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SOURCE: Foreword to Papeles de Pandora: The Youngest Doll, University of Nebraska Press, 1991, pp. ix–xiv.
[In the following essay, Franco provides a brief thematic overview of the stories in Papeles de Pandora.]
In her essay “The Writer's Kitchen,” Rosario Ferré asserts that imagination is “irreverence towards the establishment,” that it is “always subversive.” Ferré's irreverence is directed toward the class into which she was born, and beyond that to the patriarchal ties that bind the overprotected lives of upper-class women and the oppression and marginalization of working-class women of color. The heritage of slavery in Ferré's native Puerto Rico not only continues to mark the underclasses with both its concealed and not-so-concealed racisms but it has affected the telling of Puerto Rico's official history in which the people of color have been all but invisible.
The problems of Puerto Rican identity have been compounded by its anomalous situation as a commonwealth or Estado Libre Asociado—the only country in the world which is still attached to the United States without being fully integrated as a state nor fully autonomous. Puerto Rico became one of the first areas of Latin America to feel the full effects of global Americanization, to witness the massive emigration of people from the land and into the cities, first to San Juan and then to New York; it was also the setting for a U.S.-directed program of modernization which included, among other things, offshore industries and birth control by sterilization. Not surprisingly, it is a country of deep though often muted antagonisms over questions of Puerto Rican identity and language, the future of the island, and the cultural rift between Puerto Ricans living on the island and those living on the mainland.
Rosario Ferré's works reflect all of these tensions and more. She was born in 1938 in Ponce, once a prosperous commercial port city. Her mother came from a landowning elite and her father (who became Governor of Puerto Rico) belonged to a family of industrialists. Her education could hardly have been more conventional. She attended the School of the Sacred Heart where she was taught “that women were hidden from view and should never appear in public.” Nevertheless, she came to the United States and studied at Wellesley and Manhattanville College. At the age of twenty, she married. Perhaps the demon of perversity that is often apparent in her poems and short stories prevented her from accepting as natural this comfortable station in life as wife and mother of three children; perhaps she became aware of the waste and inanity of the lives of the women who surrounded her; perhaps too she experienced that rift that many of us experience between Woman as symbol and icon and the often sadly mutilated imperfections of women. At all events she divorced her husband in 1972 and resumed her studies (1972–74) at the University of Puerto Rico, where she attended classes given by an outstanding teacher and critic, Angel Rama, and by the novelist Mario Vargas Llosa. Here too she helped to found the journal Zona de Carga de Descarga (1971–76), in which she published some of the short stories that appeared later in her collection Papeles de Pandora (1976) and that are included in this selection.
While writing these stories, she had begun to understand what it meant to write “as a woman.” Ferré had published a series of essays, Sitio a Eros (1980), on women writers; one essay was on the Puerto Rican poet Julia de Burgos, whom she described as “exemplary as a Mediaeval Saint” because of her tragic life. But most of...
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the essays established a sisterhood with European writers such as Virginia Woolf, Anaïs Nin, and Simone de Beauvoir. Yet it is clear, when she describes her own beginnings as a writer, that contradictory messages from these chosen mentors both inspired and thwarted her apprenticeship. What finally allowed her to write was not the literary tradition within which and in contrast to which these women write but a different voice, a vernacular voice, that of an aunt gossiping about a relative who had once manufactured monstrous dolls which she filled with honey. It was this story that she retold in “The Youngest Doll.”
Ferré has continued to celebrate in both her poetry and essays an imagined community of sisters—which includes not only Anaïs Nin and Simone de Beauvoir but also Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and the Medusa. But in her short stories, she cannot evade the differences of social class that sometimes rip apart relations between women and sometimes produce strange cross-class alliances. Listening to the voices of servants and working women, Ferré hears the sardonic humor of carnival, the barely suppressed resentment, the voice of the trickster that is so insistent in the black culture which still has an underground life in Puerto Rico.
In his book The Signifying Monkey, Henry Louis Gates has described the importance of “signifying” in black culture in the United States. “Signifying” in black vernacular can mean “the trickster's ability to talk with great innuendo, to carp, cajole, needle and lie.” Signifying corresponds in some respects to the Cuban “choteo” or the Mexican “albur,” though the latter has a menacing as much as a playful quality and is imbricated in masculine culture. In Ferré's stories, on the other hand, the “signifying voices” are those of women—lower-class women sardonically describing their superiors, upper-class women living in apparent conformity but seething with resentment that is likely to erupt into fantasies of vengeance or into real revenge.
The voices enter not so much into a dialogue as into a competition like the voices of Rosa and a provincial writer in “The Poisoned Story.” The lower-class seamstress in this story had married a widower, a member of a once-prominent family whose daughter, Rosaura, she greatly resents and who is always reading. Rosa's insistent self-justifying voice and her suspicions of Rosaura stridently begin to dominate the story but because she is answering her accusers, the story inevitably includes what she would like to be silenced. Rosaura's resentment, on the other hand, is silent. She has withdrawn into the magic of literature and when Rosa tries to lay hold of her “poisoned book,” she finds herself drawn into its plot. Not only does the story suggest that women live the plots of the stories that are told about them, but it also reveals the double meaning of plotting itself. For the plot can also be read as a conspiracy set in motion by Rosa, the bookworm stepdaughter. The fairy-tale plot of the wicked stepmother and the persecuted stepdaughter is also a plot in a different sense, the conspiracy of the old aristocracy that traps the entrepreneur Rosa in its deathly web.
In “Sleeping Beauty,” the upper-class daughter of the aristocracy who has ambitions to become a dancer inhabits the fairy-tale world of “Giselle” and “The Sleeping Beauty” but soon finds herself entrapped in the plot of the family romance in which the nuns of her convent school and her family wish to involve her. The fairy tale turns into the grotesque. María de los Angeles marries an upstart social climber and has a son but refuses to play her now-secondary role in the family romance. Instead, she escapes into the world of the marginalized and in particular that of a vulgar circus acrobat, Carmen Merengue, with whom she comes to identify. In this, as in many of Ferré's stories, however, the integrity of the patriarchal family romance must be maintained whatever the cost. María de los Angeles and her husband die in mysterious circumstances, for they are surplus characters who have no other purpose but to bring the male heir into the world.
Patriarchy in Puerto Rico has divided women into the “decent” upper-class women whose role is to become mothers and ornamental hostesses, guardians of the purity of the family, and an army of marginalized women—the mistresses and prostitutes, the servants and nurses. Patriarchal society tries to keep these women separate by caging decent women within the home to protect them from the outside world; yet that outside world constantly invades the upper-class home through the subversive presence of servants, nurses, and nannies. The meeting of those worlds, the bourgeoisie and the world of the marginalized, is vividly described in Ferré's essay “How I Wrote ‘When Women Love Men.’” A prostitute and an upper-class woman share Ambrosio for much of their lives and inherit from him shares in the same house. As Ferré tells it, the convent- educated girls, shielded from any knowledge of sexuality, cannot help but become aware of a shadowy underworld to which men have access, while at the same time, the women of this underworld strive to enter the forbidden garden of respectability. The inseparable duo of frigid wife and shameless prostitute appear in many of the stories, bonded in a relationship that might always be reversed. Parody and irony thus prevail. Parody, in particular, is a form of double voicing that apparently reproduces a tone, a style, or a genre but always in such a manner that another mocking voice is irresistibly there. And the irony too is closely linked to resentment. Ferré describes her form of irony as “the art of dissembling anger, of refining the foil of the tongue to the point that it can more accurately pierce the reader's heart.” There is no better symbol of this irony than the doll manufactured by a maiden aunt; when mutilated by a greedy doctor who wishes to rob it of its diamond eyes, the doll pours out, not sugar and spice, but angry river prawns. The repressed in Ferré's stories always returns with violence.
The personal and the political are inseparable in these stories, for the fate of the women is intimately tied to that of Puerto Rico, to the failures of the old landed aristocracy whose wealth was built on slavery and sugar cane and even more, perhaps, to those of a generation of industrialists whose projects had ruined the land without bringing prosperity. Ferré's stories often evoke the desolation of Ponce's industrialization. In “Marina and the Lion,” it has become the city of dust, “with its dusty streetlights and its phlegm-white sky, wrapped forever in floury gauze vapors which swirled constantly above the townspeople's heads, around their shoulders and arms, a town with beaches of white gunpowder which thundered at dusk when the tide began to rush in, with clouds which burst open like cannon shots and left the fields sown with calcium.” In “The Dust Garden,” a stranger appears and makes patterns in the dust, patterns so beautiful that it is difficult to breathe. Perhaps this expresses Ferré's rejection of dust-garden aesthetics; it is possible that, in her view, the overwhelming truth of dreams is that they are always shattered.
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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.”
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SOURCE: A review of El coloquio de las perras, in World Literature Today, Vol. 65, No. 2, Spring, 1991, p. 276.
[In the following review, Hintz addresses the principal purpose of El coloquio de las perras.]
Rosario Ferré's most recent book, El coloquio de las perras, is a collection of eight essays on the general topic of feminist literary criticism. The first essay, which lends the volume its title, is a fictional presentation of Ferré's personal opinions on feminist literary criticism. The second is a statement on the status of feminist literary criticism during the last decade. The remaining pieces are written autodiegetically as an explanation of Ferré's own feminist narrative.
“El coloquio de las perras” is a parody of Cervantes's exemplary novel El coloquio de las perras in which Ferré expresses her personal opinions concerning Puerto Rican feminist literature and Latin American feminist literature in general. She speaks with a respected and resonant voice in the wilderness of feminist literary criticism as she combats not only the treatment that women authors receive at the hands of male literary critics but also as she battles against the segregation of literary criticism into opposing male and female camps.
Ferré's colloquy is a skillful combination of mimetic and diegetic narrative that presents the theme of the intricacies of Latin American feminist literature and its criticism. She is known to write for friends and for people who are close to her. Thus, El coloquio de las perras is dedicated to two of her compatriots in literary criticism, Ani Fernández and Jean Franco. She has even linked the dedication of the opening essay to the names of its protagonists, Fina and Franca. Through their voices she clearly states her belief that themes are the only difference between masculine and feminine literature. Literature is built on words, and these building blocks have no gender. Ferré's goal in writing El coloquio de las perras is to unite the literary world into a more exemplary and tolerant medium of communication for all languages.
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Papeles de Pandora [The Youngest Doll] (short stories and poetry) 1976
Sitio a Eros: trece ensayos literarios (essays) 1980
Fábulas de la garza desangrada (poetry) 1982
El acomador: una lectura fantástica de Felisberto Hernández (criticism) 1986
Maldito amor [Sweet Diamond Dust] (novel and stories) 1986
El árbol y sus sombras (essays) 1989
El coloquio de las perras (essays) 1990
Las dos Venecias (short stories and poetry) 1992
Memorias de Ponce: Autobiografia de Luis A. Ferré [translator] (autobiography) 1992
*The House on the Lagoon (novel) 1995
*Eccentric Neighborhoods (memoir) 1998
*These works were originally written in English and translated into Spanish as La Casa de la laguna (1997) and Vecindarios eccentricos (1999), respectively.
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SOURCE: A review of The Youngest Doll, in Nation, Vol. 252, No. 17, May 6, 1991, pp. 597–8.
[In the following review, Hart compares the narrative modes of The Youngest Doll and Sandra Cisneros's Woman Hollering Creek, highlighting the authors's thematic similarities.]
Defiant magic feminism challenges all our conventional notions of time, place, matter and identity in Rosario Ferré's spectacular new book, The Youngest Doll, first published in Spanish in 1976 as Papeles de Pandora and now deftly translated into English primarily by the author herself. Magic realism electro-charged with feminist awareness fuels a constellation of Latin American writers I call the magic feminists-luminaries like Isabel Allende, Luisa Valenzuela and Clarice Lispector, in addition to Ferré. Latin America's male magic realists have long juxtaposed the impossible with the quotidian, so what sets these women apart is their feminist view of what we can and should call real.
A couple of quick comparisons will demonstrate the difference between classic male magic realists and Rosario Ferré's magic feminism. In Mario Vargas Llosa's Pantaleon and the Visitors, a lowly army official with a chameleon personality is transformed into Super Pimp when ordered to organize a string of prostitutes to service horny soldiers in remote outposts of the Peruvian jungle. The wit and style with which the fable is spun make us guffaw, but if our consciousness is higher than waist level, in some part of our minds we suspect that being an army whore may not be all that funny in real life. Rosario Ferré (who studied with Vargas Llosa at the University of Puerto Rico) uses like magic to confuse the identities of a notorious prostitute and a society woman in the story “When Women Love Men,” but the difference is that she respects both and convinces us that she really knows how each thinks. Is it “Isabel the Rumba, Macumba … swaying her okra hips through the sun-swilled Antillean streets, her grapefruit tits sliced open on her chest:” or is it Isabel Luberza, clinging to her husband's arm “like a jasmine vine to the wall”? Here is a story where we readers can savor a marvelous melting of identity, perhaps suspending some disbelief but not locking our whole hard-won ethical system in the basement for the duration of the tale.
In “The Poisoned Story,” Ferré uses a conceit made world-famous by Julio Cortazar in “Continuity of Parks.” In both a reader picks up a text that tells in circular fashion of his or her own murder. For Cortazar the trick makes of the text an impossible object—a fascinating curiosity. But in Ferré, the woman reader is poisoned by the ink of a book of fairy tales, and by the time she dies we know that her life is a fairy tale gone wrong. A proletarian Cinderella (who married an impoverished sugarcane plantation owner only to metamorphose into the wicked stepmother to his daughter) is poisoned by the patriarchal fantasies she swallowed when young. Like certain Escher prints, both stories seem to be drawing themselves, but while for Cortazar the trick is neat sleight-of-hand, for Ferré it can stand for the way female readers are so often poisoned by the trash they read as girls.
As the daughter of a former governor of Puerto Rico, Ferré has had a bird's-eye view of the ravages of power on her island, and her magic touches often spark eruptions of repressed anger in the face of just such power. From the title story, in which a mild-mannered maiden aunt takes chillingly unexpected revenge on her oppressors through toy-making, dolls are a constant motif when victims become angry. Dolls here do not stand for the infantilization of women in “polite” Puerto Rican circles; they are that warping of the girl-child's potential into convenient little totemic packages. In “The Youngest Doll,” a pompous doctor is horrified to discover that his wife has run off and left in her place a life-sized doll whose eyes are filled with frenzied crustaceans—and that for years he has failed to notice! In “Amalia” a girl whose skin is deathly sensitive to sun becomes her wax doll, melting horribly in the heat of the garden when she tries to escape the stifling confinement of the bourgeois household. Later, a bored society woman in “Marina and the Lion” has herself delivered to a costume ball as a princess doll in a cellophane-wrapped box. Cutting through the “transparent skin” of cellophane with her fan, Marina flees the doll box into her vacuous party, but the confinement of her social station can only be escaped at the end of the story through death.
At a moment when it often seems the Academic Literary Critic begins every article reciting a rosary of sacred names and then lumbers on, larded with jargon, to insist that he or she is actually far more interesting than the author being dissected, it is reassuring to see two essays of Ferré's at the end of this book, demonstrating that art and appreciation need not be eternally at war. In “How I Wrote ‘When Women Love Men,’” Ferré gives a succinct account of Latina and Anglo feminists who helped shape her ideas, along with glimpses of her sources of inspiration. “There is a … type of irony, which consists mainly in the art of dissembling anger, of refining the foil of the tongue to the point that it can more accurately pierce the reader's heart,” she tells us in her essay, after having amply shown us in her fiction. In “On Destiny, Language, and Translation; or, Ophelia Adrift in the C. &. O. Canal,” Ferré sets forth brilliantly the forces that tug her in opposite directions as a Latina living now in the United States, and as a Puerto Rican writer torn between “a constant re-creation of divergent worlds, which often tend to appear greener on the other side.” Translating her own works “can be diabolic and obsessive,” she allows, and she admits, “It is one of the few instances when one can be dishonest and feel good about it.” She proves the point by translating a wicked Puerto Rican pun, Tenemos mucho oro, del que cago el loro, as “We have a lot of gold, of the kind the parrot pukes.” Ferré clearly knows that cagar means “to shit,” not “to puke,” and that cago is the past tense, but as her own translator she is free to put sonorous repetition of “p's” and a sense of immediacy above literal accuracy. Thus, in this and in dozens of cases, her translations reinvent her texts and achieve a kind of brilliance few non-authors would be arrogant enough to dare.
From beginning to end, then, 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.
The wrenching pull of competing cultures and languages is just as important in Mexican-American Sandra Cisneros's art as it is in Rosario Ferré's. Anger repressed bursts the seams of life for Cisneros's female characters, who struggle valiantly to make something beautiful from the ugly fabric fate has given them to work with. Cisneros's first book of fiction, The House on Mango Street (1984), was a collection of prose-poem reflections on a girlhood in which creative talent fought to survive a hostile environment, sensitive memories set down as a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and winner of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. In her new book, Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories, Cisneros breathes narrative life into her adroit, poetic descriptions, making them mature, fully formed works of fiction. Her range of characters is broad and lively, from Rudy Cantu, drag queen par excellence, in whose ears the crowd's applause sizzles like when “my ma added the rice to the hot oil”; to the disembodied spirit of Emiliano Zapata's wife; to a teenage girl who returns to the shrine of the Virgen de los Lagos to ask Mary to take back the boyfriend the girl previously prayed for.
Calques and puns are hidden throughout like toy surprises that double the pleasure of the bilingual reader. The title story, “Woman Hollering Creek,” is an impish, literal translation of Arroyo la Gritona, a creek whose name sounds as though it may have been derived from La. Llorona, the weeping woman of Mexican folklore—part Circe, part Magdalene. The irony is that the main character, a young bride brought across the border from Mexico only to be abused, begins the tale crying over her plight, but in the end escapes the stereotyped role of tearful victim through the help of strong, independent Felice, who hollers in exhilaration like Tarzan as the pair cross the river to freedom.
In “Bien Pretty,” the last story in the collection, Cisneros beautifully draws the struggle of a talented but underappreciated Chicana painter to connect culturally and sexually with men who circle and abandon her, a situation she survives nobly, “in my garage making art”: The men who know her language and folklore may disappoint, but as painter she transforms one bug-exterminating lover into volcanic Prince Popocatepetl, and on her canvas, as in Cisneros's fiction, the results are at once dramatically specific and universal.
If superstition is the opiate of Latin America's desperate poor, it is no surprise that Rosario Ferré's ire flowers into magic feminism. By contrast, the toughness that Sandra Cisneros's characters need to survive U.S. streets makes hard-eyed realism her ideal mode. The catalysts are remarkably similar for the two, but the resulting chain reactions of rage delight with a clear chemical difference.
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SOURCE: An interview with Rosario Ferré, in Backtalk: Women Writers Speak Out, Rutgers University Press: New Brunswick, NJ, 1993, pp. 83–103.
