MY MOTHER, THAT STRANGER. LETTERS FROM THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR
To tell the truth in an autobiographical text is immensely difficult if it goes beyond the superficial and I feel that Alborg´s memoir confronts several truths (as her other texts that I know and admire have done). The marvelous force of love that reconciles us with everything (even to live at war and hungry), the fragility of everything, of deception and disappointment, the difficulty of leaving one´s country, creating a profession and more.
The found letters serve as a mechanism to rewrite the past, as a revelation and as a catastrophe. In this case there is the added beautiful mystery of why they were hidden and the final theory is convincing and moving. The form in which the author presents the letters, in a critical academic analysis of sorts, works very well, since it organizes the themes and allows us to perceive the reactions of the narrator/researcher (to name her this way). Through the letters she reconstructs not only her mother´s life, but the epoch. It is magical.
Randolph D. Pope, PhD
Emeritus Professor, Commonwealth Professor of Spanish and Comparative Literature
University of Virginia
My Mother, That Stranger is a moving book. I particularly liked the first part, the one dealing with the war years. I think I fell in love with Conchita, that young, strong woman, happy and determined. And the love and separation relationship told is frightening and beautiful at the same time. I liked the references to the letters so much that I wanted to read all eight-hundred of them. Luckily, the author includes some of them in complete form, which is important, since we can´t read them all (my translation).
Inés Alberdi, Catedrática de Sociología
Facultad Ciencias Políticas y Sociología
Universidad Complutense de Madrid
It almost goes without saying that the book is of considerable interest for several reasons. Of course, the vital historical events lend interest to anything written in the Civil War period. To that may be added the complex relationship between the author´s parents as well as her father’s prominence as a major intellectual figure in 20th century Spain.
A lot of the book is the author´s reporting what she took from the letters rather than the letters themselves. Her direct quotation of the letters is always good, because that lends the narrative a particular authenticity. I enjoyed the fact that she included a lot of the Spanish original, because if one has even a limited knowledge, the original has a particular charm and individuality.
Francis W. Hoeber, Author
Against Time. Letters from Nazi Germany 1938-1939. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society Pres, 2015.
The author realizes that few readers will be familiar with how the Civil War affected Spanish civilian life. They are even less aware of the post-war period, in which physical poverty and chronic food shortages made life a struggle for most Spaniards. In addition, Francoist Spain experienced an oppressive political environment in which liberty of expression was non-existent. Deviation from the nationalistic, Falangist platform of women’s social roles as Catholic mothers, whose place was at home, subordinate to their husbands was punished. Alborg does a wonderful job in presenting this background and context in which she observes the lives of her mother and family evolve. Indeed, the “Stranger” of the title becomes less so as Alborg scrutinizes the daily letters written to each other by her mother and father.
Paul C. Smith, PhD
University of California, Los Angeles
During the preparation and drafting of this book, the author has discovered an unknown facet of her mother and the relationship of her parents. However, for the readers this is a testimony of a fundamental time in Spanish history — the three years of Civil War and the immediate postwar — from the intimacy and the enthusiasm of a young couple who was anxious to start the experience of a shared life. Through this interchange of ideas and confessions between a woman and a man in love, by means of the epistolary genre, their customs, wishes, prejudices, uncertainties, painful and tragic life experiences, but also happiness and hope for a better future are disclosed; a future that was aspired to as well by thousands of Spaniards, but that was truncated by the nonsense of the fratricide and dramatic consequences of this war. The authenticity of Concha Alborg’s prose, in a confessional style, submerges us in the thought and life of her parents and, at the same time, of an entire epoch.
Ángeles Encinar, Ph.D.
