On Lighthouses: Novela

3 out of 5 stars

On Lighthouses by Jazmina Barrera: A meditative exploration of using metaphor to describe a private interior self, by way of lighthouses.

This book was enjoyable, though predicable. I could tell Barrera had read and connected with Eula Biss and perhaps Michael Focoult while in grad school, it reminds me of something I would want to write but not know how. This book feels like an MFA thesis–only a good one. The parts of the piece which connected her lives to the fictional characters that occupy her lighthouses feel the strongest.

There was one aspect of the book that I didn’t enjoy, and it’s hard to describe. The book felt privileged. Perhaps as a person who has visited and seen Mexico (as well as other parts of the country she brings to the page) I felt uncomfortable knowing that there was so much ugliness she wasn’t looking at. Her book reminded me of a more extended rumination of Anne Faidman’s Ex-Libris , which is also a privileged novel. But I have deep love in my heart for Faidman–perhaps because her essays didn’t bring her outside the world of her bookshelves? She was less explicit about the world around because she stayed indoors.

Is there a sense of responsibility for authors to describe realities? I don’t like how she chose not to address poverty, discrimination, or the abundance of authors that are popular with a white readership–and then I begin to question my own biases. As a brown woman I feel she should acknowledge the rest of us. She did briefly address this at the end of her collection, though it felt pretty and forced. She wrote about subjectivity and how she choses to leave things out, even in her diaries, for the simple reason she doesn’t want to talk about them (for another great example of this take a look at Yiyun Li’s Dear Friend, from my Life I write to you in your Life ).

Some call me a sentimental writer, but when did it become uncouth to have feelings? Don’t know how I ended up here. Barrera’s book was well-written, integrated, and informative. I learned a lot, and I appreciated the references to Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Yukio Mishima, DFW, and others. As somebody who is also a collector of things (mostly large emotions), I felt both connected to and at odds with the author.

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