43.1 Feature: Craft Essay by Ana Crouch Ureña
Ana Crouch Ureña is a fiction writer originally from the Dominican Republic, now living in Charlotte, NC. She has work appearing or forthcoming in Little Fiction and the Spark Anthology. She earned her MFA from Queens University of Charlotte and is working on a novel about women in sixteenth century Santo Domingo.
On Personal History
by Ana Crouch Ureña
There has always been a mystery for me at the center of who my mother is, and it’s related to the fact that her beloved father died many years before I was born, and she has missed him and talked about him all my life. Mostly, this telling has taken the form of stories, and one of these served as the inspiration for Toño Morongo: the story of the disappearance of her father during the Dominican Civil War of 1965.
The facts are these: when my mother was six, her father went missing for some period of time which she can’t remember with exactitude, which might have been a few weeks or a few months, in any case long enough that my grandmother gave him up for dead, assuming he’d been killed in the fighting or that he’d been “disappeared.” Eventually, he came back. It’s a story that frustrates me, because it’s so incomplete (Where was he all that time? Who was he with? What did he eat?), but there is no one alive now who remembers clearly what happened.
For several years, I had wanted to write a story about the Civil War of ‘65. I read a few books about the period, and I thought a lot about what kind of story I should write. It didn’t occur to me at first to write about my grandfather’s disappearance; it seems so strange to me now, but I think it’s because we don’t always connect the violence and upheaval of history with the personal, lived experience, which is the world out of which my mother’s story sprang.
Historical accounts tend to erase or obfuscate several things: the way we don’t really believe that anything momentous will happen until it has, so strong is our sense that the normal is bound to persist; the fluidity of narrative around world-shaking events, so that things that look like progress now look like its opposite later; and individual, powerless people simply caught up in the sweep of history, especially women (or so it seems to me, a woman). There’s only so much space in which to tell a story, or a history, I guess, but this leaving out can be a kind of lie. The escapist allure of reading history is that everything seems so settled, the progression of things inevitable, in contrast to the present and the future, which have little to offer in the way of certainties. Of course, this too is a false impression: history changes all the time; it is malleable and can be bent to suit many needs.
Both my parents were born into a deeply repressive dictatorship obsessed, among other things, with rewriting the (racial) history of our country. They had the good fortune to see it end in their childhoods. Years of squabbling by different factions finally culminated in the election of a leftist president. His ouster unleashed the Civil War of 1965, and the subsequent American invasion. Following that, there was a nominally democratic government led by a strongman for some thirty-odd years until he was finally voted out in the ’90s, and since then, we’ve elected an exhausting series of corrupt, ineffectual oligarchs. In the meantime, we still don’t have reliable electrical service, you can’t drink the tap water, and prepare to be extorted if the police pull you over.
Politics at home often feel remote, disconnected from day to day life, entirely given over to demagoguery. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the sense that there is nothing to be done, and the suspicion that the flaws in the system spring from and feed on some unaddressable defect in our own characters and culture. And yet, every four years, we have elections, and until this past year, my parents have cast their weary votes along with everyone else. This last time, they abstained, something that was shocking to me, because I can remember accompanying my mother to vote in the contentious elections of the ’90s, when we had to stand in line for hours and she came out with her thumb inked black, excited and anxious about what the next day would bring, whether there would be a strike or not, hoping anyway that we might elect a government a little better than what we had. Nowadays, it feels to her as if voting hardly matters, just as it did not matter in the days of the dictator, or in the decades that came after. It feels like nothing ever changes. And yet, we can see the change in our wake. No one gets disappeared these days, and at least the electrical outages are scheduled.
Recently, I read an article about the concept of quantum decoherence as it relates to the question: Why does time flow in only one direction? One of the things the article explained was that the irreversible quality of the past only comes about in the face of a loss of information about the movement of particles: decoherence. If we could keep a record of these movements, then time might well slosh backwards as well as forwards. I think it works similarly for people: once we begin to forget the minute details of things, we are cut off from the past, and we feel as if we have always been as we are now. One of the great uses of fiction is remembrance, not just of facts, but of the more tenuous qualities of experience, which are beyond the reach of fact. How did it feel? What did we want and what frightened us? How did we change?
I wanted to write a story in which history is seen through the eyes of ordinary women, and ceases to feel historic, an account from the muddy center of things. I wanted to counter the decoherence of frayed-thin facts with a story, and to memorialize a little piece of my mother’s history, so that it could be out in the world, among so many others.