I first encountered Amina Gautier while listening to the podcast “All Write Already!” She read from her debut collection of short stories, At Risk, winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Usually I’m not a fan of listening authors reading their work, but Gautier held my attention. Soon after, I obtained a copy of her newest collection, Now We Will Be Happy, published by University of Nebraska Press in 2014 and winner of the 2014 Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction.
One of the reasons Guatier’s voice drew me in is because it is both lyrical and pared down, qualities that less-skilled writers might take too far in either direction but that Gautier pulls off with perfect pitch. There is a lulling rhythm to her sentences and a ripeness to her language that makes the reading pleasurable. She takes small snapshots of the often overlooked pieces of daily life and delivers them to us with an eye for the beauty and sadness they hold. In “Bodega,” she describes a woman relishing the brief moment of quiet just before her and her husband’s bodega opens:
Each day, in the quiet hour before the bodega opens, before the store becomes filled with young girls with tattoos on their arms and babies on their hips, before the endless round of unemployed men who buy their cigarettes one at a time, before the afterschool influx of children buying chips and snack cakes one quarter at a time, before she begins a day of making change, selling loosies, and cashing WIC checks, Nelida leaves her body behind in the bodega and lets her soul fly out across the Atlantic Ocean, sailing home to Puerto Rico.
Gautier has complete command of both her syntax and her storyline, pulling readers gently along to endings that often drop off, like we have been running along only to suddenly find ourselves looking out over the edge of a cliff. Although I found myself often surprised by the story’s endings, I was still satisfied by them, reminded that life rarely resolves itself in any neat or predictable way. That is the honesty of Gautier’s writing.
The book, in its physical form, seems to almost mimic the style of Gautier’s writing. The cover is a black and white storefront with a yellow strip at the top reading “SUPERMARKET. LA ESPERANZA.” Before we even begin to read, we are already seeing English and Spanish pushed against each other, encapsulated in one building. The title of the book, “Now We Will Be Happy,” also lends itself to the theme of this collection. Here are characters who have left Puerto Rico for America, believing that they, now, will be happy, only to find one set of struggles traded in for another. Many stories reveal how identity intersects with hope: characters often compromise, bend, and erase their former identities in order to finally “be happy” in new ones.
Food is another way Gautier intersects hope with identity. The second story in the collection, “Now We Will Be Happy,” introduces us to the character Rosa, who is preparing tostones for both her husband and her lover:
Tostones make no excuses. Plantanos – plantains – burn in hot oil, their golden edges blackening before she remembers them. . . Rosa plucks the tostones from the pan with her spatula and slides them one by one onto the wooden tostonera, where the oil seeps into the fibrous threads, drenching the wood dark wet. . . The tostones that emerge are hopeless. Instead of perfect golden discs, they are charred beyond recognition, black around the edges and raw at the center. Pedro would never eat them, but Yauba is not so demanding.
The story “The Last Hurricane” also represents the devastation that can occur when identity is compromised, or worse, forgotten. It is almost as though the hurricane in this story, forming between The United States and Puerto Rico, represents the devastation that can occur between two places, two languages, and two cultures. Gautier opens the story with, “Hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico have Americano names like Alice, and even when they name one Hugo the weathermen don’t’ pronounce it correctly. Hurricanes never have the names of your children or relatives. Names like Milagros or Rafael.” Again, Gautier is forcing us to look at the struggle to claim ones identity when that identity can so easily be yanked away, pulled apart by forces as strong as those of a hurricane.
With a style that feels like a mixture of Junot Diaz and Edwidge Danicat, Gautier is a writer more people should be talking about. Through her stark honesty and skillful use of language, Gautier siphons flawed characters onto the page that readers may come to love or hate but will always believe. The immigrant journey of these characters expands to all readers, reflecting our shared human experience of hope, identity, and loss. In Now We Will Be Happy, Gautier presents the reader with humans who are struggling with identities that cross oceans, languages, and cultures, delivering the complexity of the human lives with a voice that is engaging and as richly layered as the world it describes.