The themes that Brenda Peynado tackles in The Rock Eaters, her debut collection of short stories, are rarely light. Her stories explore budding adolescent sexuality, xenophobia, and post-collegiate financial precarity, to name just a few. In the hand of a less deft writer, the collection could have become a joyless read within a few dozen pages. Peynado’s penchant for fantastical reimaginings of contemporary ails, however, makes for a page-turner.
In the collection’s opener, “Thoughts and Prayers”, aloof angels stare down upon the residents of an upwardly striving immigrant neighborhood. Life’s outcomes are merely a matter of keeping the celestial guardians content. The protagonist’s bond with a free-spirited neighbor different from herself causes her to question her mother’s Catholic-standard performative piety. A school shooting only deepens the divide. According to the mother, the reason why the neighbors are cursed with repeated bad luck is because they are protected by “the worst angel on the block.”
The protagonists throughout the 16 stories are usually young Latinas facing the dissonance between the values in which they were raised and the unfortunate truths of the world. In centering these characters, the limits of who gets portrayed in speculative fiction — a genre notoriously lacking in diversity — are expanded a little further. The stories are all deeply grounded in struggles and questions from the culture, even when they don’t appear to be at first glance.
“The Kite Maker” is premised on the arrival of an alien race to Earth. While this well-trod plotline is often portrayed as a hostile invasion leading to war, Peynado depicts the aliens as a gentle dragonfly-like species with distinct linguistic patterns that result in misunderstandings as they try to find a home on a new planet. But unfortunately, it’s the earthlings that attack without mercy. The protagonist is left to consider her past after an alien named Tove begins to frequent her kite store. Skinheads bent on hurting the aliens lurk among people that make them feel welcome.
“The world would change without them whether they wanted it to or not,” the story’s narrator says in a sentiment that applies outside of the book’s pages as well.
In “Yaiza”, the titular granddaughter of a housekeeper strikes a tennis-court friendship with the daughter of the employer — both being Latina. Seen through the eyes of the latter, the narrative reveals how they are never truly on an even playing field. At one point, Yaiza takes the narrator to her home for a change of clothes after blood from the first period soaks onto her white skirt. Along the way, the meritocratic foundation on which she built her notions of success is challenged.
“We were ten streets away from my own [home], but I had never felt farther,” the narrator reflects. “The people who lived on this street, had they not climbed high enough, had they not run fast enough?” Anyone who’s from a Latino enclave in the Sunshine State, which several stories in the collection reference, understands how realities can shift beyond recognition in a few short blocks.
Much of the “The Dreamers” is set on Florida’s mangrove-covered beaches where teenagers escape strict religious control of their natural functions. In this case, it’s sleep that’s taught to be a sinful product of human weakness. “You teens are especially vulnerable,” the nuns teach. The youth are left to figure out what’s right for them while also figuring out, you know, their other bodily urges. It’s this playfulness present throughout the stories in The Rock Eaters that makes for such a compelling read. Ghosts, virtual reality, and radiation-activated superpowers are all explored but in unexpected ways.
The marvelous titular story envisions humans flying through the sky, children in tow, to return to a home country left behind in search of opportunities. When the time comes to return to their adopted country, the children refuse to go. “It had been dangerous, bringing our children back here, letting them fall in love with the history and with the people they could have been,” the narrator says. They eat rocks to weigh themselves down, never having to leave the place where they believe that they belong. It sounds so simple and appealing when put like that.
Pulsing with imagination, The Rock Eaters is a bold statement of intent from an emerging voice worthy of the hype. Peynado’s daring alchemy of literary styles into weird, funny and deeply, compassionate stories are only a hint of the intriguing mixtures to come.
Carrington, André. “The unbearable whiteness of science fiction”. University of Minnesota Press Blog (retrieved from Open Democracy). 2016.