Rosario Ferré 1942–-
Puerto Rican short story writer, novelist, essayist, critic, poet, and translator.
The following entry presents an overview of Ferré's work through 1998.
Recognized as one of contemporary Puerto Rico's most important writers, Ferré is generally credited with launching the feminist movement in the U.S. commonwealth following the publication of her first book, Papeles de Pandora (1976; The Youngest Doll). Her extensive and diverse body of work, ranging from short stories, novels, and poetry to critical essays and translations, consistently engages the stereotypical feminine myths of western culture and reinterprets the traditionally passive and subordinate status of women in Puerto Rican society; for this Ferré has been the focus of considerable controversy. Influenced by the feminist vision of French novelist and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, Ferré has created aggressive, politically astute, and defiant personae who challenge and subvert the patriarchal norms of society yet embrace—indeed, celebrate—a distinctly feminine sensibility. Often compared stylistically to Chilean writer Isabel Allende, Ferré has incorporated techniques of magic realism including fragmented time sequences and multiple narrators and has interspersed elements of fantasy or myth in her feminist translations of ordinary Puerto Rican life. Although Latin American readers nearly unanimously acknowledge Ferré as their region's foremost femme de lettres, she has struggled to achieve similar recognition from an English-speaking audience, despite her award-nominated original English-language publication, The House on the Lagoon (1995), and a number of self-translations into English of her other works.
Ferré was born in Ponce, Puerto Rico—a city long considered the island's southern capital—to Luis A. Ferré, an engineer who served as the island's governor from 1968 to 1972, and Lorneza Ramirez Ferré, the daughter of a family who owned sugarcane plantations. Her parents' marriage reflects the cultural changes that occurred in Puerto Rico during the first half of the twentieth century, as industrial concerns transformed the former agrarian economy and society; this phenomenon has inspired many of her stories. Ferré mainly attended Catholic schools for girls, except during her primary education, which she completed at a Jesuit school for boys. At this time Ferré's African nanny introduced her to the classical mythology and indigenous folktales that inform her narratives. After graduating from high school, Ferré briefly attended an American college to study English literature but abandoned it in 1960 to marry Benigno Trigo, a merchant with whom she had three children and later divorced, soon after her mother's death. By the early 1970s, Ferré resumed her studies at the University of Puerto Rico as a master's candidate in Spanish literature. There, she joined the cause of Puerto Rican independence, which defied her father's political agenda, and studied with magical realism writers Mario Vargas Llosa and Angel Rama, who both encouraged her literary ambitions. Meanwhile, Ferré founded and directed Zona de carga de descarga (1971–76), a controversial literary journal that also contained inflammatory but nonpartisan political articles. As a forum for new Puerto Rican writers, the journal also launched Ferré's literary career, debuting several of the stories that later appeared in her first collection, The Youngest Doll, which she published from her new residence in Mexico. A diverse body of writings followed in rapid succession, most notably the feminist criticism Sitio a Eros (1980) and the poetry collection Fábulas de la garza desangrada (1982). During the 1980s Ferré moved to the United States, where she earned a doctorate degree in Latin American literature from the University of Maryland in 1986. That year Ferré also published her first novel, Maldito amor (Sweet Diamond Dust). Upon completion of her graduate studies, she held a professorship at Georgetown University and lectured throughout the country until 1990, when she returned to Puerto Rico. Since then, Ferré has continued to break new ground in Puerto Rican letters by addressing themes traditionally thought taboo and translating several of her own works into English. Distinguished as her first work originally written in English, The House on the Lagoon received a nomination for the prestigious National Book Award in 1996. Within two years Ferré also published another original English-language volume, the memoir Eccentric Neighborhoods (1998).
