Although her stories are as emotionally gutting as the wake of a hurricane, Dantiel W. Moniz deserves more than the easy weather metaphors that come to mind. A resident of northern Florida, Moniz is an achingly insightful and soulful writer who deserves more than that. Her blistering range is evident in the 11 stories of her stunning debut collection, “Milk Blood Heat,” all of which are set in the Sunshine State.
Moniz’s characters are survivors. Throughout the book, they endure and absorb the losses of those around them. It’s their lot to define and then articulate the indescribable emptiness and lack that accompanies the burden of survival. The collection’s titular opening story could, at first, feel like a tale too often told. Two friends — one white, Kiera; one Black, Ava — are bonded to one another through a shared feeling of drowning. Different backgrounds, different parenting styles, the same ennui: adolescence is a period of ceaseless misunderstandings. What 13-year-old doesn’t feel adrift?
It’s Moniz’s steady pacing that ratchets up the story’s tension. Moniz possesses a calm ability to capture unspoken yet palpable awkwardness and disconnect. Picking up Ava from Kiera’s house, her single, exhausted mother asks, “‘Why every time I come get you from this girl’s house, you’re always a mess. Both her parents live here and they can’t watch y’all?’ And Ava says nothing because words never mean what she wants them to.” Ava’s already seized with an emptiness and “wonders if she will ever be rid of it, and other times she never wants to give it back. It is a thing she owns.” Ava recognizes that complicated emotions are nevertheless gifts which may take years to manifest as something more valuable than pain.
As young girls do, they celebrate their tangible suffering. A shared bowl of milk spiked with each other’s blood seals their friendship. “Pink is the color for girls,” says Kiera, searching for common ground, but also immune to racism or responsibility. She “leaves the bowl, spoon, and knife in the sink for her mother to wash.” Noting that specific domestic moment, Moniz pauses in the kitchen as though taking measure of the barometric pressure.
Throughout the book, it’s these sustained beats, reverberating with gravity, that give the book texture and depth. Novels can take the time to move more slowly with actions and words accumulating over chapters. But stories face a steeper challenge. Short stories require tactical effort to bridge brevity with emotional impact. Like many readers, I approach short stories with skepticism. Somehow, novels remain fiction’s standard-bearer. When lesser story collections fall short of their mark, I somehow blame the form rather than the writer or subject. Nevertheless, it’s been short stories such as Bryan Washington’s “Lot,” Lidia Yuknavitch’s “Verge,” and Deesha Philyaw’s “The Secret Lives of Church Ladies” most recently, which have dazzled me while many novels leave me lukewarm.
Moniz seizes on these moments — an embrace that collapses time, a blessing in a bar’s bathroom stall, a raft too far from shore, one drink too many, the decision to forgo cancer treatment, “the acceptable order the guests could see, and the chaos that made it possible” — to remind her characters that living isn’t easy or free. The easy pleasures which Florida offers in vast supply also come with a cost. Where others may sail past the price, Moniz makes it her focus. Actions mean more than words, but as a writer, Moniz knows that words are the connective tissue that give us the faith we need to carry on. How she illuminates that reasoning through direct and unwavering language is downright magical.
In “Outside the Raft,” two cousins spend a summer with their evangelical grandmother, of whom it’s said “Woman sees devils in everything. … Except when they’re right in front of her face.” After their Bible study, one cousin muses, “I had never seen a god, nor smelled one. Never tasted its sunshine flesh.” Later, throwing rocks at a wasp’s nest, she declares to her cousin Tweet that there was no God. While she misses, Tweet “found the nest with a soft twap and knocked it loose. The nest hit the ground and we ran for cover as the wasps flew out, their violent droning filling the air as they searched for somewhere to place the blame. They disappeared into the unmoving sky, leaving silence in their wake.”
“‘God’s real,’ Tweet said, and headed for the house. She left me standing in the yard alone.” Words punctuate the wrath and mystery of a natural and spiritual world in this tremendous and sensual collection. While these stories are not directly connected other than by geography, the book frequently cycles back to mother-daughter connections. Mothers possess the ability to capture “everything you needed to know” by uttering the word, “girl.” A wayward mother, who wordlessly cleans up after her daughter, confesses that “Sometimes the voice of God was silence.” With worlds collapsed into single words and answers found in emptiness, Moniz empowers readers to find potential in lack. There’s always trouble brewing in the Gulf of Mexico, but Florida is a rich landscape for characters who dare to endure despite the ravages of body and mind in “Milk Blood Heat.”
Lauren LeBlanc is a writer and developmental editor. Follow her on Twitter @lequincampe.
MILK BLOOD HEAT
By Dantiel W. Moniz
Grove Press, 208 pp., $25