A young woman, who has left Galicia to go and study marine biology in Mexico (Baja California), is recalled to Galicia when it is found out that her mother is very sick. Her aunt would like her to sign some papers agreeing to take over the family business and renouncing her Mexican studies and emotional ties that she has forged in her new life. However, returning to Galicia and renewing her family ties is not exactly what the woman wants. Her mother has shut herself in her room for the last year, and relations between them have always been strained. She received more affection from a nanny, Felisa, and better advice from her uncle, Cándido. There is also an older brother, Ramón, a larger-than-life figure who has left an indelible mark in the lives of those around him, and an absent father. Will the woman’s visit to see her sick mother turn out to be permanent, and will it soothe any of the festering wounds in her psyche, wounds that she has buried beneath her marine studies and a relationship with her one-time tutor? That’s How Whales Are Born is a return to our origins, a search into the usefulness of stirring up past memories and seeking reconciliation.

Mother and Father were married in 1970. Few photos are left of that wedding – only the ones that Mother hoped to preserve remained where she had left them: in a box, in a cabinet, in a dining room almost always in shadow. Mother looks elated in these photographs, with a bright smile and a joyful look in her eye. Father, handsome but serious, seems distant, aware of something that was not actually taking place at that moment. I think I remember the day when Mother tore up the rest of the photos. I was still very young and lacked the exact words to ask her why she was ripping herself up like that. I was also unable to intuit the meaning of the wrath and misery they held for her.

She was sitting on the dining-room floor. The lacquered, wooden Chinese credenza that Father had brought from one of his journeys had its doors and drawers open. Sadly and tearfully, Mother set about destroying letters and photographs. Small piles of onion-skin paper had appeared, and fragments of torn bodies were now piling up on the carpet. Father’s anatomy was especially savaged. Next to him, and within reach of her hand as if to ensure their protection, she was placing the photographs and letters she had decided to keep. The letters would later be kept in her bedroom dresser along with her underwear, but the photographs would be trapped inside a box in the Chinese credenza, in the dining room nearly always in shadow.

I don’t know where I’d emerged from, perhaps from a walk with my nanny Felisa, or why I went into the dining room. I only remember my mother engaging in that painful purging of memories, tearing the delicate lacework from which memory is woven. It was as if she were obliterating the lines drawn on the map of a territory whose route back to sanity was too hazardous to forget. Even so, I’m aware that the photos she would remember most were precisely those she had destroyed, and the words that would torment her most – and which she would try to shoo away with an involuntary gesture of the hand as though waving off mosquitoes – would be precisely the ones she would pretend had never been spoken or written down. I don’t remember what I did after that or why I did it. It had fallen to me to be there at that exact moment, to see and record in my mind the image of my mother ripping herself up.

Or trying to put herself back together again.

As time went by, that memory served to awaken my curiosity and a desire to rebuild Mother’s sentimental biography. I never managed to do it, I was never on sufficiently familiar terms with her, or to ask my uncle and aunt. Furthermore, the continuous struggle I had experienced with my mother since childhood dissuaded me from displaying the least interest in her, although the memory of that afternoon in the dining room would help me look back on her with a certain indulgence.

It’s also true that I’m prone to forgetting things too quickly. I think I’m only interested in questions. Answers, when I’m faced with them, are boring. In the end I was content with the reality offered by the fiction I had crafted in order to understand certain behaviors that would help me survive and to understand my family. However, my family was limited to a small group: Uncle Cándido, Aunt Natalia and Miss Felisa. And also Ramón. Like an idiot, I have always spoken of Ramón in the present tense, but he was already gone the day I found Mother sitting amid the shadows of the dining room. Had Ramón been present at that moment, things would have been completely different, because Mother would not have been so distressed or so enraged.

Ramón liked to rummage about inside that Chinese credenza and show me the bunches of letters tied with silk ribbons according to the year in which they were written. We also rummaged through the box of photographs. In the dark, odorous nook of the Chinese credenza, Mother would also hide bars of perfumed soap, boxes of delectable chocolates, and the satin and velvet cases that held the few jewels that had belonged to my grandmother. Ramón scorned the letters in which he recognized Father’s handwriting, and ignored those photos of Father regarding us through his lovely blue, ever-absent eyes. He would grumble at the sight of that man forcing a smile at us from places we didn’t know, among people we’d never seen, and even accompanied by women with exotic features and long, black, straight hair. Ramón was not fond of those photos or those letters.

