Peel My Love Like an Onion by Ana Castillo (thoughts)
Carmen la Coja, the protagonist and narrator of Peel My Love Like an Onion by Ana Castillo, is a stunning work of fiction. Larger than life, but with a wry, self-deprecating humour that keeps her believable, she made me care about her from the first page. I loved all of her contradictions: her bohemian, dance-filled past alongside her dutiful daughter present, her frank sexuality despite being middle-aged (let’s admit, that’s not a combination often seen in literature; I don’t mean that middle-aged real people lose their sexuality!) and of course her disabled but still famous flamenco-not flamingo-dancing. I also loved her voice, with its magnificent storytelling power, proud Chicana rhythms, and continuous love of life and music and dance. I kept running to the internet to listen to flamenco songs, her descriptions were so enticing. Here’s a random sample of her voice:
Loving Manolo-Manolio-was thrusting both hands out into the darkness to clutch on to something more than luminous air but also hoping that whatever it was won’t bite you. Mi Manolio was dark, even in winter, his skin savory and sweet like Mexican chocolate that makes your mouth water just to whiff it simmering and waiting for you on the stove to have with birthday cake. Manolo was a birthday cake with exactly twenty lit candles when we met. A cake not quite done yet. And I was the birthday girl surprised in the dark.
Castillo’s imagery and timing and rich characterisation makes Peel My Love Like an Onion an easy novel to recommend: anyone who loves a good story, particularly one with quirky, strong women, one that is inclusive from racial, class, and sexuality viewpoints, should give it a try. It’s certainly the most loveable of her novels I’ve read so far, the one that feels a bit like a fairy tale.
And yet, this is so much more than a delicious book. Castillo is a smart, politically aware, activist of a woman, and she endowed Carmen with the same characteristics. She observes, and comments on, all kinds of issues, from patriarchy to the economic system.
Carmen’s parents are Mexican Americans, who came to Chicago from Texas to find work. They are solidly working class, which means that their situation has deteriorated since the 80s:
Apa worked a lot of overtime back in the days when this was a great country for laborers and you could get time-and-a-half for working past your forty hours, not like companies are doing now, allowing foreign children to work as slaves because on their shoulders rests their families’ survival, children who were unlucky to be born in countries that don’t have labor laws.
Now in their 70s, they’re still working, and get by as long as no unexpected medical bills come up. Remember, this book was written in 1999, before a lot of these economic issues had burst on to the scene. I love it. I love that statements like this are casually mixed in with a love triangle-fueled plot. That’s the way political awareness and activism should be, a part of our everyday lives.
Anyway, Carmen notes that for them, work is a religion: even as her health worsens and she’s barely able to walk or stand, her mother keeps insisting she try work. This brings them into sweatshops, piecemeal labour, of the kind that provides our cheap consumer goods. There’s a powerful scene in which Carmen conveys how quickly she was dehumanised, as even her music & headphones were taken away from her, in one of these little sweatshops, a room full of women with brown skin. Women, particularly young women, are preferred employees because they can be paid less and are less likely to stand up for themselves. That is what allows people to buy $5 scarves and $10 memory sticks, but it’s also what allows Western companies to make huge profits selling them. It’s interesting that consumers so often get blamed for demanding cheap goods, when it’s the corporations who follow race-to-the-bottom policies and benefit most from the lack of laws protecting regular working people. And it’s not consumers who fund lobbyists who work hard to make sure such laws are never passed.
At the same time, in the past Carmen opted out of the typical American life, instead dancing for a living, from gig to gig, living on what money she made. While her contentment with her life is obvious, Castillo doesn’t romanticise the actual conditions of poverty in this country: Carmen regularly kills cockroaches in her apartment, talks about installing sturdier locks to avoid junkies breaking in, and of course doesn’t have medical insurance. Her best friend, while coming from a similar childhood, went to an Ivy League school and now works as a financial investor; the glimpses of her world, and the work she puts in to make sure she belongs in it, are just as fascinating.
