No Way Back, Claudia Morales’ debut novel and winner of the prestigious Rosario Castellanos Prize in 2015, intertwines three distinct narratives in linked chapters. Through its portrayal of the complex relationships that fill a lifetime, No Way Back examines the acts of storytelling and remembering, and how retrospectively re-imagining our most intimate experiences becomes its own manner of displacement. On the surface, No Way Back is a moving novel about immigration, but it also keenly addresses another issue: our earnest desire to be remembered despite the ephemeral nature of life. It invites the reader to consider what makes a life truly exceptional—if it is the justice we fight for, the distances we cross, the work we complete day to day, or if it is something more.
An elderly translator, Dorrey Malcolm, is being interviewed about her adoptive sister, Janet Marren, and Janet’s partner, famed photographer Marcey Jacobson. The narrator has difficulty distinguishing fact from fiction as she recounts falling in love with her adoptive sister as a young girl and their first sexual experiences in the Bronx apartment where they were raised. The lives of Dorrey and Janet collide with Marcey’s in the 1930s when they become involved with the Communist Party. These chapters explore themes of social unrest, political dissent, and sexuality, as these women who are artists, lesbians, and communists are forced to immigrate to Mexico during the height of McCarthyism. The narrator slips into memories of Ota Benga, the Mbuti Pygmy man who was kidnapped from what is today the Democratic Republic of Congo and put on exhibit at the Bronx Zoo in 1906. Her obsession with the details of Ota Benga’s life and suicide reflect a connection to the pain of relocation, assimilation, and the longing for one’s place of origin.
Two Central American teenagers, Oliver and El Gavilán, begin their journey North to reach the “Other Side.” They must reconcile the brutal life they’ve known with the choices that lie before them as they struggle against their own conflicts of personality. Oliver is attuned to the thoughts and feelings of others and is disturbed by the ruthlessness exemplified by his traveling companion. Their relationship becomes increasingly strained as they cross Mexico by foot and train, and through a series of flashbacks in these chapters it is revealed that Oliver is gay and closeted. These chapters disrupt stereotypical depictions of young gang members, refugees, and teenage boys left with few options in the Northern Triangle region.
An academic returns home to southern Mexico to work on her dissertation after her professor’s suicide abruptly ends their affair. While there, she is destined to reconnect with her family and confront their complicated history, including the patriarchal abuse suffered by her grandmother, the history of a disabled cousin who is the son of the protagonist’s grandfather and an indigenous housemaid, and the class tension that surfaces between her family and the workers who harvest coffee beans on their ranch. These chapters address experiences of womanhood in a patriarchal society, class tensions, and the question of what we are ultimately willing to sacrifice for love and stability.
Interspersed throughout the novel are several stand-alone chapters describing La Bestia, the freight train that Central American migrants and refugees ride in order to reach the United States. La Bestia becomes a character in itself and is a looming presence in the lives of these characters as their dramas unfold.
This excerpt, “Animal Memory,” comes from the first chapter of Now Way Bay. My translations of Claudia’s work have been published by The Offing, Lunch Ticket, and Mexico City Lit. In 2020, I was awarded the Banff BILTC Emerging Translator Fellowship to continue my translation of this novel (postponed). I have permission to translate this 150-page novel, which was originally published by Coneculta Chiapas (2017) and reissued electronically by Los Libros del Perro (2021).
Animal memories don’t work the way ours do. Our minds are so forthcoming, so willing to invent, fill in the gaps. Our memory is forever reconstructing, censuring, cherry-picking. I’ve always admired animals for that reason, especially the large mammals of Africa, such powerful creatures with such objective memories.
I was born in 1909 in New York City and lived near the Bronx Zoo. You don’t know how it was back then. The zoo was enclosed by only a short fence, and when I was a girl coming home from the synagogue, I’d hop over to see the animals, always snagging my dress on the top of the iron bars. There was almost no security in those days, and I wasn’t the only one who wandered around the zoo after hours. Ota Benga was there too, a Pygmy from the Congo who’d been brought to New York as a special exhibit, wandering around the darkened zoo.
