BookMark: 'The Border is Burning' by Ito Romo

Sep 11, 2014

Ito Romo’s collection of short stories, The Border is Burning is a superb and painful read. But it is the kind of pain that is necessary and compelling in a book set in a landscape fraught with peril. The stories are set along and across the border between the United States and Mexico. The border is real and omnipresent throughout the book—characters cross back and forth to score cheap booze, prescription drugs, and to ferry cocaine in belts and shoes. No character on either side of the border is spared Romo’s tough but honest treatment. In a time when immigration issues are talked about in black and white terms, The Border is Burning is a necessary read. The book is labeled as Southwest and Chicano literature, but it’s for all of us.

In the story, “Crank,” Romo masterfully illustrates the invisible cultural lines through San Antonio. A lonely, naïve man is led through the city on a search for drugs by a beguiling woman who looks like a young Sophia Loren. The lovely seductress is frantic for a fix and her mark is terrified for his life as they venture beyond his safe, comfortable neighborhood. You might assume the man is white and the woman is Chicana. But if readers expect any characters to be clearly identifiable by nationality, color, or ethnicity, they will be disappointed. The borders Romo explores are fluid, dynamic, and dependent on the characters’ emotional shifts and turns.

The book is a short and intense read at only eighty-three pages. Most of the stories are brief, only about six pages long. But each one packs a punch that only fierce, vigorous writing can achieve.  The book sears with moments of explicit disturbances of the flesh: the once-frozen body of a whale, thawing and liquefying; a lonely man with an infected splinter lodged in his belly button; and a jar holding a two-headed baby in formaldehyde floating across a flooded city. His characters suffer gut-wrenching emotional and physical violence.

In The Border is Burning, real fires rage. Far from a literary gimmick, the fires Romo builds alter landscapes of the self, the family, and the land. I don’t want to give too much away, because these stories are rich and surprising. When you think you’ve got the hang of Romo’s style, he’ll trip you up in an unsettling, but deeply pleasurable way.

Our reviewer, Kate Rosenberg-Minbiole, lives in State College. She’s a full time lecturer in English at Penn State. Ito Romo will do a reading September 11 at 7:30 on the Penn State University Park campus in Paterno Library’s Foster Auditorium.