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By Jessica Silva
Alessandra Narváez Varela’s debut novel “Thirty Talks Weird Love” is a reassuring read that reaches across time to tackle the struggles of border living, girlhood and growing up.
The book is set in Juárez in 1999 at a time when hundreds of women are missing and have been brutally murdered. Readers will connect with the locale, the semi-autobiographical raw emotions and deeply personal trauma fronteriza Varela lays upon the page.
An aspiring doctor, protagonist Anamaria is a machatera determined to be successful. Her restaurant-owning parents Papiringo and Chachita struggle to pay for her competitive private school. She feels the weight of the violence of the city but as is common in Mexican households, her mental health is disregarded, especially as she is a high achieving student.
“Ni de aqui, ni de alla,” Anamaria occupies the liminal spaces between depression and anxiety, adulthood and childhood, reality and magic, English and Spanish, self-loathing and self-love.
Anamaria is drowning living in the misandry rampant in Juárez, dealing with frenemies, guilt, rage, and symptoms like nightmares, suicidal ideation, and exhaustion. On the day she starts her period, Anamaria meets a strange woman who claims to be her from 17 years in the future.
Anamaria thinks the woman that she refers to as “Thirty” is a corny poet, but Thirty has it all figured out and she is a writer, not a doctor. Thirty is crucial to comforting Anamaria, who feels lost and confused and alone as many teens do in today’s information saturation. Thirty and this novel are guides.
Anamaria’s conversations with Thirty and inner monologue and free verse around her complicated existence are lush. Varela expands in Girl:
“What is a girl? Her color, her skin, her face, her eyes, her cheeks, her brain, her belly, her mami her papi, her money, her anger, her joy, her life, her death I think not. Girls are not word banks, bullet points summaries, or headlines. Girls are stories. I think. But will all stories be told? Will all stories be read? Will all stories have an end? I don’t know.”
Thirty is crucial to connecting the artist Anamaria to her craft, encouraging her to advocate for her mental health and to write poetry. Told in varying forms of poetry, the structure of the novel lends itself to the strange and ethereal plot.
Varela’s poetry writing is deft and evocative and, ranging in form from concrete poems or calligrams to free verse poems and black out poetry. Aspiring readers who struggle through large blocks of text may find that novels in verse are a perfect fit. The novel in verse format is incredibly popular and executed beautifully in Thirty Talks, as well as in award-winning books such as “The Poet X” by Elizabeth Acevedo and “Long Way Down” by Jason Reynolds.
We can all see ourselves in Anamaria, experiencing sadness and putting pressure on ourselves, as we either lived through or grew up in the aftermath of Juárez in the 1990s and early 2000s. When I hosted Alessandra for a virtual author visit with my students in our library’s book club in 2021, several students in the visit were Zooming in from Juárez.
It can be validating to hear someone from your culture and background say, “I know what it is like to be living your life” but also “look at me now” as Thirty does with Anamaria, as Alessandra was able to do with this remarkable book and my students.
Jessica Silva is a native El Pasoan and librarian at El Paso High School. She also serves on the Border Regional Library Association as well as the Texas Library Association EDI and Marketing and Public Relations committees. She previously served on the Texas Bluebonnet Award program committee and the Southwest Book Awards selection committee.