November 24th, 2010
Meredith Doench recently had the opportunity to ask Rosebud Ben-Oni some questions about her work. Her answers are included in their entirety below. Rosebud Ben-Oni’s story “A Way Out of the Colonia” has been awarded the Camera Obscura Journal writer honorarium for the second issue due out in mid-December.
My first reading of Rosebud Ben-Oni’s “A Way Out of the Colonia,” a selection from her novel entitled The Strange and Sad Disappearance of Oni Montoya, left me nearly breathless with the sheer panache of the language and images. Here’s a teaser from a section where Oni, a young child, observes her family:
“Since her mother had fallen ill, she noticed changes in her grandmother: how she stayed out most afternoon and evenings visiting friends as the sick woman tried to sleep, wheezing and moaning softly, forgetting that she could be heard in the desperate, despairing quiet that had fallen over their house. A viscous silence that trembled and stiffened with every cry and moan, and chased everyone away from each other in that household and the old woman could no longer bear it. It was a silence that even her grandfather, the guts and guardrail of the family, could not penetrate, wiggle past its congealing borders with his knowing fingers, which, that morning, could catch only a fatal ray of light from the gloom and shine it, dully, into Oni’s eyes.”
Doench: Why did you choose to set “A Way Out of the Colonia” in Matamoros, a border town ?
Ben-Oni: The identity of a Mexican bordertown is problematic; the transience, violence and instability of its character are sometimes romanticized and often demonized. But it is also a place to live in the lyrical, as well as find inspiration and affirmation of the human will.
Before the rise of the drug cartels, to those living in the states from California to Texas, the bordertowns of Mexico took on two faces: daytime trips to eat at restaurants and shop the markets for families and to go clubbing and bar-hopping at night for teenagers and college kids. Often, bordertown s aren’t thought of as the “real” Mexico, as these are places one is otherwise passing through. One rarely thinks about those who live in the bordertown s, perhaps those from the interior of Mexico or other Latin American countries, who hoped to cross into the United States, looking for a better life. Instead, certain U.S. companies decide to bring the work to them by constructing maquiladoras– those industrial factories which employ mostly women whom these companies believe are more likely to show up to work on time and less likely to complain or form unions.
When the maquilas came, so did the colonias, these rickety, makeshift neighborhoods that are not recognized by the Mexican government. Rarely if ever do they have access to running water. Electricity, when and if acquired mostly through illegal means, often starts fires. If instability, chaos and desolation thrive in bordertown s, then their nucleus is the colonia. Here the periphery of the periphery is the heart. And yet when writing of the colonia I also wanted to show how imagination and the need for the sacred also thrive. By the sacred I really mean a profound belief in the lyrical. To not only have a voice, but for that voice to have a wide octave range, to experiment with language, to play with words and context itself. To appropriate the mundane and re-envision its place in an ever-changing, ever-challenged/-ing environment. Each colonia could be gone tomorrow, either by a hurricane, an electrical fire or sudden action by the government to tear it down (as it happened to Oni’s mother and her family).
So in that physical is temporary and precious, and only by remembering, reinterpreting and understanding the colonia’s instability in such an unstable place like a bordertown can we then understand these people who are themselves affirmations of life. Because while in the U.S. most have grown used to adapting their environment to suit them, Oni, her family and the others in the colonia still must adapt to the colonia. And in writing the story, this family, in doing so, actually becomes more lyrical because adaptation calls for imagination and invention.
Doench: As I read the story, I was completely taken by Oni; the child’s perspective and voice allowed me to see Matamoros through her eyes rather than a political lens. What struck me is that Oni is surrounded by conflict and loss. Why did you decide to tell the story from Oni’s perspective?
Ben-Oni: Bordertown s like Matamoros– especially the poorest sections like the colonias– might seem like no places for the lyrical or children, but where else does imagination thrive most than children? Oni, because she’s the daughter of a gitana (Spanish Gypsy) and an unknown father, is an outsider among the already marginalized. Pale, knobby-kneed, with legs and arms too long for her body, she physically stands out. And then on top of that her family feels that they are above living in the bordertown ; for instance, her mother won’t wash her clothes with the other women in the canal, and Oni isn’t allowed to swim there with the other children, either. The residents are somewhat suspicious of the family because their Spanish is different, they dress differently, and like most gitanos, they want to remain a raza (race) apart. On top of that, Oni looks different from them (they are tall, dark and robus), which makes her stand out even more. While Oni’s whole world is her family, she knows that she does not belong completely to them, or to the community, or to the land beneath her feet. Her entire identity is wrapped up in being on the defense, and this creates a state of heightened awareness, sensitivity and understanding. Circumstances force Oni not to grow up too quickly, but to become a sort of introspective, outlaw poet who uses her voice to navigate the perilous ways in the colonia, and hopefully, one day, out of the colonia.
