Betty Superman by Tiff Holland
Rose Metal Press (August 2011)
Reviewed by Hobie Anthony
Tiff Holland's Betty Superman is a chapbook of stories that capture the scope of a woman's relationship with her mother. In a series of instances, images, and short narratives, the narrator-daughter conveys a picture of a mother who may not be a Superman, but is an authentic human being capable of love and of being loved.
Jamaica Kincaid's brief story "Girl" showed a mother-daughter relationship through the voice of the mother as reported by the daughter. Holland plays on this equation and has her narrator take full control. The book begins with "Dragon Lady," a lilting prose poem that immediately evokes Kincaid's story in its general tone. Holland's narrator relates anecdotes and quotations from her relationship with Betty in a series of five stanzas. Each part shows the mother, Betty, as a deeply flawed individual prone to eccentricities both fun and horrific, a woman who is loud, brash, and not shy about sharing a harsh or manipulative word. The mother in Kincaid’s story says, "prevent yourself from looking like the slut I know you are so bent on becoming." Holland's Betty says, "Give me a kiss, you’ll be sorry if I die during the night. Then you’ll miss your mother."
The final stanza of "Dragon Lady" begins with vulnerability, a desire for closeness where there was no closeness. Betty reaches out to her daughter in an heroic effort to move past her hard dragon hide, to touch and to be touched in mother-daughter bonding. The daughter knows her mother is dying and is brought back to memories of being 10 years old and afraid that her mother would die. Back then, Betty threatened to die in the night and a traumatic fear struck the daughter. When the narrator relates a suicide attempt, Betty asks why her daughter would do such a thing to her. Now, Betty points a fake cigarette at her daughter, a threat that backs her away. Thus Holland completes a complex prose poem about childhood and rounds out an image of a push-pull relationship where the two forces never meet: two positive magnets that maintain distance, never touching.
Betty Superman was the fifth winner in Rose Metal Press's Annual Short Short Chapbook Contest. The contest's judge, Kim Chinquee, describes the stories as layered, piling image upon image. In this way, the book achieves the end of giving us a portrait of Betty Superman, a collage of individually crafted and finely wrought images. One of the stories, “The Barberton Mafia,” originally appeared in Prime Number Magazine.
In this slim volume, Holland has given readers a glimpse of a fresh and unique relationship with a colorful, flawed, and vulnerable woman. While each piece is surely under 1,000 words and many under 500, each of these stories taps a sense of humanity and familial relations that will leave readers satisfied and enriched with emotional insights. Holland's effort is a fantastic success and a worthy addition to the growing canon of prose that refuses to let size matter.
Hobie Anthony received his MFA in fiction from Queens University of Charlotte, NC. He can be found or is forthcoming in such journals as The Los Angeles Review, Crate, Prime Mincer, The Other Room, R.kv.r.y., Ampersand, Pank, Prime Number, and Palimpsest, among others. When he's not writing he can be found on his bike or at one of Portland's disc golf courses.