[In the following interview, originally conducted in June, 1991, Ferré discusses her personal background and the nature of her writings, touching on such concerns as the advantages and difficulties of writing about the homeland she left; the role of anger and magic in her work and in Latin American literature in general; the significance of race, class, and gender as a Puerto Rican woman writer; the art of translating fiction; the relationship between autobiography and fiction; and Puerto Rican culture and politics.]
In 1974, Puerto Rican artist Francisco Rodón displayed a portrait of writer Rosario Ferré, surrounded by flames and wearing newsprint. Entitled Andromeda, the painting invokes the mythological daughter sacrificed for her mother's follies and, with her father's complicity, put on a rocky ledge to be devoured by a serpent. Andromeda was rescued by Perseus, but no one rescued Ferré when the furor arose which led to the painting.
The daughter of a former governor of Puerto Rico and a graduate student in Spanish and Latin American literature at the University of Puerto Rico, Ferré had broken a cultural taboo. In 1972, in the seventh issue of Zona de carga y descarga (“Loading and Unloading Zone”), a literary magazine she founded and edited at the university, she published “When Women Love Men,” a short story she had written to shock. In sexually explicit language, the story explores the thoughts and personalities of an upper-class widow and a prostitute who meet after the death of the man they shared. So outraged were some Puerto Ricans that they burned the magazine (thus the flames in Rodón's painting). They labeled Ferré a traitor to her class and her gender.
Ferré laughs as she remembers the scandal, but copies of that issue are collector's items today. For Rosario Ferré has emerged from the ashes to become one of Latin America's most powerful writers. Still controversial, her works critique Puerto Rican society with detachment and precision: a cultural sexism that makes middle- and upper-class wives and daughters into dolls; the moral bankruptcy of a corrupt aristocracy; class conflicts that erupt into random violence; the desperation of women and men who are marginalized by poverty and racism.
To date, only two of Ferré's books have been translated into English. Her widely acclaimed Papeles de Pandora (“Pandora's Papers” [Joaquin Mortiz, Mexico, 1976]), a collection of short stories and poems in which she revived the Greek myth of Pandora, was published, minus the poems, as The Youngest Doll (University of Nebraska Press, 1991). A novel and three short stories, Sweet Diamond Dust (Ballantine, 1988), appeared originally as Maldito amor (“Damned Love” [Joaquin Mortiz, 1986]). Much of Ferré's work has remained untranslated, mainly because translation is very time-consuming, whether she translates the works herself or works closely with the translator. As she says, she would rather write.
Her untranslated works include a book of children's stories, El medio pollito (“The Half-Chick” [Ediciones Huracán, Puerto Rico, 1976]); a collection of feminist essays, Sitio a Eros (“Eros Besieged” [Joaquin Mortiz, 1980]); Los cuentos de Juan Bobo (“The Stories of Juan Bobo” [Ediciones Huracán, 1981]); Fábulas de la garza desangrada (“Fables of the Bled Heron” [Joaquin Mortiz, 1984]); El acomador Felisberto Hernández y la literatura fantástica (“‘The Usher’: Felisberto Hernández and Fantastic Literature” [Fonda de Cultura Económica, Mexico, 1987]); a collection of literary essays, El árbol y sus sombras (“The Tree and Its Shadows” [Fonda de Cultura Económica, 1989]); and a book of fables, Sonatinas (Ediciones Huracán, 1989). A book of poems and short stories, Las dos Venecias (“The Two Venices”) is forthcoming, and Ferré is working on a memoir.
The interview took place in June 1991, in Washington, D.C., where Ferré lives with her husband, architect Agustín Costa. In our time together over iced tea in a hotel restaurant, she discussed her background and writing, as well as other topics: the advantages and difficulties of the author who has left the homeland she writes about; the role of anger and magic in her work and in that of other Latin American writers; the significance of race, class, and gender for the woman writer from Puerto Rico; the art of translating fiction; the relationship of autobiography and fiction; and Puerto Rican culture and politics. In person, as in her fiction and essays. Ferré is unsentimentally honest about her country's past. You sense that Rodón was correct in depicting this rewriter of myths as a mythic figure, although not Andromeda. Opening the lid on deeply buried secrets, she's more like Pandora.
[Perry:] When you were growing up in Puerto Rico, did you want to become a writer?
[Ferré:] I wanted to be a dancer at first. I didn't just want to have a career, in the sense of a business career. That wasn't interesting enough. In Ponce, where I was born, my father had a little newspaper, El Dia, which my brother later developed into the island's most important newspaper. I might have liked to be a newspaper person, but my father wouldn't let me work there. When I was a college student—I graduated from Manhattanville College [in Westchester County, New York] in 1960—I did a couple of features for the summer issues. I would write when I went home. I wrote little cameo articles; I really liked it.
Why couldn't you work at the paper?
They wouldn't let me even consider a career as a journalist. Women weren't supposed to work at that time, so I got married and had three children. After ten years I got a divorce and then went to the University of Puerto Rico to do my master's degree in Spanish and Latin American literature.
Many of your stories use dolls as symbols of women's restricted lives. Were you sort of a doll in your marriage?
Yes, I was. Definitely. But in Puerto Rico most of the women of my generation were in the same situation [Ferré was born in 1942]. I was no exception. Women who wanted to change that or go against that stereotype would be considered odd or slightly crazy. The only reason they couldn't say the same about me was because I made it in the world of literature. At the university I started a literary magazine called Zona de carga y descarga, with some of the other students. We started publishing unknown writers and it was unusually successful, so we went on for two years. I would publish something for every number and that's how I started writing. Those first two years gave me about half the material for the first book, Papeles de Pandora, which came out in 1976. Then I got into writing; I came to the United States and got my doctorate at the University of Maryland, and they couldn't say I was crazy. I was just doing my thing. Things were changing at that time; feminist issues were becoming more and more important. I was lucky. I probably took the last train that went out for my generation of women. I always look at myself like that [she laughs].
Besides dolls, you write a lot about women's friendships. “The Gift” celebrates the relationship between two girls from different classes who love one another despite attempts to break them up. In “When Women Love Men,” a friendship is established between the white woman who is the widow and the black woman who is the mistress of the rich landowner. And in “Pico Rico Mandorico,” there is the love between sisters. Did you grow up among women?
My mother had eight sisters and they were always very close, so our house was always filled with aunts. It was a very feminine environment. Women used to communicate a lot between themselves; and I had a lot of girl cousins. It was definitely a matriarchy.
Did the relationships cross classes?
It did, in a sense. In Puerto Rico people adopt a lot of children. That's why we haven't had any problem with homeless children until just recently. If someone died and there was no one to take care of the sons or the daughters, the aunts and uncles would adopt them. So that happened in my family, too, and my grandmother adopted a couple of children. And we could establish friendships, but we knew they weren't our flesh and blood; we weren't really related.
Would the family support them if they wanted to go to college, for example?
No. When they grew up, they would probably get married and the family would help them to establish themselves. They wouldn't be poor; the family would give them a hand. But they wouldn't go to college, not at that time. But my grandmother didn't go to college either. My mother went to college and it was something extraordinary because my father's sisters didn't go to college. They were more on the lower social scale. If you had the money to send the girls to school, this was a maximum luxury.
You're very critical of the Puerto Rican landed aristocracy in your works. Was that hard for you to write?
I think that the sugarcane aristocracy did a lot of bad things. Sweet Diamond Dust is more or less the picture of what happened in Puerto Rico in the first half of the twentieth century. But they were also, in a paternalistic way, very much aware of the people who were working with them. It was a lot more human than what happened later, when the big corporations were there and exploitation became totally dehumanized.
You mean the aristocrats were more humane exploiters?
Yes. They lived nearby to the workers, on the fields themselves; they knew the names of the persons who were cutting the cane. When a worker cut his arm or something, the owner rushed him to the hospital and tried to save him, or maybe he adopted his child or gave the worker some other type of help. When it really got bad in Puerto Rico was in the 1930s, when these big, absentee-owned corporations were dominating the scene. They weren't just Americans; some of them were Puerto Ricans. Sugar processing ceased to be under small ownership and became incorporated into mega-enterprises.
Was yours an aristocratic family?
My mother's was; my father's was not. She was from a very good family. In a way it was all a myth, though, because my grandmother was from Corsica. Her parents were lower middle class. Once she married my grandfather, then that fact was sort of hidden—nobody would talk about it. My great-grandfather, her father, was probably a smuggler, as well as a merchant. In Puerto Rico there are lots of Corsicans.
How has your family responded to your critique of aristocracy?
Well, they are not that aristocratic anymore [she laughs]. That's the way it used to be. They've lost a lot of money; agriculture on the island has gone down the drain. The grandchildren of all these people are lawyers or architects or engineers. They are all professionals. I do have a couple of very old aunts and uncles who are still alive, and they were upset that some of the places described in the novel were the same as in real life. I used the family house to create the right ambience, and they recognized it. But I didn't use their names, and, of course, the anecdote is totally imagined.
So Zona de carga y descarga got you started? Tell me more about that magazine.
It came out bimonthly, and the students did all the work. We did the art, the layout—we even sold it. We took it to the bookstores; we had this whole network of people involved. Distribution was two thousand copies and it sold for fifty cents. That's when I started to write, because we needed to fill the blank pages. My first story, which was “The Youngest Doll,” came out in the first issue, and in every number I would publish something. My cousin Olga Nolla, who is also a writer, very well known in Puerto Rico, would also publish, as well as other young Puerto Rican writers. Of course, we never paid anybody anything; it was done from scratch. We didn't have any advertisements at all.
Why did you all feel that impulse to make a magazine?
We were filling a vacuum. There was one magazine, called Sin nombre, which was published by Nilïta Vientós Gastón, who was the “great lady of letters” in Puerto Rico. But she only published writers who were already famous, who had written books. Nobody would publish the new writers; they thought we were too radical. In Puerto Rico the sixties arrived four years late—in a colony everything gets there a little late. So from 1968 to 1972 we were right in the middle of all that. Drugs, marijuana, rebellion. Everybody wore long hair.
I remember one day we were sitting in the campus in front of the tower at the university, on this big lawn. All the people from the magazine were there, talking and reading poems. Maybe we were smoking some pot, I don't remember exactly, but all of a sudden I saw this huge truck going down this arched road quite far away. It was pulling an advertisement for Coca-Cola, a billboard, and from the window of the truck this man with a telephoto lens starts taking photographs of us. Of course, the police probably thought we were revolutionaries. Actually, the magazine did have some political overtones, but they were more anarchist than anything else.
Carlos Fuentes says, “To be a witness of Latin America in action or in language is now, and will be more and more, a revolutionary act.” Does that apply to the Puerto Rican writer too?
I think he's probably talking about the fact that as a writer you have to be there when the massacres take place, like in Tlatelolco [in Mexico] for example. Mexico is a very violent country. We have a lot of violence, too, in Puerto Rico, but not as much. I think he is right, and I admire him a lot. He has done a lot to bring the Latin American situation to the American consciousness.
Is there a lot of repression in Puerto Rico?
There is less now than there was seven or eight years ago. Now it's become better, but I do think that everyone who has anything to do with independence—the artists or writers—is on some kind of a list.
You probably were on a government list when you were a graduate student publishing this radical magazine. Who were some of the others involved?
My cousin Olga Nolla, whom I mentioned. Yvonne Ochard, who is also a poet and a novelist. Manuel Ramos Otero, a poet and a short-story writer who just died of AIDS. Also, from the more academic establishment, there were some very fine people, like Mercedes Lopez Baralt and Luce Lopez Baralt, two professors of the Spanish department. They both published articles with us.
Was anything ever censored by the government?
No. Censorship doesn't exist in Puerto Rico, as it does in Argentina, for example. It would have been really a scandal if they had tried to do that.
So this graduate school publication enabled you to find your voice?
Yes. When I started to write I realized that I could do something that not everybody could do. I was surprised. I didn't expect people would listen. I remember the first thing anybody ever told me about “The Youngest Doll.” A professor from the university said, “I liked your story very much, but it was too short” [she laughs]. I got the idea that maybe he might like for me to write more.
It was just long enough for you to tell the story.
That's right. That's what I should have answered.
Who influenced your work?
When I was fourteen I used to read literature in English. I read textbooks and the newspapers in Spanish, but when I really started to get into literature was when I started reading Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.
Many of the writers I've interviewed have mentioned those books.
When I started reading Wuthering Heights, it just put my hair on end. I couldn't put it down. I read it two or three times, one right after the other. Another book that was very important for me was A Thousand and One Nights. I used to read that when I was around ten or younger.
You sound like Scheherazade in “The Poisoned Story,” for example. The story itself is poisonous.
In A Thousand and One Nights there is a story about a king who is reading a poisoned book, which the wizard has sent him. I think probably Umberto Eco read it, too. The Name of the Rose [Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983] has a similar theme. The idea he has is similar: a book that poisons the reader.
Did you grow up hearing a lot of tales?
Yes. I had a nanny who liked to tell stories and read to me. She would make up many of the stories. I have a book which I dedicated to her, called El medio pollito. They are stories she used to tell me, and then I sort of rewrote them in a literary way.
Did you also have family stories?
My father made one story up: “The Wise She-Frog.” I rewrote it a bit and put it in the book. But that's the only one you might call a family story.
Let's talk about the process of writing a novel. Was that different from writing your short stories?
It took me longer; it took me about six years. Sweet Diamond Dust is four short novels which are related to each other. All the characters belong to the same family. The first part takes place from the 1890s to the 1930s; the second part is in the 1950s; the third is in the 1970s; and the last part in the year 2000. The first short novel, especially, was very intricate because there are four characters, and they each tell the same story from a totally different point of view. Each version cancels the one that came before. It was like trying to write a literary version of [Akira Kurosawa's film] Rashomon; I was fascinated by the idea. I was trying to bring out the fact that in an island, Puerto Rico, the atmosphere is always so claustrophobic. Everybody is criticizing everybody else, saying bad things about them and making up all kinds of calumnies and false stories. You never know what the truth is, because everybody's lying; everybody manipulates the truth to a certain extent.
So can we ever find out what really happened in the past?
Truth is always relative because our perception of it is always subjective, but there is a core to truth. I won't say that I agree with the structuralists or the poststructuralists who believe that history doesn't exist and is just something a historian makes up. I think history does exist, but you have to analyze the points of view from which it is being seen. You need to see it from many different points of view to really understand it.
In Sweet Diamond Dust you touch on the race issue. Would you talk about racism in Puerto Rico and its significance in your work?
Puerto Rico is very much built upon that conflict, the same as the southern states in the United States. You see it here [in Washington, D.C.]; it's all over. I think probably we [in Puerto Rico] have been able to deal with it better; that's a plus for us. We have been able to become an integrated society, but not completely.
In your work you also seem to suggest that blackness is a source of power.
Yes, I think it's like that in all the Caribbean. The black race has been very vital in the contribution of their traditions to Puerto Rican culture. In the face of oppression the black people's traditions often have to do with the joy of life. They are the ones who play the best music. They make up the best music. The food that comes from the black culture is fabulous. These traditions are more present in the coastal towns, where the slaves were brought. Inside the country, up in the mountains where the white population stayed, people are always sad. There, they played sad songs—beautiful songs, something like those of the Indians in Peru, but totally different from what went on by the coast.
Racial differences show up in several of your stories. In “When Women Love Men,” for example, two women named Isabel—white wife and black mistress—get together after the death of the man they shared. The black woman ends up getting the house and also bringing the white woman to life.
There is a metamorphosis in the end, when they merge. The story has to do with the idea of miscegenation, the merging of the races, in Puerto Rico.
There's an association with sexuality, too—much more of an acceptance of sexuality on the part of this prostitute than of the repressed wife. Were you working with the virgin-and-whore idea in the two women?
Yes. This is very typical of Puerto Rican culture and of all Latin men. Women are either the Madonna or the whore. It's very difficult for them to have an idea of a woman who is neither, or perhaps both.
In “When Women Love Men” you write, “Every lady hides a prostitute under her skin. … A prostitute, on the other hand, will go to similar extremes to hide the lady under her skin.” What were you getting at here?
[She laughs.] Well, I was trying to show how every woman who is sexually repressed would like to break those taboos and simply be sexually free. If you read Freud or a little psychoanalysis, you know that society has to control that or there would be total anarchy. But everybody has the same desires. The important thing was that when this story came out no Puerto Rican woman had ever written about sex. My story is just a little story, and it's not Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, but I think I was trying to go in that direction.
You have some very graphic descriptions and language here.
I was trying to shock everyone, out of a repression of centuries.
Did you get a reaction?
Yes, very much. People were very mad. That story came out in the seventh number of Zona de carga y descarga along with a story of a friend of mine, Manuel Ramos Otero, which is about the same prostitute. His story hasn't been translated into English. His story was just as shocking as mine, but of course because he was a homosexual and a man, he was looking at the thing from another point of view. The magazine's format was very large. We published it in two or three colors. It was beautiful. We published those two stories side by side, in parallel columns. The text was white on a black background: totally black, the pages all black.
Some people would buy the magazine and burn it, because they thought it had to do with witchcraft. I realized how much it had shocked people because the issue didn't sell. All the other numbers had gone like hotcakes, but that number was considered to be banned. So we had to go to the bookstores and pick them all up.
What year was this?
1972. I still have about two hundred in my garage in Puerto Rico [we both laugh].
In 1974 the Puerto Rican artist Francisco Rodón displayed a portrait of you in which you look like a nun in a habit made of newsprint. Was that image reflecting the controversy?
Yes. Rodón is one of the best-known painters in Puerto Rico. I look like Joan of Arc in a pyre, which has something to do with the scandal at the time. The newspapers are like flames that are eating me up.
Do you like that image for you?
I didn't much like it [at the time]. I didn't buy the painting. Of course, it's a wonderful painting. Later I regretted not having bought it, but at the time I didn't really have the money. And he could sell it to anyone he wanted. After a while, I felt the painting was not just about slander. I'm just burning up because it's about literature, and language is that powerful. I'm burning up in a pyre of printed pages. Well, that's a great idea [she laughs]. I sort of liked it. I hadn't written Sweet Diamond Dust at that time, but in a way he was making a prophecy. I like it now.
What about the role of religion in your work, particularly your presentation of nuns?
I was taught by nuns when I was a girl, and we used to have a lot of fun with them. I remember I had a nun who used to have a whole closet full of lipsticks and makeup. I was about twelve at the time, and she would teach us how to put makeup on.
You seem critical of nuns because they are so interested in money. I'm thinking of “Sleeping Beauty” or “The Gift.”
They were, very much so; but only because they were very poor. They had to survive somehow. They weren't getting any help from the government, that's for sure. The school was for rich girls, but the landed aristocracy was going through a great crisis, and there wasn't enough money to help them out.
