Confessions of a Book Burner is award-winning poet and children’s book writer Lucha Corpi’s latest collection of personal essays and stories of growing up in a large family in Mexico and pursuing her passion for the written word. These twelve essays delve into childhood memories, cultural heritage, family, love, and the craft of writing. The essays explore Corpi’s Chicana heritage and offer a nuanced look at the intimate histories of Mexican Americans and their struggles straddling two cultures. Confessions of a Book Burner is award-winning poet and children’s book writer Lucha Corpi’s latest collection of personal essays and stories of growing up in a large family in Mexico and pursuing her passion for the written word. These twelve essays delve into childhood memories, cultural heritage, family, love, and the craft of writing. The essays explore Corpi’s Chicana heritage and offer a nuanced look at the intimate histories of Mexican Americans and their struggles straddling two cultures.
Corpi is bilingual and has written in English and Spanish; her work cuts across genres and spans poetry, children’s literature, crime fiction and literary criticism. That Corpi was a teacher by profession is apparent in some of the essays. While some may find that off-putting, the instructive passages break the cadence of storytelling and offer a refreshing change of pace.
In the essay titled, ‘“La Pagine Roja,” Corpi laments the dearth of Chicana readership for crime fiction. First, she asks, “What keeps Chicanas (and Latinas as well) from writing and/or publishing crime fiction?” Her search leads her to the only possible conclusion: “Sin lectura no hay ni escritura ni literatura—there is no literature without reading and writing.”
It is in essays such as this that writers can pick up great advice on the craft, the process, inspirations, trials, and tribulations of being a writer. In Corpi’s words:
The development of a credible plot and characters and adequate descriptions of the place where the story develops are the basic requisites any literary or genre fiction writer must meet. [. . . ] But literary or genre, any writer must answer to the degree necessary five pertinent questions: What? Who? Where? When? Why?
At the age of 19, Corpi, after a couple of years at dental school, moves to Berkeley, California with her husband, only three weeks after their wedding. A child is born soon after but the marriage suffers and the young couple separate. The essay, “The ASPCA’s most wanted: all creatures great, small and peewee,” is an endearing account of Corpi’s attempt at placating her son Arturo’s wishes for household pets. It begins with an account of Corpi’s childhood pets, starting with a baby snake, a rabbit named Algodon, and a beagle named Tonqui. Years later, Corpi’s own son is privy to a similar parade of pets, starting with Keet, a blue parakeet and soon, Ham, a male hamster and later, two goldfish. What follows is a comic caper of struggling to sustain one pet after another. Moaning the untimely deaths of these pets, Corpi writes, “With eyes heavy with slumber that night, I said a prayer for Keet, the goldfish, Ham, Lady Ham and Hammy VI, and for all the slaughtered chickens and slaughtered bulls.”
The provocatively titled essay, “Colorlines: The Kiss Ed Olmos Owes Me,” evolves from a story about a fan’s adulation of a noted celebrity into an honest discussion of race and color. Corpi is at a film soiree in Berkeley one evening; the special guest at the party was to be Edward James Olmos, the noted actor of American and Mexican heritage. Giddy with anticipation and excitement, Corpi writes, “All the way to my comadre’s home, I exhausted scenarios. But what could I say that the actor and the man hadn’t already heard? It all sounded trite and ridiculous, all a fantasy.” Corpi follows this up with one of the best lines from the collection: “I knew well that imagined reality is the fertile soil of narrative and the catalyst element in poetry. [. . .] It was better to live the moment, however it turned out.” Ed Olmos, she writes, shakes hands with every man in the room and kisses the cheek of every woman in the room. But Olmos doesn’t kiss her on the cheek. Had she missed a golden opportunity? What had she done wrong?
Years later, the kiss that never was continues to haunt her and she wonders if her light skin color meant that Ed Olmos did not see her as Mexican or Chicana. It seemed that “it was the color of my skin that mattered, not my skills as a poet, fiction writer or teacher, my bilingualism and biculturalism, not my being an immigrant single mother. . . .” In the end, it didn’t matter, Corpi writes, that Ed Olmos did not kiss her. It mattered that she continued to write about things that mattered to her, unfettered by the color of her skin.
Throughout, the concept of storytelling is explored in its myriad forms. Oral histories were important to Corpi’s extended family; she fondly recalls stories recounted by her grandmother that pulled from the reality of their everyday lives and produced fairytales steeped in magical realism. Almost all the essays begin with an invocation of a memory or an event from her childhood and youth—a clever conceit that provides sturdy bookends for the ideas explored in the essays.
For the aspiring writers, Confessions of a Book Burner offers a great lesson in finding inspiration from within and without. And for the casual reader, Corpi gives that rare blend of cultural commentary and personal history, with the personal history enlivening the commentary and the commentary undergirding the personal history with context and truth.