Today’s piece for “About the Girls” comes from debut author Samantha Mabry. Her novel, A Fierce and Subtle Poison, hits shelves April 12. I read it a few weeks ago, and I couldn’t shake the story from my head. I’m thrilled she wrote this piece about Isabel, who is the main character of the story, but whose story isn’t told by her.
Samantha Mabry grew up in Texas playing bass guitar along to vinyl records, writing fan letters to rock stars, and reading big, big books, and credits her tendency toward magical thinking to her Grandmother Garcia, who would wash money in the kitchen sink to rinse off any bad spirits. She teaches writing and Latino literature at a community college in Dallas, Texas, where she lives with her husband, a historian, and her pets, including a cat named Mouse. A Fierce and Subtle Poison is her first novel.
The girl in my story begins without a body. She exists somewhere apart from but tied to everyone in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. She lives –if you could call it that –behind the walls of a house that’s been afflicted with a curse. She haunts the dreams of an entire community. She’s a myth, a girl with green skin and grass for hair. She’s a witch who grants wishes.
The story goes on, however, and the girl begins to make herself known. She creeps from dreams into the realm of reality. She leaves the confines of her house and slips letters under doors. She reveals her name –Isabel. Then, finally, she reveals herself. That doesn’t mean the stories stop about her stop, though.
Isabel is a girl. She’s trying to figure herself out, yet others are intent on figuring her out for her. They tell her who she is and what she means, and they’re intent on clinging to the stories they’ve made up about her. They heap those stories upon her, layer on top of thick layer, until she’s nearly smothered: all stories, no girl.
Take, for instance, Isabel’s father: he claims she’s a miracle, unlike anyone who has ever come before or will come again. Lucas, the boy with the all-consuming desire to lift the curse from her house, isn’t sure if she’s a miracle or something more sinister, but he’s fascinated with her nonetheless.
This is what happens to girls, and not just girls in books. Stories get made up and told about them. Some of those stories are true. Some are false. Some are sort of true and sort of false. Some of those stories slide right off; some of them stick. Some of them get notched right into the bone. People –known and unknown –say, “Because you are a girl, you should do this.” Or worse, “Because you are my girl, you should do this.”
What I wanted to do, ultimately, in A Fierce and Subtle Poison, was give Isabel some amount of control over her own story. Even if her own life had largely been controlled by outside forces, I wanted her –in just the right moment –to take control of and steer her life in the direction of her choosing.
I think that girls need to keep hearing that they can do this, that they can decide which of the stories about them are useful to keep and which are worthless. They can then shed those useless stories, like shrugging off the dirty coats of strangers. They do not have to be what they are told they should be, or act the way they are told they should act. They can choose to define themselves and wrestle back the control of their narrative. I’m not saying this is easy; it can be difficult and terrifying, a strange and solo trip. But still: it’s possible and sometimes necessary to just set a course and go.