Professor of Spanish Literature
Saint Louis University, Madrid Campus
DIVORCE AFTER DEATH: A WIDOW’S MEMOIR
Concha Alborg’s Divorce After Death: A Widow’s Memoir is powerful in its own right. It can also be read as a scathing postscript, or disheartened sequel, to the author’s American in Translation: A Novel in Three Novellas (2010). The earlier work narrates the life of a Spanish immigrant finding her way in the United States as a teenager and later as a military wife and young mother during the Vietnam War. The woman who speaks in this work is an independently minded feminist who earns a doctorate, becomes an equally independent divorcée, and optimistically enters into a second marriage. In Divorce After Death, the protagonist has matured into a successful, middle-aged academic faced not only with the tragic death of her beloved husband but also with the shocking discovery of her late husband’s numerous extramarital affairs. Regardless of whether one approaches it as autobiographical narrative, personal essay or memoir, this intimate work remains decidedly confessional in tone, attesting to deep-seated and often conflicting emotions regarding the author-protagonist’s complicated interpersonal relationships.
The somewhat fragmented text, composed of fifteen distinct yet markedly interrelated sections (in addition to a preface and an epilogue), reflects the protagonist’s emotional upheavals as she undergoes various stages of grief followed by an intense numbness as she absorbs the news of her life partner’s infidelity. The early chapters, written as her late husband battled cancer, focus on coping with the untimely loss of a spouse, complicated in the author’s case by the illness and death of a beloved aunt.
As the work begins, the author-protagonist waits in a hospital room while her husband undergoes his first surgical intervention and reflects on her diverse roles as immigrant, wife, professor and now, that of primary care-giver to a sick partner. Following her partner’s death, however, the memoir quickly takes a dramatic shift in focus. In a climactic chapter that gives the book its title, the author reproduces a letter she wrote to her then late husband where she expressed her profound sense of disillusionment, humiliation and anger at the discovery of his infidelities. The accusatory letter is both an anguished lament (primarily voiced through a series of rhetorical questions) and a justly angry demand for a divorce “after death”. In the letter, Alborg vows to move on with her life, finding some vindication in the fact that her late husband will not have that option. The remainder of the book recounts wise and often witty episodes of her various efforts to find herself yet again.
In his brief review of Alborg’s book, included in the final pages of the memoir, Carlos Rojas considers that the note Alborg claims to have left at the Wailing Wall forgiving her husband is an important moment in the narrative. This may be so, yet more important than forgiveness for the author is her need to move forward. Inspired by Joan Didion despite the important differences in their circumstances, Alborg refuses to become trapped in nostalgic memories. It is her defiance, more than her forgiveness that marks a critical turning point in her recovery.
Although the book is clearly a memoir, the seamless interplay between the narrative of personal life experiences and the author’s interest in reflecting on cultural and linguistic norms remains an important subtext of Divorce After Death. A case in point: the seemingly simple and mundane task of creating an online profile for an internet dating site raises existential doubts and inspires serious self-reflection.
Similarly, although written entirely in English, Divorce After Death frequently compares subtle nuances between the author-protagonist’s adopted language and their Spanish equivalent. These might at first appear to be interspersed casually, in the guise of a stream-of-consciousness narrative technique. When meditating on her current status she notes that she hates the word “widow” but finds the Spanish “viuda” “equally foreboding” (88). Similarly, as she searches for a translation to the phrase: “a la deriva” she finds no adequate equivalent: “I try to translate it to English, but it doesn’t do it justice; adrift. In some ways I’m still anchored” (88). Not coincidentally, the implied author’s judicious choice of vocabulary often remains overt, as does a self-reflexive hesitation regarding the decision to publish her memoir in English: “I should be writing this in Spanish since political correctness is less strict in my native language. We can still say la gorda, la rubia, la negra, and nothing happens” (25). As the author-protagonist looks ahead to her next literary project—a work that will be based on letters exchanged between her parents during the Spanish Civil War—she concludes, “it means that I have to go back to writing in Spanish. It’s interesting how to change my language is similar to changing my life” (169). Significantly, these admissions make apparent her passion for verbal communication in general and the writing craft in particular even as they highlight the intimate connection between language and personal identity.
Other cultural meditations include reflections on growing up in Franco’s Spain, food and internet dating. Alborg’s travels in Latin America give rise to yet another series of meditations and conflicted emotions. A trip to Bolivia and Peru involving university representatives on a cultural immersion program becomes a way of “taking responsibility for one’s historical past (…) to witness and reflect on the contributions and the mistakes my country has made” (52).
