Ana Maria Caballero’s first nonfiction manuscript “A Petit Mal” was awarded the International Beverly Prize for Literature and will be published by The Black Press Spring Group in Fall of 2022. It was also a finalist for the Tarpaulin Sky Press Book Awards, the Essay Press Prize, and the Split/Lip Press reading cycle. More information on the launch coming soon.
My winning choice is Ana Maria Caballero’s extraordinary work of creative non-fiction, A Petit Mal.
In focusing on her son’s story, Caballero brings in not only her own fears and interests, but also those of her family, her friends, and those of writers she admires. This extended literary family forms a skeletal support for the book. Caballero spirals repeatedly back to T.S. Eliot’s poem The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock. Circling the core story of her son’s struggle, Caballero weaves strands of these extended stories from personal to literary and back again—including the most heartbreaking death, the story of a friend whose baby dies of cancer.
Caballero is writing her way through the experience as a poet, creating a deep, spiritually complex, self-questioning work of non-fiction. She writes: “I will not miss / seizure of boy when / gone But I will miss / writing of book when / done” As I miss reading this book, now that I am done. It circles, dares, and intrigues the reader, and for these qualities A Petit Mal is the winning manuscript for the Beverly Prize.
This is a precisely-calibrated work of non-fiction. Caballero writes about her quest to understand her son’s epilepsy. A Petit Mal is a difficult book, asking questions that do not have clear answers. The author weaves poetry, stark statement, and stream-of-consciousness into a narrative voice of rare empathy and honesty.
Whose story is this, Caballero asks, because she is telling her own story, but also, inevitably, her son’s. As a family, she and her husband seek alternative healing possibilities for their suffering child—a journey which takes them to a wide array of “witch doctors”, as she comes to call the team of doctors, healers, and even the convincingly helpful veterinarian. But of course, by writing the exact details of her days, by discussing her son’s various treatments, she also inevitably involves other people and their stories. How can one writer make sense of memory and experience at all? Is a literary form useful for such exploration? How can we remain honest, while interpreting the way other people choose to live?
“Eventually, I will make you happy. But it will be a process. A procedure, but not a medical clinical one, not even, entirely, a holistic one, because holistic can mean complete, and procedure here will not be complete.”
– Ana Maria Caballero
We feel Caballero’s confusion, her desperation, when she writes, “What to believe, we ask. All of it: for now, believe all the doctors say. It must be coming, nearing, we say, the pierce of sharp lamplight.” Note the lack of question marks in that section. In fighting for answers, Caballero experiments with the very idea of questions. She adjusts punctuation, plays with space on the page, makes asides with witty footnotes, in a constant and successful challenge to smoothly straight-forward memoir. Nothing about her son’s journey was smooth, and as a creative work, Caballero clearly lays out the manuscript as one large query—about the medical establishment, about individual life, about healing and spirituality.