The stories we tell ourselves are formed by the people and experiences that shape us, like a river rock worn smooth after so many years of water. But what happens when we ask, “Why are these my stories, and what do I want to say?” In Wild Tongues Can’t Be Tamed, a collection of essays and poems edited by Saraciea J. Fennel, fifteen Latin American writers interrogate topics ranging from identity and colorism to autonomy and family ties. This is an anthology that is as raw as it is refined, one that speaks to each writer’s truth and sheds light on the realities of the Latin American diaspora.
The collection opens with “Eres Un Pocho” by Mark Oshiro, an intimate essay about Oshiro’s experience growing up adrift between cultures. “Pocho” is an insult that can mean many things, but here, it refers to a Mexican American who doesn’t speak Spanish. The use of second-person narration, paired with the repetition of “Eres un pocho,” is a stinging reminder that Oshiro doesn’t belong—until the moment they break free of the term and their home, ultimately stepping into their identity as a queer, Latinx writer. There’s an undercurrent of survival in “Eres Un Pocho,” which sets the tone for the collection; these are stories about surviving, looking inward, and clapping back.
In “Price of Admission,” Naima Coster examines the relationship between storytelling and coping with difficult pasts; her father’s family’s silence is an attempt to bury the pain of a complicated history, while her own writing is an attempt “to move away from shame.” Through this drive for understanding, Coster effectively questions the construct of the “good immigrant.” She writes, “Who gets to decide what virtue is or who is virtuous? And aren’t we all much more multidimensional and messy than ‘bad’ or ‘good’? Or is that complexity reserved only for white people—US citizens?” Through this line of questioning, Coster pushes back against narratives that attempt to typecast immigrants and their families; their stories deserve to be as complex as their lived experiences, not edited to make their non-whiteness more palatable. Natasha Diaz’s poem “Caution Song” echoes this sentiment with a fierce reclamation of personal autonomy. Diaz writes, “I’ve heard before, / that you probably mean no harm / when you challenge me to speak in a language / I only know in lullabies and your curiosity / Is an opportunity for growth I should nurture— / I would say that I have no interest in gardening.”
True to the collection’s title, each piece exhibits a strong, clearly defined voice, delivered in a range of forms: In “#Julian4spiderman,” Julian Randall melds their experiences growing up in Chicago with their connection to Miles Morales, the terms “Afro-Latino” and “Afro-Latinx,” and the idea that “there are as many ways to be Latinx as there are Latinx people, that this is what it can mean when it is said that ‘Anyone can wear the mask.’” In “Alaiyo,” Jasminne Mendez uses a three-act structure to craft a story about the strength, community, and voice she found through theater. “Invisible” by Ingrid Rojas Contreras is a forceful, arresting essay that explores complicity, the decision to “break up” with her racist in-laws, and the revelation that “I did not need permission to leave a dynamic I felt was abusive. All that leaving required was myself validating my own reality.”
As a whole, the selections in Wild Tongues Can’t Be Tamed shine when the writers lean into their lived experiences on the page; in “Half In, Half Out: Orbiting a World Full of People of Color,” Fennell beautifully describes how body language bridges the language divide between her siblings and primos and their elders: “A flick of the hand and the phrase ‘déjalo’ meant to leave it alone, knitting of the eyebrows, concerned eyes, tilt of the head, with a hand on the shoulder and a ‘ya comiste?’ meant have you eaten yet. It’s strange to not speak a language fluently yet still be attuned to its meaning, but it’s comforting all the same.” At the same time, there are moments in essays when I found myself wanting the author to go deeper, to sit with a moment and unravel its complexities. In “Haitian Sensation,” Ibi Zoboi effectively retells her youth and the role of hair as a means of assimilation, but we miss out on similar worldbuilding as she embraces her Haitian identity. In “Paraíso Negro,” we are taken into Khalil Haywood’s memories as he retells his childhood visits to Panama—but I wanted fewer of these scenes and a stronger exploration of his changing relationship with his Panamanian ethnicity and Afro-Latinx identity. The latter half of the essay expounds on this idea, but the earlier half is missing this same tension. This isn’t to say the essays aren’t effective; I found myself consistently ending these selections with the sensation that a friend had just pulled me aside and shared their story. The raw edges of this collection remind us that these perspectives on race and identity are unfiltered pieces of conversations that have been bubbling beneath the surface for decades.
Overall, the voices in Wild Tongues Can’t Be Tamed are as bold as they are fully willing to embrace the complexities of identities that ladder up to the Latin American diaspora. The stories we tell ourselves are not formed in a vacuum, but they are also not set in stone; these writers illustrate that stories are meant to be interrogated, and truths are meant to be told. As Diaz writes at the end of “Caution Song,” “Because if you call me spicy, / you should expect me to bite your tongue.”
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Publication Date: November 2nd, 2021
Reviewed by Rebecca Parades