What about the role of sexuality in your writing in general? How does it figure in your thoughts?
Well, I think of the discovery of sex as a liberation for women, which is why I like that picture Thelma and Louise. When you search yourself and realize that you can have your own life, that you don't have to live dependent emotionally on a person because you get sexual satisfaction from being with them, then you can be on your own. But it breaks something; there's a dangerous point of no return, which was shown in the movie Thelma and Louise, and it's important to keep that in mind. I think probably the pill has been the greatest invention of the twentieth century.
Certainly one of them. Moving to a story that deals with repression and anger, let's talk about “The Youngest Doll.” This is your best-known story—about an aunt who makes dolls and her niece who leaves her husband the hideous doll that she has become. In your essay “The Writer's Kitchen,” you say that it was based on a story your aunt told you about a distant cousin of hers—a woman, victimized by her husband, who made honey-filled dolls for the girls in your aunt's family. But you fleshed out the story.
“The Youngest Doll” is a story about writing. The old aunt who makes the doll is like the witch; she is the weaver of spells, which is what a writer does. And each doll is like a story or a potential story. Actually, in the memoirs I am writing now, I'm writing the story of all those dolls. I just wish I could make it in a novel, because I still haven't been able to write a long novel. This book is already two hundred pages, but it's a memoir, not a novel.
Why do you need to do a long novel?
It's a challenge. A story is like building a chapel; a novel is a cathedral: That's the difference.
It's like the Renaissance poets wanting to write the epic.
That's true. And they always wrote sonnets. “The Youngest Doll” was a very important story. It was the story that showed me how to write. It was my first breakthrough.
Did you revise that a lot?
No. Some things I revise a lot: for “The Poisoned Tale” I must have made fifteen versions. But I didn't have to change “The Youngest Doll” at all.
Another story inspired by a previous story was “Pico Rico Mandorico,” the story of two sisters who escape the power of a devil figure. Wasn't that influenced by Christina Rossetti's “Goblin Market”?
Yes, in fact my story is a prose rendition of the poem. I said so in the introduction to Sonatinas, the book in Spanish.
Joanna Russ was also inspired by this Rossetti poem. How did you transform the story to make it your own?
I liked it so much I said, “I want to do my own version of this.” I've done a lot of things like that. In fact, I taught a course in creative writing at the University of Maryland for a semester—I did it on my own, “unofficially,” because the students didn't get any credit. We met once a week for the duration of the semester. I would tell them to pick a fable, a short story by Scheherazade, for example, read it, close the book, and then rewrite it in their own terms.
What happens when you do that, when you retell a story?
You put yourself in the situation of the original writer and simply tell yourself: If I were she, how would I have reacted to this situation? What would I have done? And then tell what happens.
You change the Rossetti story considerably. Most significantly, the girls castrate the man. These sisters are much more empowered. It's more obviously feminist than Rossetti's, which has a more covert message. You also give it a political dimension.
Writing is a lot like sewing: You bring pieces together and make a quilt. What brought me to Rossetti's story was a dirge, a little ditty called “Pico Rico Mandorico / Quién te dio tamano pico?” [“Pico Rico, far and wide / leaves a mark where others hide”]. In this nursery rhyme there is a man dressed in black who comes to the house of a little girl. It's always on Sundays—that's very important. He has a very long nose and he spills everything on the table, so they have to cut off his nose. The man is really a devil, and he wants to steal the little girl and take her away with him. The Christina Rossetti story reminded me of the nursery rhyme, and I made a quilt of both.
Did you like teaching writing?
Very much. I taught at Rutgers University and the Johns Hopkins University last semester. It was only part-time because I travel to Puerto Rico so often.
What about your situation as someone who lives in the United States and writes about Puerto Rico? How does the distance affect what you write and how you write?
Well, you always feel that you're betraying someone. Puerto Ricans are a little bit like cats: they always want to be on the other side of the door [she laughs]. There are one and a half million Puerto Ricans who commute to the island every year, so I suspect guilt feelings abound. But then on the island, you have so many relations whom you are expected to visit often and take care of, because you are there. There is no way you can get away from it. But if you are here, then you can see them and leave.
I also found out distance gives me a lot of perspective. It's easier to write about a place when you're not living there. It's like being there in a different way; you have to re-create everything from memory.
So you have a sort of psychic distance by not living in Puerto Rico?
Yes, that's very important. In Puerto Rico people are more interested in the life of the writers than in the works. In the United States it's different. If you like Maxine Hong Kingston or Toni Morrison, it's because you like their books, not because they may lead interesting or uninteresting lives. In Puerto Rico there is no way you can get away from close scrutiny. It's impossible to write a novel there because people always think it is autobiographical. It happens to all the writers, not just to me. Some of them don't mind it and others do. It depends on the way you function.
So here you are living in Washington and writing about your home country. Is the picture you have in your imagination more real than if you were actually there and looking at it?
Sometimes it worries me that my picture may not be the right one, that time has left me behind. I fear this because every time I go there, even though I read the papers all the time and I know what is going on, it's like going back seven years ago, to what the island was like when I left. You never see things the way they really are, but how you remember them. This worries me because I don't want to start writing about a Puerto Rico that doesn't exist anymore. But I think maybe this has to do with age. As you get older, you start to write about a certain time and a certain place, and the world that you're writing about gets smaller.
This idea of multiple perspectives is central in your writing. I think of “Sleeping Beauty,” where you put together letters, newspaper articles, photo album captions, etc. What made you choose that form in which to write the story of this woman who becomes mad?
At that time I was reading a lot of Manuel Puig's novels and I read one which I loved, Boquitas pintadas [Sudamericana, 1969], “Heart Break Tango” in translation. This is a short novel and is all made up of letters. So I read this and I said to myself, “Oh, I can do a version of this” [she laughs].
I applied to myself the same lesson I gave to my students in my writing class. I took different stories from the ballets I knew, because I had danced parts in them as a student: Giselle, Coppélia, Sleeping Beauty. I combined this idea with Manuel Puig's idea of writing a novel out of letters, and the story came out.
One of your most obviously political stories is “Captain Candelario's Heroic Last Stand.” Is this a cautionary tale or a predictive tale?
I think it is probably both. Since it is supposed to happen in the year 2000, it is predictive. And it is a cautionary tale in the sense that I think it points out the dangers in our political situation, which are not solved. We are a divided country, and when this happens, there is a possibility that war may break out. Voting on whether to become a state or not is split down the middle: Half of the country wants to be a state and half wants to be independent, sort of like Cyprus. But the half that wants to be independent doesn't want to be totally independent: It still wants to be a part of the United States.
What do you think will happen?
I think it's going to stay the way it is for a while.
Candelario's problem seems to be an excess of idealism, in a way. He needs to see things and people for what and who they are.
I think that also has to do with Puerto Rico: The Puerto Rican ethos, or character, is precisely defined by its undefinition. We are always trying to define ourselves and never get there; but it is part of our definition that we keep looking. It's like Diogenes, who was always looking for truth with his lamp; and although he never found what he was looking for, the important thing was that he kept on looking.
Is that situation inevitable, given Puerto Rico's history?
Unless we become strong enough economically and psychologically to be able to make a break, I think we will stay as we are. Unless the United States decides for us, which is another possibility. They could say, “Just make up your minds; we can't wait any longer.” You are dealing with injustice in two different directions, because we have become used to a certain standard of living. For about a hundred years we have been a part of the United States; this is like being in paradise compared to how people live in most of Latin America. Therefore, not belonging to the United States, if things are brought to that point, is also going to be an injustice.
What about the role of music in “Captain Candelario's Heroic Last Stand”? You talk about salsa as a political force. Is there really a relationship between music and politics in Puerto Rico?
I was in Europe recently, and I noticed how dominant the United States still is in terms of popular culture. Everyone wants to hear rock music, and American pop culture is all over the place. This happens in Puerto Rico, too, but the salsa is different because it has political connotations. It comes from the lumpen, the unemployed, people on the streets peddling drugs, who are really the worst; all of the salsa composers have been in jail for drugs. There is the idea that there is something lawless, there is something socially threatening coming out from these people's music.
They don't play salsa in the elegant nightclubs. They play mainly avant-garde rock.
Ruben Blades is the closest to a crossover there is, isn't he?
Yes, he would probably be played in elegant nightclubs.
So which are you? Are you also someone who listens to classical music, like Captain Candelario, or are you a salsera?
[She laughs.] I listen to both. I like salsa, but I have to be in a special mood. If I listen to it here [in the United States], I get too sad.
How is your work seen in Puerto Rico today?
It's still controversial, I think. The truth is that our men writers get a lot more attention than our women writers. There are some very good female writers, like Magali Garcia Ramis, who has a beautiful novel, Felices dias, Tio Sergio [Editorial Antillana (Puerto Rico), 1986], translated as “Happy Days, Uncle Sergio.” Her novel is as good as Luis Rafael Sánchez's La guaracha del Macho Comacho [Ediciones de la Flor (Buenos Aires), 1976], published in the United States as Macho Comacho's Beat [Pantheon, 1981], but it hasn't been admired as much.
Why do you think that is?
There's still a fraternity of men. They admire themselves, and they admire each other's works. I think they are a little bit scared of women, too.
Scared of women's power?
Yes. And their rage.
I see that rage in your works, particularly in the stories where women are continually struggling to be heard, to be understood by those around them, other women and men. In “The Writer's Kitchen,” your essay on your own creative processes, you said: “I write to build myself, word by word, to banish my terror of silence. I write as a speaking human mask.” Would you talk about the “terror of silence” that you wanted to banish?
I am dealing with that issue of silence now, in a memoir which has to do with both my father's and my mother's family. My father's family was very male-oriented. Only the men were the important ones. When the family would be sitting at table, only the men would talk. There were four brothers and two sisters, my grandfather, and all the brothers' wives. My mother was one of them. My grandfather was a Mason; he believed that there had to be a fraternity amongst men, like Mozart says in The Magic Flute. He would say, jokingly, “Women talk when chicken go peepee,” which means they never speak because chickens never go peepee [she laughs]. Women weren't supposed to have an opinion. If they did, they were never taken seriously. They were treated like children.
I have the idea that people who are very repressed tend to be inner-oriented; they talk to themselves more than other people. People who have difficulties making themselves heard have usually been brought up in stifling environments. Maybe that's why I felt as I did—because I was very timid. Maybe that's why my writing is so violent, in a way.
What about the other part of that quote, when you talk about being a human mask? That phrase sort of mystifies me.
Right now I'm reading Mark Twain's Autobiography, which I like very much. There is a part where he talks about his love for Oliver Wendell Holmes's writing. Twain tells of how he was accused of plagiarism because once he took a quotation from Holmes and used it as his own. He says that plagiarism does not exist in literature, and I agree. Literature is made of many pieces, of a reinterpretation of similar themes, of a recycling of materials. Only the mask exists, and the writer wears it to interpret the manifold possibilities of humanity that exist around him. He learns to be a writer when he can take someone else's mask and make it a part of himself and talk from that mask.
Is this why your stories are layered? You move from one character's mind to another's effortlessly.
I learned how to do that from Latin American writers like José Donoso, a Chilean writer I like very much.
What about Virginia Woolf?
Well, I would like to have written Orlando [she laughs]. But I'm very far from that!
In “The Writer's Kitchen,” you talk about leaving Woolf and Simone de Beauvoir behind.
I believe they belong to another generation; they are in another stage. Women now have more of a sense of control, a little bit more. Not a lot, but a little bit more than they used to have at the time of Virginia Woolf. Women's lives were even more restricted then.
You also say, “In a way, all writing is a translation, a struggle to interpret the meaning of life, and in a sense the translator can be said to be a shaman, a person dedicated to deciphering conflicting human texts, searching for the final unity of the meaning in speech.” Could you talk a little bit about this idea of the writer as shaman?
If the writer is trying to interpret the meaning of life, all of what he writes is autobiographical. Think of Mark Twain, for example. You can tell from Twain's autobiography that Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn are versions, or imagined stages, of Twain himself. He was writing about his own life, about how it was or could have been. And he's still trying to reinterpret his life or to translate it when he is writing his autobiography, only he is not doing it with a mask anymore, rather as a testimony. When you write fiction, you are wearing a mask, you are dealing with magic. The novelist is like the shaman; he reinterprets the life of the tribe in terms of his fictitious characters, in order to bring out the devils. And that's what literature does.
So you're trying to interpret the tribe?
So, in a way, all of your stories are about you?
Yes, and they are not about me. About everyone else. Let me read you this from the Twain book, where he talks about Oliver Wendell Holmes's response to the accusation of plagiarism. This is what I want to say [from The Autobiography of Mark Twain, the response of Holmes to a letter from Twain apologizing for his unconscious plagiarism of Holmes's ideas]:
Dr. Holmes laughed the kindest and healingest laugh over the whole matter and at considerable length and in happy phrase assured me that there was no crime in unconscious plagiarism; that I committed it every day, that he committed it every day, that every man alive on the earth who writes or speaks commits it every day and not merely once or twice but every time he opens his mouth; that all our phrasings are spiritualized shadows cast multitudinously from our readings; that no happy phrase of ours is ever quite original with us; there is nothing of our own in it except some change born of our temperament, character, environment, teachings, and associations; that this slight change differentiates it from another man's manner of saying it, stamps it with our own special style and makes it our own for the time being.
If the role of the writer is to be a shaman, what is the role of the critic? What should critics be doing?
I had two reviews for The Youngest Doll: one in the New York Times [a positive one] and another one in the Chicago Tribune [a negative one]. The man who wrote the Tribune review thought the book was depressing because it was about women who had psychological problems. He criticized the stories for not having a logical construction; he said that they escaped into surrealistic poetic endings. And I wondered if he wrote that because he was trained in a literary convention which answers to books written by men.
What I think criticism should do is teach literature from different points of view. Stories may or may not have an ending; may or may not have a logical construction. This doesn't mean that they are bad. I believe women are more flexible in their criticism, and I'd like men to look at our books with the same openness that we look at theirs. That would be a great addition.
What about the fact that you work in Spanish and English? You've said: “Only a writer who has experienced the historical fabric, the inventory of felt moral and cultural existence embedded in a given language can be said to be a bilingual writer.” Do you write first in Spanish?
Yes, I never write in English. I translate my own work.
Could you write in English or would it be too different?
It has to do with the way things come to mind; it has to do with dreams. I dream in Spanish and like to play with words. Many ideas for the things I write come from words themselves. If I am writing in English, I can't play this way. I'm not working with the language in an unconscious way.
Your stories are very dream-like; they remind me of Kafka. You've written that the imagination and fantasy have freer reign in Puerto Rico than in the United States. Why is that?
I think, in part, because of the influence of black culture that I mentioned before. The world of magic is very real in Puerto Rico. Religion there is very mixed with superstition and white magic, such as Santería. I don't think that's present in the United States, except maybe if you go further south [than Washington, D.C.]. I think some of the black writers in this country have been dealing with this.
So if you said to someone in your family that you saw a ghost, no one would be surprised?
No. They would probably say, “Oh, I did too, a few weeks ago,” or, “I dreamt such and such a thing, and then it happened.” And they would start bringing all these stories out. It used to be more like that in the past, when people would get together and start talking about the supernatural things that happened to them. And always death was an important part of it—the premonition of death. I'm using part of that in my new book of memoirs. People have premonitions that they are going to die.
How do you translate your writing? Do you have to reinvent things in another language?
I take four or five dictionaries and I pore over them. Once the meaning is there, it is easy to play with the sound. Sometimes for the sake of sound I change the meaning, but these are just nuances. The main thread of the story remains the same as it was originally written in Spanish.
You mean you change details when you move from one language to another?
Yes, I change details.
Are these changes just translations or are some of them a result of your seeing things differently? Some of the translations are done years after the original works.
Yes, it has to do with that. It has to do with changes of the mind perhaps, also with changes in feeling. Language has a lot to do with feeling, and you can't talk about certain things the same way, when you talk in a different language. Also, you're writing for a different audience. The traditions in literature are different. Here, a story has to have a beginning, a knot, and an end. Otherwise they think it's just a lot of hot air. Fleeting impressions are not important; they're not interesting. Everyone gets bored. In Spanish, we have a tradition of open-ended, poetic stories. It's a very popular genre. Bequer, Lorca, Dario all wrote in this way. There are lots of writers who never wrote stories that had the knot-and-ending style. And they are considered great writers; they give a lot of pleasure.
But here it is just not done. Edgar Allan Poe, whom I admire enormously, set a model for the American short story which is very tough to break. He is the one who established that the traditional short story has to be like this. When I translated the stories of “Pandora's Papers” [in The Youngest Doll], I tried to give more importance to action and to structure; not in all the stories, but in some. In Spanish, you can be more poetic and imprecise; things can be put more generally. It is more difficult to generalize in English; you have to be more precise.
Has the fact that you have translated your work into English affected your writing in Spanish?
I don't know, maybe. I think I am a lot more precise now than I was before: In everything I am writing now, action is always very present. I guess it also has to do with the way your mind matures as a writer. I still think that you can write very well in the other tradition, but I get bored myself. That must mean that I am getting Americanized [she laughs].
How do you choose your translators?
Diana Velez, a good friend of mine, is very good. She did a basic version of the translation of The Youngest Doll, which saved me some time, but then I took it and reworked it. When I worked with her I told her that I would only do so if I could do what I pleased with her version of the translation—that she couldn't have the final word. That was the only way I'd let her do it. I had that experience once with another translator, who started telling me, “Oh, you can't change this or that because it's in the original.” I said, “It's your translation, but it's my story!”
Only two collections of your work have been translated to date and some poems. Do you have plans to translate the rest of your work?
I wish I could. It's just that in translating you have to sacrifice the time that you would be using to write something new in Spanish. It's self-defeating, in a way. But then, when I see the translations they do, I get so upset that I say, “No, I don't want anything else translated. I want to do it myself.” So I haven't tried to have anything else translated, especially the poetry.
Are you still writing poetry?
Yes, I have a book of poems and short stories which is coming out in Mexico. It's called “The Two Venices” [Las dos Venecias], but it isn't going to be translated for a while.
Let's talk about that memoir you mentioned. What is it about?
It's called Eccentric Neighborhoods. I got the idea one day when I went to visit my mother's tomb in the Cemetery of Old San Juan. This cemetery is next to the walls of the Old City, next to a very violent slum, where only drug addicts and criminals live, and also next to the sea. Why was she buried there, in such a strange place, that did not have anything to do with her? And I got to thinking of all the places she had lived in which had led her to lie there; and the idea of writing her life talking about them came to me. I wanted to combine threads so it was not just the story of her life, but also the story of those neighborhoods she had lived in—the type of thing Naguib Mahfouz does in his books about Cairo's neighborhoods, like Miramar [Heinemann (London), 1978]. It's a fictional memoir—I have done some research into what was happening at the time, but I've made up a lot of things, because the people I'm writing about are all dead. So I have been making up their lives, in a way.
