Book Review : Meliza Bañales - Life is Wonderful, People are Terrific (2015)
There are books that seem to hold within their pages the essence of a place or a subculture, and Meliza Bañales' Life is Wonderful, People are Terrific does both simultaneously. On one hand, it is a snapshot of California in the 90s, from Santa Cruz, the streets, and San Francisco to punk bars, house shows, and the college scene. On the other, it is a heartfelt and unabashedly honest exploration of what it meant to be a young, awkward, drunk, Xicana punk coming to terms with life, growing up, and sexuality within that context. Ultimately, what this novella offers is a window into a formative time and place through the eyes of a woman that is at once unique and little bit every nonconformist/person on the fringe/member of la raza.
The year is 1996 and Missy Fuego is an eighteen-year-old Xicana who suddenly becomes the first member of her family to leave home thanks to a scholarship to a prestigious university Santa Cruz. Unfortunately, life is more expensive than what the scholarship provides, so Missy begins to moonlight as a stripper to pay the bills, which places here in an interesting interstitial space between her life as a young intellectual at a great university, a music fan with a passion for punk, and someone who spends nights surrounded by horny men and booze. Because she inhabits a few different scenes, Missy ends up meeting a plethora of diverse characters, and all of them have a degree of impact in her life as she develops her identity as a woman/Xicana/sexual being/friend/Queer. Ultimately, this novel is a very personal story that also touches on everything from loyalty and racism to self discovery and Riot Grrrl race politics.
I first read a few pages of this book at AWP 2016 and was immediately hooked. I had heard a lot of good things about it and knew they were all true because Constance Ann Fitzgerald, who runs Ladybox Books, has great taste in books. I cracked it open randomly on page 100 and read: "Yeah, you like me inside you don't you—you like to move against me with my whole hand inside you—that's right—show me how good it feels—" Needless to say, my interest was piqued. After reading the entire narrative, which features more than one passage dealing with fisting, I realized many readers would focus on that and not on the incredible richness of the text in terms on exploring human nature and the twisted way we make decisions while growing up. That's their loss: this novel is a straightforward, heartbreaking, incredibly entertaining account of growing up, growing strong, dealing with familial issues, the complicated nature of love, and Queer sexuality, and it deserves to be read because of all those elements.
Life is Wonderful, People are Terrific deals with a lot of themes that make people uncomfortable, and that makes Bañales' direct, no-nonsense approach seem perfect. When you think about the main character as a Xicana instead of just a young woman, it's easy to realize that she is a minority within a minority, which translates into an undeniable, necessary voice that comes, loud and clear, from the epicenter of Otherness to share the processes she goes through in a world where being a stripper is seen as a bad thing but a young Xicana is forced to deal with neo-nazis in the streets as if this was not a "free" country. Ultimately, the experiences Missy has to endure are not only formative for her and the author but also serve as a mirror in which we can see the ugliness and hypocrisy of a country that was formed by a multiplicity of Others that eventually came to be seen as outsiders.
This is a relatively short novella and one whose straightforward prose and cracking dialogue make an easy read, but it's also the kind of book that sticks to your ribs and echoes with messages you only start to decode long after the last page has been turned. Bañales is a writer, performer, filmmaker, and slam poet, and all of that comes together here to offer a story in which a plural/personal/unique/strangely communal self is at the center but where space is also shared by issues that still resonate today. This is the literary equivalent of an angry kick to the backside of society, a voice that screams over the ruckus demanding to be heard, and it deserves exactly that.