What Can We Steal From Kirstin Valdez Quade’s “Nemecia”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Nemecia,” short story
Author: Kirstin Valdez Quade
Date of Work: 2012
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The story was first published by Narrative Magazine.  You can find the piece here.  “Nemecia” was subsequently chosen for the 2013 volume of Best American Short Stories.

Bonus: Here is “The Five Wounds,” a story Ms. Quade published in The New YorkerHere is another story Ms. Quade published in GuernicaHere is what cool writer Karen Carlson thought of the story.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Objects

Discussion:
Maria looks back on the time she spent with her cousin Nemecia with a kind of bittersweet love.  The title character suffered a terrible family tragedy, necessitating a move to Maria’s home.  Many years have passed since the two young women lived together; Maria (the first person narrator) wasn’t always happy that her cousin was around.  And why would she be?  Nemecia got all of the attention because of the misfortune she experienced.  Nemecia is older and eats ravenously.  Ms. Quade includes a beautifully written example of another of Nemecia’s crimes: she would dig her thumbnail into Maria’s cheek each night, creating a scar.  Maria can only take so much; after her cousin ruins one of her rites of passage, she says something she can’t take back and is sent away for a little while.  In the present day, Maria remembers Nemecia with the understanding she couldn’t muster in her younger years.

Ms. Quade knows she has a lot of exposition to dole out.  In addition to the expected basics, she needs to let us know when Maria is telling the story.  She needs to place the dramatic present of the flashbacks.  She needs to set up the “mystery” of Nemecia’s tragedy.  Perhaps her most difficult move: Ms. Quade needs to establish the different attitudes Maria holds as a grownup and as a child.  What is Ms. Quade’s first move?  How does she streamline some of the exposition?  What device does she use that allows her to explain a lot in a felicitous manner?  A photograph.  The story begins,

There is a picture of me standing with my cousin Nemecia in the bean field.  On the back is penciled in my mother’s hand.  Nemecia and Maria, Tajique, 1929.

The photograph is a very logical entry point for the story.  Not only is it a firm piece of documentary evidence–it’s a picture, after all–but it nudges the reader into something of a visual mindset, mimicking the response he or she might have if they were actually looking at a picture.  Another reason that the photograph works is that these objects are (by definition) representations of the past.  After absorbing the mental image, we’re primed to enjoy a short story that takes place primarily in flashback.

So, a spoiler alert would be inappropriate when I tell you that Nemecia is dead at the time when Maria is recalling the story.  Here’s why it’s not a problem.  This kind of rote statistic really isn’t important for Ms. Quade’s purposes.  It seems that the author’s intent was to tell us a meaningful story about Nemecia and the relationship between the cousins.  It really doesn’t matter what jobs Nemecia may have had in her working life or how old Nemecia was when she passed.  All that matters is what happened between the women when they were teens and how the two (especially Maria) learned to understand the other on a deeper level.  I don’t believe Ms. Quade tells us the name of Nemecia’s husband…but that doesn’t matter.  We DO care that Nemecia has apparently changed her name as part of the process of leaving her past behind.

Think about the Star Wars prequels.  (But just for a moment.  Then you can go back to pretending they don’t exist.)  When The Phantom Menace was released, we all knew quite well how Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader met his end.  All of that suspense was already gone as we went into the theater to see that film, our hopes about to be crushed like an empty soda can rolling onto a busy freeway.  Why wasn’t this a problem?  We were going to find out WHY Darth Vader turned to the Dark Side.  WHERE he began.  HOW he learned to use his Jedi powers.  WHO taught him how to sound more like a robot than R2-D2 when talking to a woman.  The Star Wars prequels and “Nemecia” have at least one thing in common: both are stories that emphasize the journeys undertaken by the characters, not their ultimate destinations.

What Should We Steal?

  • Employ an object as the entry point of your story.  While it’s possible to do so in a clunky manner, it’s perfectly natural, for example, for a first-person narrator to tell a story about the grandfather who owned the fountain pen he’s holding.
  • Maintain focus on the truth of your character, not the boring details.  Whatever.  Jean Valjean dies at the end of Les Miserables.  The death itself doesn’t matter; We (and Hugo) care about what Valjean accomplished with his life.

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2 Comments

  • Thanks for this post. As a result, I’m experimenting with staring a short story I’m working on with a broken picture frame.

    Valdez-Quade’s story was also breathtaking.

    DP

    • Thanks for the kind words! I am happy to have helped Ms. Quade to nudge you into writing a story that borrows from hers a little.

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