Welcome, Beth Alvarado!

This month we are celebrating the titles that we’ve acquired during 2018. These manuscripts came to us through our open reading periods. Today we bring you Beth Alvarado, author of the cycle of fabulist tales Jillian in the Borderlands, which will be published in the autumn of 2020.
Have a manuscript you think we’d like? During our November Open Reading Period we are looking for poetry (chapbooks and full-length collections), short fiction (again, both chapbooks and full-length collections), novels, novellas, nonfiction (CNF, biography, cultural studies) and translations from German. Also, our Big Moose Prize for the novel is currently open to early bird submissions.

The Author

Beth Alvarado lived in the borderlands of Mexico and the US for most of her life. She married her late husband, Fernando, when she was nineteen and has been a part of his large extended family since then. They raised their children in both cultures and both world-views, something that all of her work reflects. Her previous books include a collection of essays, Anxious Attachments (Autumn House Press, 2019); Anthropologies: A Family Memoir (University of Iowa Press, 2011); and Not a Matter of Love and other stories (Winner of the Many Voices Prize, New Rivers Press, 2006).
Her stories and essays have been published in many fine journals, The Sun, Guernica: An International Magazine of Politics and Art, The Southern Review, Ploughshares, River Teeth, Cimarron Review, Western Humanities Review, Third Coast, Drunken Boat: The Librotraficante Portfolio, Eleven Eleven, and The Collagist, among others. Her essays have twice been chosen as Notable by Best American Essays. She taught at the University of Arizona for years and now teaches for OSU-Cascades Low Residency Creative Writing Program.

On writing Jillian in the Borderlands

I started the first story in this book in 2010 when I was teaching a fiction class and asked my students to write a segmented story and, in each segment, to imitate the style of a different writer we had studied. Then I wondered if I could do the assignment myself, and so I wrote the first story, “The Dead Child Bride,” and it went through several revisions before I felt like I knew what I was doing. In that story, Jillian is a child of about ten and she encounters a dead child bride who, along with a deer’s head, saves her from the neighbor, a Mr. Wiley, who mows his lawn in a Speedo and cowboy boots.
I’ve always had a hard time with “plot,” but for some reason the constraint of writing from several points of view and in different voices, liberated me, and when I forgot to worry about “plot,” a narrative arc began to emerge, one within each story and one tying all of the stories together. The more “rather dark tales” I wrote, the more insistent the narrative became.
Because I was working on two nonfiction projects during that same period of time, I wrote about one tale a year. After a few years of writing Jillian’s stories, I started to realize that I was compelled to write a story when something happened in reality—like the murder of three little girls in my home town or the passing of anti-immigrant laws—that caused me such great anxiety that I needed to express it in fantastic ways.
Thus, three more constraints were born: there had to be a central anxiety caused by something in the world, the manifestation of that reality had to have fantastic or magical elements, and the main character had to continue to be mute. The central question: How could I give Jillian agency if she could not speak?


