Grief, girls and the gross in Vauhini Vara’s new collection

‘This Is Salvaged’ considers what unites, including death and survival.


Whenever I come home to San Francisco I go for the same run, through the rose garden into Golden Gate Park, beneath an underpass and past a slew of neon-bright lawns, and, eventually, along the rock-studded trail that runs parallel to the bison range. The bison are a sight to behold, rare, stately beings that appear to have been transplanted from a time in which horses pulled wagons across the West. Once, as a teenager, I was so focused on watching the bison that I tripped on the trail, gashing my knee. When I got home, the house was empty. My little sister, then 12, helped me clean out the wound with hydrogen peroxide, her face a mask of horror and fascination.

Golden Gate Park’s first bison was brought here in 1891 by a group of environmentalists hoping to recreate the Wild West, a fact I learned from the narrator in “I, Buffalo,” the second story in Vauhini Vara’s new collection, This Is Salvaged.

This Is Salvaged is a collection of nine stories about grief, siblingship, destruction and what emerges from it. Throughout them, Vara illuminates the threads that bind us, whether in the form of the charred bones of an ark, invisible phone lines, or those awe-inspiring bison, “massive and shaggy and humpbacked and ancient.”

Vara is a founder of The Periplus Collective, an initiative that pairs emerging writers of color with established mentors to nourish a new generation of literary talent. Within the collective, no money changes hands. Mentors draw on their networks to offer fellows access to craft talks, workshops, writing conferences, and the like. I’m a fellow in the collective this year. Unbeknownst to me, the acceptance email I received from Periplus in December of 2022 came from Vara.

A bison roams a hill at Golden Gate Park in San Francsico.
Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Many of the stories in “This Is Salvaged” feature narrators who are grieving, in their girlhood, or both. These girls often come face-to-face with the gross: We read about an old egg roll forgotten in the depths of a backpack, “brown and misshapen”; vomit “dried mid-drip … into a purplish brown crust of yellowtail, tuna, and fish eggs”; old apple cores; boogers. I found myself experiencing a sense of childish glee when reading these descriptions; girls aren’t often given access to the realm of the gross, which is a shame, because it is a realm that permits an unadulterated confrontation with what is real.

But what makes something gross in the first place? Within the framework of abjection theory, the philosopher and literary critic Julia Kristeva defines the abject as neither subject nor object: “Not me. Not that. But not nothing, either. A ‘something’ that I do not recognize as a thing.” We are often disgusted by the things we expel from our bodies because they trigger a deep anxiety about borders, and many of Vara’s protagonists are in the throes of this anxiety. One of them, a kindergartener, is fixated on a small brown bit stuck to the floor of her classroom that “had to be a booger.” She tries and fails to scrape it away, and asks her sister if a booger is a thing you can lose, like a limb. Is a booger an internal element of us that, in becoming external, serves as our remainder, something of us that is salvageable? The girl’s sister says she does not know. Here, Vara mobilizes disgust to articulate this girl’s attempt to understand the boundaries between herself and the world. 

The collection is also studded with many moments that crystallize the sweet-sour experience of growing up with a sister. Like disgust, sisterhood triggers anxieties about boundaries, specifically in terms of how we are meant to distinguish ourselves from others. In “The Eighteen Girls,” the 11th girl and her sister merge into one person. The 16th “wanted to strip and get into the tub with her sister and hold her until their existences merged,” but refrained. The 17th hides in the closet and eats her dead sister’s ashes. The 15th girl “did not believe in any gods, not a single one of them. The 15th girl believed in her sister and herself.”

Girls aren’t often given access to the realm of the gross, which is a shame, because it is a realm that permits an unadulterated confrontation with what is real.

“I, Buffalo” depicts a pair of sisters in their adulthood. Our narrator is Sheila, a self-proclaimed alcoholic grieving from a catastrophic breakup and the loss of her job. When we meet her, she’s trying to locate the source of a smell she describes as “noxious, as if the entire marine world had died and washed up into my apartment.” She cannot remember where she threw up, an issue heightened by the fact that her sister, brother-in-law and niece Mara are over for dinner. Sheila finally locates her own vomit — a bodily secretion “ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable” — in the apartment’s hard-to-reach laundry chute. She then enlists Mara to clean it up by way of dangling the girl into the small, dark space, almost losing hold of her ankles in the process. Later in the evening, Sheila’s sister discovers a rotten apple core wedged into the side of the couch and begins to cry. Here, our protagonist’s grief is articulated through her confrontations with the gross, things expelled from her own body which inhabit an intermediary space between subject and object and therefore disrupt system order.

“I, Buffalo” takes place in San Francisco. Other stories in the collection are also set in the West. Within them, Vara frequently inserts tidbits of local history, whether in the form of the origin story of Golden Gate Park’s bison or the history of the Donner Party, whose engagement with cannibalism perhaps epitomizes Kristeva’s configuration of abjection theory.

Readers are regaled with tales of extinction and de-extinction, death and survival here and elsewhere. Throughout them, our characters often react mutely, numbly, or not at all, perhaps because many of them are grieving.

Throughout the collection, moments in which characters confront the gross usher in opportunities to contend with what is real, which is, at times, unthinkable.

Take the case of the egg roll. In the first story in Vara’s collection, “The Irates,” Swati has just lost her older brother to cancer. We meet her in Seattle in the summer of 2001. To escape the rotten smell of her grieving household, Swati meets up with her best friend, Lydia, to go to their favorite egg roll shop in Capitol Hill. There, they find their first jobs as telemarketers in the shop’s upstairs office. The circumstances of their hiring are suspect, the job having been offered to them by “the kind of man you felt like you should avoid.” Swati wonders whether he is a pedophile, observing, “He really could be. He had potential.”

When the planes crash into the Twin Towers, Lydia and her mother spend the morning crying, but Swati is indifferent. She observes witnesses on TV unrelated to the victims, noting, “they screamed and bawled as if they had some claim to the dead.” That same afternoon, she and Lydia bicker on the bus ride home. “‘You smell,’” Lydia says, and roots around the bottom of Swati’s bag to discover an old egg roll:

“Lydia took it and pulled her arm back. She was going to smack me in the face with it — I could feel it. I was electric with anticipation. I closed my eyes and waited for it. It was what I wanted. But instead she dropped it on the floor of the bus and kicked it under the seat in front of us. ‘See — it was,’ she said. ‘It’s okay, though,’ she added. It sounded like her mouth was wet, gummy — a mouth full of grief.”

In the throes of her grief, Swati does not react to the prospect of being hit in the face with an old egg roll in the way we — or even Kristeva — might expect. Instead, her grief enables an alternative relationship with the gross in that she welcomes it. Throughout the collection, moments in which characters confront the gross usher in opportunities to contend with what is real, which is, at times, unthinkable: the depth of Sheila’s alcoholism in “I, Buffalo,” Swati’s brother’s death in “The Irates.” The power of Vara’s collection rests, for me, in the sense of freedom characters are afforded through the realm of abjection: Facing the unthinkable helps these characters loosen themselves from expectations about how their feelings should manifest and why.

Hana Rivers is a Brooklyn-based writer and 2023 Periplus fellow. Her writing has appeared in DREGINALD, The Los Angeles Review of Books and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter @__proseb4brosWe welcome reader letters. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.

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