We Have Always Been Who We Are
- By Sofia T. Romero
- Blackstone Publishing
- 195 pp.
- Reviewed by Mariko Hewer
- November 10, 2023
Magical realism highlights the absurdities of life in this not-quite-cohesive collection.
We Have Always Been Who We Are is certainly an ambitious book. With stories that ping-pong from horrifying to hilarious and employ magical realism for an extra dose of the bizarre, Sofia T. Romero delivers many satisfying lines and observations. Overall, however, it’s sometimes difficult to see how the tales hang together beyond featuring recurring characters. As a result, the book feels incomplete.
The first stories in this debut collection take place in childhood, early and late: one among schoolgirls arguing about playing make-believe, others during college that also involve a bit of pageantry.
In one tale, set amid a haunting sorority initiation, young women are forced to write their deepest secrets in the Book, which then absorbs and erases them as a sign of acceptance. When misanthropic Eva adds her own — “I care what all of you think” — the book revolts, spewing everyone’s secrets into the air to hang above the girls’ heads as they judge each other in horrified fascination. Leaving the sorority house in disgrace, Eva reflects:
“When I looked back, the curtains over the two big windows in the front were drawn, as though the House had shut its eyes. I had done too much, and yet not enough. And everything else was a secret the Book would never tell.”
The goals we set for ourselves are not always the ones we end up achieving.
Moving into early adulthood, one of the standout pieces in the collection, “No Good Answer,” concerns a maybe-imaginary cat that nonetheless leaves its mark on the world. Surprised to find a talking cat on her doorstep, Vanessa questions it:
“Excuse me, I said, it sounded like you just said something. Yes, the cat said, its velvet voice curling around me like smoke. I did, I said I’m coming in.”
Bullied out of her own bed and forbidden to tell anyone about the trespassing feline, Vanessa endures several days of misery before confiding in her boyfriend. When they return to her apartment, only she can see the cat, but both of them observe the destruction it has wrought in revenge for her revealing its existence. “Defeated,” she watches her boyfriend judge her and finally makes peace with her enemy. Interestingly, it’s Vanessa’s fight against the animal, rather than the fact of its existence, that most torments her. Perhaps acceptance of life’s obstacles is more achievable than victory over them.
Although Romero’s stories are tenuously linked — a side character in one piece may be the protagonist in another; an event obliquely referenced early on might become the focus of a later story — it can be difficult to discern how they’re connected on a deeper level. Because the glancing similarities prime the reader to seek out these connections, it’s frustrating when there are none. To make matters more confusing, one of the characters changes her name after a traumatizing event — an understandable action, but one that further blurs the lines.
Nevertheless, some stories shine with clarity. In “The Moment Wasn’t Ours to Begin With,” the unidentified narrator reflects on an earlier, happier moment with a significant other:
“My delight made you fall in love with me a little more. There was a lot I didn’t know at that moment. I didn’t know I could feel any other way about you. I didn’t know what it would feel like when I lost the path to you. And I didn’t know what it would feel like when you stopped searching for me.”
Anyone who has experienced loneliness within a relationship will likely relate to this unsettling sense of isolation and the creeping awareness that both parties have somehow stepped off the path.
Overall, Romero’s collection is poignant and meaningful. It might’ve been simpler had the author not attempted to connect the stories through their characters, but no matter. Their piercing, sometimes beautiful honesty still shines.
Mariko Hewer is a freelance editor and writer. She is passionate about good books, good food, and good company. Find her occasional insights at @hapahaiku.