July 29, 2020: “Sabrina & Corina” by Kali Fajardo-Anstine

Wednesday here, Story366! Wednesday!

Should I talk about baseball more today? I don’t think so, as I did that quite a bit the last two days. In 2020, I don’t think anything deserve three straight days of conversation unless it’s about COVID-19 or the BLM protests. Maybe the election? Not yet: Please, God, no, not yet.

Today I’ll keep it short, actually, as I need to run some errands and get to that soon. I’ll just note that this is the last week of my summer classes and I’ve been scrambling, reading final drafts, grading what’s been sitting in my Inbox for a while, and encouraging students to keep going, just two more days. It’s left me homebound the last week or so, and really, if I didn’t venture out to my yard to take pictures of these book covers, I’m not sure I’d go outside. Even today’s errands, in that light, make me feel like I’m heading out on an exhibition. The baseball (always back to the baseball …) isn’t helping, either, as I watch those games here on my phone, no need to, you know, move. Starting Saturday, when most everything should be graded and turned in, I vow to live a more interesting and active life.

For now, you get posts about my unintesting and inactive life.

Today I read from Kali Fajardo-Anstine‘s celebrated 2019 collection, Sabrina & Corina, out from One World. This book has earned Fajardo-Anstine a whole lot of awards, including a National Book Award finalistism, and from what I’ve read so far, they’re well earned. I’ve had my eye on this one for a long time and am happy to be reporting on this book, at last, to share my thoughts.

The opening story, “Sugar Babies,” is a pretty fantastic story, a great intro to this book and Fajardo-Anstine’s work. This one’s about Sierra, a thirteen-year-old student in Colorado who’s given that classic home-ec assignment of watching a fake baby. This version employs a bag of sugar, as well as a partner, Roberto. While Sierra’s dealing with this, she and her dad also get a visit from her mom, who left years ago, but shows up once in a while to visit, more like an aunt than a mom. All of this is happening in the wake of an archaeological discovery, several skeletons up on a ridge. Fajardo-Anstine blends it all together, especially the sugar bag and mom’s appearance, capturing just how a thirteen-year-old girl’s salad of emotions would strike at key moments in her life.

The title story, “Sabrina & Corina,” is up next. This one’s about a relative of Sierra’s, I’m guessing, as everyone in “Sabrina & Corina” is named Cordova, just like Sierra, and they’re all living in or around Denver. In any case, at the outset of the story, Corina, our protagonist and narrator, is working at a makeup counter at Macy’s when she gets bad news: Sabrina, her cousin, is dead, strangled.

Actually, we don’t know who’s dead right away, only that someone’s been strangled. Corina makes her way to a family house, where everyone is gathered. Some people are consoling Sabrina’s mom, the men are watching sports with the volume off, and the women are cooking, making menudo and some fixings for the men.

Here we finally get the details, that’s it’s Sabrina, Corina’s first cousin. The two grew up together, Corina just a year younger, and for most of their lives, were inseparable. Sabrina was always the beautiful one, though—something everyone announces at that house with the sobbing and the menudo—making her more popular than Corina. Like the story often goes, Sabrina’s looks and popularity took her down a different path than Corina. Corina’s father paid for her to go to cosmetology school, while Sabrina seemed to party a lot more, including lots of heavy drinking.

The intriguing part of Sabrina’s death, for Corina, is that the family has asked her to do Sabrina’s makeup in the casket. Carlos, the local mortician, probably won’t capture Sabrina’s beauty, especially with the marks on her neck, so Corina is allotted the task. The story is then a back-and-forth between her carrying out this task and memories of her and Sabrina’s life, mostly how they grew apart. There’s even an incident or two where the two women, as adults, run into each other, Corina’s life consistent, if not boring, and Sabrina looking and feeling like she’s spent the last ten years drunk. So, we find out early that Corina has this awful task, but by the time she has to do it, we find out that she’s not overly surprised or even moved by her cousin’s lifeless, mangled body.

“Sabrina & Corina” is pretty much what I categorize as a good brother-bad brother story, calling to mind Cain and Abel, Thor and Loki, and the brothers in “Sonny’s Blues” as famous examples. This one reads a lot like Baldwin’s story, as the “bad brother” in this equation, Sabrina, seems to have a lot more fun, or at least is more interesting, than the good brother, Corina, who doesn’t make anyone cry, but doesn’t make anyone turn their heads, either. It’s a solid formula for a story, to see two people from the same general background diverge so much, and Fajardo-Anstine is more than up to the task here.

I jumped ahead then to the last story, “Ghost Sickness,” about Ana Garcia (not Cordova, but since I skipped a bunch, it’s possible there’s a tie), a college student living in Colorado. Ana is taking a class on the history of the West in the U.S., a class taught by a white woman from New England and populated by white people from all over. Ana’s ancestry is a mix, but includes Native blood, and she sadly has to endure the white people speaking of her heritage off-handedly (this is still a Eurocentric course somehow) and with disrespect. In the meantime, her live-in boyfriend has been missing for a long time. Ana fears he is dead, though can only confirm this through a vision she had in a bathtub.

I’m so happy to get to Sabrina & Corina today, a book that’s received a lot of accolades, a book that’s earned them. Kali Fajardo-Anstine has written a tremendous collection about these Latin (et al) women from Colorado, their history in their back pockets as they move forward and stake future identities. Through the eyes of these working-class heroes, we see a microcosm of American culture, stories from a particular perspective, and some fine writing, too. This is a great book, a triumph.

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