Divorce After Death: A Widow’s Memoir is indeed a bittersweet and very personal meditation on loss, betrayal and re(dis)covery. Yet with its blurring of memoir and essay, the work is also a testament of intellectual generosity and a sustained interest in delving into the complex territory of personal, cultural and linguistic identity and difference.
Janis Breckenridge Whitman College. Letras Femeninas 41.1 (2015): 362-364.
In Concha Alborg’s book, Divorce after Death. A Widow’s Memoir, her personality and grace emerge with a well-defined profile of an intellectual, a feminist and a postmodern woman. She is as well a sensitive, strong mother, a wife and grandmother. The content of the intertwining vignettes offer a diversity of situations and anecdotes around the elusive theme of happiness. As Antonio Machado said: “Happiness passed through your home, but it doesn’t visit twice.” Concha Alborg in her book is there to contradict the Spanish poet. She throws herself into life intensely, creating her own magic. When she places her feet on the sand and sees her image on a seashell, she reaffirms her own way, made by herself.
In her book, Concha Alborg’s travels transform life into an adventure, which is what really matters, and she describes them with an experienced and keen eye. Her impressions on Bolivia, for example, probe into the depths of a Spaniard on a Latin American land. She travels through half the world or a world and a half to get to know, to investigate, to learn. She is not passing by anywhere. She is living the experience and her readers live it with her, they go to the heights with her and fly low when she does. Her tears at the Wailing Wall become a climax, purifying and liberating her. She has arrived at the pinnacle of the great souls who are in a state of grace because they can forgive. She calls it “the highlight of her visit,” but it’s more than that. It is a way to find peace, for a time at least.
In Divorce after Death, there are encounters and misunderstandings. Her readers laugh with her, not at her. Like the guy who thinks that she is on vacation when she travels abroad with her students, showing the lack of understanding of her profession, as she wisely tells us.
What a pleasure to go into Concha’s kitchen, smelling her sauces and condiments, feeling the aromas of a fortifying wine that goes into our bones. The recipes that she generously includes have gone through the cultural sieve and they are authentically Spanish, but accessible to the American table. She tells us of her origins, her parents, her exodus, her family. Everything is relevant.
The reader feels like he or she is going with Concha to the opera, to concerts, on walks, to museums, to wineries, to the beach and on her dates. One can see her writing in a cozy corner, traversing Italy with Peter or in the fancy cruise with death stalking him while she is loving him and taking care of him. His death is synthesized in his pale hands, loved and lost hands that hold her pain. She becomes a widow, but prefers to take care of herself and to be called single. The letter that titles the book, is a diatribe full of irony, sarcasm, anger and profound disenchantment. It is a master piece in its genre, superior to Cinco horas con Mario by Miguel Delibes and other diatribes.
All the aspects of Concha Alborg’s memoir demonstrate the impact and quality of her writing. The titles, the structure of each chapter and the book as a whole are coherent and give a meaning to life itself. The journey, apparently exterior, turns out to be an interior journey of encounter with herself. Although she may feel that she is adrift sometimes, like going through life on roller-skates, everything adds up, everything helps to shape her.
The language and the narrative techniques, the dramatic and poetic elements give variety to the text and cause an emotional impact on the readers. This is a heartwarming and heartbreaking story. This is a fully lived life turned into literature. This is a sincere book, diverse and moving, written by an authentic writer.
Cecilia Castro Lee, Ph.D. October 30, 2014, Carrollton, GA
Concha Alborg took over where Oscar Wilde left out. If the portraitist of Dorian Gray stated, in unmistakable terms, that nature imitates art, Alborg´s Divorce after Death. A Widow´s Memoir transformed life, and also death, into live literature. From a narrative perspective this is nothing short of a prodigy.
Peter Segal, a guitarist and untenured professor of Music, was married to Concha for over twenty years, and he died from esophageal cancer after enduring surgery, chemotherapy, and even a tour of boreal Sweden in the closing years of his life. He withstood his fate without a single lament or protest.
Almost immediately, after her husband´s demise, Concha found out that throughout the twenty years of their marriage the guitarist maintained carnal and epistolary amorous relations with a seraglio of other women, apparently before and after ageing and cancer made him impotent.
