“Reacting to Crisis”: Tania Pabón Acosta on Margaret Emma Brandl’s TUSCALOOSA (OR, IN APRIL, HARPIES)

Margaret Emma Brandl’s new novella, Tuscaloosa (Or, In April, Harpies) (released this July as an eBook), tracks two sisters on their search for each other during the aftermath of a tornado that has ripped through Tuscaloosa. The book operates on two levels, both personified in sisters Kennedy and Esther. Not only do we witness the ways in which people unravel in light of a crisis, but we also watch two young women grow despite, and because of, the circumstances they find themselves in. Reflecting on their distant relationship, Esther and Kennedy set out to look for each other after the tornado has passed, and on the way find clarity within themselves.

Brandl takes the time to stretch the search in a way that allows us to grasp the gravity of the natural disaster, and its effect on the people that suffer through it. The images the author conjours, of a city-wide power outage and flattened buildings, brought back memories of my home of Puerto Rico in 2018, post Hurricane Maria. Coming from an island at the mercy of hurricane season, it was as Brandl described, “just minutes ago, there were restaurants across the street. (…) Now there is a pile of wood, a tangle of the metal of cars, pieces scattered far across the road.” With no electricity and cell towers down, Brandl’s Esther and Kennedy struggle to contact each other, both frantically dialing and being met with the recorded, “We’re sorry.” It’s all too familiar—me redialing my mother’s cell number post-hurricane to no avail, the images on the news generating more worry. Brandl sets her heroines against these circumstances, and poses an important question. In times of emergency and desperation, do we act out of character or do we enact who we are? This is the turmoil that stirs within each sister, that catapults each of their personal journeys during the search.

Brandl’s relatable prose, insightful in its natural flow, and her measured use of stream of consciousness, serve to place us in the mind of each sister. By giving us the opportunity to stand in each character’s place, we come to understand the strained relationship that Esther and Kennedy share. Each young woman must face personal obstacles throughout their search, while also working to reconcile their tense dynamic. Brandl gives us a look into both young women, therefore showing us how sisterhood and womanhood are complicated, rife with societal expectations and fallacies. For Kennedy, for example, these pressures include the expectation to stay with an outwardly perfect, yet abusive, partner. Both sisters must learn how to stand up for what they want, even if they go at it alone.

Of note, Brandl highlights Esther and Kennedy’s most instrumental moments through strategic chapter titles referencing Greek mythology. By adding this seemingly random component to her storytelling, Brandl reminds us that the story of Esther and Kennedy coming into their voices is a story that has been alive since antiquity. Even the goddesses before them had to escape the clutches of greedy men and risk punishment for speaking their mind.

As Kennedy and Esther move about the University of Alabama campus area, following hunches and pseudo-leads, Brandl builds on their desperation by outlining the things that surround them—buildings torn down, streets unlit, wandering students (some now homeless). I picture the devastation left by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, houses and businesses now flattened lots, people begging for aid and water. I remember my mother’s voice finally on the other end of the receiver, in San Juan, “we can’t reach anyone, the roads have been ripped up.” It is in moments such as these, where our control is so limited and our need is great, that we act as our true selves. We revert to our instincts and act based on a primitive response. Esther and Kennedy both dig into and bring to the surface dormant parts of themselves in this emergency. That is, they realize and fulfill what has been in them from the beginning.

After Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico was left in its own echo, communities brought closer together in the deafening silence of what was lost. The bond between Esther and Kennedy is loose and flimsy before the tornado that affects them both; it is up to us to consider how that bond has been reinforced or further dismantled through the course of the book. Natural disasters embed themselves into us through trauma and reaction. Brandl ends Tuscaloosa on a type of ellipses, a paused moment we’re denied completion of. While they both internally struggle to gain the freedoms they want, we understand that, once found, Esther and Kennedy’s relationship will not be the same as it was. It will necessarily be different because the sisters are now different. Tuscaloosa provides us with a look at humanity and womanhood through the lens of a crisis, ultimately asking us to look within ourselves for resolution and peace.

Tuscaloosa (Or, In April, Harpies), by Margaret Emma Brandl. Bridge Eight Press, July 2021. $8.00, eBook.

Tania Pabón Acosta is a Puerto Rican writer now based in New York. She holds an MA from the University of Puerto Rico, and an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. A finalist for the DisQuiet Prize, her work has appeared in Cosmonauts Avenue, The Los Angeles Review, The Rumpus, Entropy, Catapult and Medium, among others. 

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