Like most children, though, as the youngest member, she is the family’s hope and future. Her family, particularly her mother and grandfather, want to impart hope for a better life. In the rest of the novel, her mother envisions her daughter by going to the U.S.in search of opportunity, and yet as one finds out in this particular story, the reason why the family is in the situation that they are in is in part due to what the U.S. has done to the border. In a day, Oni learns this very quickly, among other realities possibly awaiting her, and it was very interesting to write from her perspective, especially in the changing relationship she has with her grandfather whom she thought of indestructible. That, of course, changes too.
In spiritual Jewish literature, there is this word luz. I first learned it in Spanish as “light,” but according to Rabbinical legend, it is an indestructible bone somewhere located in the body. I like the duality of this word crossing languages as the stalwart qualities that Oni believed both her mother and grandfather to have becomes undone in a matter of a day and yet in the light of this realization of who they are– outside the identities of mother and grandfather—shines a new light on what Oni must see (and therefore do), herself, outside of her family, as young as she is, in the action of bathing her mother.
Doench: The scene where Oni bathes her sick mother brought tears to my eyes. How does the role reversal of mother and child speak to the theme of the story?
Ben-Oni: Oni’s mother is the kind of woman who’d send her own death before a firing squad. She’s not the type to cling to life, which in itself is an act of courage. She’s comes to know continuous struggle itself as a way of life. But rather than becoming dispirited or giving up, she will fight to the very end with everything she’s got—and she’d rather do it alone. Her father— Oni’s grandfather— mistakes this kind of tragic dynamism for stubbornness, and a matter of pride. But at the heart is a woman who has come to believe in the eternal struggle and rising against it—as both the means and the end. These are the cards that she has been dealt, although she doesn’t want that same hand for her daughter.
But Oni is a strange, melancholic child. She’s greatly affected by her environment. She’s very sensitive to her environment. I recently read Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul, in which he describes the melancholy of the city in the terms of huzun. It’s a Turkish word, with an Arabic root, which Pamuk has taken from Sufism as undergoing a profound spiritual loss while simultaneously maintaining a sense of optimism. I myself render it as a similar theme: the assertion of the will, of life itself, while acknowledging that through this assertion, something equally precious will be lost.
This reminded me the Cale ideas of duende and pena negra. It is deeply-rooted in Cale culture—and I use “deeply-rooted” somewhat tongue-in-cheek— this idea of land and pain. After the Cale were more or less forced to settle in Spain, broken from their traveling ways, they found they were forced onto a land which really did not belong to them. So, in response, they created cante jondo, the Deep Song, in which one laments the loss of land and love as well. Often, it comprises a singer simply singing ‘ay’ or a like-sound in a harsh, grating voice that is the opposite of anything melodious. Most people find true cante jondo—which is not performed before a paying audience like flamenco, but usually among family and friends, and on the spot, spontaneously— hard to listen to, and harder to watch, as the face is contorted in ways that you simply have to see for yourself. While Oni is not in Spain but Mexico, I believe that she’s in the same predicament concerning a land that does not really belong to her. Unable to locate a sense of home and identity, as young as she is. So home becomes the family. It must be. Even as it is crumbling all around her. In the impending loss of her mother, who wants her to be strong and take charge, she engages in the ultimate act of both love and betrayal, as her mother, again, doesn’t want help. The idea of the colonia itself, in transient a place as a bordertown nonetheless, is huzun, as even in the most hopeless places, life springs forward, most unconscious that it is doing so. But this is what Oni’s mother wants her to be conscious of, to see, and in wanting her to see, it is both the passing of her knowledge of life—perhaps too soon, but she doesn’t have time— as well as an assertion of a tremendous will. Oni, for her part, because of her innate melancholy, understands her mother’s message only when she imposes her own will on her mother in an act both terrible yet intimate, tender yet forceful. For a child to see a scar where her mother’s breasts have been, and bathing her, takes away both the power and the pain of a woman near the end. Their roles are reversed; Oni is better for it, but there’s also a sense of tragedy that she finally sees what her mother both wanted and feared for her to see.
Doench: Another issue I found intriguing about this story is that the setting works as its own character. There are so many references to the approaching storm and the way Matamoros appears to Oni. How does the setting propel the story forward and open it to a wider framework than just this family?