The widow´s irate reaction was as quick as lightning. She “divorced” her spouse, and started taking long trips and short lasting lovers. Nevertheless she could not avoid, much less delete, her memories of Peter. Almost at the end of her pilgrimage, she found herself in Jerusalem, crying by the Wailing Wall, and leaving in one of its cracks a carefully folded message for Peter that I believe must have been the very first draft of this Divorce After Death, a real masterpiece in the so-called coming up genre of autobiographical non-fiction.
Oscar Wilde would have been delighted to see how his proverbial dictum proved to be true, and life becomes the tentative, mimicking sketch of future literature.
Carlos Rojas, July 7, 2014, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Spanish, Emeritus Emory University, Atlanta, GA
Poet Mary Oliver refers to “the dark heart of the story/that is all the reason for its telling”. In her memoir Concha Alborg goes straight there, to the dark heart of the story: accidentally discovering right after her husband’s passing that he had been a serial cheater throughout their marriage.
Recovering from the death of a beloved spouse after caring for him through a harrowing three-year battle with esophageal cancer is difficult enough without such an added factor. One might expect that Alborg’s memoir would be bitter and brimming with resentment. The startling fact is that it is not. Showing an admirably strong sense of self, she refuses to become a victim. True, eight years have passed, a distance perhaps sufficient to soothe the soul and heal the wounds. But that alone does not account for the measured tone, a tone that does not preclude heartrending moments of sadness as well as humorous episodes. Alborg’s spunk and her talent for delighting in life–even at its most absurd or challenging–trump the betrayal.
Someone has said that the best way to set the world straight is to give to others what you need to get. And here it is in all its glory, the painful truth exposed and shattering Peter’s reputation as the family’s stalwart nice guy. The stark contrast between the husband’s veil of lies and the wife’s unblinking candor in presenting the events is deeply moving.
So many questions remain. Alborg wonders how she did not know, never suspected anything amiss. The reader ponders why the husband did not erase his hard drive when he went home for hospice care. Someone (possibly a male!) might ask whether Peter was not entitled to a private geography since Concha never hurt or lacked for anything during their long relationship. Or to what extent indeed did the discovery help Alborg get over her husband’s death? All these imponderables merit reflection and provide fertile ground for discussion. In other words, Divorce after Death: A Widow’s Memoir is a perfect read for book clubs that are willing to explore the thorny and ever fascinating terrain of infidelity. And it would be the ultimate poetic justice if the betrayal were to turn out to be the basis for a best-selling book!
Cristina de la Torre, Ph.D. September 30, 2014, Atlanta, GA
Divorce after Death. A Widow’s Memoir is a moving book; it’s entertaining, diverse and at the same time it has characteristics of a sociological essay. Concha Alborg captures how American people talk, their mannerisms and costumes. In my opinion, this is Alborg’s most American book.
I want to point out how well Concha Alborg writes, the finesse in which she describes the places and people and how the reader can see the different types, telling us their most significant traits, both the amusing or ridiculous. It is all full of vitality. At the same time I am in awe of her extraordinary candid quality, how she opens her life to the reader with absolute innocence.
I especially liked the variety and richness of Divorce after Death, which gives it it’s a quality of its own. It’s very interesting to point out two aspects that overlap in this book. On one side, there is the widowhood story and her subsequent discovery of the betrayal and the pain it caused. On the other hand, the author has an ironic point of view, full of humor, about all the events that surround the life of a widow: the loneliness of a different life and the possibility of other relationships.
The ending of the book, with the move to a new apartment is most suggestive; a new life in a smaller place, full of light, in the center of town of a great city. The reader feels like going there to see the author, to find her anew in that life that she is constructing for herself.
Inés Alberdi, Catedrática. November 1, 2014. Universidad Complutense, Madrid, Spain
I found Concha Alborg’s memoir truly enthralling—the story of a widow who ends up divorcing her late husband. Although the warning at the beginning of the book—the “spoiler alert”—may seem ill-advised at first, it works surprisingly well as a strategy that captivates the reader. In the role of a voyeur to someone else’s life, I could not stop reading to find out what could have happened to a happily married woman to divorce her husband after his death. As I finished the book, I felt a tremendous admiration for an enterprising and resourceful widow who makes her own life, a life full of accomplishments in spite of the obstacles she encounters. This is an uplifting story, full of hope and emotion. It is also an immigrant’s story, the story of a woman who juggles between two cultures, two sets of values and expectations.
