Lucia Berlin: the charm of the ordinary
Lucia Berlin was an American writer born in Juneau, the capital city of the state of Alaska, on November 12th, 1936. Her life was very unique, and, sometimes, complicated. She lived in many places, including El Paso, Santiago de Chile, Albuquerque, New York, and Mexico City, among others.
She led a nomadic life, marked by instability and constant changes. She had four children, who she mostly took care of alone. She worked countless hours in poorly paid jobs to be able to support herself, struggling with alcoholism and scoliosis at the same time, which forced her to wear an orthopedic corset for many years.
Nonetheless, she found an opening in her turbulent everyday life to write. And she wrote a lot: even with a very difficult life, she managed to find time to do what she loved most. She died of lung cancer on her birthday in 2004, in Marina del Rey.
For many years she remained hidden, unknown. Her stories were hidden among the layers of a not welcoming canon, which prevented her from finding her place. However, in 2015, the publishing house Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux published A Manual for Cleaning Women: a compendium including 43 of her stories. From this moment on, there was a radical change in the literary sphere. People fell in love with Lucia Berlin through her electric and sharp prose. A female writer who had been wrongfully forgotten came back and was placed as a pillar in contemporary literature.
This mainly happened thanks to the way she wrote. The reader can feel close to her prose, in an intimate way, as if someone they know was telling them a story. Her writings are not meant to be edifying, but they display everyday life from a confused point of view, where she reflects how shattered and random the human experience can be. The characters portrayed can be delirious, philosophical, funny, but always unique. Each one of Lucia Berlin’s stories encloses that particular element in everyday life.
Reading a Lucia Berlin story means diving deeply, or perhaps just taking a look, into the intense world in which she lived. Just a glimmer of that singular reality. That is why many critics and readers label her literary work as self-fiction or intimist novels. However, as a reader, I don’t agree with this point of view, because considering her work as such would lessen her stories to a stereotype, a very concrete formula with concrete rules. In my opinion, most times, squeezing a story into a specific genre means minimising, even dismissing, its own particularities and the unique world that’s been built.
Lucia Berlin, a strange world
The stories take place in an ordinary world, where the characters are ordinary people, at times mad and overwhelmed by their routines; others are traumatised by past events. All of these everyday moments become, at the same time, special and extraordinary from the point of view of the storyteller. In the story My Jockey (“Mi Jockey”), the narrator describes that the broken bones seen in X-rays from jockeys look like trees, like a reconstructed brontosaurus.
In examples like these, you get a glimpse of the beauty of Lucia Berlin’s prose: that strange look that transforms a skeleton into a brontosaurus sparks life into ordinary events and finds something surprising in them. A colour palette that paints and emphasises the awe of routine.
She depicts a world where tragedies and drama are approached with humour, irony, and love; where characters are eccentric and bizarre. Everything is unpredictable in her stories: a lot could be happening in one paragraph and nothing at all in the next one. Events tend to thin out as the story progresses.
There is a vital moment in her prose that is linked to the usual swing of our human existence: it has a spoken rhythm, and its cadence, its pauses, digressions, and leaps are above any grammar rules. Furthermore, the mix between Spanish and English allows words to cohabitate in the space without the need to translate them. Her stories end abruptly, they are put on hold; the narrated event is interrupted by a type of prose that does not seek closure or a conclusion. A type of prose that is indifferent to happy endings or morals.
Many of her stories take place in the outskirts of big cities, with marginalized characters who have to deal with the complications that this implies. At this point, the presence of the personal life of the writer is obvious. Lucia Berlin worked as an ER nurse, housekeeper, telephone operator, receptionist in a hospital, and teacher. Berlin experienced a lot of pain and suffering, both her own and of others, which is noticeable in her prose.
Berlin observes and exposes situations with an acute eye, talking about everything that’s ignored. “Poor people wait a lot. Welfare, unemployment lines, laundromats, phone booths, emergency rooms, jails, etc.”, “Women’s voices always rise two octaves when they talk to cleaning women or cats.”. In spite of this, the author finds a particular beauty in between these gaps, where something extraordinary is revealed, something that can’t be seen anywhere else. “Solitude is an Anglo-Saxon concept. In Mexico City, if you’re in a bus by yourself and somebody comes in, not only that person will sit by your side, but will lean on your shoulder”.
Why do you need to read Lucia Berlin?
Lucia Berlin was a modern writer for her time, talking about things that society would reject. She dared to tell these stories and write down those other voices, one of which was her own; marginalised voices, placed outside the literary world. She was rejected from the canon because she showed the other side, the side that she knew so well, of a socially stigmatised and naturalised reality.
Luckily, she was rediscovered over her last years, rescued from being forgotten. Now we can enjoy her beautiful stories, her electric prose, full of life and colour, and we can say that one of her wishes as a writer was fulfilled.