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The Heart of the Ironbound


A Review of I’ll Give You a Reason by Annell López (The Feminist Press, 2024)

Annell López’ short story collection, I’ll Give You a Reason, brings us to the heart of the Ironbound, an immigrant neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey. These stories explore race, colorism, Blackness, identity, sex, and gentrification, among other topics. López gives us gritty and complex characters with their vulnerability on full display; her stories are often devastating, yet empowering. Through López’s expressive and captivating writing, these characters and their hardships feel tangible. Her pages are a portal: readers fall into them and walk the streets of Newark. We feel as if the Ironbound was our neighborhood too.

The opening story, “Great American Scream Machine,” follows Eva, a high schooler who, after finding her birth certificate and realizing she is undocumented, begins to question her future and safety. Her parents, who are also undocumented, have been keeping this secret from her, and now Eva must face the reality of her citizenship status and confront the fears that ensue. The last lines of this story carry a theme that threads throughout the stories to come:

In the right light, Eva thought, everything changes: the rat-infested banks of the Passaic River would soon become a boardwalk, and this blighted, abandoned warehouse, as ethereal as a portrait to a different dimension, could, too, become something else. What if she didn’t have to live a life on the margins, like scribbles on the side of a page? What if this wasn’t the end of the world? What if life was as ugly as it was beautiful, as bleak as it was hopeful?

Despite being undocumented, Eva has the potential to live a deep and meaningful life. She does not have to cower due to her citizenship status; she does not have to be unseen or have her voice be sidelined; she can turn her adversities into something powerful, a life that feels fulfilling. The majority of the stories in this collection follow the narratives of the Latinx community in Newark, and López reminds us that immigrant stories can be as ugly as they are beautiful, as bleak as they are hopeful, but also that these voices do not deserve to be hidden behind the curtains—they deserve to be center stage, in the spotlight for all of us to see.

With that in mind, I’ll admit that “The World as We Know It” did give me a bit of a jumpscare, when I realized the narrator was a white man named Eddie who cares more about sex than anything else in this world. I mean it. Pick any pressing issue we face as a society: this man would care more about if he was getting any than whatever you have in mind. His girlfriend Joy is not much better: she is the type of person who believes she can win a white ally-of-the-year award, paying her weekly dues by fighting online with a Trump supporter, and then calling it a day—and someone whose allyship inevitably dissipates in real-life scenarios.

When Joy and Eddie start hearing loud noises coming from one of the apartments in their building, they believe the ruckus is coming from their neighbors Miranda and Julio, who are presumed to be Dominican immigrants. Joy concludes that the noise “sounds like they’re beating their child,” and she calls Child Protective Services on them, based only on her assumption, with no evidence. ICE shows up at Miranda and Julio’s apartment, and the story spirals downward—their neighbors flee and are never seen again by Joy or Eddie. Only then does Joy start feeling regret and whipping out the crocodile tears.

Growing up on Long Island, I encountered many Eddies and Joys, and it would be an understatement to say these characters are triggering. However, that is precisely why this story belongs in this collection. López uses this narrative to showcase how small actions by white folks can catalyze upheaval in the lives and livelihoods of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC). By putting us in the head of Eddie, a person who perpetuates microaggressions against BIPOC communities, López lets readers experience Newark through the eyes of someone clearly disconnected from the people who are the heart and soul of the city.

The title story, “I’ll Give You a Reason,” follows a narrator mesmerized by their classmate Maria, who seems to cry about anything and everything, which leaves them wondering “where her tears came from” and “what it felt like to tap into that well so easily”? After listening to Alanis Morrisette’s “Uninvited,” the narrator too wells up with emotion. But before they can actually cry, they hear their mother’s voice in their head: “What do you have to cry for? I’ll give you a reason.”

I suspect that immigrant families often feel that showing emotion is a weakness, that one needs to learn, especially at a young age, “things are not worth crying over.” I can’t count the times that, as a child, I was told that “crying goes out the window”; for some reason, emotions are seen as a nuisance, something to be used against us, instead of something that ties our humanity together. This is one of the shorter stories in this collection, yet the desire to express emotions freely is a theme woven throughout the entire collection. In “The Other Carmen,” the narrator does have someone they can talk to about their struggles, but for the most part López’s narrators hold things in and do not fully express themselves to those around them. The only people with access to the innermost thoughts of her characters are the readers themselves. The fullness López brings to her narrators allows us to understand them intimately; we know more about them and comprehend their feelings and motives better than the characters that surround them.

The last and longest story in the collection is “The Fake Wife.” Chris, an ex-marine, is propositioned by a Dominican bartender named Marisa; she will pay him $10,000 if he marries her, so that she can get a green card. Other romantic stories woven within this collection tend to be about love lost and relationships where something is missing or not working out. Though it may sound cliché, this final story is about love found in unlikely places, and it is breathtaking. López’s final story also is the first located in part in the Dominican Republic: Chris and Marisa meet and get married in Boca Chica. Given that many of the stories in this collection are centered around Dominican narrators, it feels fitting for the last story to be set in both the Dominican Republic and Newark. Although Chris and Marisa’s relationship hit a few bumps towards the end of the story, readers are left with hope for a happy ending. Chris and Marisa lie in bed together, while Chris wishes for “another day. And another, and another, and another” with Marisa.

It also feels appropriate to end this review by noting how López herself leaves the endings of her stories open—nothing is conclusive. With each story, we are dropped into the lives of eccentric characters, we get a glimpse of who they are and what they want, we are given a slight sense of where their path may lead, and then we turn the page—ripped from the life of one character and dropped into another. In my opinion, such endings make López’s stories even more remarkable and cause her characters to feel authentic and real. After all, we do meet plenty of people where we know only snippets of their life. You never encounter them again, you grow apart, and you do not know where life will take them, yet you will always remember them, and you carry their stories with you. For this reason, the in-between moments—where we are allowed the luxury of getting to know someone intimately, during the brief time we are in their world—feel all the more transformative. Most importantly, by not ending, López reminds us that the stories of those living in the Ironbound have also not ended—they will forever move and weave together in new ways.
 

BRIANA BHOLA has a BA from Loyola University New Orleans, where she studied English with a concentration in film and digital media and minored in Middle East Peace Studies. Briana’s Goan and Guyanese heritage inspires her to pursue activist work, decolonize her bookshelf, and empower others during her free time. Her previous work can be found in New Orleans Review.


 

 


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