The State of Being Different in “Enfermario” by Gabriela Torres Olivares
Tw: Sexual Assault, Incest.
Enfermario by Gabriela Torres Olivares was originally published in Spanish in 2010, and is now available to English speakers in a new bilingual edition. This version contains both Spanish and English versions of all the stories and runs them side-by-side, packed with complex stories of people living with disabilities, living with those who have disabilities, experiencing sexual assault from a parent, and even having had a parasitic twin. Many of these works read like fables, including one openly titled “The Parable of the Talk Show.”
“The Parable of the Talk Show” shows two characters who appear to have suffered the same situation: each parent regularly assaulted one of their two children, but one manages to escape that by her father’s death. She fights to medically transition by appearing on a talk show in order to access the resources she needs, and gaining unexpected popularity — a popularity that her mother struggles with. However, her brother still lives in fear, regularly assaulted by their mother. There is little help nor hope that his suffering might end. He worries that if he steps forward, he’d be accused of jealousy or of chasing his sister’s fame. This fear is enough pin him to the situation he’s in, while his mother and sister toast to their family, regardless of his misery.
Olivares has many stories of people who live with disabilities or live with someone who has a disability, including “Thirteen Point Two,” “So What If She Has Tourrette’s,” and “Autobiography of a Centaur.” “Thirteen Point Two” opens the collection with a woman named Vasudeva from her birth with a parasitic twin that is removed. The drug users she spends time with see her scar and her story as a reason to respect her. Meanwhile, she no longer feels whole, feeling a longing where her twin once was. In “So What If She Has Tourette’s,” a mother insists on keeping her daughter Silvia sheltered because she has Tourette’s Syndrome, no matter how old Silvia gets, believing she will be safer this way. Finally, Sylvia declares that she wants a boyfriend. In response, her father begins to sexually abuse her. Silvia longs to go on her favorite talk show, while her mother fears their family secrets will be exposed. Elements of this story mirror, “Autobiography of a Centaur,” in which a man recalls a story he was told as a boy that a neighboring child is also kept indoors because he is a centaur. This man grows up to publish a book on the “centaur” boy, using a photo of the family’s house for the book, which gets the publishing company sued. Returning to the hairdresser who first told him the story, the main character discovers that he misunderstood the story all along. He’s enraged to discover the story he’s fixated on was never true: the neighbor simply had clubbed feet.
Olivares has a way with challenging preconceptions through dark and painful stories that make it easy to sympathize with her characters through their unusual and terrible situations. She writes characters who are not normally written about, and through complex tales shows depth and philosophy. Oliveras challenges both how her characters understand the world, and the ways her readers understand — and misunderstand the world, and those with whom we share the world.