In writing a memoir, are you doing anything different from what you do in writing fiction?
No, it's pretty traditional. Mahfouz has helped me a lot for this particular book. He has this style that goes very quickly through generations, giving little cameo portraits of people and sort of bringing it all together in a very exciting way.
Would you say something about “magical realism,” the term so often used to describe the work of certain Latin American writers? Is it a useful term and does it describe your work?
All writers are unhappy with reality and so they want to build a world where things are open to change. They have created a different space where they would like to be. All writing is, in that sense, a meeting of reality but also an escaping of it.
In Latin American countries, magic is an everyday event; we hear people talk about how they were healed by the Virgin of the Well of Sabuna Grande, for example, a small town on the southern coast where the Virgin appears every Saturday. I believe being an underdeveloped nation has to do with this; people still have faith; they believe in “wonders.” This is what is called magical realism, as opposed to the concept of the fantastic, which is an inner phenomenon. The fantastic, as Poe understood it, deals with the subconscious, with the nearness of madness. Our vision is altered, much like what the Surrealists believed, and we see things in a different way. But that doesn't mean they exist this way in the outside world. In magical realism miracles do happen, and our literature takes part in them.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4601
SOURCE: “Porcelain Face / Rotten Flesh: The Doll in Papeles de Pandora,” in Chasqui, Vol. 23, No. 2, November, 1994, pp. 95–101.
[In the following essay, Rivera discusses various uses of the doll motif in the stories and poems of Papeles de Pandora, particularly as a means of defense against patriarchal elements for female characters.]
“En esta casa las mujeres hablan cuando las gallinas mean,” says Don Julio de la Valle to his wife in Maldito amor (24). This popular saying summarizes the silent role that has been prescribed for women in Puerto Rican social, political, economic, and religious institutions. Hélène Cixous warns us that women have been silent for a long time: “Muffled throughout their history, they have lived in dreams, in bodies (though muted), in silences, in aphonic revolts” (886). She believes that the repression of language and feminine sexuality go hand in hand and that the only way for women to have their own voices, their own discourse, is by claiming their bodies: “By writing her self, woman will return to the body which has been more than confiscated from her … Censor the body and you censor breath and speech at the same time” (880).
Rosario Ferré uses the doll motif in Papeles de Pandora to epitomize the passive, mute role to which women have been reduced in Puerto Rican society. Lucía Guerra-Cunningham explains how the doll is a metaphor for “la pasividad, la ornamentación artificial, y la enajenación de la realidad histórica” (17). Yet, Ferré's dolls begin to rot, to suppurate, as if they are being eaten inside by the monsters of anger and desire. In fact, many critics have pointed to the level of anger that permeates this collection of short stories. Ferré discusses her use of anger and irony in her critical essays, Sitio a Eros: “La ira de este libro sirvió un doble propósito: por un lado arremetió contra la mudez impuesta por nuestra sociedad sobre ciertos temas hasta entonces considerados tabús …, y por otro lado atacaba también el terror que yo sentía ante mi propia mudez, ante mi propia inclinación a censurar lo que necesitaba desesperadamente decir” (194). In a previous essay in the same book, she insists that in order to be authentic contemporary women writers need to explore their own sexuality: “Tendrán que aprender a examinar su propio erotismo y a derivar de su sexualidad toda una vitalidad latente y pocas veces explotada. Tendrán que aprender a explorar su ira y su frustración así como sus satisfacciones ante el hecho de ser mujer” (Sitio 16).
The rotting doll then is introduced as a metaphor of the anger and frustration that are consuming women inside. This apparently inoffensive toy also allows women to rebel against the roles imposed by society and to use their passivity as a weapon.
In “La muneca menor,” anger is symbolized by the river prawn that lodges itself in the aunt's calf immobilizing her. Her leg begins to rot and a viscous substance forms over the wound. From underneath her beautiful dress, one can smell the rotting fruit. Unable to marry and satisfy her sensuality, the aunt fulfills her reproductive role by producing dolls that duplicate the growth of her nieces. As they marry, she gives each one a doll to take with them. The youngest niece marries the doctor's son who is also a doctor. As this doll sits on the piano so does the bride in the balcony every afternoon, proudly displayed by her husband as his newest possession. At first, one might interpret the girl's silent sittings as total acquiescence to her husband's wishes. But as Debra Castillo suggests, passive behavior can become a woman's weapon of subversion: “The revolutionary response to silencing is resemanticization: to use silence as a weapon (to resort to silence) or to break silence with hypocrisy” (38-39). By transforming herself into exactly what her husband wants, a doll, the girl succeeds in disturbing the young doctor, who becomes concerned that she does not appear to be breathing. At the end of the story, as he examines her sleeping, she opens her eyes to reveal the infuriated prawns within. The feminine figures of aunt, wife, doll, and nature have all become one, and, after years of frustrations, they cannot hide their anger any more.
In “Amalia,” the line between the child and doll which has the same name, is further blurred. In a stream of consciousness with shifting focalization reminiscent of Fuentes' La muerte de Artemio Cruz, we encounter a young girl constantly trying to escape to the forbidden garden where she lies down like a “rag doll,” facing the sun until she begins to sweat: “se acuesta en el piso ardiendo como una cualquiera, como una desvergonzada, ensuciándose el traje blanco y las medias blancas y los zapatos blancos, … ver el agua que le sale por todas partes como si fuera una vejiga y no una nina …” (55). Later on, Amalia, the child/doll, begins to melt and to reveal the metallic grid underneath. She vomits blood full of rage because the other dolls play games of setting the table for the male guests. Her mother and uncle are appalled by her curiosity about her bodily functions and her wrath which they consider shameful and abnormal for a good, decent girl. Luce Irigaray explains how even today women are forbidden to explore and express their own sexuality and desires: “Feminine pleasure has to remain inarticulate in language, in its own language, if it is not to threaten the underpinnings of logical operations. And so what is most strictly forbidden to women today is that they should attempt to express their own pleasure” (77).
It is not forbidden, however, for the uncle to look at young Amalia as a sexual object. He tries to inculcate in her the appropriate sexual behavior by giving her a doll dressed as a bride. He also provides her with “role models” by bringing three young girls into the house as maids. He buys them perfume, jewelry, and pays them to go to the beauty salon to fix themselves. Their purpose is to “entertain” the diplomats and military men that come at night. Amalia receives three more dolls and she names them María, Adela, and Leonor after the three maids.
In spite of the uncle's generosity, all the women in the house are attracted to Gabriel, the sensuously rhythmic black chauffeur. Amalia is also attracted by him and his singing. When she is twelve, she asks her uncle for a boyfriend for Amalia, the doll. Pleased that the girl has finally begun to understand her social roles, the uncle gives her a blond male doll in a military uniform with eagle insignias resembling his. Amalia manages to hide her horror, realizing that it is a suggestion to the incestuous relation her uncle has in mind.1 That same afternoon, he takes her out to the garden, sits next to her, puts his arms around her, and, while he talks, starts fondling her breasts. Her reaction is one of hate and “shouting” her repudiation of everything he stands for and expects from her. It is her sweat that becomes a defensive weapon against her uncle's advances. Noticing sweat stains in her blouse, the uncle retrieves his hand immediately. Her natural body fluids scare him away.
Amalia refuses to have her body silenced and realizes that the recognition of her sexual desires towards Gabriel has given her freedom: “Amalia subía y bajaba por todas las galerías en completa libertad” (62). Her newfound freedom also has given her strength and determination: “desde que Gabriel te cantó te pusiste atrevida y desvergonzada, desde entonces fuíste libre, sabías lo que querías y nada que tú quisieras se te hubiese podido impedir” (64). Amalia recognizes the sad condition of the rest of the dolls in the house: “estaban regordetas y conformes … eran después de todo sólo munecas plásticas de esas hechas en serie, made in taiwan, con el orín aguado y las vocecitas de batería y el pelo plateado de nilo” (64). It is hard to tell whether she is talking about the dolls or about the maids with their artificial attire and frosted hair.
Underneath their apparent passivity and conformity, the women/dolls begin to usurp military male authority. Amalia, listening to her uncle's conversations with a general, engages in a game of imitating military commands: “Yo los escuchaba sin comprender lo que estaban hablando, pero cuando los oía cogía a mis munecas y las ponía en fila, hagan fila, orden, orden, a-t-t-ention, pero las munecassoldadosninosmuertos no me hacían caso se empenaban en apinarse a orillas de los caminos ofreciéndo sus cerebros abiertos como ramos a los caminantes que no se los querían comprar” (60). Irigaray suggests that one of the first recourses a woman has to find means of expression within masculine discourse is “mimicry”: “To play with mimesis is thus, for a woman, to try to recover the place of her exploitation by discourse, without allowing herself to be simply reduced to it” (76). María, Adela, and Leonor, like Amalia, resort to mimic male authoritative songs to raise themselves above their sexual exploitation. While playing sexual games with the uniformed guests, the maids intonate and parody the Puerto Rican national anthem:
“Y la María la Adela y la Leonor a carcajada limpia coreando oh tierra de borinquen donde he nacido yo, reptando como jutías por encima de las butacas y de los sofás, tierra de miss universo la isla de marisol, tomando champán en zapatos de escarcha azul, desfilando desnudas … cuando a sus playas llegó colón, aguantándose la risa dentro de las tripas, exclamó lleno de admiración FO! FO! FO! acariciando a los militares y a los embajadores con manos de mayonesa y unas de guanábana,”
(the emphasis of the lyrics is mine, 61).2
As in “La muneca menor,” the doll in this story is used to underline the traditional roles imposed on women while at the same time it subverts them. The uncle initially gives Amalia a doll dressed as a bride and later gives her a male doll both clearly indicating his expectations from her. Amalia appropriates these dolls as she explores and expresses her sexuality through them. The bridal gown of the female doll is immediately changed for mourning attire. The blond male doll is painted black and his uniform altered so that it looks like Gabriel: “Entonces lo vestiste con un uniforme muy sencillo, casi de mecánico, y le pusiste su gorra con viscera de charol” (65). That afternoon, the uncle and the maids are shocked to find the two dolls hugging inside the box. The man that had insinuated incest is now scandalized when confronted with Amalia's sexual attraction to the black chauffeur. In a rage, the uncle calls her a whore and throws her out of the house and into the garden. Amalia, finally left alone with her own sexuality, lies in the openness of the garden, spreading her legs, and melting away in the heat. Rather than joining the maids to entertain the generals or becoming a toy for her uncle's sexual games, she dissolves in her own fluidity.
If Amalia constantly attempts to escape the suffocating atmosphere of the dark home, Marina, the protagonist of “Marina y el león,” literally jumps out of a sealed plastic box. She arrives at a costume ball dressed as a doll inside the box: “Se mandó a hacer un precioso vestido de muneca, con mitones de perlas y zapatillas de raso con grandes lazos blancos en las puntas. La metieron en una caja forrada de seda y envuelta en papel celofán” (91). Marina stands there looking at the party through the plastic wrap, realizing that her whole life looks to her as distant and alienated as the scene in front of her. All of a sudden, she panics thinking that her grand entrance could be ruined if people mistake the box for a luxurious casket. Doll and dead woman become one and the same.
With her husband in a mental institution, Marina lives with her brother-in-law, Marco Antonio, and helps him by playing the perfect hostess to his business associates. His wife, Madeleine, formerly Pepita, a poor girl from town with her “pechos resonantes dentro de la ajustada poloshirt, de ojos engastados en elaboradas pestanas de oro” (94–95), is more suited for sexual partner than for social lady. If Amalia's uncle was turned off by her sweat, Marco Antonio is aroused seeing his naked wife feeding raw steaks to a lion they keep at home with the blood running down her abdomen and between her legs. Although initially scared by the animal, Marina recognizes its power as an aphrodisiac. Confronted with the eroticism of her brother-in-law and his wife, Marina feels once again like the doll at the party, totally alienated and lonely: “Es como si la estuviera sonando, se dijo, mi vida toda es como la veo ahora … como si todavía estuviese metida dentro de aquella caja la noche de mi baile, viendo pasar el mundo, lejano y reluciente, cubierto por una capa de barniz” (95). Ferré plays with the word “caja” (box) which immediately reminds us of the beautiful doll case of the beginning but also signifies “caja de muerto” (casket). The momentary fear Marina has at the party of being mistaken for a dead woman in a casket is reinforced throughout the story by references to her state of alienation and moving around the house with “piel de vidrio,” as if she were a living dead.
Castillo explains how a woman can use such distance and silence to her advantage:
A woman who is neither passive nor accepting may yet preserve the advantage of distance and silence for her own reasons, using distance to her advantage, using the mask of silence to slip away. Silence, once freed from the oppressive masculinist-defined context of aestheticized distance and truth and confinement and lack, can be reinscribed as a subversive feminine realm.
Marina, then, chooses to amble through Marco Antonio's house and the garden as a mute, indifferent figurine, almost as if she were in a daze while exploring her sexuality in dreams of a tropical garden, with tropical birds and trees on fire. Marco Antonio, in the meantime, is busy building fences and walls all around and reducing the garden to a barren landscape covered with cement dust. Guerra-Cunningham suggests that such cement barriers represent the prohibitions and limitations imposed by society (18). Yet, it is to “el silencio del jardín” that Marina finally draws both the lion and Marco Antonio. It is here where they finally satisfy their desire and break the social and moral conventions: “Se acostaron sobre el charco de pétalos desparramados por el polvo como si se acostaran sobre su propia sangre, … ella le enroscó al cuello las lenguas de papel de seda púrpura de los capullos para divertirlo, para demostrarle cómo era que se hacía el amor en el mundo antes de que él lo convirtier en un paraíso de nieve y yeso” (99). Marina finally recognizes her own sexual desires and steps out of the artificial plastic box into a jungle of natural passions. She kills the lion, which she recognizes as a symbol of Marco Antonio's power, thus empowering herself sexually and becoming the teacher. Ironically, the dust garden becomes both the “caja” for Marina's doll-like figure and the casket for the lovers' bodies who are discovered the next day after an apocalyptic fire destroys the house.
In the stories that do not have the duality of doll/woman, female characters are introduced dressing and undressing as if they were toys. Among these narratives, “La Bella Durmiente” stands out because of the multiplicity of roles adopted by the protagonist, María de los Angeles, and the various ways in which she uses such traditional elements as fairy tales and classical ballet to usurp those roles.
The story is divided into three sections named after three classical ballets: Coppelia, Sleeping Beauty, and Giselle. A proper girl, educated in a Catholic school, María de los Angeles loves more than anything to dance. Both her father and the mother superior condone her desire only as long as it is ballet. Soon, however, she starts subverting these classical ballet roles. During a performance of Coppelia, we are told how Swanilda (María) takes the doll “va martillando uno por uno todos sus miembros hasta dejar sobre la mesa un montón de polvo.”3 In the scene where Swanilda pretends that the doll has come back to life, María de los Angeles goes into a frenzy: “Comenzó a girar vertiginosamente por la habitación, decapitando munecos, reventando relojes, haciendo todo el tiempo un ruido espantoso con la boca” (124). At the end of that performance, she jumps over the orchestra into the hall and goes out into the street still dancing. María de los Angeles refuses to stay on stage for the final act of the ballet, the wedding!
In the second part, entitled “Sleeping Beauty,” we encounter María de los Angeles who has been in a coma for ten days. In the ballet, the fairy Carabosse curses the baby princess so that she will grow to be “a beautiful dead princess” (Balanchine's 340). The Lilac Fairy modifies the curse so that the princess will be merely asleep only to be awakened by the kiss of the prince. María de los Angeles is indeed awakened by a boyfriend/prince, not because of his kiss but rather because of his promise to let her dance: “despiértate mi amor ahora vas a poder bailar todo lo que tú quieras porque han pasado ya cien anos y ya se han muerto tus padres ya se han muerto las resenadoras sociales las damas de sociedad las monjas de colegio ahora vas a poder bailar para siempre porque te vas a casar conmigo” (132). María de los Angeles can only exist in a world where the people that constantly inhibit her are dead. Unfortunately, this is not possible and she finally fulfills her role in her most literal sense. Her father describes her funeral to the mother superior: “Los que la habían visto bailar comentaban extasiados que no parecía muerta, sino dormida, representando por última vez su papel de la Bella Durmiente” (146).
It is as Giselle, however, that María de los Angeles most definitely usurps the classical role. Unlike the ballet character, María de los Angeles wants to become a “wilis” (girls who rise from their graves in the evening to dance) so that she can dance forever. In the ballet, the protagonist does not suspect that Loys/Albrecht has been deceiving her. María de los Angeles, on the other hand, suspects from the beginning that Felisberto/Loys will go back on his promise:
Gisèlle piensa que Loys dejará de amarla porque ella es astuta … Loys siempre ha tenido éxito en todas sus empresas y no ha de aceptar que Gisèlle se le escape así porque sí se ha empenado en seguirla para tratar de quitarle su traje blanco … para después prenarla meterle un hijo dentro de su vientre delgadísimo de clepsidra quitarle su ligereza de gota de agua ensancharle sus caderas de semilla ya fofas y abiertas para que ella no pueda jamás volver a ser una willis.
In the classical story, once Giselle becomes a wilis, she protects Albrecht and saves his life. María de los Angeles not only fabricates her own death but she brings Felisberto, her husband, into it.
Aside from the classical roles previously discussed, María de los Angeles tries other customs (as devoted daughter, virginal bride, and mother) but none of these roles satisfies her and she constantly rebels against them. For example, when her son is born, she refuses to have him baptized or to allow her parents to visit him. She finds refuge in a rundown motel, where she prances naked, practicing acrobatic steps. It is only when she sheds her clothes and hurls her naked body into the air defying the laws of gravity as well as the laws of society, that she feels free and happy, if only for a fleeting moment.
Unfortunately, María de los Angeles never finds her own voice for herself and her sexuality. Irigaray explains how “woman does not have access to language, except through recourse to ‘masculine’ systems of representation which disappropriate her from her relation to herself and to other women” (85). It is not surprising then, that her whole story is presented through the correspondence among her father, her husband, and the mother superior (an asexual creature representing the masculine authority of the Church). These three “male” figures go back and forth discussing María de los Angeles' behavior and her future. Her father, disappointed by having a daughter instead of a son, wants her to marry and have a son to inherit the family fortune. The mother superior would like her to become a nun, and her husband would like her to be the dutiful wife and perfect hostess to his business associates. Not once is she asked for her opinion.
As Irigaray suggests, María de los Angeles resorts to mimicry of the masculine discourse of letter-writing in order to gain control over her life, even if it means only to bring about her death. Jean Franco argues that she “fabricates her own death by writing anonymous letters to her husband in which she encourages him to believe that she is being unfaithful” (112). Compared to the lengthy epistles among the other three characters, we have only two short notes written by María de los Angeles in which she proclaims her sexuality by denouncing the (fictitious) adulterous relationship taking place in a cheap motel. Whether we take into account the dates in the Spanish text with its inconsistencies or the dates in the subsequent translation,4 the husband pays little if any attention to these notes, denying credibility to a text obviously written by a woman.