Ben-Oni: If you’ve ever experienced a hurricane or a coastal storm, it seems as though it is a living organism. The ocean itself, which I write about in some detail in the novel, also becomes a character. The storm is both metaphorical and very real as it approaches and then simply hangs over the bordertown, sprawling its grey clouds without releasing a drop of rain. It’s been coming for some time and yet it never arrives. It’s a time of inaction, restlessness and yet urgency, as well. Oni’s mother knows her own end is approaching fast; she does not want to it to come, and yet it cannot come fast enough. When she tells the family “the sky has left us nothing but its bones,” she means that there’s not much left of her own life and body. It’s time for her to show Oni a way out of the colonia, and how she does it is not by showing her the actual way, but how she and her family first came in, where they lived which is no longer a place. Storms, like people, can erase whole passages of history; if one is not around to say “I was here”, then that moment in which she or he lived there will not be remembered. In fact, it might as well have not even happened. Oni’s mother is fighting the impending storm much in the way she’s fighting her own limited time.
Doench: How does this piece fit into the framework of your larger writing project?
Ben-Oni: “A Way out of the Colonia” is an excerpt from a novel I’m working on called The Strange and Sad Disappearance of Oni Montoya in which after her mother dies, Oni disappears. According to Oni’s childhood best friend (and more or less her only friend), Xiomara Villegas, her mother’s final wish was to be burned and have her ashes scattered off the coast of Oaxaca. It was there, Xiomara claims, that the child died in the sea, trying to save her mother from leaving her forever. When the grandfather returned to Matamoros, he came back alone, inciting even more rumors from a town already suspicious of his family and motives.
Over the years, the bordertown, particularly Oni’s colonia, has clung to the story of Oni’s disappearance. In the novel the colonia is named Valor y Ánimo, which means “Courage and Spirit.” Like many colonias in Mexico, it arrived at its name out of both irony and optimism. And it can be traced to so many, to maquila workers and their unemployed husbands who let their children play on a playground close to the colonia until it was discovered it had been built over toxic waste (and this really does exist in Matamoros.)
Xiomara, who’s since become a local singer, becomes a sort of guardian of his story. Though notoriously unstable and usually drunk-by-five-de-la-tarde, Xiomara ,who finds herself falling prematurely into rag-face years due to the hard life she lived in the colonia and the choices she made, performs in local bars and sings these stories about the child who became immortal. She also constructs a shrine within the colonia so that Oni Montoya becomes a kind of unofficial saint. A cult. In fact, the people in the colonia rarely refer to her as Oni Montoya but La Gitana Tilica de La Frontera, the unofficial patron saint of those from untraceable origins, for those who live in a place largely without hope. She is a saint for those whom no other saint, for those whose own stories can only struggle, float through the ephemeral melodies, whose family roots are wrought, twisted, and pulled apart. For those who lives the next rush of the maquila’s shift-changing bell, to come home to their fleeting homes of cardboard and tin, until they are taken by coming hurricanes and returned to the open-air landfill from which them came, and they have to rebuild over again. For stories that reflect Valor y Ánimo itself, made up of many things that never made a complete thing. Fragments of lives that do not fit into a cohesive landscape.
And just as Xiomara’s health begins failing her, two things happen: it is discovered that Oni Montoya is, in fact, very much alive and living on the other side of the border, which angers the residents of the colonia, and on that same day, members of a drug cartel approach Xiomara, wanting to take over her shrine and make her their own patron saint. When she refuses, the insult is too much for them to let her get away with it. Suddenly Xiomara has everyone looking for her– and already at the end of her rope, she decides she will try to cross the border and find the woman who was once Oni Montoya– a way out of the colonia, perhaps, for good.
But of course, as we can see in the story excerpted here, the colonia is not easy to escape…
Rosebud Ben-Oni is a writer for New Perspectives Theater, which is producing her play *Quimera on the Pedernales,* and has been the recipient of a Horace Goldsmith Grant, given so she could complete her first novel, which deals with her experiences as a Jew of mixed race. She has had recent work in *Slice Magazine, J Journal, Wreckage of Reason: An Anthology of Contemporary XXperimental Prose by Women Writers, Arts & Letters, Identity Envy— Wanting to be Who We Are Not* and *The Texas Poetry Review*. Recently produced plays include Owless of Santa Clara (Snorks and Pins, Roy Arias Studios, July 2010), Nikita (Shotgun Theater Festival, the Gene Frankel Theatre, Jan 2009 and Thespian Productions, Producer’s Club, May 2009); Nary a Bodega (Leah Ryan Benefit, Producer’s Club, November 2009);
The Amaranthine Thread (Leah Ryan Benefit, Producer’s Club, November 2009 and Where Eagles Dare, February 2010). She is currently finishing her first
novel which is entitled *The Imitation of Crying.*