Pushcart XL: Lilliam Rivera, “Death Defiant Bomba or What to Wear When Your Boo Gets Cancer” from Bellevue Literary Review, Spring 2014

Samuel Lind: “Magestad Negra”

If the doctor’s appointment is early, at 9 a.m., pull out the red sheath dress, the one that you bought on sale at Nordstrom with the famous but unpronounceable designer label. The red will wake the receptionist up like a motherfucker and cause her to send you hate for daring to outshine her that morning. The receptionist will think you’re tacky, loud, too much. In the bloodshot color, the doctor will notice that you wore the equivalent of a flag and think you’re stately and in charge. You’ll wear red, definitely red.
If the doctor’s appointment is later, say at 3 p.m., then the only color you should wear is … red.

~~ Complete story available online at Bellevue Review

Bomba, a quick google tells me, is a dance of Afro-Caribbean origins, first created by slaves on the sugar plantations of Puerto Rico and still celebrated today worldwide. It’s a conversation – no, more of a challenge – between dancer and drums, a kind of dare: “Oh yeah, well, see what you can do with this!”

Rivera has organized the story – in second person, no less – in the form of the dance: Basic Steps (Paseo Basico) give us a look at the woman preparing for her husband’s medical appointment, the Greeting (Saludo) takes place at the office (we often spend more time with receptionists and clipboards than we do with doctors), The Exchange (Piquetes) where the doctor delivers the words he’s practiced, the ones risk management has approved, as the woman desperately tries to inject some humanity into the process, tries to get a reprieve, a sign of mercy, maybe just an extra minute into the workflow-management time slot approved for this IDC-10 diagnosis code; and the Goodbye (Despedida) that closes the dance/appointment.

What an interesting image to use for a medical visit. Over the past several years, Lancaster University in Great Britain did a landmark linguistic study on the use of metaphor, typically military, in serious illness. The dance metaphor in this story is tailored to one person, and, interestingly, is not aimed at the medical condition, not at aberrant cells or microbes run amok or a confused immune system, but at the doctor.

Rivera discusses the origins of this story in a BLR interview: her husband has multiple health problems, and she knows how to advocate for patients. How odd that patients so often need advocacy when dealing with a system that should be an ally.

That same interview gives the origin of the second-person approach. She envisioned the story as an instruction manual of sorts, and that made second-person a natural choice. At the time she was unaware of the generally negative attitude towards the technique. I think the inclusion of the dance elements was a bit of genius, since that personalizes and adapts what could have been a routine instruction manual style into something quite powerful and very different, a story where you can hear the drums and see the skirt flashing. Her unawareness was a stroke of luck: had she stuck to the quality-control and risk-management assessed plan, the story would never have emerged in as powerful a form. And since it was originally published in the literary magazine run by Bellevue Hospital, we can only hope doctors are listening.

One response to “Pushcart XL: Lilliam Rivera, “Death Defiant Bomba or What to Wear When Your Boo Gets Cancer” from Bellevue Literary Review, Spring 2014

  1. Pingback: Doug Mack: The Not-Quite States of America (Norton, 2018) | A Just Recompense

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