María de los Angeles also adopts the religious discourse of the Catholic church in order to subvert her role as pious woman and arouse herself sexually. During her sexual encounter with a man she has just picked up on the street corner, she begins to recite loud prayers: “Se acuerda de cómo, durante el acto sexual, se había puesto a repetir en voz alta la oración preferida de Mater, bendita sea tu pureza, y el efecto afrodisíaco que esto le había causado” (151). Profaning the sacred prayers of a patriarchal religious institution originally intended to lead one into a mystical ecstasy, María de los Angeles uses these words to proclaim her sexual desires and to procure her own pleasure. Yet, her victory is short-lived; since she dies minutes later at the hands of her jealous husband. Since María de los Angeles is denied all means of expressing her self, whether it is dancing or writing, there is no other alternative for her but to cease to exist. At her death, her parents once more reduce her to a doll-like figure as they dress her in her bridal gown so that she can perform the role of Sleeping Beauty one more time.
The theme of women trying to shed clothing that constrains their sexuality and attempting to find expression for their desires and anger is underscored by the poems included in Papeles de Pandora. In “Eva María,” the woman complains about the dual role of seductress (Eve) and mother (Virgin Mary) imposed on her by society. She has tried to fulfill the patriarchal expectations by being good, deaf, mute, and blind. At the end of the poem, she finally chooses the stream of blood and the soil in her hands, and subverts the role of motherhood by strangling her own child. In “La bailarina,” a poem that fittingly introduces the story “La Bella Durmiente,” dancing becomes the expression of anger. Society once again tries to put a gag in the woman's mouth and to dress her body in constraining apparel: high heels, handbags, and gloves. Like the other female characters, “la bailarina” cannot go on in silence denying who she is: “te levantaste gritando no puedo / vomitando carteras tacos joyas guantes / arrastrando tu ira por todas las calles / gritando aunque me duela y el nino llore yo bailo” (210).
Rosario Ferré recognizes the limitations and frustrations of finding an authentic voice both as a woman and as an artist. In Papeles de Pandora, anger begins to corrode the passivity of the female characters in their doll-like roles. These four characters (the young niece, Amalia, Marina, and María de los Angeles) begin to use their mute and passive behavior as weapons against those who impose such silence and traditional roles on them. Ferré seems to warn her readers that when a woman's voice and sexuality is confined and “gagged” by male oppression, she begins to rot and smell as decomposed flesh beneath the ever passive beauty of her porcelain face.
At the beginning of the story we encounter the family doctor making inquiries about Amalia's genetic degenerative condition and whether there have been instances of incest in the family that might have caused such illness.
Notice how Ferré has the characters altering the lyrics to subvert their political power. The proper nouns of Borinquen (indigenous name of the island) and Colón (referring to Columbus) are reduced to the level of common nouns, “marisol” is a pun on the name of a former Miss Universe, Marisol Malarel, and the combination of the words “mar y sol” in the national anthem. The final quotation is altered so that instead of exclamating OH! OH! OH! about the beauty of the island, we have the expletive “FO! FO! FO!” to underline the stinking reality of the country.
In the original ballet, Swanilda simply takes the doll's clothes and leaves the toy in a closet (Balanchine's 100-01).
In the original Spanish version, Ferré has the anonymous letters dated September 28 and October 5, 1972. These dates are inconsistent with the other dates given in the non-chronological organization of the letters, since it would appear that she was pregnant. Felisberto writes to his father-in-law on May 30, 1973 to inform him of the anonymous letters he has been receiving and to say that he will go the next day to the hotel to investigate. In her own translation of the story, Ferré corrects the dates to May 21 and May 29, 1973, six months after the birth of María de los Angeles's son. Felisberto's letter is dated December 20, 1973. In both versions, it takes the husband seven months to take the letters seriously.
Balanchine, George. Balanchine's Complete Stories of the Great Ballet. Ed. Francis Mason. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1954.
Castillo, Debra. Talking Back. Toward a Latin American Feminist Literary Criticism. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1992.
Cixous, Hélène. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Trans. by Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen. Signs 1.4 (Summer 1976): 875–894.
Ferré, Rosario. Maldito Amor. 2da. ed. Rio Piedras, P.R.: Huracán, 1991.
———. Papeles de Pandora. 1976. Rio Piedras: Huracán, 1991.
———. Sitio a Eros. 2nd ed. Mexico City: Mortiz, 1980.
———. The Youngest Doll. Foreword Jean Franco. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1991.
Guerra-Cunningham, Lucía. “Tensiones paradójicas de la femineidad en la narrativa de Rosario Ferré.” Chasqui 13.2–3 (Febrero–Mayo 1984): 13–25.
Irigaray, Luce. This Sex Which Is Not One. Trans. Catherine Porter and Carolyn Burke. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5689
SOURCE: “Rosario Ferré's ‘La muneca menor’ and Caribbean Myth,” in Chasqui, Vol. 23, No. 2, November, 1994, pp. 102–10.
[In the following essay, Zee elucidates the references and allusions to indigenous Caribbean cultural and mythological traditions in “La muneca menor.”]
There have been numerous studies of Rosario Ferré's short story “La muneca menor,” the first piece in Papeles de Pandora (1976). While many of these studies are insightful as regards both the fantastic aspects of the work and the feminist quality which underlies it, to date no examination has been made of the indigenous cultural and mythological references and allusions which are pervasive throughout. I should like to investigate Ferré's use of Caribbean/Greater Antilles traditions, customs and mythology, which will serve to contextualize and further elucidate one of the finest stories of the fantastic mode in the Spanish language.
Lucía Guerra-Cunningham explains Ferré's often generous use of specifically Puerto Rican imagery and vocabulary, and helps us understand why the author has turned to Taino mythology in order to address twentieth-century issues and propose solutions:
el sometimiento de lo natural y autóctono … debiera ser recibido … con ira que conduzca a la acción y la rebelión. En este sentido la oposición entre los elementos típicos de la flora y fauna de Puerto Rico y el poder foráneo se relaciona con la homología histórica establecida entre el poder imperialista y el país sub-desarrollado donde éste ha impuesto su hegemonía. La aniquilación de lo primitivo y natural en un intento por subyugar económica y culturalmente en nombre de la civilización, se presenta … desde la perspectiva del dominado quien concibe el consumismo, la dependencia cultural y la tecnología como manifestaciones de una estructura de poder que aniquila el verdadero ser.
A return to the indigenous, the authentic, empowers the oppressed and the neglected with a sense of identity, self-worth and ultimately power which enables them to proclaim autonomy and/or to exact revenge.1
“La muneca menor” refers to various concrete images and traditions native to Puerto Rico. The use of a specific myth generally “provides for a more tailored approach to the fantastic,” furnishing a means of identification between author, culture and [implied] reader (Flesca 43). Rosario Ferré draws from Taino myths and her own family history in order to create a tale in which native albeit anachronistic belief systems help to empower a marginal group, in this case women (Franco, “Beyond” 61). In this way, Ferré is able to address two of her preferred topics of interest: Puerto Rico and women.
Taino myths provide the aunt (and the youngest daughter) with the means of recovering a past more favorable for women. As we shall see, Taino women exercised a great deal more control within their own society than they would have in the turn-of-the-century society portrayed in “La muneca menor,” although numerous social structures are shared by the Tainos and the characters in “La muneca menor.” Taino society was essentially matriarchal, and most ceremonial, artistic and community activities were controlled and/or carried out by the women. The line of succession was also determined by the women, and there were cases of female caciques among the Tainos (Pichardo Moya 17, 116). In “La muneca menor,” the aunt is the central point around which family activity revolves. She performs as surrogate mother for her nine nieces and serves as a constant reminder of what the family had once been, thereby preventing them, for better or worse, from recognizing their degeneration.2 She also provides a line of succession, albeit through generations of chágaras.3
The aunt, when young, was bitten on the calf by a chágara while she was bathing in the river. The chágara imbedded itself in her leg, which swelled to enormous proportions and emitted a fragrance of guanábana, and remained there after a doctor told her it could not be removed. As she was unable to marry, she resided with her family and dedicated her time to the fabrication of dolls in the likeness of her nine nieces, producing one per year for each niece, until they married, when they would be presented with a final, elaborately constructed doll. Finally, there was only one niece left. The aunt, who had long ago sat down on the balcony never to rise again, had continued to be seen first by the same doctor who had diagnosed her condition as incurable, and later by his son, who recognized his father's “error” (a deliberate deception which paid for the son's medical studies). The son married the youngest daughter and brought her, and her wedding-day doll, to town, where he forced her to sit on the balcony in full view of the public as evidence of his rise in social stature. The doll, whose diamond-encrusted eyes he had stolen and sold, disappeared, and his wife remained seated, eyes lowered, unchanged and unaging, on the balcony. At the end, intrigued by his wife's imperviousness to the passage of time, he placed his stethoscope on her chest at the same time that her eyes opened and furious chágaras emerged from the sockets.
The Puerto Rican essence of Rosario Ferré's work would, at first glance, appear to derive from the interspersing of place names, historical figures and Caribbean vocabulary. Throughout “La muneca menor” we find mention of chágaras, guanábanas, and higüeras; as we will see, these words were selected not for their local color but rather for their importance within Taino culture and mythology. While Yvette López, citing Jeanne Danos' La Poupée, Mythe vivante, has commented on the ritualistic functions and importance of dolls and the similarities between the aunt's ceremonial fabrication and conveyance of meaning to her dolls and those of many other cultures, there is no mention of the particularly Antillean context and interpretation of said ceremonies and rites. By considering and consulting traditional, non-Western sources, the work of Y. López and others can be augmented and supplemented, resulting in a more complete understanding of the imagery of “La muneca menor” and of the story itself.
The first indigenous reference which can be applied to “La muneca menor” comments on the miraculous procreative powers of the aunt, which are emblemized in her swollen calf. This motif recalls the miraculous creation of human beings from body parts that characterizes the native cosmogony of the Caribbean, and of North and South America, and which ultimately may be connected with the generation of manioc and its propagation through cuttings. A particularly striking published example of this comes from the Orinoco Basin.4 French anthropologist Jacques Lizot spent six years living among the Yanomami of this region and collected a number of myths and traditions from them, including the one which follows, and upon which “La muneca menor” would appear to have been based, entitled “El hombre de la pantorilla prenada”:
Antano no existían más que dos hombres. Eran ambos conotos y fue uno de ellos quien por primera vez salió encinta. No habían pensado en el lugar donde salen los excrementos: no habían pensado en la sodomía. Un día, uno de ellos dijo:
—¡Tengo ganas de hacer el amor!
E hizo el amor introduciendo el pene en el hueco de los dedos del pie.
La pantorilla de éste comenzó a crecer, justo en el lugar del músculo: la pantorilla estaba encinta. Pronto el músculo explotó para dar a luz un recién nacido. El que había engendrado preguntó:
—¿Es un varón?
—¡No, es una hembra!
Cortaron el cordón umbilical y el hombre cuya pantorrilla había explotado se acostó cerca de ella en su hamaca. La alimentó con agua. La hija creció y llegó muy pronto a la edad de la razón. El que la dio a luz y la nutrió la tomó por esposa.
Se instalaron juntos en el mismo fuego. La desfloró cuando tuvo sus reglas y ella no tardó en salir encinta. Tuvo una hija que el padre dio a su companero. Así los Yanomami proliferaron.
The similarities between the two stories are significant. The source of the aunt's reproductive powers came from the chágara which had embedded itself in her calf near the muscle, the same location from which the man had given birth. The vengeful chágaras that emerged from the empty eye sockets at the end of the story were the progeny of the original river chágara, the new generation which would proliferate just as the Yanomami had before them. It is therefore reasonable to conclude that the Yanomami myth may be considered as a source for the events transpiring in “La muneca menor,” and the Yanomami's status as possible forbearers of the Caribbean peoples merits the myth's inclusion within a discussion of Taino mythology.
An additional consideration is the relationship of the Yanomami birth myth to what Baruch and Rohrich call “modes of reproduction outside the natural” (xiii). They see the unusual procreative procedures mentioned in women's mythic and utopic writings as indicative of the precarious control that women have over their bodies in reality (xiv). Ferré's women are domestic fixtures, decorations, whose fates would have been entirely determined by their gender had it not been for an accident of nature (in the guise of a chágara). The chágara's residence in the aunt's calf was prolonged by the doctor in whom the aunt and her family trusted, never suspecting that he would abuse his position of confidence. The aunt's physical well-being was manipulated, as would her niece's physical and emotional condition later be by the doctor's son. The rebirth of their female independence, and their revenge upon those who had controlled them, is initiated by the emergence of the chágaras through the eye sockets—as unusual a reproductive procedure as from the leg. Ancient myths equated women with nature, giving them power and influence with the animal, mineral and vegetable kingdoms (Richter 13). It is with the help of nature (woman + chágara) that Ferré's women are able to regain control.
The correspondence of the Yanomami creation myth to La muneca menor strongly suggests that Ferré was aware of the tradition and adapted it for the purposes of her story. There are various other cultural elements which appear throughout La muneca menor which seem to indicate that the author's nostalgia for Puerto Rico's past glories extended beyond turn of the century aristocracies to the customs and traditions of the original inhabitants, free from both North American and European influences. These customs are specifically Caribbean, primarily Taino, and will be shown to have analogous components within the actions and circumstances surrounding the aunt, the youngest daughter, the dolls and the chágara.
The dolls, their manufacture, their significance and their storage can be shown to correlate with the Taino custom of fabricating cemis.5 A cemi (or zemi), first described by Fray Ramón Pané in his Relación acerca de las antigüedades de los indios (1498) as “los ídolos que [los taínos] tienen en casa” (21), may be thought of as a stone6 idol representing deities personifying the earth, sun, water, wind, life, death, etc., and serving as a sacred medium allowing the power of the numinous to flow from the spirit world out into human experience and from human need into the cosmos. They also represented abstract divinities, local spirits, deceased family members and natural phenomena (Cassá 151; Fernández Méndez; 20; Stevens-Arroyo 60). Most cemis were manufactured according to supernatural dictates and “were representatives of the dramatis personae of dreams and visions” (Steward and Faron 220). The person, force or spirit to be represented in the cemi can therefore be said to have been conceptualized at an extra-sensory level/super-human plane, dictated from on high. There is a clear connection between the routine preceding the fabrication of a cemi and that which occasioned the construction of a doll. Just as the chiefs dreamed and created as per the dictates of their religious beliefs, so too did the aunt, for whom “[el] nacimiento de una muneca era siempre motivo de regocijo sagrado” (10). The cemis were not constructed on a whim; the person, object or force dreamed or hallucinated was predestined as a model. So too were the nieces of the aunt: “cuando se despertaba con ganas de hacer una muneca … llamaba a su habitación a la nina con la que había sonado esa noche y le tomaba las medidas” (11). Obviously the aunt had in mind more than a capricious life-sized chronology of the growth patterns of her nieces; she (and Ferré) must have been aware of the existence and power of the cemis, and of the power of those who created them.7
As has been previously mentioned, there are several interpretations of the significance and importance of the cemis. Some believe that “cada indígena tenía su propio cemí, pudiendo vérselo como espíritus protectores del individuo e incluso como un desdoblamiento espiritual del mismo” (Cassá 152). Each creator of a cemi could thus be envisioning said creation as a replica of his or her personality, soul and/or spiritual essence. In the eyes of her family, the aunt must have appeared to be an eccentric old woman, living out her maternal inclinations through her nieces and the construction of their likenesses. It should be remembered, however, that as each niece married and left home she was handed her wedding doll with the words “Aquí tienes tu Pascua de Resurrección.” As we near the conclusion of the story, witnessing the gradual transformation of the youngest daughter, we begin to suspect that what will resurrect will be the aunt; when the unscrupulous doctor is confronted by the furious chágaras emerging from the youngest daughter's wedding doll, there is little doubt that this supposition is confirmed. The chágara had, throughout the story, been associated with the aunt, as had the dolls; the juxtaposition of chágaras and the doll in the final scene of the story can only be the spiritual doubling of the aunt emerging to exact revenge on the doctor's father for his failure to cure her, and on him for the liberties taken with her niece.
Cemis were said to serve and maintain the social equilibrium of the individual and his or her group, along with protecting the prestige of the community. They were also thought to guarantee the position of the chiefs or caciques of the populace (Cassá 155). The aunt's dolls were perceived in much the same way by her family, and later by the younger doctor, although to a different degree. The aunt, who constructed dolls for every niece for the first eighteen years of their lives, would have eventually made 162 dolls. Although the family fell on hard times, the aunt did not cease the practice, nor did the family sell off the dolls, which would have been of some value, particularly the wedding dolls, which had “skin” of Mikado porcelain and fine embroidered clothing. The presence of the dolls in the house enabled the family to maintain a semblance of its former aristocratic position and overlook its present dilapidated surroundings, as they were “rodeada de un pasado que dejaba desintegrar a su alrededor con la misma impasible musicalidad con que la lámpara de cristal del comedor se desgranaba a pedazos sobre el mantel raído de la mesa” (10).
While the dolls stood in marked contrast to the family's fall from its former splendor, they, or rather it—the youngest daughter's wedding doll—represented just the opposite for the younger doctor. The doll, particularly its jewel-encrusted eyes, facilitated his rise in station within the community, and the presence of the doll reminded all who saw it that he had married into society. It is evident that the dolls were to be considered in the same way as the cemis—as a measure of security for the individual and a means of protection for his or her own social status and that of their family.
Finally, there is a conspicuous similarity between the placement and upkeep of the cemis and that of the dolls. While commoners housed their cemis in their own dwellings, the chiefs kept theirs in special temples outside the village (Steward and Faron 250). Therefore the more important cemis were allocated their own particular space or realm. The same holds true for the dolls. As the number of dolls increased over the years (9 nieces x 1 doll/year), “hubo que separar una pieza de la casa para que la habitasen exclusivamente las munecas” (10). The room's sacrosanct function—safeguarding the past of each member of the family and of the clan as a whole—is akin to the cemis' role as protectors of the well-being and survival of the community.
