June 6, 2016: “Growing” by Helena María Viramontes

Hello, Story366! Today’s post covers a Helena María Viramontes story, which brings up an interesting point: How I find stories and authors. One way is by being a creative writing professor. An assignment I give every semester is for students to search out five stories on their own and write critical responses to each. Stories can’t be from the anthologies I use in class, forcing them to search out where stories come from, but also giving them a chance to write about authors they know about and I don’t. It’s a great way for me to find out what the kids are reading these days, also giving them a chance to teach me something. Before I came to Missouri in 2012, e.g., I’d barely heard of H.P. Lovecraft (or his prevalent racism), but that first semester, quite a few students chose to write about him for this assignment and suddenly I was aware.

And that’s how I came across Viramontes, a student using her story “The Moths” for a critical response this past semester. I’m not sure how she came across this story—I’d never heard of it, I have to admit—but there it was, discovered. The student even did a presentation on it for class, so everyone in that class read that story, and I’m glad, because it’s a great story. After class, I went out and ordered The Moths and Other Stories and read from it for today.

The Moths is not a long book, and most of the stories are rather short. I don’t think there’s anything over fifteen pages, if that. Still, Viramontes writes thick and lush prose, full of description, full of ambitious and rewarding endeavors into experimental methods. “The Moths” features some beautifully rendered magical realism, while many of the other stories play with inventive narration, including point of view changes, time shifts, and some stream of consciousness. I read most of The Moths today and have settled on “Growing” as the target of my post.

“Growing” is about Naomi, a fifteen-year-old girl who has just come off a three-month grounding. How’d she get grounded? She escorted her seven-year-old sister Lucía to the carnival, and instead of keeping an eye on her, ran off with a boy while sticking poor Lucía on the Ferris wheel with a handful of tickets, instructing her to sit tight until she got back. The plan worked, only Lucía was rendered nauseous, nauseous enough to tattle her butt off on her sister. Despite rigorous protests, the next time Naomi is allowed to go out, she has to be “chaperoned” by her little sister, simply because she is a girl and that’s how her Apá wants it. Naomi faces the insult of having her sister, half her age, act as her chaperone. She’s full of vinegar as the pair head to a stickball game, where a boy that Naomi likes will be hanging out. That’s pretty much the setup of the story, which we get early on, the rest of the story the adventure the two sisters have.

At the climax of the s tory, Naomi goes through a crisis of identity. She remembers being Lucía’s age, playing stickball with kids in the neighborhood, playing anything. It wasn’t even that long ago, just a couple of years. Now, Naomi is torn between wanting to look adult and sexual in front of the boys and playing what seems to be a very fun and competitive game of stickball. In the end, Naomi, like all good protagonists, has to make a choice, and that choice defines “Growing.”

Helena María Viramontes is the author of a couple of novels since The Moths came out, Under the Feet of Jesus and Their Dogs Came With Them. She teaches in the writing program at Cornell. I enjoyed the stories in The Moths, especially “The Moths” and “Growing,” and am glad that I have good students to track this stuff down for me.