Neither was Mother, apparently.



Aunt Natalia, so tall, so slender, and as elegant as I remembered her, was waiting for me at the airport. In spite of having just turned sixty, she insisted on keeping up a youthful look, wearing tight-fitting clothes and shoulder-length blonde hair with white highlights. She blew me a disconcerted but effusive kiss when she recognized me from the other side of the glass door as I waited for my luggage. I returned her greeting. When I reached her, she gave me a hug and tried to take charge of my small wheeled suitcase.

‘Is this all you’ve brought?’ she asked, disappointed.

‘Yes, and the backpack.’

She didn’t bother looking at the backpack I carried on my shoulders, which was probably not a pleasant sight to her exquisite eyes. I also realized that my appearance repelled her somewhat. It was summer, I was wearing faded blue jeans, a sleeveless T-shirt and black leather sandals. And no, I wasn’t wearing make-up or salon-styled hair. She tried to apologize for me: you look tired, it’s been a long trip, college students don’t worry about their looks. ‘Maybe that’s it,’ I thought, taking her by the hand as I did when I was little and would walk at her side. All I wanted was for her to calm down. She was nervous. We hadn’t seen each other for about three years – I had left the city in June of 2004 and it was now early July of 2007. I must confess that I too found it strange to return to the city, to return home. To face Mother again. Natalia squeezed my hand, taking it to her lips to kiss. I liked that gesture. It made me feel protected.

‘You relax, child. It’s all right.’ In the end, it was she who tried to calm me down.

I believe I’ve only ever done two good things for Mother. One of them was leaving home when she asked me to. She asked me on the day I turned nineteen. Her gift was a monthly allowance of fifteen hundred euros that I would receive on condition that I found a place to live when the term was over. My aunt and uncle took umbrage at this drastic decision and immediately offered to take me in. But I had already made my own plans: I was studying marine biology, I had the best academic record in my class and a desperate ambition to go somewhere to study gray whales as far away from Mother and as close as possible to fulfilling my own desires. I once loved someone whose heart weighed at least four hundred kilos, a headstrong type who was bent on finding a way to turn into a whale. He would tell me, ‘Whales sing, whales breathe underwater through their lungs, whales shoot milk from their teats into the mouths of their children, who are born through their mothers’ tails.’ I knew hardly more than that about whales when I began to study them. Mother also loved that half-liquid, half-gaseous being who was as solid as the supports of a building, maddened by an imagination unable to distinguish between the real and the fanciful, and with an immense heart that knew only how to love my mother and how to love me: Ramón. The loss of Ramón was, I’m sure, the greatest pain Mother ever felt. Losing me, on the other hand, was the greatest relief for Mother’s greatest pain. Coming home at that moment, when she was so ill, was, in Aunt Natalia’s opinion, the second good thing I would do for her.

Or for myself. I wasn’t exactly sure.

Aunt Natalia – an enormous, pale, strawberry smile – thanked me as we sat down in the car, taking my face in both hands and squeezing me as if I were still a baby. She pinched my cheeks and recommended a moisturizing skin cream, making apologies for me yet again: ‘Your skin is dehydrated. You spend all day in salt water and under that Mexican sun that causes even the fishes to shrivel.’ She made me laugh. I told her I was only a student, that I attended classes, collaborated with a whale-watching group, and took turns working in a huge aquarium where dolphins were raised in captivity. Aunt Natalia searched her handbag for a pack of cigarettes.

‘But you know how to scuba-dive, don’t you?’

‘You bet!’

I don’t know why the fact I that could scuba-dive delighted my aunt so much. Perhaps she sensed an astonishing freedom in being able to move underwater with oxygen tanks strapped to one’s back. She put the car in gear and I was glad she was keeping silent as we drove along the road leading to the city. I was paying attention. On the plane I’d been overcome more than once by the fear of losing heart and turning back, but that didn’t happen. I let myself be led by Natalia and realized that the years away had left a shield on my skin like a sort of nostalgia-proof raincoat. I could see, but not feel. Images entered my eyes and slid down to my feet. I sensed that at any moment my feet would start to squirm uncomfortably, as though walking over steel nails or iron tips. For the time being, all was going well: I didn’t want to feel anything and felt nothing. When we were about to enter the city, I turned to Aunt Natalia and asked if She knew. If She knew I was coming home.

