Chile / Review / Short Story / South America

Review: Las Biuty Queens by Iván Monalisa Ojeda

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Las Biuty Queens is a collection of intertwined stories which chart the lives, loves, and multiple losses of a coven of queer, trans, immigrant, Latinx locas in New York City; characters recur and die, friends are lost and found, and community remains a constant throughout the 13 short stories that make up Ojeda’s second short story collection, translated into English for Astrahouse Books by Hannah Kauders.

Principally told from his/her perspective and drawn from his/her experiences, my particular favourites were the punchy opener ‘Overdose’, which is laced with paranoia and crystal meth in equal measure; the quiet grace and sadness of ‘Jennifer’s Carnations’; and the sweaty-palmed fear of ‘Emergency Room’, which captured the panic of an anxiety attack—albeit a drug-induced one—all too well.

Most of the tales seemed ageless, referencing periods in and around the turn of the millennium, and I felt they fared better than the ones which edged their way closer to the present day. For example, ‘The Boricua’s Blunts’, where Trump and DACA references ultimately felt heavy-handed, like when teen movies about feminism are quite clearly penned by 40-something women.

It seems impossible not to draw comparisons with Camila Sosa Villada’s Las malas, a similar tale of queer community among transvestí sex workers, but where Sosa Villada takes off on flights of fancy, Ojeda keeps his/her feet firmly on the ground. The simple and straightforward style—rarely poetic or elaborate—works for the most part to counterbalance the borderline stranger-than-fiction yet still realistic tales Ojeda puts forth in Las Biuty Queens.

However, on occasion the prose became a little too expository, a little too explanatory. Take this line from ‘Sabrina’s Wedding’: “We stand up, and when we arrive, we exit the train.” There were similar instances where the speech took on a strangely stilted air, particularly in ‘Mother Hen and Her Chicks’. And yet, you still come away with a sense of the vibrancy of Ojeda’s robust plethora of characters despite (or perhaps because of?) the restrained—sometimes to a fault—nature of each brief story.

Meanwhile, on the translation side of things, Hannah Kauders’ selective use of (particularly) Chilean slang borrowed from the original Spanish really allowed Ojeda’s voice to nose through, grounding the reader in the translated, cross-cultural reality of Las Biuty Queens and the unifying role of Spanish for the characters.

Similarly, if you’re familiar with New York City, you’ll take the most comfort and cultural references from the text, which feels deeply engrained within the fabric of the city. Long walks through NY neighbourhood and references to specific streets abound—references that, as a Brit, make my head whirl; all 14th Street, this and 7th Avenue, that.

Despite some flaws in the telling, then, the thing I most take away from the stories in Las Biuty Queens is their utter resilience yet tenderness in the face of mess, pain, and loss. Ojeda’s heart carries this collection through, and—as Pedro Almodóvar says in the introduction— he/she does so “without turning [the characters] into victims”.

*I read Las Biuty Queens as part of my #ReadMoreLatam2021 challenge, for the theme ‘indie editorial’.

Buy Las Biuty Queens (English): Bookshop (US) | Waterstones (UK)

Buy Las Biuty Queens (Spanish): Bookshop (US)

About Iván Monalisa Ojeda

Iván Monalisa Ojeda (Southern Chile, late ‘60s) is a short story writer and essayist who grew up on the shores of Lake Llanquihue and studied theatre in Santiago before moving to New York City. He/she is also an active performer, currently at work on a novel.

Other Books by Iván Monalisa Ojeda: Never, Ever Ever, Coming Down (Sangria Publishers, 2016; trans. Marc Brudzinski), La misma nota, forever (Sangria Publishers, 2014)

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