Ferré confers a certain degree of importance on the aunt's chair, and mentions it repeatedly throughout the text, usually in relation to the fabrication of dolls (“La tía vieja había sacado desde muy temprano el sillón al balcón … como hacía siempre que se despertaba con ganas de hacer una muneca” 9). While the chair may be perceived as a throne, as is generally the case with, for example, García Márquez's matriarchs, it may also correspond to a duho, described by Fernández Méndez as the benches of the chief citizens. It would appear that Ferré has attributed a greater importance to this chair than that of a mere ceremonial resting place. Her three principal female characters—the aunt, the youngest daughter, and the wedding doll—are presented only in a seated position. While critics have interpreted this as indicative of women's [imposed] passivity, this may be only partially correct (See Yvette López, Explicación de Textos Literarios 11.1; Lucía Guerra-Cunningham, Chasqui 13.2–3; Margarita Fernández Olmos, Homines 8.2; Jean Franco, The Minnesota Review 22). Upon examining Oviedo's interpretation (found in the Historia General vol. 1, p. 125) of the significance of the duho—“que no está solo él que se sienta, sino él su adversario”—Fernando Ortiz expands Oviedo's definition:
dando a entender que en el dujo estaba el demonio, representado de tal manera que quien se acomodara en aquel escabel sagrado lo compartía con el poderoso espíritu invisible; es decir, que el dujo era asiento o habitáculo del ser sobrenatural.
The aunt's insistence on remaining seated while constructing the dolls, the dolls' seated pose (“sobre la cola del piano” 12), the youngest daughter's years of sitting alone on the balcony (“inmóvil dentro de sus gasas y encajes, siempre con los ojos bajos” 15), and the final revenge on the part of the fused personality of all three, would suggest that there is indeed something diabolical or supernatural in their chairs. The youngest daughter shares the powerful invisible spirit of her aunt and her symbiotic chágara, and also the spirit of the wedding doll with which she would eventually fuse.
The cemis imbued the Tainos with a fundamentally optimistic world view, free from the foreboding and dread which characterized some other indigenous populations (Stevens-Arroyo 60).8 They did not perceive an unbridgeable gulf between them and their spirits, because the spirits were thought to be present and accessible within the cemis. The aunt too enjoyed the optimism felt by those who know themselves to be invincible; the resurrection promised to each niece on her wedding day in truth was to be her own. The aunt, in collaboration with the demon spirit in her duho, assured herself of immortality by fashioning dolls which would propagate by means of the chágaras, thereby assuring the proliferation of her own being.
The Tainos placed great importance on their lineage, and venerated their ancestors to the point of conserving their bones (Alegría 150). Pané recalled that this act of preservation dates back to Yaya, the Supreme Spirit, and his son Yayael; upon learning of his son's desire to kill him, “después su padre lo mató, y puso los huesos en una calabaza” (28). Arróm notes that due to a mistranslation on the part of a later transcriber of Pané's text, the Taino word güira was incorrectly identified; instead of a pumpkin, it in fact refers to a fig tree, higüera (Mitología, 65 n. 53). The bark of the fig tree was used to fashion a type of receptacle which would hold the remains of ancestors and community caciques. Pané continues: “Sucedió que un día, con deseo de ver a su hijo, Yaya … bajando la calabaza [higüera], la volcó para ver los huesos de su hijo. De la cual salieron muchos peces grandes y chicos” (28-29). One of the primary materials used in the construction of the aunt's dolls was the fig tree: “Para hacer el cuerpo, la tía enviaba al jardín por veinte higüeras relucientes” (11). And from the repository of the doll's body, filled with the essence of the higüeras, emerged the chágaras, not exactly fish, but nonetheless a water creature and certainly comparable.
The last form of creation intimated by Ferré's text is that of the yucca plant. Yucca or manioc was the principal source of food for the Tainos, as important for them as was maize for Mesoamerican peoples. The yucca, a tuber, reproduces asexually through its stalks, without seeds, bulbs, or runners. The chágara can also be said to have reproduced asexually, creating a colony of like creatures after years of solitude within the aunt's leg. Further evidence of a connection between the yucca and “La muneca menor” is Fray Bartolomé de las Casas' observation that “la yuca se sembraba … siguiendo la técnica de los montones … en cada montón colocaban nueve estacas” (in Cassá 39). Could the nine nieces of the aunt not be the nine yucca stalks, offshoots of the materfamilias who has spurned traditional male-female roles to take matters into her own hands?
Finally, as mentioned above, there are various life forms indigenous to Puerto Rico which would appear to lend a touch of local color but which are actually relevant to Taino mythology and the story at hand. The first is the chágara, also called guábara.9 While studies have explained the significance and importance of the chágara, no one has stopped to consider the fact that chágaras, small river shrimp or prawns, do not bite.10 Why, then, a chágara, and not a crab, water snake or some other aggressive and/or venomous water dweller? Eugenio Fernández Méndez's study of the art and mythology of the Tainos offers one possibility. He discusses the guábara, “a small shell fish which lives in burrows in the rivers,” as one of many Taino words containing the morpheme güa, meaning dark, shadowy or related to the night (44). The chágara emerged from its burrow in the river bed to form another in the calf of the aunt's leg, reproduced and flourished within the depths of the wedding doll, all of which are environs without light. The lack of light and the night have always been associated with the negative, the frightening, the menacing, the unknown. The darkness in which the chágara thrives is akin to the blackness of heart of the two doctors who took advantage of the aunt and the youngest daughter, and the blackness of the empty eye sockets out of which the chágaras crawled in search of revenge.
References to the aunt's swollen leg are generally accompanied by a description of the “perfume de guanábana madura que supuraba la pierna en estado de quietud” (10). The youngest daughter/doll who sat motionless on her balcony surrounded her guests with “un perfume particular que les hacía recordar involuntariamente la lenta supuración de una guanábana” (15). One could hardly conceive of a more innocuous fruit, or a more incongruous thought—what harm could a guanábana cause? The answer lies with Pedro Mártir de Angleria, one of the many editors of Pané's manuscripts. He explains that the Tainos “[p]iensan que los muertos vagan de noche y comen la fruta guannaba [sic]” (Pané 96). Therefore the guanábana, today sought after for its appetizing taste, was in the past associated with death, fear, and the living dead. The scent of guanábana emanating from first the aunt and later the youngest daughter is therefore far from a pleasant touch of Caribbean local color.
“La muneca menor” can be seen as a careful and deliberate fusion of traditional Taino imagery and myth with twentieth century concerns and forms. As a story in the fantastic mode, it exemplifies Rosemary Jackson's assertion that the fantastic is an inverted form of myth; it focuses upon the unknown within the present (as opposed to the past), discovering an emptiness inside an apparently full reality (158). The fantastic traces the “unsaid and the unseen of culture: that which has been silenced, made invisible, covered over and made ‘absent’” (Jackson 4). Ferré's portrayal of the silent, passive figure of the youngest daughter/doll corresponds to the traditional image of the submissive woman. This image is then subverted by the chágaras that emerge from the hollow eye sockets of the woman to exact revenge on he who had silenced her. The eyes, notable for their absence throughout the story, first when they are stolen from the doll and sold, and later when they are perpetually downcast by the youngest daughter, now may be seen as channels of aggression and threat. Although lowering the eyes is usually taken as a signal of submission, hostility may also be expressed by looking away when the usual response would be to look at the other person, thereby implying that he or she does not exist (Argyle and Cook 30, 74). The eyes of the youngest daughter which do not see, which do not look at her husband, do not acknowledge his existence, his supposed superiority and the presumed dominance of the cultural and societal forces which he represents. By fusing with the chágara the youngest daughter has entered the “wild zone,” that small zone that is exclusively female outside the boundaries of the dominant culture and reality that women share with men; in “La muneca menor” the zone is made even more wild by the imagery of a simple river crustacean which exposes and takes to task the male population for generations of patriarchal artifice, duplicity and abuse (Showalter 261–63; Bower 19–20).
This is similar to the political slogans of the Partido Popular Democrático in the 1940s. See Raymond Carr's study, Puerto Rico: A Colonial Experiment.
Within the poems and short stories of Papeles de Pandora one may find a variety of Afro-Indian references to older, mythical forms of motherhood where the image of “woman” may be seen to occupy a greater cosmic body as evinced by the allusions to legs as tree trunks in “Carta” (“mis piernas macizas troncos de caoba,” 122) or the “cuerpo jardín sellano/cuerpo huerto prometido” of “Eva María” (16).
Rosario Ferré explained in an April 1980 letter to Luz María Umpierre that “Las chágaras son unos camarones de río que existen en Puerto Rico, llamados también guábaras, que supongo ser un término de origen indígena. El término se emplea hoy en el campo, y yo lo recogí de esta fuente” (125, n. 9). The Diccionario Enciclopedia “UTEHA” defines it as “el crustáceo Atya scabra, de la familia de los átidos” (Tomo V. p. 848). The átidos, or atydae, are comprised of approximately 138 species, are primarily freshwater dwellers, range from a length of 4–124 mm., live in burrows and have great jumping abilities (Diccionario básico Espasa, Tomo I, p. 593; Parker 301).
Antonio M. Stevens-Arroyo traces the migratory patterns of the ancestors of the Tainos, who left the Orinoco Basin in 200 B.C., arriving in Puerto Rico approximately 400 years later. This area is presently inhabited by the Yanomami. He further notes linguistic variations, along with cultural and religious traits which “recall the Orinoco Basin origins of the Tainos” (26–27; 31)
The construction of a doll was an involved process, starting with a dream of whomever was to be the model, followed by the careful making of a wax life mask. Twenty fig trees were chopped down and their cotton-like insides scraped out, dried, and stuffed into the body of all of the dolls except the one received on the wedding day of the nieces, which was filled with honey.
There were also cemis made of wood, bone, cotton, clay and gold, but in general they were constructed of stone (Steward and Faron 250).
Ferré is not the only Caribbean author to make use of the cemi. The Cuban writer José Lezama Lima, obviously well-acquainted with indigenous traditions of the Greater Antilles, named the protagonist of his novel Paradiso José Cemí. There was much speculation on the part of critics as to the origin of the term when the book was first published; Haroldo de Campos declared that it was “una voluntaria anagramatización onomástica: Lezama Lima / ez-im / ce-mí (America Latina en su literatura p. 291); Jean Franco decided that cemi “deriva de sema o signo” (Vórtice 1.1); Mario Trajtenberg deduced that José Cemí was “un vasco con nombre yoruba” (Arbol de Letras 2.11). It was not until Juan José Arróm explained that “Al dar Lezama ese apellido al protagonista nos anticipa que no habrá de ser un personaje visto con pupila realista. … Por ello, quien lleva ese apellido es imagen, es mito” that the true significance of Cemí was uncovered (“Lo tradicional” 470). In all fairness to his colleagues. Arróm concedes that “Cemí es una palabra que debiera de haberse registrado desde hace tiempo en el Diccionario de la lengua espanola, pero precisamente es otra de las voces, de hondo arraigo antillano, que allí brillan por su ausencia” (“Lo tradicional” 469).
“Tainos found it possible to be intimate with the numinous. Cemies served as sacred mediums allowing the power of the numinous to flow in two directions; from the spirit world out into human experience, and from human need into the cosmos. Intimacy with the numinous contrasts markedly with Aztec fatalism before the unbridgeable gulf that separated them from their spirits. On account of this chasm, the Aztecs had a fundamentally pessimistic world view, full of foreboding and dread. Such was not the case with the Tainos and their cemis” (Stevens-Arroyo 60).
Most scientific reference texts prefer the term guábara to chágara. Why then has Ferré opted for the less common term? The answer may lie in some of the secondary meanings for chágara collected by Ulrich Florian and Fernando Martínez (48). Chágara is defined as 1. Schuhmachermesser (a shoemaker's knife, leading to the expression “pasar a algo por la chágara”—über die Klinge springen lassen; literally treating someone to the blade, giving them a going over. 2. abmurksen [to do away with, knock off). 3. vulg. für beischlafen [to make love]. Thus we find a connection between love, death, and a sharp, piercing instrument, akin to a crustacean's pincers. (Trans. Beverly Eddy and Friedemann Eisert)
María José Chaves avoids the issue by declaring the chágara a “voz puertorriquena para designar un pequeno cangrejo de río” (66).
Alegría, Ricardo E. Apuntes en torno a la mitología de los indios taínos de las Antillas Mayores y sus orígenes Suramericanos. Santo Domingo: Centro de Estudios Avanzados y de Puerto Rico y del Caribe, Museo del Hombre Dominicano, 1978.
Argyle, Michael and Mark Cook. Gaze and Mutual Gaze. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1976.
Arrom, José Juan. “Lo tradicional cubano en el mundo novelístico de José Lezama Lima.” Revista Iberoamericana 92–93 (1975): 469–477.
———. Mitología y artes hispánicas de las Antillas. 1975. México: Siglo veintiuno, 1989.
Bower, Susan R. “The Witch's Garden: The Feminist Grotesque.” Sexuality, The Female Gaze and the Arts. Eds. Ronald Dotterer and Susan Bowers. Sellings Grove, PA: Susquehanna UP, 1992. 19-36.
Cassá, Roberto. Los taínos de la Espanola. Santo Domingo: Editorial de la Universidad Autónoma de Santo Domingo, 1974.
Chaves, María José. “La alegoría como método en los cuentos y ensayos de Rosario Ferré.” Third Woman 2.2 (1984): 64–75.
Diccionario básico Espasa.. Madrid: Espasa-Calpe, 1980.
Diccionario Enciclopédico “UTEHA”. México: Unión Tipográfica Editorial Hispano Americana, 1951.
Fernández Méndez, Eugenio. Art and Mythology of the Taino Indians of the Greater West Indies. San Juan, Puerto Rico: “El Cemi”, 1972.
Ferré, Rosario. Papeles de Pandora. México: Joaquín Mortiz, 1976.
Florian, Ulrich and Fernando Martínez. Wörterbuch Kuba-spanisch Deutsch. Leipzig: VEB Verlag Enzyklopädie Leipzig, 1989.
Franco, Jean. “Beyond Ethnocentrism: Gender, Power and the Third World Intelligentsia.” Eds. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg. Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Urbana: U Illinois P, 1988.
Guerra-Cunningham, Lucía. “Tensiones paradójicas de la femineidad en la narrativa de Rosario Ferré.” Chasqui 13.2–3 (1984): 13–25.
Jackson, Rosemary. Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion. New York: Methuen, 1981.
Lizot, Jacques. El hombre de la pantorilla prenada y otros mitos Yanomami. Caracas: Fundación la Salle de Ciencias Naturales, 1975.
López, Yvette. “‘La muneca menor’: ceremonias y transformaciones en un cuento de Rosario Ferré.” Explicación de Textos Literarios 11.1 (1982–83): 49–58.
Ortiz, Fernando. El huracán: su mitología y sus símbolos. México: Fondo de Cultura Económico, 1947.
Pané, Ramón de. Relación acerca de las antigüedades de los Indios: el primer tratado escrito en América. México: Siglo Veintiuno, 1985.
Parker, Sybil P., ed. Synopsis and Classification of Living Organisms. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1982.
Pichardo Moya, Felipe. Los aborigenes de las Antillas. México: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1956.
Richter, Anne. Le Fantastique Féminin: Un Art Sauvage. Bruxelles: Jacques Antoine, 1984.
Rohrlich, Rudy and Elaine Hoffman Baruch, eds. Women in Search of Utopia. New York: Schocken Books, 1984.
Showalter, Elaine. “Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness.” The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature and Theory. Eds. Sandra Gilbert, et al. New York: Pantheon, 1985.
Stevens-Arroyo, Antonio M. Cave of the Jaguar: The Mythological World of the Tainos. Albuquerque: U New Mexico P, 1988.
Steward, Julian H. and Louis C. Faron. Native Peoples of South America. New York: McGraw Hill, 1959.
Umpierre, Luz María. “Un manifiesto literario: Papeles de Pandora de Rosario Ferré.” Bilingual Review 9.2 (1982): 120–126.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3429
SOURCE: “Sitio a Eros: The Liberated Eros of Rosario Ferré,” in Reinterpreting the Spanish American Essay: Women Writers of the 19th and 20th Centuries, edited by Doris Meyer, University of Texas Press, 1995, pp. 197–206.
[In the following essay, a revised version of a study published originally in Spanish in Gascón Vera's Un mito nuevo: La mujer como sujeto/objeto literario (Madrid: Editorial Pliegos, 1992) and translated by Joy Renjilian Burgy, Gascón Vera identifies Ferré's contributions to a feminine principle of passion as primarily expressed in Sitio a Eros.]
In a 1987 essay, Puerto Rican author Rosario Ferré unambiguously states the political and erotic character of her work. Citing Simone de Beauvoir as her forerunner and model, she claims that love is political action that makes the full personal liberation of women possible and brings both sexes together, provided that true social and political change brings an end to love as a passive, dependent experience for women (“On Love and Politics” 8–9).
Ferré's analysis of her own and other great women's writing in her collection of essays, Sitio a Eros (Eros Besieged)1, focuses on the dialectics of the creative woman facing a patriarchal society that frustrates her need for self-realization and creation. Ferré speculates on the existential and erotic decisions of those women artists whom she loves, honors, and admires. All of them have expressed the untold; they all have expressed what remains indetermined between the written word—traditionally dominated by men—and their way of perceiving life. By doing so they have affirmed their peremptory need for love. As she explained in the 1987 article,
In Sitio a Eros and Fábulas [de la garza desagrada, 1982], I tried to concentrate on this problem [love and politics]. In both, I wrote about a series of women (historical in Sitio and mythical in Fábulas) who had to face terrible consequences because they dared to experience love as an active, not passive, force.
She took the title of her book from Alexandra Kollontai's essay, Sitio a Eros alado, in which the Russian thinker expounds her thesis on a new sexual morality that, along with the great social revolution, would allow a change in the relations between man and woman.2
Her intention to transcend the personal in favor of the political, and to relate feminist writing with love, situates Rosario Ferré (b. 1942) within the cultural, social, anthropological, and psychoanalytical revisions of feminism and gender that have taken place during the last two decades, questioning women's lack of power and autonomy. This lack is viewed as the cause of the violence, anger, and nonconformity that produces the political and cultural awakening of woman. Literary and cultural feminist criticism revises texts and canons, attitudes and positions; above all, it legitimizes the plurality of viewpoints. This pluralistic and holistic attitude has gradually modified the perception of woman as Other, as mediator not doer, as an inferior being in a patriarchal society where man is conceived of as a superior being who controls the feminine subject by characterizing it as a sexual, subservient object.
