Brenda Peynado likes writing short stories because you can hit the gas and not let up.
Her debut collection, The Rock Eaters, hits an expansive range, skimming from science fiction to horror and all the way to magical realism and back again. There are guardian angels protecting their charges during a school shooting, a story set during the aftermath of an alien invasion, and an entire nation where body parts start to go missing. Each one bends the confines of genre, while dipping into race, politics, immigration, and what it means to find connection across boundaries.
Peynado, a newly hired University of Houston writing professor, says she revels in the fast pace of short stories that allow her to kick off with a bang and burn through to the end “like jet fuel” instead of the slow burn built into a novel. She took her inspiration from the 20th century Latin American tradition of magical realism in the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Kelly Link’s short story collections, spinning it through her own lens of politics. The stories in The Rock Eaters might be vastly different from each other, but Peynado says she wanted to tie them all together into a thematic experience that aims for a punch.
The experience of reading the stories is a lot like going to a carnival where there are all of these rides,” she tells Houstonia. “It’s a singular experience. You're going there to have fun and be entertained and you go on all of the different rides, but, when you come home, you feel like you’ve had one experience.”
Since the pandemic hit, her story, “The Touches” — where society is forced to move into individual boxes, being served by robots and only seeing each other through virtual reality, to stop the spread of disease during a pandemic — has been top of mind. In the text, Peynado’s narrator wonders what risks she would take to touch another person, and what it means for her newborn baby.
When Peynado penned the story, thinking only of isolation related to moving to a new city and struggling to connect with others, the coronavirus wasn’t even a flicker in the United States. But she ended up living in her own story for a year and a half while she quarantined at home, attended events through her Oculus virtual reality headset, and had a newborn.
“There are always going to be stories that seem prescient,” she explains of science fiction and the uncanny plot of the “The Touches.” “It’s not that writers are predicting the future, but they are sort of mining what’s always been there in humanity and taking it to its next logical conclusion.”
With her writing, Peynado is proud to join the long tradition of people of color and women writers, like Octavia Butler and Ursula K. Le Guin, who used speculative fiction to examine the bounds of race, gender, power and technology. The explosion of diverse perspectives in the genre have been heartening, she says, but she also enjoys being in a generation of writers (and raising the next one) where POC writers don’t have to be anything more than they want to be.
“A lot of people of color writing in various genres feel like they have to represent and sort of write 'The Book’ that will be what it means to be Black in a dystopian society, or be Latina in a fantasy setting,” she says. “I’m coming at a time of an evolution of diversity in the genres. Main characters can look like me and have my thoughts and I don’t feel the pressure to say, ‘This story has to be represented for all of Latinidad.’”