Emotionally expressive and usually satirical, Ferré's work exhibits both diversity and versatility in theme and genre. The themes of her short stories, poems, critical essays, and novels range from the plight of Puerto Rican women, usually upper-class, to the island's colonial status. Ferré's writings consistently illustrate the limited roles women play in Puerto Rican society and imagine different possibilities to achieve a new female identity. Combining elements of indigenous and European folk tales, her early writings highlight such feminist themes as the relationship among gender, race, and class, traditional literary representations of women, and the oppression of women in patriarchal cultures and their usually poignant struggle against it. The figure of a doll is a recurring motif in the stories of The Youngest Doll and represents not only women's struggles against and anger at the patriarchal system but also the concept of idealized femininity. The collection's first story, “La muneca menor,” upsets the stereotype that values women for their social prestige as wives. Housebound after a river prawn bit her, a maiden aunt of elite landowners makes life-sized, honey-filled dolls in the image of her nieces, which she presents on their wedding days, including the youngest, who marries the prosperous doctor caring for her aunt. Overwhelmed by the status of his wife, the doctor insists that she permanently sit on the balcony of their home, on display for the community to envy; the wife gradually becomes a doll. At the moment the doctor finally notices that his wife had stopped breathing, she opens her eyes and releases frenzied prawns. In “Amalia” a girl confuses her identity with that of a doll and later melts in a hot garden when she leaves her bourgeois home. In “Marina and the Lion” a bored socialite hosts a costume party, at which she disguises herself as a doll in a cellophane-wrapped box. After emerging to play an involved game of dressing and undressing that illustrates the social impositions upon women, she realizes by the end of the story that only death holds the freedom she wants. “The Sleeping Beauty” draws upon elements of the children's fairy tale and tells in a series of letters of a conspiracy between a wealthy father and a Catholic nun that destroys his daughter's ambition to become a ballerina after he arranges her marriage to a young aristocrat. The fourteen critical feminist essays in Sitio a Eros offer a series of sociohistorical retrospectives on a diverse range of women writers from Mary Shelley, George Sand, and Virginia Woolf to Anais Nin, Lillian Hellman, and Sylvia Plath. Most notable among the essays in this book is the frequently anthologized “La Cocina de las escritura” (“The Writer's Kitchen”), which involves an extended metaphor of writing as cooking. This essay presents Ferré's personal motivations for writing fiction, recounting the evolution of her first story, a history of profanity in women's writing, and her answer to whether “feminine” writing exists. The poems of Fábulas de la garza desangrada elaborate upon women's roles in society by rewriting the stories of such mythical, biblical, and literary figures as Medusa, Helen of Troy, Ariadne, Daphne, Mary Magdalene, and Desdemona. A parody of the once popular “land genre,” Ferré's first novel, Sweet Diamond Dust, outlines Puerto Rican twentieth-century history from the perspectives of four influential rich women who live through important periods of the island's change. Similarly, the semi-autobiographical novel The House on the Lagoon traces the relationship between a wealthy husband and his wife, who bicker with increasing frequency about politics, social attitudes, and the family history she is writing, which includes stories about her spouse and in-laws. An African servant also plays a role within the family dynamic. With multiple narrators and mythic effects, the novel, like Ferré's other works, underscores the link between knowledge and power, interweaving themes of race, class, gender, and sexuality to uncover the ways the past shapes the present and affects self-identity.
Commentators have often used such terms as thought-provoking, controversial, and groundbreaking to describe Ferré's literary accomplishment within and influential contributions to Puerto Rican literature. The original stories and poems of the critically acclaimed The Youngest Doll are generally credited with introducing and inspiring a new range of literary possibilities for Puerto Rican women writers to explore, most notably Ferré's feminist vision for the island and the techniques of magic realism. Similarly evincing her influence on world literature, a number of her critical essays, as well as many of her stories, have appeared in Latin American literary and feminist anthologies, while Ferré's themes also have broadly attracted the interest of postcolonial theorists. Although Spanish-speaking audiences have enthusiastically greeted each Ferré publication, including those translated from English into Spanish, the feminist writer lacks a similar popularity among English-speaking readers, despite the glowing accolades from those who have read her works—both in translation and several original English versions. Many American reviewers and scholars of Hispanic literature praise Ferré for the brilliance of her formal versatility, the craftsmanship of her magic realist narratives, and the intensity of her feminist thought. They lament, however, Ferré's relative neglect by the English-speaking public, despite her own award-nominated achievements within the English language and a growing interest in Latina fiction worldwide. “From beginning to end,” observes Patricia Hart, “whether she is conceiving stories, translating them or providing commentary, Rosario Ferré shines, and it is high time for English-speaking readers to bask in her light.”