Ferré belongs alongside Simone de Beauvoir, Kate Millet, Adrienne Rich, Robin Morgan, and Dorothy Dinnerstein—feminist writers who have revised the patriarchal theories of Freud and Marcuse and who have searched for a language that not only would represent women's viewpoint but would also be a medium through which women would entirely define themselves.3 This language is based on two main principles; first, love as a whole dimension that integrates nurturing, caring, sensitivity, tenderness, devotion, generosity, and affective relationships; and second, the dialectics of power comprising freedom of choice, expression, creativity, transformation, and regeneration. Both principles can be understood in psychoanalytic terms as manifestations of the primordial forces that women create in the enjoyment of their own bodies: liberation and affirmation, which patriarchy, from the Fathers of the Church up to Freud, have considered as pathological forces, and which Lacan defines as principles of the indetermination of masculine and feminine beings.4
In her essays, Rosario Ferré expresses herself with passion and in a very personal manner. She believes, as other feminists do, in the need and obligation women have to liberate their creative and personal power in order to achieve freedom and autonomy. More specifically, Ferré sees writing as the best way to awaken women's consciousness. In writing, women will find a language and a voice of their own leading them to self-discovery without waiting for happiness to come from a paternalistic ideology that projects it only through men. Ferré believes that women's obligation is to find the source of joy in themselves. As she says in the essay “La autenticidad de la mujer en el arte” (Woman's Authenticity in Art), “The current responsibility of every woman writer is precisely to convince women readers of a fundamental notion: Prince Charming does not exist. He doesn't have any reality outside the imagination, outside our own creative capacities” (Sitio 38).
Women have to react against the form of power established in the world by a patriarchal society that conceives of love as a possessive, abusive force that controls women through political and personal domination, and also by controlling economic and physical forces. In this context passion is not liberating because love between man and woman becomes nothing but a dynamic of mutual dependence and exploitation. Ferré believes that passion has to be based on a deep knowledge of the feminine being, and that it is the mission of women writers to spread and to proclaim this news:
If they want to become good writers, today's women writers know that, above all else, they will first have to be women, because in art, authenticity is everything. They will have to learn the innermost secrets of their own body and how to talk about it without any euphemisms. They will have to learn how to examine their own eroticism and how to derive from their own sexuality a latent and rarely exploited vitality. They will have to learn to explore their anger and frustration as well as their satisfaction in being a woman. They will have to cleanse themselves and help cleanse their readers of that guilt that secretly torments them. Finally, they will have to write in order to understand themselves better and also to teach their women readers to do the same.
(“La autenticidad” Sitio 37)
By identifying across time and through her experience as a Western woman, Ferré unites with the women writers she has chosen as subjects for her essays. They all have written from the viewpoint of women in their multiple roles as daughters, mothers, lovers, and ideological comrades of men. But by doing so, they necessarily speak of themselves as subjects that have been ignored, misunderstood, and disdained by a dominant male-controlled culture.
In Sitio a Eros Ferré talks about Mary Shelley, Anaïs Nin, George Sand, Sylvia Plath, Julia de Burgos, Lillian Hellman, Virginia Woolf, Jean Rhys, Flora Tristan, Alexandra Kollontai, and Tina Modotti. They interest her because the focus of their writing and art was their desire to emancipate themselves and obtain equality for women either through their independent lives or by fighting to revindicate women on the basis of their greater capacity to love. For all of them, love meant commitment to the poor and the needy, and a continual defense of women's rights as represented in their autonomy in love relationships. The women with whom Ferré identifies were vituperated and finally forgotten by the anti-feminine forces of their societies: the Puerto Rican bourgeois society for Julia de Burgos, a messianic and fanatical Lenin for Kollontai, an exuberant and creative Balzac for Sand, and the French government of male culture for Tristan. The patriarchal powers attacked these women in a vile manner by calling them “virile,” “antifeminine,” or “counterrevolutionaries”; they also characterized their need for self-determination, autonomy, and independence as forms of “immorality” and “licentiousness.”
In Sitio a Eros, Rosario Ferré proclaims the political and subversive idea that there exists an individual feminine eros that is parallel to, and independent from, the traditional masculine eros. This means that women, by becoming aware of their own eros, can obtain a new view of the world, a new consciousness that their own way of feminine love can be a better, more vital model than those prevalent in a patriarchal society. Ferré believes that women writers can be torchbearers in this endeavor and that in their writing they should let their own subjectivity, their own passion, overflow:
a woman should write in order to reinvent herself, to dissipate her fear of loss and death, and to confront daily the effort that living implies. … Just like every artist, a woman writes as best she can, not as she wants to, or as she should. Whether she has to do it in anger and in love, laughing and crying, resentfully and irrationally, on the very brink of madness and aesthetic stridence, what matters is that she do it; she must keep writing. She must devote her body and soul to persistence, not to objectivity, not to letting herself be defeated by the enormous obstacles facing her. She must keep writing even if it only helps open the way for those women writers who will come later. …
(“La autenticidad” Sitio 39)
However, Rosario Ferré does not believe that a feminine writing is different from masculine writing. The difference lies only in the subjects that concern women. As she says in her essay “La cocina de la escritura” (“The Writing Kitchen”), “[W]e are the ones who gestate our children, we give birth to them, we nurture them, and we concern ourselves with their survival. This destiny of nature limits us … but it also puts us in contact with the mysterious generative forces of life” (Sitio 32). In this respect, she thinks like feminist theorists such as Adrienne Rich, Mary Daly, and Robin Morgan. For them, the feminine eros is expressed as a vital force based on the primordial feelings of motherhood and commitment, analysis and passion. It is an experience that integrates the sensuous and the rational, the spiritual and the political. Like these feminists, Ferré thinks women affirm synthesis and integration, whereas the values of patriarchal societies affirm polarization and separation. These women demand that connections, ambivalence, complexity, and material as well as philosophical dialectics be valued. They disrupt dualisms such as nature and culture, I and Other, and accept ontological contradictions as the only real and genuine form of being and becoming.
Ferré finds in the typical female diary the expression of an eroticism that transcends the physical to encompass a larger totality. As she says in “El diario como forma femenina” (“The Diary as Feminine Form”),
The diarist is obsessed with capturing the moment that passes like a flash before her eyes. Her love of reality is always pressing, distressingly close. It demands the warmth of the body, the contact with hair, the rustle of leaves in the wind, the absolute omnipresence of consciousness. … Why have women for almost two hundred years so assiduously cultivated this form? Women's diaries abound in every language but only a tiny percentage of them has been published. … The reason for their abundance might be due to the very form of the diary, for it accommodates itself comfortably to a woman's life. Like her, it's a restrained form of writing, constantly interrupted, that deals with both the most petty and the most fundamental details. For lack of time and tranquility, its form, like the form of women's lives at home, never manages to be completed in recognizable order. Its form is formlessness, the back side of a tapestry, the counterface of literature.
For Ferré, as for Jill Johnston, Jane Flax, and Rachel Blau du Plessis, women's eros must be centered on typically feminine characteristics, and these are, naturally, the sexual ones. Among them, motherhood is one of the few essentially feminine experiences that men do not have. Rosario Ferré views the value of motherhood as a creative literary force. In an essay on Mary Shelley, “Frankenstein: A Political Version of the Myth of Motherhood,” Ferré analyzes the maternal process as a key to the state of bondage and oppression of women. In this respect, Ferré is still close to the first stage of feminism as developed by Nancy Chodorow. In her 1978 book, Chodorow explored the limitations associated with birth and the raising of children for the majority of women. As opposed to a new and more radical feminism, she neither privileges nor exalts the infinite possibilities for happiness, satisfaction, force, and power that come with the creation of another being. Speaking of Victor Frankenstein's monologue just before creating a monster, Ferré says,
In this monologue Mary succeeds in taking up two of the most profound themes of feminism: first, she thinks that man, as far as he tries to usurp the power to give birth, will hopelessly fail. For that reason Victor forgets that motherhood is a mysterious process that both demands humility on the part of the creator and implies bondage toward the one created. Second, she deals with that initial rejection implicit in all motherhood, a theme that makes of Mary a precursor in the study of feminine psychology. It has only been recently that, given the consequences for women of having children, those feelings of rejection are considered something normal and understandable. If feelings of guilt and rejection coexist in normal motherhood with feelings of happiness and satisfaction, nonetheless we have to be reminded that Mary's pregnancies were far from normal. In a symbolic manner, Victor being chased by Frankenstein on the polar plains expresses Mary's rebellion in the face of the bondage of motherhood.
In this respect, Ferré thinks like Chodorow, and she differs in part with other recent feminist theories holding that full acceptance of motherhood will liberate a woman's creative capacity in which are blended the needs for commitment and for autonomy, as well as for interdependence and community. The relation between body and mind is very important for these feminists because its study has led them to understand that the analysis of our deepest instincts does not mean controlling or canceling them;5 this analysis has also meant a refined understanding of the physical and instinctual grounds of love. Nevertheless, in “La autenticidad de la mujer en el arte,” Ferré agrees with them in saying that the liberation of feminine instincts must be carried out by writing. Writing will express the deepest and most intimate zones of the feminine being:
In the case of passion, anger, laughter, and arbitrary subjectivity, I differ radically from Virginia Woolf's opinion. … Just like Anaïs Nin, I think that passion has great power to transform and transfigure the human being from a limited, small, frightened creature into a magnificent figure sometimes capable of reaching the heights of myth.
This perspective leads Ferré and the new feminists to exalt the total and holistic integration of everyday life and spiritual life into the ongoing expression of passion. That is to say, women must live within the boundaries of their constant personal and artistic creation. Rosario Ferré is right when she sees the women with whom she deals in her book as vital models entirely devoted to creativity and passion, despite their suffering and their being set apart by their societies, and despite the fact that many of them, like Jean Rhys, destroyed themselves in order to maintain their independence. In her essay “Un cuarteto y su desenlace” (“A Quartet and Its Outcome”) about the novels of the British Caribbean author, Ferré writes,
For Jean Rhys, the reason the world is divided between two types of women—those who survive and those who just live; those who see the relation with men as an economic one and those who see it as an ideal affinity, both morally and emotionally—lies in the unequal division of power that characterizes contemporary society. The women who throw in the towel even before starting to fight and who think it is useless to oppose the other sex become men's allies, they survive like wives, sisters, and daughters who do their duty. Those who defy the status quo, those who demand their independence and the right to live their own lives, end up alone and forsaken. Of course, the fight between both types of women is a fight to the death.
This text agrees with the revisions Nancy Chodorow made to her 1978 book, eleven years later. Says Chodorow, “Now, however, when I speak of feminist theory, I mean something more holistic and pluralistic—encompassing a number of organizational axes—and at the same time not absolute. In my current view, feminist understanding requires a multiplex account … of the dynamics of gender, sexuality, sexual inequality, and domination” (Feminism and Psychoanalytic Theory 5).
Sitio a Eros participates in the most recent feminist ideas, and Ferré becomes their spokesperson. She also has a didactic interest in wanting to reach out to the cultural grounding of her Hispanic sisters. She wants them to accept their Latina tradition yet also persuade them that their first duty as women is to reach a consciousness of their own power, a power that primarily lies in the force of their maternal and erotic bodies. In other words, she motivates them to use their love and passion.
If contemporary women continuously exercise that power, they will not remain in an eros besieged by the dominant paternalistic society but will reach the eros of women, that is, an eros liberated by their infinite capacity to love and create.
First published in 1980, this collection was revised and augmented for a second edition published in 1986. This paper quotes from the second edition.
See Clements for information on Kollontai.
See Marcuse, Eros and Civilization, and Lacan's seminars for the latter's concept of feminine enjoyment. For the feminist theories, see Beauvoir (75), Millet, Rich, Morgan (161), and Dinnerstein (148).
For revisions of the Freudian concept of Eros, see Mitchell (Psychoanalysis and Feminism), Trask, and Mackinnon. For the Lacanian eros as revised by feminists, see Jardine, Mitchell and Rose, Mitchell (Women: The Longest Revolution), and Chodorow.
See Ehrenreich, Echols, Rubin, and Lourde.
This is a slightly revised version of a study published originally in Spanish in Elena Gascón Vera's book, Un mito nuevo: La mujer como sujeto/objeto literario (Madrid: Editorial Pliegos, 1992). It has been translated by Joy Renjilian Burgy.
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Flax, Jane. “The Conflict between Nurturance and Autonomy in the Mother-Daughter Relationship and within Feminism.” Feminist Studies 4 (June 1978), 171–189.
Jardine, Alice. Gynesis: Configurations of Women and Modernity. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985.
———. “Text, Context: Gynesis.” Diacritics 12 (Summer 1982), 54–65.
Johnston, Jill. Lesbian Nation: The Feminist Solution. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1973.
Lourde, Audre. “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotics as Power.” In Sister Outsider. New York: Crossling, 1984.
MacKinnon, Catharine A. “Feminism, Marxism, Method, and the State: Agenda for Theory.” In Feminist Theory: A Critique of Ideology, 1–30. Ed. Nannerl Kehoane, Michelle Rosaldo, and Barbara Gelpi. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.
Marcuse, Herbert. Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud. Boston: Beacon, 1977.
Millet, Kate. Sexual Politics. New York: Avon, 1971.
Mitchell, Juliet. Psychoanalysis and Feminism. New York: Vintage Books, 1974.
———. Women: The Longest Revolution. Essays in Feminism, Literature and Psychoanalysis. London: Virago, 1984.
Mitchell, Juliet, and Jacqueline Rose. Feminine Sexuality: Jacques Lacan and the Ecole Freudienne. London: Macmillan, 1982.
Morgan, Robin. Going Too Far: The Personal Chronicle of a Feminist. New York: Random House, 1977.
———. Lady of the Beasts. New York: Random House, 1976.
Rich, Adrienne. The Dream of a Common Language: Poems 1974–1977. New York: Norton, 1978.
———. Of Woman Born. New York: Norton, 1976.
Rubin, Gayle. “Thinking Sex: Note for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality.” In Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality. Ed. Carole Vance. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984.
Trask, Haunani-Kay. Eros and Power: The Promise of Feminist Theory. Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 1986.
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SOURCE: “Blood of the Conquistadors,” in New York Times Book Review, September 17, 1995, p. 28.
[In the following review, Ruta comments on the style, structure, and characterization of The House on the Lagoon.]
“We have not given your island a single thought, and I have no information whatsoever on the place,” Teddy Roosevelt reportedly told a Puerto Rican patriot on the eve of the Spanish-American War. “I've never even known a Puerto Rican,” Stephen Sondheim protested when Leonard Bernstein asked him to collaborate on West Side Story, half a century and millions of immigrants later.
Our ignorance of the island we annexed in 1898 knows no bounds, as Rosario Ferré, Puerto Rico's leading writer, is well aware. The House on the Lagoon, her first novel written in English, may well change that. The story of the affluent and lethally snobbish Mendizabal clan begins on July 4, 1917, when Puerto Ricans were granted American citizenship, and ends, in disaster, on the day of a hotly contested plebiscite on statehood in the early 1980's. This account of the Mendizabals' rise and fall is larded with enough names, dates and statistics to provide a lively crash course in 20th-century Puerto Rican history.
It's also playful, baroque and stylized, with all the elegance, brio and needling irony of Ms. Ferré's delicate, surreal short-story collection, The Youngest Doll. This is a family saga in the manner of Gabriel García Márquez, not James Michener. And some of those statistics—Puerto Ricans purchased ＄12,383 in Liberty Bonds during World War I—sound apocryphal, a mocking concession to the American craving for verifiable facts. A skeptical Latin and a feminist, Ms. Ferré doesn't believe in facts. In her view, there are only versions of the truth, and the official version is often imposed by force. To make this point, she gives her story two rival narrators, husband and wife.
Isabel Monfort, the granddaughter of Corsican immigrants, has come up in the world. She's been married for 27 years to Quintin Mendizabal, prosperous owner of a food import business, when she starts writing a family history. At first, she means only to celebrate their wedded harmony, weaving their respective stories into a single fabric. But from the start she hides the manuscript.
Her husband discovers it in the bookcase, first hidden behind a Latin dictionary, then a cookbook, and scribbles condescending comments in the margins. He corrects glaring anachronisms and protests imputations of scandal—or offers some of his own. But when Isabel's manuscript reveals his ruthless business practices, his complicity in a brother's suicide and his harsh treatment of his rebellious sons, he feels threatened and decides to suppress her version of the truth. When all else fails, he resorts to violence. Finally, she finds the courage to defend herself.
Within this “he said/she said” framework, Ms. Ferré also maps out an upstairs/downstairs geography, centered on the family's San Juan mansion. Upstairs are the Mendizabals—vital and ambitious, with their absurd racial pride, their hot tempers, their successful fusion of Spanish conquistador and American capitalist go-getter methods, and their self-destructive hubris. Downstairs are the servants, the wise and patient Aviles family, brought as slaves from Angola in the 18th century. The Mendizabal patriarchs meet their match in elderly Petra Aviles, granddaughter of an African-born rebel slave whose owners had his tongue cut out. Threatened with domestic censorship, Isabel finds natural allies in Petra and her clan.
The novel's stylized, picturesque reduction of class and racial conflict to two mythic families has been done before. But that's just the point. Ms. Ferré, in effect, declares Puerto Rican literary independence by giving the island the same mini-epic treatment accorded sovereign nations like Chile and Colombia in the work of their leading novelists. However, Ms. Ferré has her own distinctive gifts. The daughter of Luis Ferré, Puerto Rico's late-1960's pro-statehood governor and one of the island's richest businessmen, she's a wicked satirist of the sheltered milieu she fled to become a writer. As she explains elsewhere, in an essay called “On Destiny, Language and Translation,” she derives her satiric verve (as do many Latin-American writers) from the traditional irreverence and wit of her country's poor, from their “unforgiving social judgment.” In this new novel, she refines and exaggerates that mocking spirit into something arch, surreal and devastating.
Colorful characters throughout the novel represent the complex mix of Puerto Rican society: A Corsican socialist grandmother quotes Napoleon's mother. A Russian immigrant opens a ballet school in a provincial town. A dressmaker of mixed race hides her “mat of corkscrew curls” under a stylish turban to pass in white society. There's passion and psychological depth in the portrait of Isabel, too smart not to see through her husband, but too timid and cosseted to rebel—until her children's lives are at stake. There's enough talk about food to reduce all human aspiration to a gluttonous fantasy. And there are capsule essays, crackling with aphorisms, on the nature of truth, Puerto Rican politics and the Spanish-English question (“For every language you speak, you're worth another person”).
A work of self-conscious brilliance, The House on the Lagoon has at times the feel of a straitjacketed tour de force. Ms. Ferré is most relaxed when writing from memory of the provincial life she recalls from her own childhood. Observations like this one, pointed and nostalgic, are at the heart of her book: “Sears wasn't a place, it was a state of mind; ordering from the Sears catalogue was like ordering from heaven … Like most families on the island, ours was divided politically. Carmita and Carlos were for statehood, whereas Abby was defiantly Independentista. But we all liked to browse through the Sears catalogue.”
Such echoes hint that there's another manuscript hidden in this book: behind all the carnival masks and baroque altar screens, a gentle memoir waiting to be written.
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SOURCE: “Pandora's Log: Charting the Evolving Literary Project of Rosario Ferré,” in Revista de Estudios Hispanicos, Vol. 29, No. 3, October, 1995, pp. 461–76.
[In the essay below, Skinner traces Ferré's literary development in her narrative works, focusing on her essay “La cocina de la escrita,” her short story “La muneca menor,” her novel Maldito amor, and her short story collection Las dos Venecias.]
