Reviewed by Emily Webber
Tara Isabel Zambrano’s short story collection Death, Desire, and Other Destinations delivers on what it promises in the title. Zambrano highlights our desire for human connection and our yearning for the things we cannot have or have lost.
So much of 2020 has asked us to endure the opposite of desire. We’ve been asked to forego simple pleasures like eating a meal with a friend to grand celebrations for weddings and births. We’ve been asked to shrink down our worlds and to contain our longing for human connection. But Zambrano’s stories take us to a wedding on the moon, show us a man transforming into his dead wife, make visible the spirits that haunt us, and show us uninhibited physical desire. These stories take us from India to the United States, to worlds wholly imagined.
Death, Desire, and Other Destinations, published by Okay Donkey Press, compiles fifty of Zambrano’s flash fiction pieces in this debut collection. Anyone who is a reader of literary journals that publish flash fiction will likely have encountered Zambrano’s stories. Many of the book’s stories have appeared in journals such as Barrelhouse, TriQuarterly, Tin House, The Cincinnati Review, and SmokeLongQuarterly.
Each of these stories deliver what makes flash fiction such a joy to read—offering a glimpse into many different lives that bloom into so much more than what is on the page. In The Fortune Teller, a woman assists her elderly mother:
Steadily. You will always wake up knowing the answer. Don’t lose it trying to find something that does not exist. The future that is, and the one we imagine, are as different as life versus a dream. And a good fortune teller always sees something that connects them (91).
Zambrano is like our good fortune teller guiding us through these lives—not sparing us the messy details of death, loss, failing and complicated relationships, and hardships but making sure that we also see the magic.
Zambrano writes her subjects very well, and the result is remarkable details, prompting an awakening of the heart in the reader. A woman describes repeated miscarriages:
Cells building up on top of each other—a circus tent, taut, blistering. A few weeks later it collapses as if the stakes are pulled from the ground. For the rest of the week, I hunt jobs on the internet, create career profiles, Google search “miscarriages,” again (34).
These are images that linger long after reading and create characters that burrow in our minds and hearts.
Many stories touch on the death of parents and reflect on the relationship children have with their parents, a bond that is often laced with disappointment and anger but also love and duty that threads through and stays tethered even in death. Whether it be the loss of a lover, parent, or friend, these characters seek out the dead among the living. In Whatever Remains, a woman recognizes her deceased husband’s spirit in a monkey that drops a mango by her feet. In Enfold, another woman feels the presence of her dead husband in their house.
After his death, my husband lives in the walls and fixtures of our home. They rumble and shake when he’s pacing inside them, bulge and contract. Sometimes, an outline of a face emerges out of the paint. I blink hard, and it’s gone (179).
And finally, even the dead have their say in We’re Waiting to Hear Our Names.
We’re lying in our graves separated by five years. The dirt is full of answers. Sometimes, we’re whispering each other’s name, and the dry flowers above us stir. And we’re dreaming and waiting. We’re waiting to hear our names (65).
The other destinations of Zambrano’s stories offer places where the moon disappears, a woman goes blind after sex, and dead girls wander the neighborhood. Even the most surreal stories don’t suffer from an excess of peculiarity. We can still recognize in these other worlds our own desires and emotions. The same hunger that plagues us in this world is present in these stories.
With all stories in Death, Desire, and Other Destinations, there is a raw energy and a strangeness speckled with a familiar yearning. These characters clash with death and try to make sense of the world by stepping outside of the world’s boundaries. Whether in places we can recognize or not, we see ourselves reflected. You’ll read through each of these stories with a buzzing in the bones and heart, encountering a world rich with desire and spirit.
Death, Desire, and Other Destinations by Tara Isabel Zambrano
Okay Donkey Press, 2020 (paper), $14.00
Emily Webber has published fiction, essays, and reviews in the Ploughshares Blog, The Writer magazine, Five Points, Split Lip Magazine, Brevity, and elsewhere. She is the author of a chapbook of flash fiction, Macerated, from Paper Nautilus Press. You can read more at www.emilyannwebber.com and @emilyannwebber.