Migrations by J.L. Torres, published by LARB Libros

Puerto Rico is one of those places that, to me, is no more than a name. So profound is my ignorance that I had to check google maps to find out where it is (it’s a Caribbean island). This collection of short stories opened my eyes.

I started Migrations thinking that it was a novel. It is in fact a collection of short stories, some set in Puerto Rico itself, and others concerning the diaspora in the US and elsewhere. None of the stories is historical, but a couple are set in the future (not exactly sci-fi, but a future nevertheless) and a few are set in the recent past.

Like any collection, it has its ups and downs. The ones that made an impression were Sucio and Elena.

Sucio is related in a second-person monologue: “You were a Sucio, and you knew it,” it begins. There then follows an at times hilarious story which explains what the term means and, at the same time, subverts it. The language is lively and energetic:

This curse was some deep, serious stuff. You had no way out that you could see. You picked up your cell and made the booty call to your fav platerna, Annalisse. She wasn’t into you, but [the] girl regularly attended the Church of the Well Endowed. A sure thing, a slam dunk, but sista turned you down. First time, evah. That’s when you know things had hit Defcon 1.

The language could run away and come to obscure the story (as sometimes happens with Irvine Welsh), but the author keeps it in check and the result is a well-crafted piece that, with a little work, could become a very credible novella.

The other story I enjoyed was Elena (which happened to follow Sucio). In this, the language was plain English. I assume it was set in the past, and it follows the life of the eponymous mother of two after she is widowed. She lives in a barrio and has two children to raise. Life is difficult and the choices she faces are drawn out with compassion and tenderness. Compelled to have an operation in order to take her late husband’s job:

We all liked Facu  and understand your situation, but we can’t hold [his job] forever, he said. Plenty of men needing work.

She reported, sore, her stitches bandaged. A bottle of iodine and fresh bandages in her purse. Fresh underwear, too, in case blood seeped through the bandages.

Some of the stories have only the most tenuous connections to Puerto Rico. To me, that was a good thing. The writing, style and content were varied, and this made the collection special: one does not have to be interested in Puerto Rico to enjoy this collection.