Jennifer Maritza McCauley’s debut collection of short stories begins with a bang: Claudia is helping her mother, Phoenix, kidnap her little brother who was taken by Child Youth Services. This first story, “Torsion,” reminded me of fast-paced, tense action scenes like the introduction of “Baby Driver.” I held my breath as Claudia contemplated deserting her mother’s plan and leaving her family behind, fighting her desires to save herself and to “pay back (her mother) for all of her love.” The final choice Claudia makes speaks to the principal theme of “When Trying to Return Home”: the toxicity and beauty of love.
Maritza McCauley explores the dark sides of both familial and romantic love, with specific regard to “the question of belonging,” through her Black American and Afro-Puerto Rican characters. The title of the work comes from her 2016 poem of the same name which speaks to Martiza McCauley’s identity as an Afro-Latina woman and writer: “In the morning, I leave a panaderia on SW 137th / and a Miami browngirl sees my face / and says de dónde eres Miami or Not? / And I say Not, because I live in this blue city now / but she means where are your parents from.”
This poem is also seen in a short story of the same title. Maritza McCauley borrows lines from her poem, formatting them in the third person instead of first: “Andra could tell her the history of her family gods. Say that her family gods are rainforest-hot, cropland-warm, dark and blazing with every-colored skin. Their mouths sound like all kinds of countries. She could tell her those gods lived wild and holy in her, in white and blue cities where her skin is remembered or forgotten, in cities where she was always one thing, or from anywhere.” I’m glad Maritza McCauley found a new space for these words, given their effortless beauty and almost melancholic tinge.
“Torsion” and “When Trying to Return Home” are the first two stories in the collection, exhibiting Martiza McCauley’s ability to capture explosive moments just as candidly and compellingly as sentimental scenes. Each story involves a different topic — from integration to religion — but is unified in their commentaries on love. One story, “I Don’t Know Where I’m Bound,” showcases a short and unfinished queer romance, while another, “Fevers,” talks about shared love between brothers. Though the type of love varies, Maritza McCauley conveys the complexity of each. She begs the question, is love something we owe? Is love enough of a reason to stay? When is love unconditional? Is it ever?
These questions arise in each of the nine short stories, some of which contain the same characters, though they’re always presented with a different perspective. For instance, Estelle is a character seen several times throughout the collection, first as the object of the narrator’s attention in “Good Guys,” second as the sister of the protagonist in “I Don’t Know Where I’m Bound,” and lastly, as the main character in the final story “Liberation Day.” Each perspective offers a different perception of Estelle, adding to the dimensions of her character; this strategy prevents Estelle specifically from growing flat, which was necessary given how often we see her. However, it had the (fortunate) consequence of making me wish Estelle had her own novel as opposed to three short vignettes.
Though “Torsion” was my favorite short story in the collection for its incontestable energy, “La Espera” was another notable piece. Composed of four alternating perspectives, “La Espera” tells the story of Sofi, her mother Camila, her Aunt Elena and her father Carlos, the latter who, in spite of having children with Camila, is married to Elena. “La Espera” is perhaps the most complex depiction of love that Martiza McCauley offers here for its many intersecting romantic and familial relationships. When contemplating her relationship with Carlos, Camila describes the love she feels as “a wolf of a feeling, whatever it is, and it’s not pure love. It’s fanged and grisly; it’s been gobbling me up for so long I think the pain has always been with me.” It’s remarkable how heartbreaking of a story Maritza McCauley composes within such limited word count. “La Espera” itself is proof that Martiza McCauley is an author worth paying attention to.
The worst thing I have to say about “When Trying to Return Home” is that I wish it was longer. Maritza McCauley teases her skills throughout the collection, highlighting her mastery of thrills and heartbreak, all the while incorporating authentic, genuine glimpses into the Black American and Afro-Puerto Rican experience. I can only hope that Maritza McCauley continues to be inspired by her own work so a novel length version of “La Espera” or “Torsion” is available next.
Daily Arts Writer Lillian Pearce can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.