By Amaris Castillo
Content warning: The following review contains mention of suicide and self-harm. If you’re struggling with suicidal thoughts, please call the U.S. national hotline: 1-800-273-8255.
The pain in Amanda Alcántara’s How I Became a Mermaid is searing. It’s a deep sadness that drowns. Alcántara — a self-described Caribbean palabrera and the author of Chula — shares how, when she was 6 or 7, she learned we all die. At that age, she understood death to come from an accident, or murder.
“The day I died, I dug myself out of my chest after it had swallowed me whole,” she writes in her book’s opening.
Alcántara paints a hauntingly vivid portrait of her transformation into a mermaid. She rose from her blanket, left everything behind. “The ocean seemed to call me. Like a soft whispered chorus with the voice of thousands of ancestors. Is this what the mermaid call sounds like? Is this why it’s so captivating? Is this what traps the men lost at sea?” she writes. “Not a woman. But the past. Deep in its sunken blueness. My blues wrapping me.”
And so begins How I Became a Mermaid, an unflinching book about suicide, rebirth, mental health issues, Dominican nationalism, and the fight for belonging. It’s about the beauty and ugliness of dominicanidad, and its messiness, too. Alcántara’s work often centers on Caribbean culture, womanhood, and exploration of self. Those themes appear in her new book, but the artist pulls even deeper from her own life, bringing readers a memorable book that is both vulnerable and uninhibited.
Throughout the course of the at-times bilingual book, readers are taken on a journey with Alcántara. We learn who she descends from – mujeres agricultoras y gerberas con nombres como Dolores y Consuelo. And we learn where she comes from: a country of many things – among them contradictions, and where patriotism unites the people but overshadows equality.
What dominicanidad looks like to her is rich and complicated – a painting only Alcántara can describe given what she’s personally experienced. A few years ago, for example, the author was on the receiving end of vitriol and online attacks around the tour – or tourcito, as she called it – of her debut book, Chula. A photo of Alcántara in a t-shirt with the Haitian flag spread across the Internet. Dominican nationalists began sharing information about her scheduled book tour stops. They called her a traidora. She writes about the sadness that enveloped her during this difficult time in her life as she struggled with whether or not to go through with the tour in the Dominican Republic.
As she contends with her trauma, Alcántara folds readers in for a glaring look. Two pages of How I Became a Mermaid feature a collection of screenshots of the many hateful comments written about her during that time, with names blacked out. Her recounting of the incessant threats against her, printed and bound in a book, tells one story. But let the barrage of comments sink and burrow. Let readers read, for themselves, a glimpse of what Alcántara was subjected to. It’s been a while since I felt words carry such a rawness, or felt the transfer of pain from author to reader.
Suicidal thoughts help form the backbone of How I Became a Mermaid. At her virtual launch via Zoom last month, the author shared why she lifted the curtain on her mental health struggles. “I had to talk about what was leading me to go that deep, what was leading me to think so dark,” Alcántara said at her event. “I had to show what those thoughts looked like. I had to show what it looked like inside my head.”
As I read on, I wondered about what the mermaid symbolizes. Becoming an aquatic creature – something other than human – was, for Alcántara, a metaphor for dying/suicide. What I gathered was that it’s about shedding out of yourself into another being, one who wouldn’t drown, no matter what turmoil threatens to ravage you.
In How I Became a Mermaid, Alcántara has produced a remarkably honest body of work. It paints a brutal and necessary portrait of subjects we are still slow to broach. She nevertheless dives in. You may order the book here: http://howibecameamermaid.info/
About the Author:
Amanda Alcántara is a Caribbean writer, performer and journalist. She is the author of “Chula” (2019). Her creative writing and journalistic work has been featured in the anthology “Latinas: Struggles & Protests in 21st Century USA,” the poetry anthology "LatiNext" and several news publications. Alcántara's work focuses on highlighting Latin American and Caribbean music—she's produced podcasts for NPR's Latino USA and written articles for Remezcla on all things music. She is also a co-founder and previous editor of La Galería Magazine. In 2021, Alcántara began recording Spanish language audiobooks, starting with providing the voiceover for the Spanish translation of The Hill We Climb by Amanda Gorman. She recently moved to the Dominican Republic and launched the Spanish-language podcast Radio Místico, exploring all things myths and legends from a Caribbean perspective.
Amaris Castillo is a journalist, writer, and the creator of Bodega Stories, a series featuring real stories from the corner store. Her journalism has appeared in The New York Times, the Lowell Sun, the Bradenton Herald, Remezcla, Latina Magazine, Parents Latina Magazine, and elsewhere. Her creative writing has appeared in La Galería Magazine, Spanglish Voces, PALABRITAS, and is forthcoming in Quislaona: A Fantasy Anthology. One of her short stories, “The Moon and the Sun,” was longlisted for the 2021 Elizabeth Nunez Caribbean-American Writers’ Prize by the Brooklyn Caribbean Literary Festival.
Amaris lives in Florida with her family. You can follow her on Twitter @AmarisCastillo and read her stories from the colmado at bodegastories.com.