31 Days of Stories 2012, Day 26: “Hunting in Spanish” by Yasuko Thanh

May 26, 2012 by · 1 Comment 

From Floating Like the Dead

Yasuko Thanh’s pervading theme in Floating Like the Dead is displacement. Whether she is writing about a transplanted Parisian running a resort in Honduras, a nineteen-year-old housekeeper on a farm in 1960s Germany contemplating a flight to America with her Vietnamese lover, or – in the collection’s Journey Prize–winning title story – a group of Chinese immigrants at the turn of the 20th century interred in a British Columbia leper colony, Thanh’s subjects are all searching for belonging, a home, or love. The sense of being outsiders or misfits, of not fitting into the accepted mainstream of whatever society they find themselves in, by design or otherwise, is a motivating factor for many of Thanh’s characters.

The woman at the centre of “Hunting in Spanish” is an idealist who arrived in Mexico with dreams of working at an orphanage, but soon found herself in the village of Zipolite, where she ekes out an existence selling opium with her sort-of boyfriend, Chinchu. The woman’s status as an outsider is established early in the story: the locals at the market have taken to calling her güera, meaning “fair-haired one.” The woman’s hair, we are told, is dark; the appellation is clearly designed to indicate her otherness. “[S]he’ll never be Mazatec,” the woman thinks at one point. “Not even Mexican. Güera. She would always be the güera, even when no one says the word.”

An immigrant herself, the woman nevertheless feels removed from the tourists for whom “Mexico is a photo opportunity, there for their viewing pleasure.” They buy picture postcards featuring images “of crumbling ruins and colonial buildings in elegant decay, mariachi bands and fire eaters, barefoot children and Zapatistas toting machine guns.” One American tourist who thinks he is being extraordinarily benevolent by purchasing a bottle of beer for a Mexican construction worker fails to recognize the way in which the object of his largesse mockingly reacts to him.

If the woman feels estranged from the other outsiders in Zipolite, however, she feels no closer to the locals, in part because she does not speak their language. “[E]ven if they weren’t living in Spanish, hating in Spanish, or yelling this way at their dogs, the way they live would still feel foreign to her.”

Part of the woman’s discomfort arises from the strength of her feelings for Chinchu, feelings she is not sure are reciprocated. They joke about marriage but have an open relationship, and he frequently consorts with other women. The protagonist’s lack of fluency in the Spanish language is at once a comfort and a hindrance to her:

She likes that Spanish sets the rules of engagement, that their arguments are curbed by her simple vocabulary. She doesn’t have the words to tell him “I love you”; they don’t exist for her in Spanish. Yet they can dance the salsa as if connected at the hip, breezing through drunken tourists, unaffected by obstacles. And so they continue on the way they always have.

Her dissatisfaction manifests itself in a desire to strike out and explore other avenues, other experiences. This leads her to embark on a deer hunting trip with Dashon, the man who grows the poppies that produce the opium she and Chinchu sell. It also leads her to pick up a stranger in a bar, who takes her back to his cabaña and assaults her. The juxtaposition of these two scenes is startling: in the former, the woman surprises herself by taking control and shooting a deer; in the latter, it is she who is subjected to a vicious act of violence. The “moment of exhilaration” that accompanies firing the hunting rifle cedes to a feeling of numbness as the realization of what she has done sets in: “[S]uddenly she wonders what the deer’s ankle might feel like in her hand – slender, dying – but she can’t do it. She can’t move. Her body is frozen against the tree’s trunk and her hands are clenched into fists. She begins shaking.”

The violence in the story’s second half is shocking, but not entirely unexpected. There are numerous references throughout the story to the waves on the ocean; in the Zapotec dialect, Zipolite means “beach of the dead,” so called because of the water’s dangerous undertow. Moreover, the neighbourhood the woman lives in with Chinchu is called Roca Blanca, “the white rock,” a reference to an offshore rock formation that bird guano has turned white. These details, coupled with the general feeling of eeriness the woman succumbs to as a result of her marginal existence in a culture she fails to entirely understand, lend the story a foreboding aspect that subtly prefigures the violence to come.

In the end, it is her own feeling of exoticism that drives the woman to explore dangerous aspects of the local life, with predictably unsettling results. She is held at a distance by the language barrier, but also by a barrier in understanding that exists between her and her “Aztec god” of a lover. “I have to get out of here,” she tells Chinchu at one point, to which he responds in typically cavalier fashion: “It’s all the same party.” This throwaway line results in the woman’s instant of heartrending epiphany:

In that moment she comprehends just how little they understand each other. What would he say if she told him she’d hoped the trip to the mountains would provide her with something to hold on to? That when she shot the deer, she had felt nothing inside at all? What would he say if she told him that her luck never did stand up to close examination? But somehow she doesn’t have the words.


One Response to “31 Days of Stories 2012, Day 26: “Hunting in Spanish” by Yasuko Thanh”
  1. Guilie says:

    Excellent summary–thanks for sharing! I’m Mexican and have been to Zipolite a number of times. I’d love to read this story, and the rest of them sound great, too. Thanks for pointing me in this direction!