There are very few sour notes in Donna M. Gershten’s debut novel, Kissing the Virgin’s Mouth, a first-person drama about a poor, indomitable Mexican woman. It is mostly a triumphant piece of writing—full of genuine affection for its characters, and a wild ride of a tale. But as much as Virgin is an honest and gutsy effort at writing across borders, its brief moments of cultural static raise questions about how a writer can best reflect a community that she does not belong to by birth or history. A North Carolina native, Gershten has chosen to write about Guadalupe Magdalena Molina Vasquez (a/k/a Magda), whose life takes her from a rural town in her native land to Idaho (of all places) and back again. Along the way she loves three very different men, becomes rich, then poor again, then rich again, and finally settles into a comfortable, independent existence in her Mexican hometown.
Virgin, the deserving winner of the first Barbara Kingsolver-sponsored Bellwether Prize, gives an intimate portrait of a poverty-crushed, patriarchal family in which the consequences of oppression are so ingrained they seem like evolutionary traits. Magda’s family is so wretched that when they walk through the markets, it isn’t the trinkets the kids get excited about, but the common taco vendors.
When Magda—disgusted with her laconic, philandering father—goes off to sell tejuino, the corn-based drink the family brews on the roof of their crowded and malodorous house, she creates a dilemma by doing considerably better business than her father and brothers. Though the extra money is deeply appreciated, her mother demands that she apologize to her father and other male relatives for this humiliation. Initially proud and defiant, Magda gives in only when she realizes it’s a matter of appearances, a macho conceit that her mother and the other females in the family accept in order to maintain a sustainable level of harmony. The day after the apology (accepted with grunts and silence), Magda dons her short shorts and goes back out on the streets to sell tejuino, her success greater with each passing day.
Magda’s adventurousness propels her further and further away from her origins. She has an unusual intimate relationship with the local movie theater owner, starts go-go dancing, and marries into a rich Mexican family. After her first divorce, she works as a freelance tourist guide and meets a young American named Robert, whom she marries and follows to Idaho.
But Magda is always called back to her roots. Even in Idaho, she seeks solace from an improvised altar to Mexico’s patron saint, the Virgin of Guadalupe. In the end, Mexico’s pull is so strong that she leaves Robert and her young daughter, Martina, who will visit Magda in Mexico only during school holidays and vacations. Mercifully, Virgin never reduces this failed marriage to simple cultural conflict. Gershten gives the relationship an extraordinary authenticity with her command of complex emotions, conveying that Magda and Robert’s problems are, in some ways, as impossible to pin down as the source of love itself.
There’s plenty of authenticity in Virgin‘s local color too. The story feels lived-in, probably because Gershten lived in Mexico from 1982 to ’87, running a fitness center that also served as a community center of sorts. Gershten learned Spanish on the streets, so her use of the language is subtle, not overly researched. She has an excellent sense of how Latinos might translate themselves into English. Sentences like “When I had nine years, I wrapped gorditas with manteca in a cloth” ring true precisely because of their awkwardness. Gershten peppers the text with these kinds of “misstatements” and a heavy dose of Spanish. It’s tempting to consider the Spanish more an authorial flexing of linguistic muscle than a real need, but Gershten always pulls back before overdoing it. Most of the time, people really do speak this way; they really do sound like this.
But when Gershten falters, it’s exactly her prior excellence that makes her missteps stand out. A pimple is far more noticeable on Ricky Martin’s smooth cheek than, say, on Edward James Olmos’s scarred face. And though the mistakes are technically small, they point to the larger truth: This is an outsider writing. To use one example, perhaps one in a billion Latinos would refer to little girls’ underpants as calzoncillos, but in common usage the word means briefs—men’s briefs, to be exact. Did Gershten mean calzones or chones instead? How did this get through? Probably because the book is edited by non-Latinos and aimed at an American audience that, however well-intentioned and politically savvy, simply can’t notice these kinds of insider details.
So do the calzoncillos wreck the book? Not at all, but the misuse creates a strange tension with the native Spanish-speaker. The misplaced calzoncillos hurl readers in the know out of the story and into more mundane and complicated debates about cultural appropriation, historical dislocation, and power.
Even more jarring is an incident at the end of the novel, designed as a test of courage for Magda and even more so for her daughter, Martina. Crossing back into Mexico from the U.S., they’re stopped at the border by guards who intend to rob, extort, and harm them in some way. But how Gershten renders this moment seems more a matter of outsider fascination with the exotic and dangerous than anything else. Moreover, it’s an unfortunate twist that Martina saves herself and her mother with a sudden invocation of American privilege.
Writers—like all artists—have a right to write about everything and anything. Mexicans shouldn’t be the exclusive province of Mexican scribes any more than Hoosiers should be Michael Martone’s. And writing across borders provides insight not just into the Other, but into ourselves. Gershten avoids most of the pitfalls—she is neither condescending nor fawning—but Virgin, in spite of its grace and courage, raises a much more universal and basic question: Just how well can we ever really know one another?