If there’s a more perfect title for Tara Isabel Zambrano’s debut collection, Death, Desire and Other Destinations, I would be shocked. Death abounds in this collection of fifty flash stories, only equaled or outmatched by the undercurrent of female desire that is laced through nearly every story.
In “Alligators,” the collection’s opening story, and one of the longest, the narrator, bearing her mother’s effects (“Before her demise, I didn’t know how much space a life requires,”) meets a gypsy girl on a bus. Here, we are first treated to Zambrano’s writing of physical desire, both sexual and sensual, that will follow throughout the collection: “She unbuttons my jeans, pushes her fingers down, the cold surface of her rings maneuver inside my body, one by one… we are a tangle of tongues.”
In “Up and Up,” the narrator finds her mother with a new lover sixth month’s after her father’s death, the stranger’s “head between her legs.” In “Lunar Love,” the narrator and her fiancée fly to the moon for their wedding. In “Silent Spaces,” “The girl in the hijab, a high schooler, is eager to caress her best friend’s thighs, bite her broad back that tapers into a thin waist.” “Sex is like cotton candy,” the narrator’s husband in “Only Buildings” says, “the more you have, the more you want.”
But the desires aren’t all sexual. In “Cubes”, engineers are locked in their office, under gag orders, until their special project is complete. The narrator desires to be in a position of power, control, like Karen with administrative privileges, able to move freely. The high school-aged narrator in “Acid of Curiosity” desires to understand herself – to be understood. And in “Wherever, Whenever,” drawn between her Indian parents and her American friends, our narrator desires a place she feels at home: “I don’t feel I belong here… I don’t think I belong where [Ma and Baba] come from… Tania and I are at the border: our citizenship is a string of digits in our passport, our ethnicity a questionnaire our parents wish we knew the answers to.
Zambrano’s range is impressive. The stories in this collection take you from destinations in America to India and back, from Earth to the moon and to the stars beyond. There are destination weddings in space, a bean-shaped alien with tentacles that penetrate and consume. Cosmic lovers, dying or deceased fortune tellers, human hearts left on the sink in a bathroom. Dead girls who roam the neighborhood streets. I’m reminded of Chloe N. Clark’s Collective Gravities – although the styles are (quite) different, the sheer number of spaces the stories in both collections, speculative or otherwise, occupy are dizzying.
As flash has begun to occupy more of the fiction marketplace, due to diminishing attention spans or the increase in online publications which favor bite-sized reading on the screen – whatever you’d like to credit for the rise of this medium – it’s become easier to read new work and move on, forget about it. And that’s the challenge flash writers face: How do you make your work resonate? Keep your words rattling around your readers’ heads? The secret, as Zambrano illustrates time and again in her collection, is in the ending. Endings that flip the story on its head, the reveal something true and touching not only about the characters of the story but more broadly about the conceit of this collection: Death, Desire and the many destinations along the way.
There are times (few and far between) where the collection lags – not every story can be as moving as “Whenever, Wherever,” or as captivating as “Whatever Remains” – but that is the beauty of a flash collection: If a story doesn’t strike you, a new, better story is not far behind. Many of these stories were published previously, in venues like Pithead Chapel, SmokeLong Quarterly, Wigleaf and PANK. The list of acknowledgements reads like a who’s who of the best journals publishing flash today. Any aspiring flash fiction writer would be well served to submit their work to any of the journals that Zambrano has been published in before. With a publication history as prolific as Zambrano’s, it was only a matter of time before she released a collection with as much force as Death, Desire and Other Destinations.
Publisher: Okay Donkey Press
Publication Date: September 15th, 2020
Reviewed by Cole Meyer