by Julia Tagliere
Bookriot.com describes chapbooks as a way to make a point: “They are an art form as much as a literary form, used for [sic] revolution, protest, and exploration.” Veronica Montes’ new chapbook, The Conquered Sits at the Bus Stop, Waiting, which won Black Lawrence Press’s Spring 2019 Black River Chapbook Competition, is a fine illustration of all of these.
In the eponymous opening story, “The Conquered Sits at the Bus Stop, Waiting,” Montes displays an impressive gift for metonymy, packing massive wallops of meaning into every line of the story’s single paragraph. Emotionally freighted words and imagery, like “conquered,” “circumnavigating,” and “extracting gold,” call swiftly to mind the horrific legacy of colonialism, while Montes’ masterful use of compression urges one to read this tiny, intense piece over and over again, to plumb more deeply with each pass the emotions that fill each line to its brim, until the reader, too, feels the coming flinch at the conqueror’s gaze: “When you call out, she will cover her eyes as if you are made of sunlight…” Who is the conquered? the reader wonders, praying that what she awaits at the bus stop is the coming of a necessary revolution.
One might say the opposite of revolution lies in silence—or, perhaps, rather, in submission—and that’s where Montes leads the reader next in “The Sound of Her Voice.” After all the primal screaming women have been doing for the last several years over misogyny and reproductive rights and the MeToo movement, this story of a submissive wife (another “conquered”) doing everything she can to avoid discomfiting her husband by the very act of speaking is, admittedly, a tough read. He gaslights her: “It’s her fault…Her husband once mentioned that he didn’t like this, that her tendency to speak in spirals was maddening.” She tries to do better (in her mind): “She makes use of gestures now,” and contemplates learning a wholly gesture-based language meant for pre-vocal infants (infantilizing herself for him) to avoid upsetting him. “He seems grateful for this silence; he sighs as if content,” but still, she feels his heartbeat against her cheek like “a tiny punch, punch, punch against her face.” In that repetition of the word “punch,” Montes reminds the reader what violence lies in the desire to silence another.
That silence cannot last forever, we know—that’s the heart of all revolutions, of all protests, after all, the breaking of historic silences—and Montes shows the moment of that rupture by means of exquisite stream-of-consciousness in “Lint Trap,” which captures the inner monologue of a wife and mother, trying—and failing—to find meaning and purpose in her life as her family’s de facto laundress. The woman’s mental acrobatics, as she tries to imagine something useful out of her family’s lint, is brilliant: “Could she use it to…stuff something? A tiny doll family? Tooth fairy pillows?” The absurdity of her quest grows as she dreams of making protective gear for all the children of the world: “She envisions wild success in the money-making arena of youth sports.” Ultimately, however, she realizes the lint is just lint, that no matter what she makes of it, the void of her life will never be filled, and Montes crafts that moment of her realization with deep horror.
The reader witnesses so much of “The Conquered” up to this point, and Montes is so good at wringing difficult emotions out of every word, that these first few pieces can be somewhat disheartening to read. But thankfully, Montes also delivers on the “Waiting,” the “What Happens Next” part, as in the beautiful stories “Madaling Araw” and “Interlude: The Ocean of Tears.” Both stories feature women who have suffered deeply—the loss of a father, cruel abuse—but who, in the face of their suffering, marshal their strength and regain their agency, their freedom.
In “Madaling Araw,” for example, the main character refuses to hide her scars, and in a gorgeously empowering scene, uses them instead to shame her tormentors:
She didn’t dress for a while, choosing instead to admire her own brown skin, the knots of muscle, every scar and scab. When she was done she turned to the east to face them…Do you see me standing here?
From miles away, they saw. Their pale hands flexed, their hearts thrummed with the knowledge of their wrongdoing.
In “Interlude: The Ocean of Tears,” once again, Montes demonstrates the power of controlling one’s own destiny, regardless of where it leads. There’s a lovely surrealism to explore in this story of a woman ceaselessly mourning her dead father, surrounded by those who think she should just be over her loss by now. A flying mermaid appears to her in a dream and tells her that in order for her grief to end, she must cry an ocean’s worth of tears, cross it in a boat of her own making, and enter the door on the other side. The grieving daughter does as she is bid, but only up to a point—and that point is where she makes her (unexpected) stand at last: “She gently pressed her hands and forehead against [the planks of the door]. Her tears stopped immediately, and she knew the lady had told the truth: all she had to do was push it open. She imagined herself unfurling like an orchid…”
Because it is a chapbook, The Conquered Sits at the Bus Stop, Waiting is a very slim collection, only eight stories long, but each story, crafted with tremendous precision and skill, is a delightful illustration of the gifts of revolution, protest, and exploration, for which chapbooks as a literary form have long been praised; the brevity of these potent stories only adds to the joy of exploring their each and every word.
Montes was born in San Francisco and raised in the Filipino American enclave of Daly City, California; her short stories and flash fiction, including several from this collection, have appeared in numerous anthologies as well as in print and online journals such as SmokeLong Quarterly, Cheap Pop, and Lost Balloon, among others.
Julia Tagliere’s work has appeared in The Writer, Potomac Review, Gargoyle Magazine, Washington Independent Review of Books, and elsewhere. Winner of the 2015 William Faulkner Literary Competition for Best Short Story and the 2017 Writers Center Undiscovered Voices Fellowship, Julia completed her M.A. in Writing at Johns Hopkins University and serves as an editor with The Baltimore Review.