Faijitas & Friends
 by Betty Serra-Rojas

2009, Paperback
First collection

Betty Serra-Rojas is a first generation Latin American born and raised in San Francisco. She works full-time at an insurance company as a staff investigator and resides in the Bay Area peninsula.

Read an interview with Betty Serra-Rojas

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"Uncle Philo was a fanatic Puritan always suspicious of immoral behaviour. He wouldn’t even allow the salt and pepper shakers to stand next to each other on the kitchen table."

Reviewed by Chelsey Flood

There is an unashamed tenderness in this warm-hearted book by Latin American writer, Betty Serra-Rojas that is rarely seen in contemporary literary fiction. Serra-Rojas seems not to agree with the maxim happiness writes white, nor to be from the Carver school of less is more when it comes to communicating the depth of people’s affection. Rather she leans towards candid depictions of openness, generosity and compassion in this collection of fourteen short stories published by Authorhouse.

Admirable as Fajitas & Friends is for its bucking of something that seems to have become something of a trend in contemporary short stories, there is a tendency to veer towards the sentimental, the overstated, even, god forbid, the schmalzy, and reading this collection, I couldn’t help but think Serra-Rojas may have benefited from an editor the way Carver did: her own Gordon Lish to create, if not a pastiche of Carver’s infamous understated style, perhaps a paring down of this tendency to over-sentimentalise.

In the opening story, Hostage Wings, when Serra-Rojas’ narrator writes:
"I find it easier to take over and do things myself. It’s as if I’m the one who has to turn the earth away from the sun in order for nightfall to come..."
I can’t help but make the connection with Serra-Roja’s own tendency to labour the point, to be too present as an author. She refuses to take risks with the reader’s understanding or allow room for interpretation. The result is over-directed prose with too many signposts to theme, meaning and significance.

This heavy handedness, or desire to control what the reader takes from her stories, detracts from their power, particularly in Forgiven, a story about the legacy of a violent and abusive mother and its impact on her daughter’s daughter. Serra-Rojas’ last lines here are:
"Maribel De La Fuerte was a young girl when she made a commitment to change her destiny. My siblings and I weren’t even born and she had already mapped out our futures. Even more remarkable is the fact my mother truly loved my grandmother. She forgave [her] and when my grandmother died, I saw my mother cry. It wasn’t out of obligation: her loss was sincere and heartfelt."
The point is communicated clearly and unmistakeably but as the reader I didn’t feel involved, didn’t feel its impact because of the directed nature of the writing. I didn’t feel the thrill of reaching my own conclusion but that there was only one conclusion and that Serra-Rojas had taken me by the hand and led me to it.

Despite this shortage of room for the reader to imagine and, in turn, to empathise, Forgiven is, in some ways, an ambitious short story. Like many of Serra-Roja’s pieces it scans decades, incorporating the lives of three generations of women in just ten pages. Moments of trademark Serra-Rojas tenderness reward the reader in passages such as this:
"A luminating electrical charge engulfed us. I saw the essence of my mother. I saw the sum of who she was, everything she had endured and the gifts she embodied."
There is a sense of paying homage to life’s unsung heroes that runs through the collection. Serra-Rojas stories are littered with the smaller losses and loves that slip beneath the radar of human experience: the bond between a young woman and her elderly neighbour in A Bandbox, the grief at losing the companionship of a childhood dog in Chalkmark Therapy. Serra-Rojas writes unashamedly of the love that passes between people whose lives entwine only briefly.

The book is littered with Spanish phrases and references, and the comedy that comes from the tension of Ecuadorian, Nicaraguan and American cultures colliding enhances the collection’s otherwise fairly pedestrian tone. There are flashes of brilliance too, hints that this writer can, in fact, dazzle with her prose, as here in A Summer Escape:
"Uncle Philo was a fanatic Puritan always suspicious of immoral behaviour. He wouldn’t even allow the salt and pepper shakers to stand next to each other on the kitchen table."
Here in Tombstone Taillights:
"Paloma, the newborn babe, was the dangling taillight of a getaway vehicle driven irresponsibly by her mother."
And here in Frentuda (Big Forehead):
"Blanca and Consuelo continue to browse through pictures until I see my mother with a puzzled look. She looks as if she made flan, but the pie mold is filled with ricepudding."
But, for this reader, these moments are too rare, the less brilliant ones too frequent.

Read an excerpt from this collection on  Authorhouse

Chelsey Flood has had stories and poetry published in Route, Night Train and the Big Issue. She is currently studying for an MA in Creative Writing at UEA and writing her first novel.
Chelsey's other Short Reviews: Bill Broady and Jane Metcalk (ed) "You are Here: the Redbeck Anthology of Contemporary Short Stories"
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