The author of "Uncle Al," Rochelle Hurt, offered us a few thoughts on this flash fiction story, its origin, and the significance of the phrase pena ajena. "Uncle Al" recently appeared in the first online, short form issue of Bellingham Review.
While watching an Academy Award winner give a particularly crass and awkward acceptance speech on television, a friend of mine used the term ‘pena ajena’ (sometimes called Spanish shame) to describe how embarrassed she was for the blathering actress. I started to think about all of the instances in which a phrase like that would be appropriate, and I kept returning to the idea of pity. Feeling another’s embarrassment seems like a manifestation of aggressive pity more than sympathy, almost as if you are forcing your own fear of shame upon that person. This happens all the time, but I find it most interesting when the exchange between the pitied and the ‘pitier’ is complicated by an unexpected power dynamic. In ‘Uncle Al,’ the narrator is just old enough to adopt the values of most of the adults around her, which tell her to feel embarrassed for her uncle, who still acts like a child and wears cheap clothing. Although she is not quite old enough to realize the true source of the shame that she has adopted for her uncle, she finds it almost by accident, as children often do, when she confronts his childlessness at the family lunch table. Though the question is never answered, she immediately learns that this too should be a source of shame, according to adult cultural norms, as she witnesses the entire table’s sense of pena ajena for Uncle Al.