A recent installment of “Overlooked No More,” the New York Times series of overdue obituaries of “remarkable people who went unrecognized,” featured Julia de Burgos. Born Julia Constanza Burgos García, after she divorced her first husband, she dispossessed herself of his name and called herself Julia de Burgos, the de meaning of in Spanish and signaling possession. She had taken possession of herself. In one of her poems, she writes “ … who governs in me is me.”
These words are part of the epigraph that opens the first story in Love War Stories, Ivelisse Rodriguez’s perceptive exploration of love, heartbreak, and womanhood. The words echo throughout the book as Rodriguez’s characters strive to not just find love but to understand it. It’s also an effort to find and understand themselves — perhaps to claim themselves as Julia de Burgos did.
The characters in Love War Stories learn that the rules that govern marrying and those that govern love are not always what governs their own instincts, desires, and sense of self. These are girls — and in one story, a boy — who are one thing on the inside and something entirely different on the outside. It’s a dichotomy that stymies their quest for love. A quest that creates a war within themselves.
In “Holyoke, Mass.: An Ethnography,” Veronica, with the hard expression, is not supposed to cry. She has a reputation among her classmates in a town with its own reputation for hardness. What her classmates want to know is “who is Veronica fucking.” Everyone thinks she’s going to get pregnant. They bet on it. Veronica plays along. “Never is she unaware of the role she has to play, she never leaves home without her hardness … But she has this squishy little heart inside that presses on her so hard that she has to cry. Never in front of her girls ... ”
In “The Summer of Nene,” Jimmy flirts with Jessica. It’s obligatory, expected. “I think of her under me. I know who I’m supposed to be. With Nene though, I know who I am.” Nene is his homeboy and they never speak about what they do.
In “The Belindas,” new Belinda stalks her ex-boyfriend David, who doesn’t recognize her because she has hidden the old Belinda inside the weight she's gained since the breakup. She learns that with her bigger self she becomes more invisible, a consequence of what the old Belinda “let happen,” the abuse that David inflicted on her.
Julia de Burgos’ own quest for love led her to leave Puerto Rico for New York City in 1938 at the age of 25. It wasn’t just her passion for a man that drove her departure. Her beloved island was too small for her feminist beliefs. Love — or the idea of it — and a nascent feminism also drive the characters in Rodriguez’s story collection, which begins in Puerto Rico then moves off the island to the United States, to Holyoke, Massachusetts, then New York City — its stoops, its Ivy League classrooms, its botánicas — then back briefly to Puerto Rico before ending in a Massachusetts suburb.
Rodriquez’s young protagonists wonder how long the heart could stop and start before breaking, or what makes love last, or whether perhaps love doesn’t exist. They are poor, middle class, and well-off. They are observers of love and its disappearance in their parents. The girls are especially mindful, but skeptical, of what their mothers have to say about love. The mothers are insistent on their truths.
In Puerto Rico, while young Noelia awaits her quinceañera, womanhood, and love, she is torn between compassion for her lovelorn aunt and obedience to her stern mother. Noelia’s big day is ruined by her beloved Tia Lola, who long ago was abandoned by her husband. Lola tells Noelia, “I didn’t want you to be a woman. It’s a terrible thing to be a woman.”
But Noelia and the characters in the other stories persist in their belief in love, if a bit jaded or shaken and no longer so fiercely sure, no longer quite as hopeful. Rosie, in the title story, urges her friends to disavow their mothers’ ominous views on love, marriage, and men. Rosie has declared war on such notions. “I think instead we should focus on falling in love. They want us to marry and not believe, but I think we should believe and not marry.”
The love war that Rosie and her cohorts wage lasts for three years, from the time they are fifteen, when their mothers allow the girls into one of their “never trust a man” gatherings, until their first year of college, when they fall in love. Except for Rosie, who nevertheless finds that “ … now, love is fighting all of us — it’s kicking our asses.”
In Love War Stories, there is not just war within the characters and war between mother and daughters. There is war with tradition, society, and place. In “El Qué Dirán,” set in Puerto Rico, there are “men sitting around a bar … who saw women as handkerchiefs they carried in their back pockets, their initials stenciled into the fine lace. In “Holyoke, Mass.” an ethnographer observes “… there are new monikers, new people: Highest teenage pregnancy rate in Massachusetts, highest concentration of Puerto Ricans anywhere in the world outside of Puerto Rico, and girls like Veronica.” In “The Light in the Sky,” a young woman, travels to Puerto Rico to see its wonders and to ignore her unexpected pregnancy. She “has no inclination toward motherhood. I side with those postpartum mothers who drive their children into the water. Give them over to Yemaya. Let her have them.”
It’s as if de Burgos’s declaration “who governs in me is me” is humming in the hearts of these characters. In one story, de Burgos is literally on display: In “The Simple Truth,” whose title is borrowed from a de Burgos book of poetry, Maricarmen curates a photo exhibition that depicts the life of her idol in her various love affairs. Maricarmen’s mother laments that Puerto Rico’s greatest poet is being celebrated for who she slept with. But Maricarmen adheres to the belief that de Burgos was a heartbreaker and not the victim many had supposed her to be. Reflecting on a photo of de Burgos’s body being returned to Puerto Rico, Maricarmen senses the emotion of the welcoming crowd. “ ... it is more than a coffin; they know who lies in it: La Vida, la fuerza, la mujer. I recognize their love — the way I think we should all be loved.”
And yet, Rodriguez shows us that the reality of love is that heartbreak is inevitable. Rosie enlists the revolutionary ideas of Erica Jong, the Black Panthers, and Julia de Burgos to support her side in the love war, but in the end, her friends split off from the cause. Rosie is steadfast: “I didn’t fall in love because I wanted to love love for a little bit longer, hold on to it in ways that the heartbroken cannot.”
The title story beautifully concludes a trajectory of narratives of love as abandonment, as hope, as betrayal, as something secret and temporary, as dangerous and on the edge of darkness, as subversive, as mysterious and holy. In the end, Rodriguez reminds us, even when we govern ourselves, we are not immune to heartbreak.