As Boo says in her author’s note, the slum dwellers she came to know are “neither mythic nor pathetic,” but rather distinguished by their ability to improvise. Her own reportage here is surely an example of improvising narrative form to best convey a story. The residents of Annawadi speak about their own situations through dialogue, but Boo also adroitly steps in to supply background context. Describing a scene of flaring tempers at a temple where residents are impatiently waiting for a local politician to arrive, Boo explains:
“Time was precious to Annawadians … They had work at dawn, homes to clean, children to bathe, and above all water to get from the slum’s trickle-taps before they went dry, which involved standing in line for hours. The municipality sent water through six Annawadi faucets for ninety minutes in the morning and ninety minutes at night.”
Nobody does scrappy, sassy, twice-the-speed-of-sound dialogue better than Junot Diaz. His exuberant short-story collection This Is How You Lose Her charts the lives of Dominican immigrants for whom the promise of America comes down to a minimum-wage paycheck, an occasional walk to a movie in a mall, and the momentary escape of a grappling in bed. The nine stories in this collection focus almost exclusively on Yunior, Oscar Wao’s wired friend who narrated the eponymous The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Yunior confesses his staggeringly scummy treatment of his girlfriends — his “hood hotties” — but other stories riff on other kinds of love: maternal and brotherly; the yearning immigrants feel for their home country; the distinct emotional purgatories of the cheater and the cheated upon. “Otravida, Otravez,” is told from the perspective of a Dominican woman named Yasmin who runs a hospital laundry:
“I sort through piles of sheets with gloved hands … I never see the sick; they visit me through the stains and marks they leave on the sheets, the alphabet of the sick and dying.”
Yunior, our Dominican Don Juan, loses plenty of women in these stories, but Yasmin is one woman Diaz, as a writer, shouldn’t let go.
Well, that title certainly grabs your attention! My Husband and My Wives, however, has much more going for it as a memoir than mere novelty. Charles Rowan Beye’s charming raconteur’s voice and his refusal to bend anecdotes into the expected “lessons” really make his account of coming out, his career as a classics professor and his three aforementioned marriages a genuine knockout.
Beye is now over 80, and, looking back over his long life, he admits that the question he often asks himself is, “What was that all about?” Who among us hasn’t wondered the same? Beye’s saga begins in Iowa in 1930. He grew up in a WASP household where he and his five siblings were schooled in the upper-class art of making conversation — or, as he deems it, “hid[ing] behind brilliance.” When Beye’s mother could no longer politely ignore his budding homosexuality, she dispatched him to a psychiatrist who, counter to almost every other psychiatrist in every work of gay literature ever written, turned out to be an enlightened mentor. Beye’s by turns saucy and poignant story is an important addition to the canon of memoirs about the mystery of human sexuality.