A Review of Fernando A. Flores’ “Valleyesque”
Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie once gave a lecture about the dangers of what she calls “the one story.” In this talk, she explained that, when it comes to certain people and certain areas of the world, we have a narrative that has been fed to us that is one-sided and doesn’t accurately portray the whole story. She used, as an example, Mexicans because this was something she admitted she had developed one story over — strictly based on what she had heard through the American media. So, you may have heard that Mexicans have been detained at the U.S. border, separated from their families, and put in cages. You may have heard stereotypes such as that undocumented Mexicans are taking jobs away from white Americans. You may have heard a whole lot of stuff that is probably outright racist. Well, Mexican American author Fernando A. Flores is here to give you the whole story as to what it’s like to be Mexican American or Mexican. In his latest short-story collection, Valleyesque, he writes of the lives of people who live on the U.S.-Mexican border in the Rio Grande Valley (or RGV, as he calls it). However, these are stories that are strange and unusual — and often defy convention.
There may be a reason why Flores often writes in such a fabulist style. One of them is that writing a realist story might be simply too painful a tale to tell. Another reason might be that life — and especially life as a person of colour — is simply absurd, and how could you render such life in a conventional style? Either way, the bulk of the stories in this volume are really weird, even by my weird-loving standards. I honestly feel that I’m probably not the best person equipped to write about them, as they are often — to a white, cis-gendered male with privilege — so far out in left field that the true understanding behind them is sometimes incomprehensible to me. So, it is thus that I found that the story I was most drawn to was “Nostradamus Baby,” a tale about a Mexican American couple who make a sculpture of a small child out of earwax that they’ve collected from their own ears. That’s just the framing device, however. The story is really about a writer who spends his time listening to other would-be writers describe their works in progress and offering critiques or encouragement on them, even though it’s obvious that these pieces in the making are quite terrible. Flores writes of privilege and the types of people who are likely to get stories published — usually NOT people of colour — and the story is a bit of a thesis statement on why Flores writes and why he writes the way he does.
It’s a bit of a shame, then, that “Nostradamus Baby” comes almost halfway into the collection, as it might have made more sense to put it right up front so that readers who might be not used to non-traditional fiction might have had a greater understanding of where Flores is coming from — thus making the rest of the collection all that more accessible. Otherwise, the going gets plenty weird and the weird turn pro rather quickly. There is, for example, a short piece about the world being ruled by possums — possibly a reference to people like Donald Trump. There’s another story about a Mexican American man who makes friends with a white racist, and they bond (sort of) over a piece of magical cloth that presumably came from a crashed alien aircraft. There’s another story about a woman who shops in a used clothing store, only to find that the landscape has changed and become unfamiliar — possibly a story about the refugee experience and winding up in a strange land in search of the American Dream. These are stories that make you think and wonder what the meaning is behind them. Still, the majority of these stories seem to have elusive meanings, and some may just be weird for the sake of being weird.
In many ways, Flores reminds me of a young Jonathan Lethem — Flores certainly has Lethem’s gifted intellect, even though Flores might not be as obviously sci-fi as Lethem was. And I’m sure that this collection might be meaningful to young Latinos trying to make sense of their lives in a country that sometimes doesn’t want them. However, it is a more realistic story about gang violence in Mexico that really packs a punch — it shows how gangs took over Mexico and took control of everything from the media to the military to the government just by killing everyone who stood in their path. It’s one of those stories that seem to be too weird to be true, but it is, alas. Thus, there are some really affecting stories in this collection, and it probably helps if you sit with them a bit and reflect on what they’re trying to say. Still, I must admit — again, from my position as a Caucasian English Canadian male — that Flores is a bit of an acquired taste. To best engage with these pieces and enjoy them, it probably helps to have some working knowledge of American politics and Mexican culture. That all said, if you’re looking for a challenge and want to be confronted by a different sort of reality in your reading diet, you may want to give Flores a try. Kelly Link blurbed this collection (and I loved Kelly Link’s most recent collection, Get in Trouble), so if she’s up your alley, then Valleyesque may have some appeal. Reading this book is a trip, as in the psychedelic kind, and it may have you rethinking that one story that you may have of people living life on the Rio Grande. For that reason, this book is certainly worth a look, even if you may have some trepidation about reading about stuff you just might not understand.
Fernando A. Flores’ Valleyesque will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux / MCD x FSG Originals on May 3, 2022.
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