Thursday, December 17, 2015

Manuel Munoz's "The Happiest Girl in the Whole USA"

So already, never underestimate the power of shoes. In The Wizard of Oz, it's ruby slippers that always have the capacity to transport the wanderer home. In Cinderella, it's glass slippers that confer happily-ever-after. And in Manuel Munoz's "The Happiest Girl in the Whole USA," it's white high heels* that help to make the the world right and whole. Manuel Munoz's story is one of the stories that was selected to receive the O. Henry Prize in 2015. So since it's still the season of gift-giving, I suggest that you add The O. Henry Prize Stories 2015: The Best Stories of the Year** to your wish list so you can read this story.

"The Happiest Girl in the Whole USA" tells the story of a routine occurrence in the life of its narrator and protagonist. Cash in hand, Griselda--we hear her name only twice in the story, both times spoken in the recalled voice of her third grade teacher--is heading from California's Central Valley to Los Angeles to retrieve her man, Timateo, whose return to the USA following his most recent deportation to Mexico she fully expects. This time, on the bus ride to Los Angeles, Griselda encounters Natalia, a young woman completely new to the deportation-and-return routine to which Griselda is accustomed.

I'm recommending this story because I love Griselda, and I want everyone else to get to know her. I liked her from the story's opening paragraph in which she straightforwardly insists that she is "no one special"--and then distinguishes herself as someone who understands how much it costs "to get a man back from the border" (64). I admired her when, a few pages later, she characterizes Jessica Savitch as the perfect role model for the Spanish-speaking female whose "need to listen to English for practice turns into a wish to look like an intelligent and confident woman" (66). But I didn't love Griselda until she did something involving the white high heels.

As the story ended, with Griselda sitting straight-backed, alert, and content on the bus** transporting her and the exhausted Timoteo back home, I thought about the story's title, which had initially played to me like the name of a reality television show scheduled to premiere on Bravo in just a few weeks--and realized I believed it. How did Manuel do that, I wondered--convince me that Griselda's quiet contentment is nothing short of full-blown happiness, despite the chronic disappointments and injustices that shape her world, despite the likelihood that two months later, she and Timoteo will probably be riding northward again on that very same bus?

I refer to Manuel by his first name because I've known him since 1994 when, with his college English literature-creative writing degree**** newly in hand, he was hired to teach several of my classes at the Pilot School***** while I was on sabbatical. Even as a very young man, Manuel, always with a warm twinkle in his eye, naturally, respectfully, and compassionately made space for both students and colleagues to be their most authentic selves, made it easy for them to grapple with the issues and challenges that most mattered to them in his wise, caring presence. I believe that Manuel creates that same kind of space for his fictional characters. In Griselda's case, he lets her show us that she's tough but not bitter, smart and proud of it, deliberate when it comes to withholding and sharing, and profoundly aware of what's gained and lost by loving.

But wait: Manuel's the writer, Griselda's creator, the one who put her and her fellow characters in this situation in the first place. Well, sort of. In the "Writers on Their Work" section of the O. Henry collection, Manuel reveals something that I'd never known about his childhood experiences:
My father didn't become a US citizen until the late  1980s. He was deported many times. As a child, I didn't know to be alarmed at my father's sudden disappearances, since he always returned. I had a very naive idea of what it meant to be deported and it wasn't until I was a young adult that I understood the different circumstances that led to his deportations and how involved my mother was in getting him back home (366).
Griselda is both Manuel's fabrication and a reflection of his real-life circumstances.

Still, within the reality-based situations into which he places them, Manuel's characters could behave in and feel any number of ways. Maybe that's why Manuel deliberately takes himself out of their way, maintains the lowest of profiles in deference to their individuality, fullness, and humanity, movingly expressed by their sincere efforts to do the best they can with what they have for themselves and for others

Take, for example, this interchange between Griselda and Natalia as they take the turn around the park that's required for reconnecting with returning men:
     "Put this in your purse," I say, reaching into my bra and pulling out the little wad of bills and the piece of paper tucked between them. "Quickly. And don't lose it."
     "You don't have to--"
     "Quickly," I say again, and she opens her purse and I drop the money inside: a deep pocket of nothing, just as I had suspected: No wallet, which means no identification. No address book either, no gum, no mints, no tissues, no rolls of coins for the coffee machine, for the tampon dispense, no nothing.
     "I left home when I was eighteen," I tell her. " And somehow I made it here--" I sigh just from how good it feels to admit to myself that I want her to know someone like me can help. But I know enough not to say the rest of the story. It's too long anyways, and we don't have all day (77).
Though Griselda has prepared the wad of bills in the hotel room--it's on the white paper at  the center of the wad that she finally shares her name with Natalia--she doesn't present it to Natalia until they are in a public place and their interaction is necessarily brief and hushed. Natalia, who probably has less than she even thinks she has, initially resists Griselda's gift, then permits Griselda to deposit it into her "deep pocket of nothing." 