Lost in the Thorny Desert
In which Jillian shares an orange with a Guatemalan, is led by spirits to a borderlands dinner party, and gives birth to twins.
The Babies are floating, each in his own amniotic sac, although the cords going from what will be their belly buttons—one an “in-nie” and one an “out-y”—are connected to only one placenta. The Babies, like all babies in utero, can hear mostly vowels and not the percussion of consonants, so they hear a deep ah-ah-um um-ee-um ah-i-ah-oh when the man outside is talking. If The Babies could understand what he was saying, if they could hear actual words, they would know this means that they are at “medium” risk, not high but not low. They do hear the thu-thump thu-thump of their mother’s steady heartbeat, the whoosh whoosh whoosh of her blood through arteries, and the in and out of her breath, sometimes fast, but mostly slow. Later, they will hear echoes of these sounds in the wind and the sea, but for now they listen to the lapping of the thick fluid that surrounds them. They see the shadows of their mother’s hands as she strokes her belly, reassuring them with touch since she knows that only the mother’s voice goes straight into the womb and she, herself, being voiceless, cannot sing to them. Beyond the dark round horizon between them and the world, they sometimes see something bright and shining. Maybe it is a spirit or the sun or a particularly large light bulb. This puzzles them. Sometimes they study one another’s faces or hold up a hand in greeting. Sometimes they can hear one another’s thoughts, but it’s hard to sustain a conversation, what with all those gurgles in their mother’s digestive tract. Nice to know they are not alone, though, and, they suspect they will never feel alone, not even when they leave the universe of their mother’s belly.
When Angie O’Malley sees her daughter’s pregnant body, she can’t help but think of an Aztec fertility goddess although, truth be told, she has never seen one. It’s just that Jillian’s belly is so round and hard and all the tattoos that she planted when she was a teenager have blossomed. Plus, Jillian’s dark hair falls in waves over her very full breasts to her waist. Jillian, pregnant, may have been what Frida Kahlo was trying to dream into existence.
But why, Angie wonders, does Jillian persist with her volunteer work at this late stage? Month seven? If she were volunteering with the Food Bank, okay, but no, she is walking through the hot and thorny desert, leaving plastic bottles of water and emergency medical kits for migrants trying to make their way. Angie gets the impulse. Of course. But, shit, Jillian ought to let someone else be the Good Samaritan for once. Angie had even pointed it out to her: all her efforts could be for naught because those damn militia guys, not to mention some mean-ass Border Patrol agents, had been caught on video pouring salt into the water jugs or slashing the water jugs so that the water seeps out into the thirsty dirt.
In fact, Good Samaritans had been arrested recently and charged with felonies for taking three migrants to a hospital for care. Fifteen years! Angie told Jillian. They’re facing fifteen years in prison each! What is going to happen to those babies if you get thrown in prison? Or if one of those crazy militia guys decides to take a pot-shot at you?
Charity begins at home, Angie tells her, over and over again, ad nauseum, channeling her own mother who has been dead for three years now and whom she never thought she would channel, at least not deliberately.
It’s not that Angie had been anxious to become a grandmother. She was not one of those women. And she certainly did not need to take care of anyone else—her sister, poor Glenda, was still in her care after all these years. But now that she sees Jillian’s body and imagines those tiny babies somersaulting inside, she can’t even sleep at night. Her evolutionary mother instincts have kicked in. She is losing her mind trying to think of ways to protect Jillian and those babies.
Of course, Jillian, as always, does exactly as she pleases—just like her father did. When the Samaritans pull up out front, she kisses Angie and then picks up her backpack and her white cowboy hat. I love you, she signs, on her way out the door. One of the few signs she ever bothered to learn. “I love” and then she rubs both hands over her belly. “I love” she crosses her arms across her chest and gives herself a hug, a gesture from her childhood that she knows will melt her mother and all her protestations.
Even though she sometimes wanders off on her own, which is strictly forbidden, of course, the Good Samaritans need people like Jillian, who seem to have some kind of second sense that helps them find where the wounded or the nearly-dying-from-thirst might be hiding. They want to find them or provide them with water before they become “human remains”—way before that, way before their muscles start cramping from heat stroke and dehydration, before the nausea, before the dizziness and delirium, before their brains start to sizzle in their skulls, before they try to drink sand in their delirium, before. . . and, here, Jillian always stops herself from thinking for no one likes to think about what happens to the human body in such heat. They want to find them before they become bones. Pure and simple.
There are places to hide, she knows, especially when a person is afraid of coyotes, both human and animal. This desert is not barren. It can be as beautiful as it is dangerous. There is the occasional mesquite tree, its leaves velvety green in spring; only a mesquite might provide enough shade. There are fields of ocotillo, their skinny fingers orange tipped and reaching to the sky, thickets of cholla whose thorny joints will fish-hook in the skin, the ubiquitous acacia, the spiked pads of the prickly pear, and the tall dry grasses rustling. There are, Jillian has been told, over 2,000 miles of unmapped trails and that’s just in the tiny area the Samaritans call the tip of the pinky finger, trails that have been used, probably, for thousands of years and that wind down into and through steep, rocky canyons. There are giant boulders in whose shade a snake might sleep and arroyos filled with sand but that rage like rivers after the monsoons.
But the sun. The sun, in summer, is so bright, relentless: it bleaches the sky of color, it bakes the skin, makes heat radiate from the ground as if from an open oven. It is a dry heat that sears the nasal passages and parches the tongue, dries even the tissues of the throat and lungs. And most of the time, there is no water. As quickly as it falls from the sky, it evaporates, or it seeps through sand to ancient aquifers. Even someone who has a gift for hearing water will hear only the faintest of whispers far, far below. There are reasons the snakes hunt at night. Reasons this land was not inhabited, not even by those, like the Apache, whose warriors, they say, could run through the desert all day without carrying water. Maybe they carried a miracle stone in their mouths, Jillian had always thought, and from it sprang trickles of cool water.
Jillian knows she makes the Samaritans nervous, and she hates to do that to them, especially her friend who has taught her to dance, but she needs silence if she’s going to hear lost or escaping souls. On this day, a cool day in early November, while the other Samaritans are leaving bottles of water and flats of cans of beans, she finds a man squatting in a tiny circle of shade. He is a small man—when he stands as if to run, she sees how small—his clothes are torn, his shoes, they have been taped together.
She holds her hand up, wait, and then puts the palms of her hands together as if to pray. Really, she thinks, she must seem strange to him, this very tall, very pregnant woman wearing a cowboy hat, appearing from nowhere, especially since she is saying nothing. She must look strange, she thinks, like an apparition, maybe, but surely she does not look dangerous? She takes off her backpack. Offers him a jug of water and the sandwich she had packed for her own lunch. They share an orange because she thinks maybe his blood sugar—and maybe hers, too, now that she thinks of it— might be low.