Wednesday, April 4, 2007

"Tales from the Town of Widows"

James Cañón's English short fiction has been anthologized in Bésame Mucho, (Painted Leaf Press), and Virgins, Guerrillas & Locas, (Cleis Press).

His debut novel is Tales from the Town of Widows, to which he applied the "page 69 test" and reported the following:
What would happen if all the men of an isolated village were swept off in a war and the women were left alone?

My first novel, Tales from the Town of Widows, tells the story of Mariquita, a mountain village in Colombia, where all the men have been forcibly recruited by communist guerrillas to fight for their cause. In a single tragic event, the women and children of the village are left alone to deal with both nature's powerful elements and the absence of the men who had ruled their lives. Now virtual widows, the women must fend for themselves, must get beyond their grief and pull together to survive. In the process of rebuilding their lives, they challenge the strong male orientation of the world and discover their own strength, self-sufficiency and power. Ultimately, they create a social order based on female values: harmony, cooperation and respect for every individual. This all-female utopia is put to the test when, after sixteen years, four men return to the village…

Page 69 of Tales from the Town of Widows is the third page of the chapter called “The Teacher Who Refused to Teach History.” In this chapter, Cleotilde, a mysterious old woman displaced by the war, stops in Mariquita on her way to the south. She is welcomed in the poor home of fourteen-year-old Virgelina Saavedra and her sulky grandmother Lucrecia.

Cleotilde felt as though Lucrecia were scrutinizing her face and body for some sign of wealth. She truly hoped Lucrecia wasn’t expecting her to pay for putting her up for a night. Cleotilde had barely enough cash in her purse to pay for the bus ticket that would take her far away from this decayed village.

Page 69 illustrates some of the physical and emotional consequences of the Colombian forty-year-old conflict, as well as the sentiments of Colombians toward the war.

“As you can see, we’re very poor,” Lucrecia said.

“Oh, aren’t we all?” Cleotilde interposed. “This war has left us all in financial straits.” She wondered if Lucrecia knew the word straits. You can’t even tell who’s worst, the guerrillas, the paramilitaries, or the government… With the situation the way it is, tell me, who’s going to employ an old woman like myself?”

“Nobody,” Lucrecia replied, looking a little frustrated that Cleotilde’s speech had ruled out any possibility of her making a few pesos that night. “We have nothing to offer you but coffee. You want a cup of coffee?” she said.

Cleotilde thanked her, saying that it was too late for coffee, that she asked for nothing but a place to sleep and a candle. “I like to read before going to sleep, don’t you?”

“I don’t read or write,” the woman stated resolutely, as though she were proud of it.

“Sweet Lord! I can’t imagine not being able to read.” Then, addressing Virgelina, who was trimming the wick of a fresh candle with her teeth, she asked, “Do you read?”

The girl shook her head.

“Little girl,” Cleotilde said, raising her index finger in the air. “You ought to know that education is a tool for success.”

“Women around here don’t need no education,” Lucrecia said bitterly. “Besides, the school’s been closed for over two years.”

“Two years? How dreadful!”

Virgelina handed Cleotilde the candle and an empty Coca-Cola bottle to serve as a holder. “The magistrate promised us the school will reopen soon,” the girl said softly. “As soon as a teacher gets hired.”

“A teacher?” Cleotilde said, getting up from her seat. “Isn’t that a coincidence? I’m a licensed teacher.”

After hearing about the job opportunity, Cleotilde decides to apply for the job. But there’s a problem: she refuses to teach history. Having witnessed in her youth the horrors of a civil war, she opted for disregarding the past, and thus she stopped teaching the country’s appalling history that has made a victim of her.
Visit James Cañón's website and read an excerpt from Tales from the Town of Widows.

Check out the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue