THREE YEARS AGO, readers were treated to a long-overdue feast with the publication of Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women. Berlin’s underground fans could finally breathe a collective “told-you-so” when the book hit the best-seller list 11 years after the author’s death in 2004. Berlin has finally received the widespread acclaim that she never saw in her lifetime. This fall, her legacy continues to grow with another collection of short stories, titled Evening in Paradise, as well as Berlin’s unfinished and previously unpublished memoir, Welcome Home.
Berlin is often categorized as an autobiographical writer whose work would (arguably) fit into the now popular genre of autofiction. Sometimes, however, Berlin experiments with different versions of her own reality, and she’s not at all interested in helping the reader discern the real from the fabricated. Berlin devotees could endlessly argue over which stories authentically represent the author’s history and which do not — especially once Welcome Home hits the shelves — but the distinction between the two is ultimately, and blessedly, irrelevant. In the forward to Evening in Paradise, Berlin’s eldest son, Mark Berlin, described his mother’s stories this way:
Ma wrote true stories; not necessarily autobiographical, but close enough for horseshoes. Our family stories and memories have been slowly reshaped, embellished, and edited to the extent that I’m not sure what really happened all the time. Lucia said this didn’t matter: the story is the thing.
And there’s another explanation for the blurring of fact and fiction. Berlin’s real life has been aptly described as flamboyant and chaotic — in her own words, “fraught with peril.” She had an enviable (especially for angsty writers) storehouse of unique, hard-knock experiences to draw from that some might consider too fantastic to be believed. Or, as Mark Berlin put it, “if I were to tell Lucia’s story […] it would be hailed as magical realism.” The line between real and unreal, then, is hopelessly obscure; what is clear is that Lucia — the mother, the wife, the alcoholic, the knitter, the widely traveled and evicted — is ultimately inextricable from Lucia the storyteller. Her life becomes her stories, and her stories are open to the same edits, revisions, and elaborations that any narrative requires.
For Berlin, remembering is an editorial act, and there are no truly objective memories. The murkiness between Berlin’s fiction and life invites the reader into a process of self-examination that great literature ought to demand. In that sense, Berlin’s work is indeed “fraught with peril”; she models for us the negotiation of our true identities with those thrust upon us by social expectations and forces us to dredge up some of our greatest flaws. The upside is an awareness of the beauty that would not exist without brokenness.
Anyone worried that Evening in Paradise might somehow be inferior to Manual is in for a pleasant surprise. Containing about half the number of tales — 22 in all — this new collection of stories showcases the same remarkable skill and pathos that Berlin fans have long cherished. Berlin’s alluring prose consistently sets the reader up for unexpected and often harrowing shifts in action — like when Maya, wife of a recovering heroin addict, goes to incredible lengths to protect her husband from a dealer who refuses to leave them alone (“La Barca de la Ilusión”), or when a fatal spectacle at the bullfighting arena quickly turns to involve a member of the audience (“Sombra”).
Berlin has a particular, albeit well-nuanced, sympathy for intelligent, outspoken women who, like herself, are struggling to get by. With acute patience, she unveils the meritless hegemony that men hold over such woman (“The Adobe House with a Tin Roof”), and the inflated expectations that stymie them, while men guilty of the same behaviors see no punishment (“My Life Is an Open Book”). Indeed, although the new collection revisits Manual’s core themes of homesickness (“Itinerary”) and drug/alcohol addiction (“Rainy Day” and “The Wives”), there is a greater focus on the toxic effects of social expectation and performance.
In “Andado,” for instance, 14-year-old Laura visits the estate of wealthy family friends in Chile, where she finds herself in a growing mutual infatuation with the father while facing the family’s incessant attempts to cast her as fragile and subservient. In the title story, set at a Mexican resort, the cast of a famed television drama are worn out and distraught at their own broken lives and relationships, which become a TV-like spectacle for the Mexican hotel staff. Evening in Paradise provides further proof of Berlin’s remarkable ability to home in on the extraordinary within the ordinary. It shows her to be a simultaneously uncompromising and empathic observer of life.
It’s easy to see how truly autobiographical Berlin’s stories are when read alongside Welcome Home. Unfortunately, however, the memoir lacks crucial background information that would have made it a standalone work. Further editorial context or annotation would have certainly helped, particularly for first-time Berlin readers. It might be best to start with Stephen Emerson’s biographical afterword to the book, “A Note on Lucia Berlin,” which devotees will recognize from the end of Manual. And ideally, one would start with Berlin’s story collections.
Never the less, as a supplemental reference, Welcome Home is a fun and sometimes bombastic introduction to Berlin’s roller-coaster life. The book is divided into two halves: the title memoir, and a selection of letters written between 1944 and 1965.