María-Inés Lagos, Ph.D. October 19, 2014, Spanish Professor, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA
Concha Alborg mediates her widowhood through an insightful memoir where lived moments and art mix in the crucible of a betrayed-but-not-defeated woman aware of her power to heal her wounds as a victor, not a victim.
Divorce after Deathis a memorable memoir of “transit”: sometimes painful, sometimes joyful, and always honest. The last chapters left me awestruck for their artistry.
Adriana Lewis Galanes, July 28, 2014, Professor Emerita Temple University, Philadelphia, PA
AMERICAN IN TRANSLATION: A NOVEL IN THREE NOVELLAS
The final novella, “American Woman,” is told through an effective combination of one-sided conversations between Inmaculada and her therapist, as well as journal entries she keeps while traveling. The previous two novellas are the buildup to the ultimate decision Inmaculada must make regarding the future of both her marriage and career. It is through her therapy sessions and travels that Inmaculada’s voice becomes more confident as she learns what she must do to become the woman she has envisioned in this conclusion to her journey.
Reviewed by Kristen Stenerson in Philadelphia Stories, Spring 2012: 28.
Dwayne Booth is a true artist. The collage of the cover with a diminutive Franco dressed as an officer is brilliant. The narrative captivates any reader, man or woman because it has many levels, the autobiographical one and among many others, the sociological one as well. America in its depth is portrayed as ignorant and reactionary in the figure of the mother-in-law. Equally perfect is the evocation of the father as the eastern Spanish coast intellectual, who is trying to seduce the airhostess after he has just buried his wife.
Carlos Rojas, May 10, 2011, Candler Spanish Professor Emory University Atlanta, GA
I’ve read with enthusiasm and almost in one sitting, your most recent book, with three flawless exemplary, passionate novellas. On one hand there is my admiration for the way you narrate, because the language is not on the way, as it often happens in so much of our narrative prose, with what we are seeing, experiencing, enjoying and suffering as well. [Language] Is used masterfully, without ostentation or useless ornamentation. On the other hand I have been moved; it feels as if I have lived with the characters — the anguish of the couple separated by the war, the sadness for the crumbling of the father figure, the brave sexual experimentation, with its lows and its fortunate highs. Everything is graceful, grace in the effective writing and its deep human vision, critical, but compassionate, and the result is important without being heavy.
Randolph Pope. June 23, 2011, Spanish Commonwealth Professor University of Virginia Charlottesville, VA
I loved American in Translation. Once I started reading it, I couldn’t put it down. I liked very much how the family’s bicultural experience is portrayed and how the tension of the narrative is held. Also, the way other voices are incorporated through the letters is great.
María Inés Lagos. June 26, 2011, Spanish Professor University of Virginia Charlottesville, VA
This novel of an “American Spaniard Woman” has a precursor in Cervantes’ novella “The English Spaniard Woman.” It is a valuable addition in the female perspective of these critical American times as they are lived by the characters between Spain and the United States, and the protagonist on her journey to self-realization. I like the different narrative techniques: the memoirs, letters, journals… I like the relationship between the autobiographical and the fictitious and the novel dedication to the memory of the husband, who is brought to life with his name and all the hope and life he brings to the novel.
Víctor Fuentes. December 5, 2011, Professor of Spanish University of California, Santa Barbara Santa Barbara, CA
BEYOND JET-LAG: OTHER STORIES
“Many of the stories are superb, leaving the reader thirsty for more. Such is the case with the excellent collection opener, in which Alborg, her parents and brother take that so-very-American, cross-country summer vacation in the 1960s in a ‘white Plymouth with red interior and huge fins.’ Generational and cultural clashes abound here, with hilarity ensuing in the Chicago Museum of Arts restaurant. This first story whets the reader’s appetite and leads him or her to expect more ‘jet-lagged’ family members searching for that common ground between two cultures. It is interesting to note the differences in tone between the stories written in English and Spanish. While not always true, the Spanish stories seem to have a more intimate feel and are laden with poignant details. The English stories, meanwhile, tend to be lighter and more humorous. Alborg’s ability to use both languages well allows her to deliver quite diverse impressions.”