Oh dear. I’ve written all of this, and I haven’t even gotten to the sexual politics at the heart of the story! Carmen is a flamenco dancer, and in her dancing, she ends up meeting two Roma men. The first is her mentor, and older lover, from the moment she graduates high school. After many years, she meets the other, who is younger, in fact the godson of the older man. And so a love triangle is formed. This is a pretty classic set up in Latin American lit: older man-younger man-woman. But it seems like I’m always reading about it from the male point of view: Castillo subverts it all by putting Carmen at the center, a woman unafraid to question the decisions and motivations of the two men. Particularly as they come from different cultures, which allows Carmen to be even more mystified and frustrated as the men keep removing her agency and voice from the events. Earlier this evening I read this post though, and it made me want to bring up these issues. Castillo makes it very clear that women, fictional or not, are people, with opinions and motivations and agency, and that treating them as anything less is wrong. As someone who has struggled with the way women are written about by some Latin American male authors, I found this turning of a traditional plot into something feminist and activist and progressive very empowering.
There’s also this beautiful moment, soon after she meets the younger man, in which she discovers that her older lover’s unwillingness to do a certain bedroom act is not in fact cultural but just him:
All the years I had been with Agustín had led me to believe that gypsy men weren’t particularly eager about the act because they feared women could put a spell on men that way, a spell that would send them howling like wolves under black skies, a spell that would make their you-know-whats drop off the next time they tried to make love with any other woman, a spell of evil for life. Still, like I said, when he had drunk too much he’d do it as if he were doing me some great big favor.
But Manolo didn’t do it like he was doing me a favor.
(You can read the whole mini-chapter online if you’re inclined).
There’s also moments examining parental expectations of Carmen, the only daughter, and her three brothers, who’s expected to be a caretaker, and more that I simply can’t get into because this post is incredibly long as it is and my arthritis can’t take much more.
Before I close, I wanted to say one more thing: Carmen’s disability and health problems are written in such a true way. I’m not sure I’ve read a book with a disabled protagonist before, and I didn’t realise how much it would mean to read passages like this:
I don’t like pain. I really don’t. I don’t even like talking about it but sometimes it feels better if you complain a little, if you whine, let out a toothache whimper, at least ow and then. So I tell my mother one day that I feel just lousy, lousy all the time, even in my sleep and when I wake I feel worse, and then I just look over at her and start crying. …
There are better days, as they say. On those days I get around a little. I celebrate and make espresso. I’ll cut up a fish, red snapper or salmon, for Ama and me and put it in the broiler. I’ll add two potatoes and make a little butter-lemon sauce, although she will be the one who has to finish up the task because by then some part of me is hurting too much.
The careful way that Carmen approaches every little aspect of her life, has to, in order to negotiate the tasks that healthy people undertake without thought, really struck home for me. It’s something you can’t completely understand if you’re healthy, but reading about it will help. I wish there were more authors writing character like these. It reminded me of this essay about living with a chronic illness, something I encourage you to read, just to give you a bit of context.
I’m remembering now why I stopped writing analytical posts. I’m at almost 1500 words, and I’ve only been able to touch upon a few of the thoughts and issues raised by a two hundred page novel. It’s frustrating. But at the same time, I’m glad I got to talk about them at least a bit, and I hope the talking continues in the comments. I’m undoubtedly out of practice, and I trust you will all make allowances for that. I won’t be able to do this for every book, simply because of my physical limitations. But I’d like to reclaim every aspect of my voice this year, and not shy away from raising difficult, complex questions, just because of my typing problems.
As I said in the beginning, I highly recommend Peel My Love Like an Onion to all kinds of readers, even those who aren’t as political as I. The activism never gets in the way of the story, and as long as you don’t mind stylised melodrama, a la opera or even musical theater, I think you’ll quickly fall under its spell. This would also be a great choice for those who are interested in reading more diversely but not quite sure if you’ll be able to connect. The combination of universal themes and plots with cultural specifics makes it accessible, and nothing will leave you sobbing your eyes out. Go read it already!
Suggested Companion Reads
- Here at the End of the World We Learn to Dance by Lloyd Jones : another novel centered around dance, this one is by a New Zealand authors. I liked it when I read in 2009, but who knows what I’d think of it now (the plot centers around a young man and his coming-of-age experience with an older Argentine woman)? Sometimes I worry about recommending books I last read years ago, as we all change in our tastes. But it’s the first book that sprang to mind as far as dancing goes!
- Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros : if, on the other hand, you’re drawn to the Chicana aspects of Castillo’s writing and the Chicago setting, I have no hesitations recommending this one. I loved it and still love Cisneros.
- Samba by Alma Guillermoprieto : Guillermoprieto, a Mexican journalist, was based in Rio and decided to spend a year with one of the samba school from a poorer Rio neighbourhood. This book is about that experience, and it’s fascinating.