The memoir is composed of a series of brief, chronological sections organized by the places Berlin lived, and garnished with dozens of photographs. Written in the same carefully crafted style as her fiction, the memoir opens in Alaska, where Berlin was born, and details her experience of growing up in a family constantly on the move. This itinerant lifestyle continues into her adult life, and Berlin documents each of her homes in the vibrant, image-heavy language of her short stories. And, in fact, the memoir is at its strongest in the few brief asides where Berlin discusses how she developed that style. Berlin writes of staying in Montana at an old man’s cabin with unpainted walls that she helped decorate with torn and pasted magazine pages. “It was important to mix up the pages and magazines, so that page 20 might be high on a north wall and 21 on the bottom of the south wall,” Berlin says. “I believe this was my first lesson in literature, in the infinite possibilities of creativity.”
For anyone who has already read Manual or Evening in Paradise, Berlin’s brief memoir may at times feel redundant. The most striking example of this is the fact that the short story “La Barca de la Ilusión” is nearly identical to the section “Yelapa, Jalisco, Mexico.” Such is the occupational hazard of writing both autobiographical fiction and a memoir. It’s not entirely surprising that the latter remained unfinished and unpublished in her lifetime.
Fortunately, the second half of Welcome Home is far stronger than the first — so raw and electric, so alive with Berlin’s need to connect with other souls. It begins with a brief section entitled “The Trouble with All the Houses I’ve Lived In.” The trouble with … becomes the antecedent to each dense, often explosive description that follows, which could stand alone as powerful works of flash fiction:
“Rose Street, Albuquerque, New Mexico — Dust storms. Old man died in the apple orchard.”
“Corrales Road — No running water, no electricity, no bathroom. Two kids in diapers.”
“Mesa Street by the airport, Albuquerque, New Mexico — Airplanes.”
And my personal favorite: “Griegos Road, Albuquerque, New Mexico — I burned it down.”
These crisp vignettes are appetizers for the real meal. Raw, passionate, and delightfully unfiltered, Berlin’s letters, mostly with mentor and friend Ed Dorn, are a welcome change from the carefully varnished and, as a result, often repetitive and contrived memoir. Perhaps the only disappointment about these missives is that there aren’t more of them. The fact that the section is called “Selected Letters” seems to imply that others exist, but how many (and how relevant) remains a mystery.
The letters begin with a note from Berlin’s father in 1944, while he was overseas serving in the military. Three years later, when she was 11 years old, Lucia wrote a response to her father that can be read as a key for her entire career: “I’m sorry that I didn’t write sooner but I’ve been very busy (playin’).” For the rest of her life, she remained an artist for whom “playin’” takes precedence over all.
In the letters, her voice is still in the wild, but she is already full of delightful anecdotes (“We experimented with rats today […] we gave him two choices, food or the dame … and guess what the dirty rat chose … the food”), struggling with her calling (“I care about a ruddy lot of things — including my writing. True, it is a matter of commitment — this is where I am hung — this is what my ‘guilt’ is — that it is hard for me to commit myself [to writing, love, god, etc.]”), and capable of bracing self-analysis (“I resent anything I have to do with people who depress me and make me feel petty — and as a result bitch about the petty things.”).
The Berlin in these letters is also deeply vulnerable. “I had not realized how simple it is to destroy things,” she says while thinking through the implosion of one of her marriages. Regarding her relationship with her mother: “Friend of mine in Chile wrote to ask how I was, she saw my mother and had asked her how I was. My mother said I was a whore and not her daughter anymore. Rhyme and all.” Honesty and craft, pain and humor — the quintessential characteristics of Berlin’s art are already on display.
In the end, what we are given is neither new fiction (all the stories in Evening in Paradise have been published before and publically available for decades), nor a treasure trove of previously unknown information about the author (Welcome Home tells us nothing about Berlin that we didn’t already know). Instead, these two books offer a tribute long overdue to the life and work of an author who should have seen greater recognition in her lifetime. We also find here a voice advocating for women like Berlin herself — the unacknowledged, the used, the sexually shamed, the isolated and overwhelmed, the unbelieved, the “hysterical,” the loyal partner beaten into inferiority for her loyalty. The weight of expectation has been a subtle violence inflicted upon women for generations. It is perpetrated by the double standards of a male-dominated culture. Berlin’s stories expose this injustice. Her legacy is sealed by the vulnerability she poured onto the page; she will not be forgotten.
Ryan Smernoff is a writer who has worked as editorial assistant at Henry Holt, Knopf, and Norton. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University.