Mayra Santos-Febres - In these erotic urban vignettes, passion leads to uncomfortable truths: one woman is convinced she has licked her tattooed lover to an ecstatic death; another rushes home to peep at a neighbor's nakedness, only to find that her own obsession has been laid bare

Mayra Santos-Febres, Urban Oracles, Trans. by, Nathan Budoff & Lydia Platon Lazaro, Brookline Books, 1999.

In this collection of stories, Mayra Santos-Febres draws us into a world pulsing with desires. And she never allows us to feel that we are strangers looking in. We are not granted the comfort of distant analysis. These are vignettes that expand into narratives; the words that flow from visceral passions of her characters become stories as we watch those needs and desires flower.
We are taken into the very essence of the characters, and yet Santos-Febres does not want us to feel too comfortable with these tales; we are forced to understand and acknowledge the uncomfortable places where they sometimes lead. She presents us with a rich and vital world, a world which refuses to be limited to the realm of the socially acceptable. The world we find ourselves in as we read these stories is our own world as we wish it was: simple, honest, passionate, fearless.

Though sometimes overheated, the 15 brief short stories that comprise Febres's initial collection to appear in English are never dull. In the title story, a psychic instructs her child in the ways of reading people: ""The guardian angels reveal twenty percent of what happens, but the rest is interpretation."" The titular scent of ""Marina's Fragrance"" has a strange effect on people, particularly men, as Marina becomes aware of her ability to manipulate her odor and to express emotions in an olfactory manner. Febres often inhabits the minds of her characters to great effect. ""Stained Glass Fish"" follows the fevered thoughts of a woman who visits a lesbian bar for the first time and spots a co-worker. The protagonist of ""Abnel, Sweet Nightmare"" hurries home by bus so as not to miss her nightly ritual: watching her neighbor dress after his shower, including the occasionally thrilling glimpse of his genitals. These stories are highly sexed but never tawdry. Even ""A Normal Day in the Life of Couto Seduccion"" comes off as sexy and mythic, although it's about an enormous man who has 13 lovers who fulfill his fantasies on the second Tuesday of each month, even after one such fantasy--played out at the beach--results in the death of one of the lovers ""who, determined to kiss one of his buttocks, rolled under the immense mass, and there lost air and consciousness."" A seamless translation from the Spanish adds much to these innovative tales, which mix magical realism and gritty urban reality to memorable effect. - Publishers Weekly

In these erotic urban vignettes, passion leads to uncomfortable truths: one woman is convinced she has licked her tattooed lover to an ecstatic death; another rushes home to peep at a neighbor's nakedness, only to find that her own obsession has been laid bare. At best, the stories merge social, sexual and magical realities, as when Marina, whose skin exudes all fragrances including the odors of sadness, solitude and desire, must escape the racial snobbery that stifles her love. Mayra Santos-Febres refuses to leave the poetry out of her erotica. Often her outspoken cameos of desire are lyrical and provocative, but her imagery can also be exhausted by its need to overwhelm. Less successful stories merely sketch the risque -- or the outlandish. Though not all of them seduce, these trysts between need, language and opportunity remain insistently sensual.  - PETER BRICKLEBANK

Mayra Santos-Febres has become an internationally acclaimed Puerto Rican writer since the publication in 1991 of her first two poetry books, Anamú y manigua and El orden escapado And now with the publication of Urban Oracles, readers will have access to an English translation of Pez de Vidrio, the 1994 winner of the Letras de Oro prize, awarded by the University of Miami and the Spanish Ministry for Exterior Affairs.
Santos-Febres's Urban Oracles explores the interaction of desire and frustration that permeates modern Puerto Rican society. In "Resins for Aurelia" a man, longing for the unattainable, yearns to feel the arms of his beloved's corpse lovingly wrapped around him. In the story "Abnel, Sweet Nightmare," an aging woman briefly alleviates her loneliness by becoming a voyeur. "God, oh God, why have you forsaken me?" she cries, caught in a metropolitan bus inching forward through the San Juan afternoon traffic, fearing she will not reach her apartment window for her 6:15 ritual to observe the man of her sexual fantasies coming out of the shower and meticulously dressing himself . She arrives late only to discover that he, too, another lonely inhabitant of this Caribbean urban jungle, is waiting for her and that he, as much as she, needs this daily dosage of communication with another human being even if it has to be carried out through concrete, steel, and glass.
Certainly Santos-Febres's collection, through a language that meshes body, soul, and spirit, intelligently deals with some key issues of Puerto Rican contemporary society, such as race, social status, sexual orientation, and political status. The collection has been categorized by its publishers under the heading Erotica, and oddly enough also under Latin American Studies The stories certainly deal with sexual desire, but should Santos-Febres and the island she writes about be compartmentalized as part of Latin America? Nothing about life in Puerto Rico can be easily defined, especially Puerto Rican identity. Issues such as Puerto Rican identity and the island's political status are intimately related to sexual desire in skillfully constructed stories like "Dilcia M." In "Dilcia M," a story "for all the Puerto Rican political prisoners jailed in federal prisons by the U. S. government since 1980," an imprisoned, frustrated young Puerto Rican woman becomes a metaphor for the colonized body of the island of Puerto Rico. Nevertheless, though the story pays homage to Puerto Rican political prisoners and their struggle for an independent Puerto Rico, it also questions the fervor of a Dilcia M who, for an ideal, will give up family, friends, and love. The story leaves us asking ourselves if such a sacrifice is valid or verging on the perverse. In all, Urban Oracles may be read as a call for the liberation of both Puerto Rican sexual identity and national territory.
Urban Oracles should have a wide appeal to readers interested in women's studies, Caribbean, Puerto Rican, and American studies. The collection represents a unique opportunity to read in English the prose work of one of Puerto Rico's young and talented writers. -


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