CATACOMBS by jason zencka

When I first started learning German my teacher told us, “When you have your first dream in another language, that’s when you’ll know you’re fluent.”  I’ve yet to experience my first dream in German, a language I quickly abandoned after my first glimpse at Ancient Greek letters in the Argonautica.  But, I still do think about the way my teacher said this, and I remember wondering what it would be like to even think in two different languages.  To this day I am not fluent enough to dream in any language other than English, but Jason Zencka’s “Catacombs” is what I imagine bilingual dreams would feel like. By blurring conversations of Spanish and English, “Catacombs” challenges genre conventions in order to address subjects of grief, place, and sexuality.

In 23 pages, Zencka tells the story of a Midwestern family that has taken a vacation in Acapulco, Mexico.  Through the narration of George (who can go wrong with a name like that), we bear witness to his eight-year-old perception of the city and his grappling with the Spanish language.  We follow his thirteen-year-old brother, Winnie, as he struggles to figure out independence and sexuality in a new city.  Zencka splices narrative time to give us the story of these two brothers in a way that I have never seen before.  The way George works through his experiences in Acapulco feels like meta-narration, saying things like, “Have I said I loved this boy?  Of course, I didn’t realize he was a boy then, and it’d be years and years before I did.”  He uses the narration to surprise us, chronologically and intellectually, telling us exactly what to expect over the course of the story, but still making us eager to see it unfold on the page.

Zencka’s debut publication gives us a glimpse into our own psychology: how we work through grief and how we work through being far away from “home” for the first time.  He challenges conventions in a way that brings about raw characterization, yet still allows Zencka’s craftsmanship to shine through.  If you are interested in his thought processes behind the story, check out his Q&A with Hanna Tinti at One Story, where you can also purchase a copy of the story.






6 thoughts on “CATACOMBS by jason zencka

  1. I am fascinated by the concept of this story, but your opening in particular makes me stop to ponder. I’m not fluent in any language other than English, either, but I’m intrigued by the idea of what this would mean for writers that are. From my limited knowledge of journals, I’m not sure there are many places for mixed-language authors to submit work that challenges the norm; sometimes there are pieces with bits of languages jumping around, but not often do you see a true blend that exists as if bouncing between languages in thought. I think there could be an audience for such writing that demonstrates the feeling of existing in someone’s head that thinks fluently and fluidly in and between two or more languages.


    • Gloria E. Anzaldúa is a great feminist theorist that incorporates Spanish and/or Spanglish into her writing, making theory new again and adding some poetic value. Oftentimes what she writes is purposely geared toward one audience or another, the meaning being dependent on the reader’s fluency in Spanish or English.


  2. Your discussion of Catacombs makes me think of travel narratives and how a travel narrative of a child might be unique from one of an adult. I think we often look back at the times we traveled as a kid/younger version of ourselves and realize how our age informed how we experienced a trip/place. I feel like kids/adolescents who are in the midst of growing up are already in a state of mental flux. Throw in an away-from-home experience and who knows what strange things will happen. And maybe that is just me, seeing the weird in everything, but I think the alienating feelings that can arise from traveling are so interesting. Being in places that are both like and unlike where you are from.
    I really dig your theme! Do you think you’ll try to bring in more work that not only is from other places but incorporates other languages?


  3. For a class last year I was introduced to an essay about this very topic titled Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza by Gloria Azandula written in 87 (I believe) that, if you have not read, you may find interesting. By switching between English and Spanish and amalgamations of the two she demonstrates to English speakers (but also Spanish speakers too I suppose) the alienation one can feel when they are outside the conversation, missing parts of the dialogue, or whole points. The metaphor she weaves extends beyond considerations of just those that are alienated by language to anyone who is left out of conversations or marginalized. Interesting and relevant read, and I may just have to check out this story too.


  4. I’m typically not a fan of the short story, but this sounds interesting. I’m probably not an avid short story reader due to ignorance about the form. For instance, Aside from buying one’s author’s books of short stories, how would I go about finding them. Before you say “online”, know that my confusion stems from genre. Let’s say I like “Catacombs”, how do I find more like it? What would it be classified as, Queer Lit? Are short stories published in collections that adhere to a specific genre: mystery, romance, etc? Also, would you say the story is meant for scholars, or is it something the general public would enjoy? by general public, I’m referring to the patriarchal masses that buy for sheer entertainment.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’d say searching for short stories takes a lot of sifting through the ones you will enjoy and the ones you won’t. There are some magazines that have themes (like Copperfield Review is a good one for Historical Fiction) and some magazines that change the theme every issue (my favourite is Granta and they do a great job of focusing on non-American authors). I should have clarified that Catacombs isn’t a queer story–it’s about a young boy interacting with older women, but I still enjoyed the way that the author dealt with sexuality as a whole. I think short stories can definitely be for the masses, especially since a lot of them are free to read!

      Liked by 1 person

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