Reviewed by Sofía Perrino in Letras Peninsulares, 2002-2003: 705-707.
“Concha Alborg´s short story collections serve well as a case study for imagining the potential contribution of the US-Spanish writer to this broadened concept of Latinidad. In Alborg’s case, this ‘Latina’ quality necessarily foregrounds her gender identity as well, and both concepts come together in a performative exploration of her fictional / autobiographical self. Fiction/life, short story/novel, Spanish/English: Alborg’s work typically plays on the borderlines of these genres, moving between languages, nations, and culture-based constructions of gender.”
“Latina or Americaniard?” by Debra A. Castillo in Revista Canadiense de Estudios Hispánicos, 30.1, 2005: 47-59.
“I would like to cite the case of one of these ‘new Latina’ writers, Concha Alborg, who was born in Valencia and has lived in the United States since her adolescence. There are several reasons for my interest in Alborg´s texts: her explicit attempt to build bridges with the Latino world; her particular use of Spanish in certain texts and English in others; and the dual focus with which she approaches Spanish and U.S. cultural concepts. There is nearly no single moment in her work in which the tensions amongst her multiple identities, those related to her country of origin and those having to do with her adopted country, are not present.””The first thing that one notices about Beyond Jet-Lag is that out of its twenty short stories, ten are written in English while the other ten are in Spanish. Thus from its inception, the book assumes there is a bilingual reader with complete fluency in both languages. This is not akin to the practice of some Latino writers, who write in one of two languages, a style to which we have grown accustomed. Clearly, those who do not read in two languages will not be able to see that experience reflected. That is one of the risks of such a project.”
“A Spanish Woman in the United States: The Case of Concha Alborg” by Edmundo Paz-Soldán in Spanish and Empire. Vanderbilt University Press, 2007: 143-148.
UNA NOCHE EN CASA
“Una noche en casa is formed by twenty short stories so unified among themselves that it can be considered a short story collection or a novel, a dilemma that other books have encountered. In my view, its mastery can be found in its simplicity and, above all, in its feeling of authenticity in which the past gets captured for the reader. And it should be noticed that this is achieved not by giving us a story in one chunk, but rather by fragments made out of patches. Among these patches the one that includes the narrator in front of several pictures of her deceased mother is an example of the most beautiful and contained emotion.”
Reviewed by María Martínez del Portal in Monte Arabí, XX, 1995: 85-87.
“Among the chapters, there are some excellent ones, with the rare facility to awaken one’s nostalgia by narrating her own, due to the ability, freshness and, in conclusion, the efficacy in which they are written. I’m referring, for example, to the fortunate description of the first snowfall, seen through the eyes of a young girl… or the amusing search of her doll… and funny is as well the chapter about the father’s driving test… Magical touches pepper, without waste – unexpectedly, otherwise they would lack charm—Concha Alborg’s text ”
Reviewed by José H. Polo in Turia, 35/36, 1996: 358-360.
“Alborg’s stories flow with the freshness, the spontaneity, the flavor, the colors and even the smells of the lived experience, without a trace of the self-consciousness of a literary critic. Perhaps the greatest achievement of the collection is the rare combination of lightness and intelligence of her prose. The stories are intimate scenes, full of grace that the reader can devour in one or at most in two sittings, and they are also a lucid literary recreation of the up-rootedness experience.”
Reviewed by Paz Macías-Fernández in Letras Femeninas, 23, 1997: 213-215.
“This is a memorable and fascinating book. Its twenty stories are magical in such an imperceptible way that upon finishing reading them, they seem to disappear completely, leaving in its place the memory of some intimate lives. Concha Alborg has a transparent voice that reminds us of Delibes’ stories or the autobiographical pages by Carmen Martín Gaite. We would have to look very hard to find a more precise, stark and chilling portrait of the demise of a marriage than the one presented in the one titled “A Night at Home.”
Reviewed by Randolph Pope in Alaluz, XXIX, 1997:91-93.