‘But Child, it’s only your mother!’ There was a certain annoyance in her words, as if she were tired of repeating them. And in fact she was. She had acted as a go-between a thousand times for Mother and me when I was still a baby, then a girl, and later an adolescent and after that a college student. And then, after I’d left, she phoned me at least twice a week to chat about Mother and the family and to see how I was doing. In those days I would think of her tenderly, trying to latch onto her strength. I remembered the day she called me – barely a month ago – to ask me to return. I was on the beach drinking tequila with Kazuo, a Japanese man who had just arrived at the Bay. Angela was also there, a professor from the Canary Islands who did research on jellyfish for the University of California.

My aunt’s voice had become familiar in every space I’d occupied since my mother asked me to leave home. It accompanied me everywhere like my most beloved books, the faded, old Kent Miller marine action figure that had belonged to my brother, and a short, concise photo album. The old soldier was missing a leg, my books had become a little more tattered with each journey, and the photo album had also increased with each trip, but Natalia’s voice remained the same: bouncy and musical, sometimes unstable, and it was even possible to tell from its tone the color of the sky on the other end of the line. But when she phoned me a month ago her voice was deep, as though dressed in a heavy woolen coat. I sensed that a heavy zinc-gray sky weighed over the city. It was the very same sober voice in which she had told me, two years previously, that Mother had taken the unquestionable decision to lock herself up in her room forever. Mother tends to take terribly drastic decisions which absolutely cannot be questioned. It was hard for her to decide. It was very difficult for her to come to a decision; she would meditate, study all possible outcomes in the utmost secrecy, and finally utter a few words, and the Earth would change its trajectory. She made one of these decisions when, in view of Uncle Cándido’s passivity at the helm of the hardware store, she decided to expand the family business and set up an electrical appliances establishment, which, in time, would grow into a chain specializing in household goods: furniture, carpets, bed linen, crockery, sugar bowls with flies caught in their lids, chairs that imitated the painful seats of one’s grandparents’ homes, Italian towels, Indian blankets, and reproductions of African statuary. But between those decisions that would turn her into a brilliantly successful entrepreneur, Mother could sometimes become a monster when it came to other decisions, and would at other times transform into a completely depressive and defenseless creature. When she sank into these impenetrable, inconsolable states, Aunt Natalia and I would say – somewhat cruelly – that she was ‘caught in the centrifuge.’ The very thought of Mother caught in a centrifuge made us laugh, made us feel like accomplices, and this saved us from lapsing into depression. These were truly intolerable times for the entire family.

Mother had just turned fifty-five when she decided to lock herself up in her bedroom. The stores had been functioning for a long time without her assistance and were doing well – very well. It was time for her to fall into one of those agonizing maelstroms, because this is how it had been throughout her life. When she locked herself into her room she was defeated, yearning to be transported to some place where destiny would be waiting for her. It didn’t matter where: Mother always needed a destiny to set herself into action, to relinquish the voluntary self-exile she would impose on herself when neither death nor her loved ones could move her at all.

I looked for questions to inspire enthusiasm in life, but she was in desperate need of a mission, a specific, precise obligation, something that would give meaning to the ten fingers on her hands, the joints of her bones, and the tenderness that at some point would take shape inside her. Here, in life, it seemed to have been years since she’d last found it. I imagine when Mother shut herself in her room, she had already spent time undoing the lacework of memory she had taken so long to create, and that day when I found her sitting in the shadows of the dining room, she was starting to come undone, unweaving and erasing the paths that could bring her back. I think it was a totally voluntary act, like those suicides who decide to kill themselves not during their greatest suffering, but during flashes of lucidity. But things were already happening before she tore Father to pieces as she sat on the dining room floor. The loss of her destiny, for example, had already occurred.


Translated from Galician by Carys Evans-Corrales

Additional Info

  • purchase text:

    THAT’S HOW WHALES ARE BORN by Anxos Sumai, the twelfth title in the series Small Stations Fiction devoted to the best of contemporary fiction in English, is available for purchase through your local or online bookshop

    Barnes & Noble

    Book Depository


    I’m hard pressed to think of a recent novel so emotionally fraught with anywhere near as much subliminal hubris, combined with harrowing heartbreak. As such, That’s How Whales Are Born is unquestionably up there with the likes of Arundhati Roy’s The God Of Small Things. No mean feat.

    David Marx Book Reviews


    ISBN: 978-954-384-073-1

    Publication Date: 09 September 2017

    Language: English

    Paperback: 180 pages

    Dimensions: 203 x 133 mm