He was a small man, the teeth in his mouth filed down sharp as a shark’s. The excited crowds would gather in front of his cage to watch him take up his bow and aim it toward the clouds. A filmmaker had fashioned his costume especially for the exhibition; just a mottled scrap of fabric made to look like jaguar fur. Ota seemed to genuinely enjoy the attention during visiting hours, but in his down time after the zoo closed its doors for the day he’d wander around in silence, wearing an old pair of boots and a jacket that hung down to his ankles, chain-smoking cigarettes. I saw him like that a few times and looking back I’d like to imagine he enjoyed strolling around the exhibits, taking a good look at the animals from the opposite side of the bars. “The African Pygmy, Ota Benga, twenty-three years of age, four-foot-tall, 105 lbs. Brought from the Kasai River of Congo, Central Africa, by Doctor Samuel P. Verner. On display every afternoon this September,” so read the little plaque outside his quarters.
I suppose he’d been unhappy though because I remember the day I learned of his suicide. It was the summer of 1916, the same day I saw Mrs. Marren sobbing in the kitchen. The war had been going on for two years at that point, and she’d just been notified that her brother, who’d been in France fighting for the Germans, had died. As this scene was unfolding in our kitchen, Ota Benga was lighting his own funeral pyre somewhere in Virginia. He grit his teeth and shot himself in the head with a stolen pistol.
Mrs. Marren cared as much about my fascination with Ota Benga as my passion for animals, which is to say, very little. Although she was certainly a very polite and decorous woman, she was profoundly indifferent to anything that didn’t have to do with theatre or the suffragette movement, including her own daughter Janet, and me.
They thought of me as a sort of wild child, but I wasn’t really. Truth be told, I was distant and melancholy. The reality is that I felt a kind of kinship with that wandering pygmy.
Even though I didn’t know who my birth parents were, I knew from very early on that they were no longer among us. I’d always lived with the Marrens. They were old friends of my parents and had been impacted by my orphanhood almost as much as I had, though they weren’t affected by the orphanhood of my brother, who I never saw again after Christmas in 1915. I received a final letter from him some time after I’d moved to Mexico.
It was in that letter I found out he’d fought in the second world war and survived, though it left him with a limp. He lived in Miami where he was married to a young Korean woman. I don’t remember exactly what the letter said, but I do remember he’d written, “War is beautiful, if it weren’t so terrible, we’d be smitten forever.” I imagined him penning this letter while reclining in a beach chair before a wide expanse of warm saltwater, his demure Korean spouse at his side. I imagined that as he wrote, he reminisced about the battlefield where he’d nearly lost his leg. Had our Jewish parents been on his mind? Had he filled in the gaps of this heroic narrative while on the frontline, desperately trying to instill some greater purpose into the senselessness of war? I often thought about visiting him but never seemed to make time, and then later I learned he died. Of course, I was unable to attend the funeral because something came up with Janet. Always something to do with Janet—or to do for her.
What else can I tell you that might be of use? There’s so much I want to tell you, but I don’t know how important any of it is for your project—if it’ll be useful for your research on the life of the photographer, Marcey Jacobson. Our lives were only connected by our mutual love for Janet and our ruthless competition for her affection. Perhaps if I tell you my life story then some things will make themselves clear. But would you mind sitting by the window over there? It’s hard for me to see your face without the light.
As I was saying, my adoptive parents were liberal and Jewish; art lovers who rented a building in the Bronx where they held their theatre rehearsals. They belonged to a group of painters and writers who all lived together and took turns educating us roving neighbor kids. Every afternoon, artists and poets came to chat with the Marrens and thanks to that I was allowed to skip most of Hebrew school, getting my education at home, though it was often informal and vague as far as education goes. The Marrens depended on the goodwill of these volunteer teachers, and when no one was around to hold class, they’d turn me loose to wander around the old, ten-story building where many newly arrived immigrants lived. That’s how I learned Spanish, from a Cuban woman who spent her mornings sewing costumes for the theatre, as well as Portuguese, from an old, toothless sailor who always spit when he spoke.
Sometimes, friends of the Marrens, people who saw me running around and who had known my parents, would say with surprise, “She’s the spitting image of Liz.” For that reason, I always made sure to always play near the adults where I could eavesdrop and hear them say such things, and this became a seemingly innocent routine that was in fact an essential part of my childhood identity. The only thing I knew about my mother was that her name was Eva, but that she changed it to Liz when she made it to the US. Why I still don’t know.
When I was a bit older, I started to investigate her and her friends and siblings and I found out she was born in Germany, though back then it was still ruled by the King of Prussia. She was raised in a kosher household governed by her father, Fred Gustav, a respected doctor in Cologne. She enjoyed a charmed life, growing up in a house in Koenigsplatz with a terrace that overlooked the woods. Her family was the first in the city to own a telephone and every Saturday they went for cake and coffee at the Monopol Hotel.
