and “fun” theme, made to see what these writers from different places within the region could do with it. But, in reality, it is a theme that hits close to home, at least as a simulacrum of Central and South America that is fed to us in the United States. Crime. We have an imperialistic idea that these regions are basically all crime: illegal immigration and drug cartels that own corrupt governments. I remember reading a news article sometime last year or maybe the year before about a drug cartel shooting marijuana bricks across the border with potato launchers. It is hokey in the sense that is something we have come to expect. It is a stereotype.
The stories here are finding their own way to express what it means to live in today’s globalized world, a world of smartphones and Facebook, yet still retaining specific identities, yet the identities are filtered through the theme. Hence, the stories are all linked in the sense that there is this prompt that fuels the writerly fire. There are differences amongst them, yet on some level the stories are often quite similar. In almost a primordial sense that could be thought about like the work of Joanna Ruocco or J.A. Tyler, while completely different in style, there is a set palette of recurring primordial devils: the abuse of women and children, crooked government officials, drug addiction, and probably most often aimlessness. These elements recur without narrative continuity but feel the same, like characters running through a story. Without the noir thrust, many of these stories are about life without privilege. With the noir thrust, they become about crime.
In the United States, crime is almost perfectly othered, even though surprisingly many are complicit in crimes like drug possession. In a recent meeting I had with an urban economist at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, we discussed transit and residential segregation, and how people will pay large sums of money in order to avoid certain places, people, and things. We pay a lot of money in this country to private prisons to make sure that prisons are kept at above capacities, that new ones are being built all the time, and that prisoners have as difficulty a path to reentry as possible (well, short of executing all of them). Orange is the new black, as we are told. The striking thread that runs through all these stories is that crime is not as othered, but present, in the same way that going to the gas station or the grocery store is present. It is simply there. You can choose to walk away from it or ignore it, and if you have enough money, you can separate yourself, but even those who are privileged have a pretty strong idea on how to find it, and she doesn’t feel that unsafe or suicidal for doing so.
So it’s not that crime is all there is in Latin America, it is just that it is thought about differently, partly because of economic and demographic differences, and partly because it feels it has less of a reason to hide.
This is a double-edged sword, in reality. In “The Dirty Kid,” a story by Mariana Enriquez from Argentina, a woman who comes from a wealthy family describes the demographics of Buenos Aires and how the Constitucion neighborhoods went from aristocracy to Southern zone slums because of yellow fever in 1887. She tells us that when she decided to move to an old family home there, her family was aghast. Her response, to both the reader and her family, is:
“But if you know how to handle yourself, if you understand the dynamics, the schedules, it’s not that dangerous. Or not as dangerous. It’s a question of not being afraid, of making a few key friends, of greeting the neighbors even though they’re criminals—especially if they’re criminals.” [p. 44]
This strikes a cultural difference between the Latin world and the U.S. There is a lot of misinformation about crime and those afflicted by crime in the U.S. For instance, we often think in the American South that gang warfare is scary (it is), that most people in violent gangs are black, and that “black culture” is exclusively what is seen in a 2 Chainz video. And if you happen to be in New York, we understand what the author through this character is saying when the Italian Mob is involved. It may be controversial to some, but Americans are still racist, and it shows when reading Latin crime stories written by Latin Americans.
The rest of that story speaks of privilege, or lack thereof, and it is an interesting one to read as an American, because the character is comparatively privileged like many of us. She helped the titular “dirty kid,” the child of an addicted, starving mother who lived outside on a mattress. One day, the woman’s child disappeared, and the mother was also no longer pregnant. On the news was the original kid, perhaps, who had been decapitated in a brutal way. Some theorized a drug debt. Terrifying. And the narrator confronts the mother when she finds her, chokes her and demands answers. Then she has a moment of clarity:
“What was I doing? Strangling a dying teenager in front of my house? Maybe my mother was right. Maybe I had to move. Maybe, as she’d told me, I had a fixation with the house because it let me live in isolation, because no one visited me here, because I was depressed and had made up romantic stories about a neighborhood that, in truth, was a piece of shit, a piece of shit, a piece of shit.” [p. 62]
And who on the ideological and political left in America has not faced this moment or is at risk of facing this moment? Or something similar? Of course, the thing strangling those in this situation is the fact that they can turn and walk away, and the narratives of the deeply unprivileged and impoverished go untold. It becomes clear then why we have concocted an entire industry out of misery tourism—going abroad and helping poor people on missions or secular missions, for a week or two, then going home and smoking bubble pipes and talking about how redemptive you feel.
Most of the stories were stirring, though I felt the collection was more effective as a collection than as individual pieces, perhaps. This could be because of the prompt-based structure of the thing, and I think speaks to this more than the quality of the writing and writers. However, one particular standout in the collection should be discussed: “Jealousy” by Bernardo Carvalho, a Brazilian author. The most Beckettian of the stories in the collection, Carvalho’s piece is a dense and paranoid run-on paragraph for its entire multi-page duration. I feel that describing what I think happens in it (1) doesn’t do it justice, necessarily, and (2) I’m not quite sure I have it right, but it seems to be the piece that delves deepest into the paranoia of criminal justice system psychology. The narrator appears to be a prosecutor who has stepped into the realm of crime and has found himself in prison. He is ranting at a fellow prisoner, who he may or may not be wanting to kill, about the fellow’s defense lawyer, an old friend turned enemy of his who he accuses of shady dealing. The piece is hallucinatory, and the thing that strikes me most about it is its investigation of the criminal justice system through the eyes of attorneys. As someone who is interested in becoming an activist attorney, potentially in the criminal justice system, I felt yelled at by the guy, the narrator, which was hard because he mocks his friend for his beliefs yet is also unsympathetic as a character himself. He makes me feel guilty for grappling with thoughts he accuses his friend of: sympathizing with those “unfairly” afflicted by the unjust criminal justice system, validating the humanity of prisoners based on things such as their intelligence, redemptive capacity, or ideology. Yet, he seems to be the one who is wrong, or at least, currently exposed for wrongness. In the end, the system spoken of in this story surely has different problems than the ones we face here, but is that just me trying to appease myself? I am unsure, but I am glad the story (and this collection) compelled me to think.