Suszynski: Storytelling in the West

Earlier this year, I came across a piece titled “Getting Lost in the American West” by Leath Tonino which is part of a larger book-length work of essays titled “The West Will Swallow You.”

Tonino is a native Vermonter. He describes himself in a familiar lone cowboy refrain: “A young man like me is indeed interested in beauty and loneliness and powers he does not understand. A young man like me sleeps in a sleeping bag as often as he does a regular bed.”

He describes the West as all-consuming. I have never thought of the mountains as having a capacity to take me over. When I enter the mountains, whether that be on skis, on a bike, in hiking boots, I am asking the mountains to hold me for a little while. To strike a balance. Tonino’s Edward Abbey view of the West, a place of loneliness steeped in great beauty, feels too romanticized. It’s a view from a traveler blindly passing through. The summit of a peak still contains life, even if it is very small.

At the end of last year, I picked up the short story collection “Sabrina & Corina.” It was a finalist for the National Book Award. More exciting, the writer is a young passionate, Spanish-speaking female from my hometown of Denver. 

In Fajardo-Anstine’s short story collection, she writes of women living in all the shades of the West. They hail from Denver, from the San Luis Valley, from a fictitious place called Saguarita in southern Colorado, or La Vista correctional facility in Pueblo. 

Support Local Journalism

Fajardo-Anstine writes of women who are part of western landscapes. They were born here. In the first short story that opens the book, the narrator describes Saguarita as a sleeping woman while the little boys who live there play army on the dirt: “… Saguarita, a place where the land with its silken fibers of swaying grass resembled a sleeping woman with her face pressed firmly to the pillow, a golden blonde by day, a raven-haired beauty by night.”

The author often describes these landscapes in a loving way, in a motherly way, and I feel connected to this idea. I am comforted by the pines, by the wind atop a summit, by fresh snow in the morning. They feel like my mothers. The West is so vast, we can paint what we feel upon those cliff faces. 

It’s also important to note that not all daughters have good relationships with their mothers. Fajardo-Anstine is very aware of this; her characters often do have complicated relationships with their family. Despite family turmoil, she is talking about strong bonds, bonds that beat loneliness down with a stick. 

Fajardo-Anstine is a masterful storyteller. In a short story toward the end of the collection titled “Any Further West,” a daughter watches as her mother makes a series of bad decisions. In one scene, she looks at her mother analytically: “Her stance was wobbly and unrefined, as though she had given someone else permission to wear her skin. That’s when I knew she was forever caught in her own undercurrent, bouncing from one deep swell to the next,” the daughter said.

“Soon the world would yank her chain of sadness against every shore, every rock, every glass-filled beach, leaving nothing but the broken hull of a drowned woman.”

The key element here is craft. Fajardo-Anstine’s own mother is a verbal storyteller, and a lot of the strength of verbal storytelling is in pulling images out of the air. I also believe this to be an element of the Spanish language: metaphor. Fajardo-Anstine’s work greets the reader as if the words are being spoken by the very land we occupy whereas Tonino tries hard to keep a distance between himself and the West. I can feel the dissonance there. 

Tonino nears the end of his article with a meditation on the act of writing with an echo of a poem by Alberto Rios: “Words are our weakest hold on the world, and I’ve got nothing new to say about the West. Long hours on long roads, shirt off, windows down, wind sounds, pipe tobacco bitter on the tongue — these drives remind me of what I’ve always known, what I think we all have always known, that joy and sadness are one, as the mesa and sky are one, welded together by a molten setting sun.” 

Tonino’s particular view of the West is not new. We’ve been hearing this voice for a long time from the literary canon. There is plenty to say from voices that are not readily heard, that grew up in the West; and not just the West that is conquering high summit peaks, but the West that also encompasses the cities that modernized from their mining days or the arid towns of southern Colorado.

The West that is multicultural and lively, teeming with stories, is the West I want to hear more from. I believe that storytelling, contextualizing where we come from and to where we want to go, is extremely important at this present moment. I do not believe words are our weakest hold on the world; we must not give up on communication, on sharing our stories, on listening. 

Support Local Journalism