The Forbidden Stories of Marta Veneranda
By Sonia Rivera-Valdés
Seven Stories Press
158 pages, $21.95
When I was young--and even now, sometimes--I would imagine that
I had been transported inside a friend's body and was expected to
carry out that person's life. I wondered how well I would be able
to figure out what to do and how to react. It was terrifying and
delicious to contemplate.
That we are imprisoned in our own bodies and consciousness is part
of the human condition. We hunger for reports from terra incognita.
Just about all literature provides this news from inside; The
Forbidden Stories of Marta Veneranda provides it with special
This collection of linked stories, which was first published in
Spanish and won the
1997 Casa de Las Américas prize for the Short Story, could
also be considered a novel, in nine pieces. The conceit is that the
fictional Marta Veneranda Castillo Ovando has collected interviews
with 178 people on "the disparity between what human beings commonly
consider shameful to tell about their lives and the ignominy of the
deed itself." The stories were to become her dissertation in an unnamed
field, but because the details were not quantifiable, she broke with
her scientific-minded professor. Displaying the pluckiness of some
of the characters in the stories, she changed her field and received
her Ph.D. anyway. After explaining all this in a prefatory note, she
presents to the reader nine representative transcripts.
In those stories, the narrator all but disappears, awash in other
people's lives. We in turn become privy to the labyrinthine thought
processes and life stories of the interviewees. We may not become
them, but we become the gatherer of the tales. Marta Veneranda is
It becomes apparent that interviews are with people who are friends
of friends. Most have a connection with Iris, a lawyer, whose secret
relationship with Veneranda is hinted at in the end. Almost all
are Cuban exiles in New York, all but two are women. They articulate
their own reasons for speaking of the forbidden, and we should or
shouldn't take the explanations at face value. A couple of them
say they need to talk because the secret experience shook up their
previous notions about their own identities. One is too ashamed
to tell his therapist, because the two of them are old friends and
he's afraid "he'll think I've gone crazy." Another tells because
she wants an opinion. One claims that telling her story will help
her own writing; another wants absolution; and others, to exorcise
It used to be that the therapist was the secular priest. Here
that role is taken up by the interviewer. No one in these stories
mentions the Roman Catholic confessional--when they speak of religion,
it is mostly in the context of the past, in Cuba.
What do they talk about when they talk about the forbidden? Here
are the goods, without giving too much away: A man has sex with
a 400-pound neighbor whose terrible stench is transformed into an
enticing aroma. A gay man doesn't tell his lover that he watches
pornography--hetero pornography-- to become aroused. A woman offers
her body for sex to save a friend's job. One woman admits to killing
her husband; another wants assurance that she did not kill hers,
accidentally on purpose.
Women find themselves attracted to other women, and act upon it
or do not. When they do become involved with other women, they often
find sexual satisfaction: "I caressed and kissed every piece and
fold of that body with an intensity and passion I had never put
into my lovemaking before, and she reciprocated with furious splendor."
Men can satisfy, too, but rarely husbands: "Outside myself, in orgasms
that seemed to last eternities, enormous red poppies blossomed in
an instant before my closed eyes. That is not a metaphor. I saw
those flowers each time I came, and I was happy."
This is not the instant and ersatz intimacy of TV talk shows. These
blurt out their secrets, aren't introduced with labels. Although some
of the encounters they speak of could be classified as "quickies,"
the stories these characters tell are long and complex. Besides, Veneranda's
people are more articulate, introspective, well-educated and better
off than the typical guest of Oprah or Jerry Springer. We must settle
back and take the journey with Veneranda, waiting to see what is revealed,
rather than what is extracted.
Rivera-Valdés is as skilled as a good lover in building
anticipation. At the end of the last story I was trembling with
her delays--the interviewee has said that she avoided sex upon meeting
her object of desire, Rocío, in New York, because the other
woman was so much younger. She changes her mind, and visits Rocío
in Cuba. But first--she must call her potential lover's neighbor
because she doesn't have a phone, must have a long conversation
with her hostess, climb a narrow staircase.
Then she reports: "She took off the pale pink satin robe I'd given
her in New York. The glow of that cloth on the bed accented the
raggedness of the sheets on which we were about to make love." And
they do. After some talking. Specifically, after they speak to one
another in the words that the older woman used to hear from Cuban
men, while she herself said nothing. Now they both speak, and both
But not all of the narrative tension is sexual. Rivera-Valdés
brings us near to the precipice, making me suspect, for example,
that one character would go blind (she doesn't). In another story,
growing attraction leads to ... no action. And yet the speaker is
deeply touched. And as it becomes clear early on that these people
know one another, I was waiting for further links--for the gay narrator
to be the gay lover in another story (he isn't).
Rivera-Valdés is playful and witty. These are secrets, and
yet the joke's on the interviewer, and us. A secret told with great
fanfare becomes a passing phrase in the next story or chapter. Are
these true confessors dissembling? Or are we to imagine they feel
freer to open up to their friends after unburdening themselves to
Hovering over most of these stories is Cuba--as haunting as childhood,
as backdrop to childhood. "Your being Cuban makes me remember things,"
Mayté tells the narrator, and both she and the next subject,
Rodolfo, talk of their trauma as children in Operation Pedro Pan,
in which anti-Castro parents sent their young to the United States,
not joining their offspring until years later in some cases. She
also describes in rich detail the emigres' lot: working early on
in factory jobs that lead to independence, then white-collar jobs
that take away from roots.
Often the characters long for the island of their youth. A man
says of his small
hometown: "where they grow wonderful potatoes and citrus fruits, time
moves slowly, and nothing happens." Other exiles leave lovers left
behind, and the sea, and "the smell of tropical rainy days." When
one woman returns to Cuba she thinks, in English, "My God ... Cuban
swallows, and all the grass to be seen is Cuban grass."
Cuba as motherland looms especially over the last story, when the
interviewee makes black-and-white distinctions between the irrational
and the scientific. She much prefers the first category over the
rationality of her "white" psychiatrist husband; she finds things
Cuban and Latino more homey and fulfilling. She follows the old
superstitions--bathes twice on San Juan's day so she won't get worms--but
is catholic in her tastes, examining her dreams for meaning, consulting
a melting pot of esoteric reference books, visiting a spiritualist
and an herbalist, finding solace in mofongo con chicharrones--"mashed
plantains with crackling, which I hadn't had for years, ever since
I had started with holistic health." When her husband fails to respond
to her desires for spicier sex--he's jealous of a fluorescent orange
dildo as if it were "a real penis inside of me,"--she looks elsewhere,
settling down with another Cuban-American woman.
Although at times the details fall into tedium, for the most part
The Forbidden Stories of Marta Veneranda is a wonderful voyeuristic
journey. What is it that women want? What do we all want? To be
listened to. To be known. Deeply.
S.L. Wisenberg's short story collection, The Sweetheart
Is In, has just been published by TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern
University Press. She also maintains a Web site, www.slwisenberg.com.