Morales (English/Glendale Community Coll.) debuts with a compellingly rendered collection of essays, the winner of the River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize.
The concluding and climactic title piece—about the author giving birth to her daughter at the same time and hospital as a 14-year-old single mother, one of so many that this young teacher has come to know—was already selected for inclusion in Best American Essays, and the coming-of-age stories preceding it combine unflinching honesty with all-embracing compassion. Morales describes growing up in Los Angeles in a dysfunctional Mexican-American family with parents who were raised poor but began living beyond their means. One of her father’s manic shopping binges provided her with a bowling ball, and the bowling alley gave her an identity separate from the one she had at home and at school. As she matured, her parents’ marriage crumbled, leaving her ambivalent over the prospect of a divorce that likely took too long to arrive. Meanwhile, her father continued to beat her mother and cheat on her, resulting in fights that led to police visits, making the family the spectacle of their otherwise white neighborhood: “They would gather with crossed arms, squinting beyond the sun’s glare toward our front door, acting as if they were 100 percent entitled to stare…[like] it was no different than staring at elephants in the zoo. My mother said that they thought we were a bunch of dumb, dirty, low-class Mexicans.” Yet most of the essays aren’t as dark as this one nor as focused on the author’s ethnicity. Her memories of women’s liberation and its influence on schoolgirls, her experience with flashers and other perverts, and her later life as a mother and teacher all help forge a distinctive voice and perspective, an understanding that “writing connects us to people with whom we’d otherwise have no connection…and thus we develop empathy.”
Essays that are as thematically ambitious as they are deeply personal.