the museum of americana

a literary review

Teresa Milbrodt’s Instances of Head-Switching—Review by Editor Ann Beman

In this collection of eighteen short stories, the author introduces characters and situations through a fabulist/absurdist lens. With wit and compassion, she explores themes of embodiment, disability, and economic insecurity. Her characters are grounded, existing in whatever reality they’ve been born into. Yet each of them are living out on a limb. For example, four disabled people band together to survive the postwar invasion of monsters plaguing their country. A middle school teacher has eight interchangeable heads to negotiate her days. A woman endures her job confiscating rent-to-own merchandise from poor people behind on their payments. To get by, every morning the repo woman swallows different combinations of marbles, with each colored ball containing a different emotional state. Every night, she regurgitates them so they’re ready for the next day. 

Milbrodt’s fictional worlds feature fantastical situations and mythical creatures, yet those worlds still have limitations, rules that govern physical actions and social interactions. It’s within these limitations that we recognize the characters’ struggles as uniquely human and universal. “The gods are real and they’re sick of being ignored,” says the goddess “Athena” as she’s chewing the narrator out for working as a bank teller rather than maintaining the war goddess’s temples. “You wonder if Athena knows that late at night you’ve been lying in bed feeling guilty for not moving up in the bank hierarchy. You’ve told people the job is temporary, but you’re not sure what you want to be permanent.” Another woman answers a knock at her apartment door to find the Germanic goddess “Berchta,” clad in a pink jogging suit and ready to move in. It’s not even that big a deal when Berchta brings home a dragon. “The only problem with the new dragon is that it has nightmares. When I get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, I find it whimpering and cowering in the bathtub.”

Every story is narrated by a woman, and almost all feature characters with disabilities. Cats, plates of cookies, female protagonists who are blind in one eye since birth. These all recur throughout the collection, and of course they do, because these are all things for which Teresa Milbrodt feels an affinity. It so happens that the author has been blind in her right eye since birth. Another aspect the author and the characters in her stories have in common: They accept their vulnerabilities. They embrace them as well. In “Body Spirits,” the protagonist goes through life ever-accompanied by an arthritis witch. Her boyfriend, meanwhile, deals with a seizure elf. “I will hold my boyfriend tight after his tremors, threading my achy fingers through his. I will hold my boyfriend until he opens his eyes, blinks and smiles, then I’ll make tea for both of us, and pile a plate with cookies, a reminder of how often being in a body is equal parts pleasure and negotiation.” This negotiation, this “conference with the body,” as another story’s character terms it, is the crux of Instances of Head-Switching. It’s the idea that we humans very often want to separate our minds and bodies, yet the two operate in tandem. We and our vulnerabilities are one. Together we define what it means to be human. 

Read this short story collection for its fantastic perspective on humanity, for its seamless blend of ordinary and extraordinary, maybe even for the gifts pet sphinxes leave on the back porch.