This isn't the first time that Griselda uses language figuratively and expressively: first-timer Natalia views white high heels as essential equipment for an uncertain life journey, but seasoned Griselda believes in those small, common objects that help to ward off despair and temper exhaustion. Griselda's phrase is more than a reflection of her competence and practicality, however: in the short time she's known Natalia, she's come to care about her--enough not to want her to end up with nothing--no cash, no man, no love, no future. That's why in the hotel room, fearing that Natalia's man may not show up in either Los Angeles or San Diego, unmarried but permanently coupled Griselda, who checks the hand of every woman she meets for a wedding band, "prays to the god I don't believe in" (76--such a beautiful inconsistency!) on Natalia's behalf. And that's why, having placed the money in Natalia's gaping handbag, she shares one sentence of her life story, becoming a Jessica Savitch figure whose lesson is that "someone like me can help." 

She feels so good after sharing both "who I am" and what cash she has that I have to feel really good, too. Natalia has given her an unanticipated chance to validate the aspects of herself she most prizes. Griselda means it when she introduces Natalia to Timateo as "'Mi amiga'" (78).

And the whole time I'm reading this, feeling her feelings and my own, hearing Griselda's voice in my mind's ear, I'm not thinking about Manuel******, not thinking that he's the one who created her, not thinking that her voice is some manifestation of his own. It's like Griselda and her story have always existed and Manuel has simply stepped up, agreed to tell the story for Griselda, out of respect for her, for those with lives like hers, for stories generally, for stories that are seldom told, and for language itself--as much the stuff of stories as are human experiences and the sense-making and sharing that accompanies them.  

Laura Furman, the editor of The O. Henry Prize Stories 2015, captures my experience of Manuel's story and his relationship to it as she describes her own reading preferences:
This particular reader likes writing best when it is free of the looming presence of the writer, who, reasonably and humanly, wants the work to be liked, appreciated, praised, and rewarded. Sometimes that understandable desire casts a shadow. The best short stories don't necessarily have the cleverest plots or the most ingenious twists, but they do have the best prose and a full creation of a fictional world (xxiii).
Manuel casts no shadow on the world he manages to bring to life in the space of sixteen pages. 

Furman's and my own thoughts reminded me of my experience years earlier of listening to Manuel read from Zigzagger, the collection of short stories he published in 2003. The setting was the Pearl K. Wise Library at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, and the audience was teachers and students. Summoning that distant school-day afternoon from memory, I recalled how quickly Manuel had ceased to be the published author, becoming instead a conduit for story and language. When I mentioned this to him later, he explained how much he had learned by listening to poet Mark Doty read to audiences: Doty read his poetry humbly and non-theatrically, practically recusing his creator and performer selves, so that the language of his poems could do all the speaking.

The fiction of compassionate attention and advocacy seems to require such a stance. And oh, such fiction is much needed at this moment when, fearing and then hating those who cross borders, so many people guiltlessly disregard the humanity of those desperate, hopeful migrants. Read Manuel Munoz's "The Happiest Girl in the Whole USA" because beautiful, life-affirming things can happen when strangers meet strangers, when borders and boundaries are negotiated with respect and care, when people reach out and risk for the sake of love and their shared humanity. Read it because it's such a joy to read about beautiful, life-affirming things when a humble, sensitive, hugely talented artist takes it upon himself to write about them. Or read it just to find out what happens with those white high heels*******, okay?

* Screen shot part of the "Penny Loves Kenny" page accessed through <,desc&limit=60&angle=outside&page=1>
** Furman, Laura, Tessa Hadley, Kristen Iskandrian, and Michael Parker. The O. Henry Prize Stories. New York: Penguin Random House, 2015. Print. 
*** Screen shot of Michael Strauch's photograph at
**** You can read more about Manuel in this 2011 profile of him in Harvard Magazine: <>.
***** The Pilot School was the democratic alternative high school that was part of Cambridge Rindge and Latin School from 1969 to 2000.
****** Screen shot of photo found at the following link: <>.
******* Screen shot of <>