But something about my mother must have radically shifted as the new century drew near, because one carnival season in Cologne she met Jacob Malcolm, a Jewish socialist and the disowned son of two merchants from Hamburg. Liz, Eva at the time, stopped covering her hair and fled to America with him in 1908, just before World War One began.
After her arrival she found work, first in the grey cement factories of Chicago and then as a spirited union organizer for the first worker strikes. For many years part of me wished I were more like her. Now, as an old woman, and because I knew you were coming to talk to me about my life, I’m starting to think my mother couldn’t have been the idealized image of her I’d dreamed up while hiding under my bed from Mrs. Marren, terrified she would scold me for having snagged yet another one of my dresses on the zoo’s wrought-iron fence.
The thing about getting old is that there’s no doubt in your mind that you’ve failed in some way. It doesn’t make a difference how you choose to spin it. Whatever it was you did in life, none of it seems to justify the fact that you’ve become old. Nothing can justify the fact that you’re not dead yet—that I had the gall to outlive Janet and Marcey. It’s hard for me to tell how much of what I’m telling you is the truth, which memories I’m making up and which ones really happened. Since my sight started going the world has become a frothy, white cloud. I open my eyes and no matter how much I blink, I can’t focus. The only thing I’m sure of is that the love I had for Janet was a timeless thing, and that it’s still the most vivid sensation I’ve felt in my life. It’s clear and precise like some understated thing, like the monotonous, enduring love of two old people who wake up together in the same bed day after day after day.
I knew I was in love with her from the beginning. We shared everything, a bedroom, shoes, classrooms, parents. I remember I’d begun to study ballet and she, painting. We must’ve been about thirteen, and our only worldly possession was life itself. We’d hide under the covers in bed to chew gum and look at the pictures Janet had pinched from the theatre teacher’s room. Black and white postcards of naked women with soft, full bosoms.
We were curious about the ways our bodies had begun to change, and under the covers in our bedroom in that old Bronx building we would touch each other’s breasts. I remember her linen nightgown, the shape of her girlish body opening underneath. We kissed for a long time, getting to know one another in the darkness, and back then Janet was mine alone, but I was destined to lose her. She met John at a party on the East Side, but that’s not really when I lost her. The thing with John was just her way of distancing herself from me. It wasn’t until she met Marcey that I lost her for good.
What else? I’ve been working on forgetting all this my whole life, my memory is like a sandcastle left in the spray, dissolving little by little. At first you can still see its outline raised in the mud, shaped like a fresh grave. Then the shore smooths out again, wide and pristine. Even your own footsteps get washed away. I’ve always felt that way, as if all the tracks I made in life were buried, diluted, covered up ever since I made the trip back to New York. “I’m drunk off my sorrow, I devour myself / and my sorrows I cry / vulture I am I rise / I wound and soothe with my singing / both vulture and arrogant Prometheus.”
You know Martí? I translated him into English, it was my life’s work. Now that most of my eyesight is gone and I can’t read, I recite it from memory, though sometimes I don’t remember the exact lines, so I improvise. Instead of “singing” I say “sobbing.” Here it is again, “and I wound and soothe with my sobbing” sounds like a Mexican bolero, doesn’t it? I like to think about boleros sometimes. “We will triumph with the power of love, unite your voice with mine, and sing our victory,” isn’t that beautiful? That’s the bolero Marcey used to sing to Janet sitting out on the patio at their home in San Cristobal in the evening when the heat would finally break. Marcey would pick up her guitar and Janet would fold a quilt over her lap. I think I have a picture of that somewhere. I took a polaroid when I saw them out there on the patio once. I’m sure I have it, you should take a look through my things. I just have the basics here, but you should go to my old apartment and look through the boxes I brought up from Mexico. Rose Malcolm, write that down, she’s the one who can help you. Rose is my cousin. She keeps my apartment in Brooklyn now.
But anyway, as I was saying, I never was religious, though I did go to the synagogue as a girl. I liked the way the candlelight rippled along the golden altars and the chanting and songs have always instilled a comforting sort of drowsiness in me. As Janet and I walked home hand in hand we’d sing them together, Baruch atah, Adonai.
Translated by Allana Noyes