Meliza Bañales, Life is Wonderful, People Are Terrific
Publisher: Ladybox Books
2015, 148 pages, paperback, $15
WHEN I SAW MELIZA Bañales read in Los Angeles, California at the event Chingona Fire, she did not read from her novel. She read from her zines, from poetry printed off at home, she read from memory. Bañales was already a celebrity to me and many others who followed her virtual writing life on Instagram and Facebook. Bañales, who calls herself Missy Fuego, takes empowering selfies in which she does not smile or flirt with her audience. Her cat eye glasses seem to point at the viewer as if to say, I dare you to look away. Bañales is as mesmerizingly powerful as her fictional character, also named Missy Fuego, is like a hurricane.
As ironic as the title sounds, Life Is Wonderful, People Are Terrific will make its readers believe in these words. Missy Fuego could never take herself seriously, though. She brings you naturally into her story as you sit in the Dean of Student Affairs’ office with this apathetic and tired freshman, the first in her family to go to college. While the advisor tells Missy about “positive energy,” Missy tries to stay focused and alert as a hangover electrifies her senses. Missy has been bombing her classes, and it’s no joke that she might not make it into second semester. She says, “I’ve lived near oceans my whole life and at the sake of sounding really fucking shallow, I only chose this school because it was near the ocean and a well-known punk scene.” After accepting a scholarship to a hippie university in the forests of Santa Cruz, California, Missy realizes she is “eighteen and alone.” As the novel progresses, the reader follows Missy’s development as she finds different communities that speak to her—the punks in San Francisco, the Chicanos, and the queer feminists. But as intelligent as Missy is, she continually bumps against the boundaries in each group, and sometimes faces huge consequences as a result.
As one reads Life is Wonderful, there is a sense of Missy’s life being like a buoy upon the waves, at least at the beginning. In Chapter One, Missy says, “I knew I had shit to do but I couldn’t remember any of it. I just laid down and let the day figure itself out.” When Missy encounters new people in her life, what she chooses to do with them is a “go with the flow” philosophy. Should she stay in the punk scene? Does she identify with the Riottt Girls? Her submission to the events of the day is not a sign of weakness or absent thought, however, but the signature of a brilliant mind exploring the depths of human interactions and relationships. Missy is not afraid to get close to the human in all of us.
As new friends and lovers rise and fall on the pages of Missy’s life, she encounters Neo-Nazis who want to hurt her and her Chicano friends, and women who celebrate queerness and Xicanisma. Throughout the novel, Missy constantly fears she is not queer enough or Xicana enough. This enoughness is likely relatable to her audience as many Chicano/a/xs in the United States exist in a confusing plurality of cultures. Bañales’ writing style evokes this cultural identity crisis as it challenges the reader to accept Missy’s distinct voice by using a mix of English and Spanish, and also using colloquial words alongside eloquent vocabulary. Also, Bañales relates how Missy exists in a racially divided country when she experiences the effects of white culture seeing brown people as criminals or servants (such as her encounter with the Riottt Girls) and makes her align herself with those who accept and embrace difference. But as Missy breaks hearts and ultimately rises from a broken heart, she learns how forgiving humans can be, and how a multiplicitous, hybrid, and open life is beautiful.
This is very much the story of the first generation college students who had no road map to navigate academia. But Missy’s story also represents the hybrid identities Gloria Anzaldúa wrote about in Borderlands/ La Frontera: A New Mestizaje. Missy identifies as a punk, a Xicana, a queer, a feminist, but also as Missy Fuego. Her personality is her own beautifully divergent nature, and she is not afraid of it even when the process of discovering herself has messy consequences. She dips a toe in each of these subgenres of human and becomes more human as she is stained by each. Life is Wonderful is the bildungsroman of the rarest kind: it is for the Queer, the POC, the punks, the drunks, and the rebel in all of us. It is human ordered chaos, rapturous and divine.
—Marilyse V. Figueroa
Meliza Bañales aka Missy Fuego is the author of Say It With Your Whole Mouth (poems, Monkey Press) and has work in Without A Net: The Female Experience of Growing-Up Working Class (edited by Michelle Tea), Baby, Remember My Name: New Queer Girl Writing (edited by Michelle Tea), The Encyclopedia of Activism and Social Change, Word Warriors: 35 Women Leaders of the Spoken-Word Movement (edited by Alix Olson), Lodestar Quarterly, and Ladybox Books. She was the first Chicana/Latina on the west coast to win a poetry slam championship in 2002, has toured with Sister Spit and Body Heat, and gained national recognition for her appearances on NPR and The Lesbian Podcast. Her short film with J Aguilar entitled “Getting Off” won the Jury Award at TG Fest: The Los Angeles Transgender Film Festival in 2011. Her second book, a work of fiction titled Life Is Wonderful, People Are Terrific, from Ladybox Books, an imprint of Broken River Books, was a 2016 Lambda Literary Award finalist in fiction. She has a spoken-word album, And Now Introducing Missy Fuego, expected to be released on Crunks Not Dead Records. She is a community builder with Con Fuerza Collective, a radical, Xicana Feminist collective in the heart of East LA. She lives in Los Angeles.