In her essay “La cocina de la escritura,” published in 1982, Rosario Ferré describes her authorial project, her literary influences and her motivations for writing fiction. As part of this short autobiographical essay, she discusses the moment she embarked upon her career as a writer and the way she selected her initial literary theme. In choosing the subject of her first story, Ferré decided that she would focus upon an episode from the Puerto Rican past:
Pensé que lo mejor sería escoger una anécdota histórica; algo relacionado, por ejemplo, a lo que significó para nuestra burguesía el cambio de una sociedad agraria, basada en el monocultivo de la cana, a una sociedad urbana o industrial; asi como la pérdida de ciertos valores que aquel cambio habia conllevado a comienzos de siglo: el abandono de la tierra; el olvido de un código de comportamiento patriarcal, basado en la explotación, pero también a veces en ciertos principios de ética y de caridad cristiana sustituidos por un nuevo código mercantil y utilitario que nos llegó del norte; el surgimiento de una nueva clase professional, con sede en los pueblos, que muy pronto desplazó a la antigua oligarquía canera como clase dirigente.
Ferré situates this episode at the beginning of her fiction-writing career, marking out as an explicit project the depiction in her novels and short stories of a particular process in Puerto Rican history: the story of cultural and social transition brought about by the American occupation of the island and the shift of power from a rural aristocracy to an urban professional class. The “anécdota histórica” that embodies these ideas became, according to Ferré, her first story, “La muneca menor,” published in 1972, ten years before “La cocina de la escritura.”
Before examining “La muneca menor” and its relation to “La cocina de la escritura” it is important to situate the passage cited above in its context in the essay. The first section, in which the passage appears, discusses women writers, their relationship with language, and their access to and subversion of the privileged space of writing. Ferré pinpoints “el día de mi debut como escritora” (139) as a moment in which her theoretical analyses of the theme of women's writing took on the added weight of personal meaning. Seated in front of her typewriter, she pondered the injunctions of Simone de Beauvoir and Virginia Woolf to women in general and to women writers in particular. Thus, having chosen her theme, “nada menos que el mundo,” and her style, “nada menos que un lenguaje absolutamente neutro y ecuánime” (141), she decided that the ideal material for her entry into the literary realm was precisely that “anécdota histórica” described at length above. For Ferré in “La cocina de la escritura” history was intimately linked to the initiation of a theoretical literary project present even before the moment in which she sat down at her typewriter, fingers poised, and decided to write.
At this point in the essay, however, Ferré describes her remembered self as wordless, uninspired, stymied: “Pasó una hora, pasaron dos, pasaron tres, sin que una sola idea cruzara el horizonte pavorosamente límpido de mi mente” (142). Her authorial silence was due—she says—to her inability to select an appropriate anecdote. It was only several days later, while visiting an elderly aunt, that Ferré heard the story that she recognized as the embodiment of her “anécdota histórica” and that she transformed into “La muneca menor.” Her initiation into the realm of fiction was twofold: in the first stage she theorized about writing, determining her style, her theme and the type of story she wanted to write. In order to fulfill her plan, she had to pass through a second stage, in which she turned to a practice of fiction emblematized by her aunt and the tale she heard from her. Finally, when Ferré read the completed story, she found that “todos mis cuidados habían sido en vano” (143); that is, she had written with rage, not cool tranquillity, and of typically “feminine” themes such as love and revenge, not of themes that “transcend” gender differences. She cast the completed story aside. Nonetheless, while she indicates the ways in which her story did not fall within the parameters of subject and style established by de Beauvoir and Woolf, her choice of “genre,” the now-famous “anécdota histórica,” remained intact. In selecting a historical anecdote as her literary material, Ferré discovered the thread that led her through the labyrinth of the fiction-writing process and enabled her to write “La muneca menor.”
Born from the uneasy marriage between literary and philosophical theories about women's writing and a family history narrated by a woman. “La muneca menor” contains a type of history that situates itself in contrast to traditional historical writing.1 Ferré's historical project is embodied in a narrative depicting the women of an aristocratic family fallen upon hard times, making it a gendered history. In “La muneca menor” the two female characters are the aunt and niece of the plantation-owning family; the men in the story are the doctor who intentionally fails to cure the aunt's prawn bite and his son—also a doctor—who marries the niece, takes her to live in the city and sells off her inheritance. Ferré shows the ways in which certain women are both victims and survivors of the change from one value system to another. “La muneca menor” represents her attempt to rescue aristocratic women from the oblivion to which traditional historical accounts have consigned them and to detail their abuse by the greedy urban professional men who represent the “nuevo código mercantil y utilitario” imported from the United States. The younger doctor exploits the very class he is displacing for economic gain, using his wife's aristocratic status to win professional success: “el médico se hizo millonario. Se había quedado con toda la clientela del pueblo, a quienes no les importaba pagar honorarios exorbitantes para poder ver de cerca a un miembro legítimo de la extinta aristocracia canera” (15). In the end his abuse causes his wife to turn into the object he has also wronged—the doll made by her aunt, whose eyes he has gouged out and from which prawns swarm to engulf him in the story's final frightening image. In this way both aunt and niece avenge themselves upon the doctors, father and son, who have professionally and figuratively mistreated them. The men work upon the women's bodies, refusing to cure the aunt's prawn bite, placing the niece on display in the balcony to impress potential clients, pulling out the doll's/niece's eyes; so it is with their bodies that the women strike back, using the doll/niece as the source of the frenzied prawns which overwhelm the younger doctor. The men's abuse of the women in their personal relationships is inseparable from their economic exploitation of them.
Issues of gender relations and class tensions are intimately connected in “La muneca menor.” Ferré's story is clearly an attempt to bring to the surface gender and class issues as she rewrites the history of an era in the recent Puerto Rican past. Ferré initiates her writing career with a coherent project of writing a fictional history of Puerto Rico that intends to inscribe issues of class and gender relations within history, a project later made explicit in “La cocina de la escritura.” In 1986 Ferré published her second collection, Maldito amor, which marks another stage in her project of history and history-writing.2Maldito amor is a collection of four stories, composing what Ferré consistently refers to as a novel. All four pieces treat different periods of Puerto Rican history: the turn of the century and the power transition from the sugar-cane aristocracy to a professional middle class in “Maldito amor”; the ascendance of the bourgeoisie in “El regalo”; the industrialization of Puerto Rico in “Isolda en el espejo”; and Ferré's imaginative creation of an alternative, futuristic Puerto Rico fragmented by the struggle for independence in “La extrana muerte del capitancito Candelario.” If “La cocina de la escritura” represents Ferré's efforts to recuperate her literary past as one marked by a historicizing impulse, Maldito amor would seem to be that purposeful engagement with a project of historical rewriting manifested in literature. At the same time, however, Ferré now challenges that very project, her own intentions of rewriting history into and through literature. Ferré's critique of her earlier authorial project and of the attempt to create a unified historical narrative is most clearly evident in the title story, “Maldito amor.”3 The story undertakes the task of questioning the privileged nature of historical discourse and embarks upon a thorough interrogation of both traditional and contestatory history.
“Maldito amor” opens as an unidentified, abstract voice narrates the history of the region of Guamaní and describes the utopia that existed before the arrival of political and commercial interests from the United States. Later we realize that this reminiscing voice is that of Hermenegildo, the narrator and author of a history of the De la Valle family whose voice apparently dominates the discourse of “Maldito amor.” Significantly, the sections which this omniscient voice narrates are inside quotation marks, indicating that they are excerpted from a larger historical tract. Hermenegildo's project aims to construct a totalizing discourse about the past that will both incorporate and sustain his nostalgic vision of the vanished paradise he depicts. As he tells us, “en el pasado los guamanenos nos sentíamos orgullosos de nuestro pueblo y de nuestro valle. … Los habitantes de Guamaní amábamos nuestro pueblo y lo considerábamos, con razón, el pueblo más hermoso del mundo” (9). He goes on to describe the fecundity of the land and the deep sense of community among the guamanenos, explicitly calling Guamaní a paradise several times. His description of a lost utopia forms the background for the more specific history of the De la Valle family, which for Hermenegildo symbolizes the glory days of the Puerto Rican landed aristocracy. His history is a tribute to the man whom he calls “nuestro ilustre prócer” (28), Ubaldino De la Valle, who saves his ancestral sugar cane plantation, the Central Justicia, from takeover attempts by bankers from the United States.
But Hermenegildo's attempts to construct a coherent, totalizing historical discourse centering around the heroic figure of De la Valle and to inscribe his nostalgia into that historical project are shattered from within the text of “Maldito amor.” Alternative and contradictory voices seek him out and present their disparate views on the history he is writing. The first of these voices is that of Titina, a long-time servant of the De la Valles, who visits him as he writes to confront him with the scandals of the De la Valles which he has hitherto repressed, excusing them by saying, “estos desgraciados sucesos es mejor perdonarlos, eclipsarlos con las relaciones edificantes de aquellos gestos de los que nuestros próceres también han sido capaces” (29). In this way we see that what lies at the heart of Hermenegildo's nostalgia—which in turn both enables and impels him to write his history—is a gesture of repression, an evasion of the facts, if not the truth. By visiting him unannounced in the privileged space of his study, by invading the very room where his writing takes place and shape, Titina forces him to acknowledge “los desgraciados sucesos” that lie at the heart of the supposedly utopian history he is recording. Her act reveals the ideological nature of this discourse by demonstrating another point of view that speaks against the history of a paradise and of the “ilustres próceres” who inhabit it.
As if this were not enough to disrupt Hermenegildo's writing, various De la Valles proceed to visit him, again in his study, and to present their versions of the series of events having to do with the struggle between Ubaldino's sons, Arístides and Nicolás, and the three men's relationships with Gloria Camprubí—a mulata variously described as Ubaldino's nurse, Arístides's lover, Nicolás's wife and widow, insane, saintly, pure and promiscuous. The events which take place in the Central Justicia are the source of controversy not only for the family members themselves but also for Hermenegildo, the involuntary historian of these “desgraciados sucesos” which he would have preferred to ignore, and even for readers of the text of “Maldito amor,” since we are confronted just as Hermenegildo is with the question of which version of this history we should believe. Hermenegildo is finally reduced to being nothing more than a scribe. He compiles the competing stories, listening in turn to Arístides and to Laura, Ubaldino's widow, and tries to continue writing his “own” history of the family; but their accounts insistently return to his narrative, breaking up his homogeneous discourse about the family with their troubled tales of the conflicts which arose in the past and which still afflict the family. Hermenegildo cannot escape from the ways in which their argumentative, conflicting narratives work their way into and take over his historical project. His own narrative becomes contaminated from within, in much the same way that his hero, Ubaldino, is finally revealed by his wife Laura to have suffered from syphilis. Like Ubaldino's body decaying in life, Hermenegildo's text displays the course of its own infection even as he attempts to write it and as we read the incomplete version of “Maldito amor.” Hermenegildo never does finish writing the story of the De la Valles as he wanted to tell it; instead, his text becomes the repository for the different versions the family members give him about their relationships, tales which thoroughly contradict his own nostalgic history.
Gloria's account is the one that most effectively acts to disrupt traditional historical discourse. Unlike the other stories, hers is not directed to Hermenegildo but to Titina, the ex-slave; hence her text does not even manage the most minimal incorporation into “history” as we have seen Hermenegildo try to establish it. Instead, she and her story remain on the margins as an addendum to Hermenegildo's history—or sentimental novel, because, as Gloria sarcastically points out, he is notorious for “su augusto despacho repujado en cuero donde vive desde hace anos encerrado, escribiendo novelas sentimentales sobre los hacendados arruinados” (75). If Gloria's narrative is tacked on to the end, however, that also leaves her with the last word, a “word” which, in the form of Laura's controversial will, she promptly proceeds to rip to shreds. Harking back to Hermenegildo's elegiac introduction, which praised the lost glories of Guamaní, Gloria rewrites his utopian history as the tortured history of an impoverished, oppressed peasantry, saying, “ese Guamaní arcádico que Don Hermenegildo tanto elogia en sus novelones románticos, no es otra cosa que un infierno” (78). Furthermore, while Hermenegildo read the heroic narrative of Ubaldino's rescue of the Central Justicia from a U.S. conglomerate as a nationalist gesture, Gloria points out that Ubaldino spent his time in the Puerto Rican Senate embellishing his speeches with flourishes of nationalist rhetoric but voting against legislation that would have improved the lives of his own sugar cane workers. Finally, Gloria burns down the site of the De la Valle history itself when she destroys the sugar cane plantation. Her story and actions constitute the final blow to Hermenegildo's totalizing pretensions.
At the end of the book Ferré inserts four endnotes which seem intended to provide a historical background for some of the events of “Maldito amor.” Two of the footnotes deal with Puerto Ricans of the nineteenth-century whose works she cites: the Romantic poet José Gautier Benítez and the composer Juan Morel Campos. The third and fourth describe a series of laws enacted in Puerto Rico in 1941. The notes would appear to be a gesture towards the insertion of history into Ferré's literary discourse. They present themselves as explicitly factual—Ferré even refers the reader to further textual sources at the end of the notes. Nonetheless, this brief history lesson is both incomplete (inasmuch as she does not provide notes for all the authors she cites nor for all the historical events clearly alluded to in the text) and marginalized. The notes appear at the end of the book, not at the end of the story, and although they are numbered, those numbers are not attached to particular moments in the story; that is, no footnote call numbers appear within the text of “Maldito amor” itself. Therefore we cannot even know when we are meant to read them. The attempts to insert history into the text of “Maldito amor” once again remain unfinished and provisional, intentionally haphazard, in a contradictory gesture that recalls the story's critique of Hermenegildo's historicizing intentions.
Ferré works in “Maldito amor” to disrupt the presuppositions upon which traditional written history is based through the presentation of Hermenegildo's inadequate writings. His project, as we have seen, was to construct a totalizing vision of the Puerto Rican past based on nostalgia for a way of life that has disappeared. More important, however, is that this is a distorted yet clearly related version of the very project Ferré had marked out as her own in “La cocina de la escritura.” In that essay Ferré herself turns to a particular historical period now lost—the transition from a society dominated by a rural, plantation-owning aristocracy to one ruled by commercial, mercantile, middle-class professional interests—through which the heroines of “La muneca menor” suffer. “La muneca menor” is intended as a return to and as a rewriting of that pivotal moment, now including the voices which histories such as Hermenegildo's had intentionally left out. Ferré tried to produce a literary historical writing that would supplement traditional histories, adding the suppressed stories of aristocratic women to conventional versions of Puerto Rican history in order to complete a history that had excluded them. But in “Maldito amor” Ferré consciously dismantles the historical project of supplementarity embarked upon in “La muneca menor” and detailed explicitly in “La cocina de la escritura.” She indirectly critiques her own earlier project of recuperating lost histories through the addition of layers of stories, since in “Maldito amor” each additional story leads not to truth but to further confusion. By stressing the ways in which Hermenegildo's apparently seamless history excludes the “desgraciados sucesos” mentioned earlier, and by showing how the addition of these alternative accounts leads to indeterminacy and dispersion, Ferré emphasizes the inevitable shortcomings of any historical writing that lays a claim to totality and truth. She uses Hermenegildo both to satirize a nostalgia for a vanished lifestyle and, more importantly, to show the inadequacy of historical discourses, whether conventional or contestatory, which have pretensions to representation and representability. Ferré's writing in “Maldito amor” now rejects the impulse towards homogeneity and totalization in historical discourse by incorporating divergent, contradictory versions which thwart that impulse at its source. Her new writing is one which continually pulls itself to pieces, refusing to offer us the features that would allow us to read it as history, incessantly writing and rewriting itself to unravel itself and, ultimately, leaving us with nothing more than a tangled heap of threads of a historical narrative. “Maldito amor” is Ferré's attempt to come to terms with the authorial project detailed in “La cocina de la escritura.” While that essay established that project as being based on history, “Maldito amor” explicitly problematizes the viability of historical writing—even contestatory historical writing—as long as it is founded on the illusion of historical reconstitution.
Furthermore, if we take a closer look at “La cocina de la escritura,” we can see that even in that earlier text Ferré's project of historical recuperation was already disassembling itself by raising questions about the status of the “original” moment of Ferré's authorial project. In that essay Ferré proposes several versions of her “original” inspiration for writing and of the moment in which she began to write, privileged origins that are paradoxically put into question by their very multiplicity: there is her decision to obey the precepts set forth by Woolf and de Beauvoir, the point at which she defined herself as a feminist writer; there is her desire to expound upon such feminist themes through an “anécdota histórica” about Puerto Rican history, the point at which she defined herself as a Puerto Rican writer. But her efforts to put these dual self-definitions into play as she sat down at her typewriter resulted in literally nothing. Finally, there was her fateful visit to her aunt, who told her the notorious “anécdota histórica” which Ferré then shaped into “La muneca menor.” Moreover, Ferré's description of her initiation into the realm of literature ends not with her triumphant writing of “La muneca menor,” but with her discovery, upon rereading the story, that she has “betrayed” the ideals of feminism with which she embarked upon her authorial pursuit. Ferré's ambivalent reaction to the story displays the uneasy tension between two sets of motives—her desire to write as a feminist and her wish to write as a Puerto Rican author. At one moment the text fulfills Ferré's requirements, the next it falls far short of them, precisely because the avowed motivation for writing is always shifting. In fact, Ferré puts the story in a drawer after reading it; her failure to resolve the questions surrounding the story's origins and her reasons for writing it leads to her decision to lock the finished story away. Hence, her description of how she became a writer ends paradoxically in self-imposed silence. Through its search for the ever-changing origins of writing, “La cocina de la escritura” points towards its own failure even before Ferré embarks upon a conscious attempt in “Maldito amor” to critique her original historical project. The fact that “Maldito amor” is an effort to reexamine the question of the status of historical writing implies that Ferré came to see the problems inherent in the sort of recuperative project described in “La cocina de la escritura,” and as a result engaged in a conscious critique of her previous literary production.
Where, then, does this leave Ferré's writing? To what type of literary ideology does she turn after having thoroughly debunked the project of historical recuperation through supplementarity—the addition of layers of alternative stories in order to achieve totality—which she attempted to inscribe in “La muneca menor”? How does she conceive her writing and her authorial persona at this juncture? A partial answer to some of these questions may be seen in her last published work, Las dos Venecias, which appeared in 1992. This is a hybrid work, mingling poetry, essays, short stories and autobiographical fragments. Having eradicated the possibility of a self-definition as a historical writer in “Maldito amor,” Ferré moves away from that authorial project in Las dos Venecias and appears to turn towards the construction not so much of an authorial project but of an authorial persona.
Indeed, the first text in Las dos Venecias seems intended to work towards a recuperation of the self on Ferré's part. “Las dos Venecias” describes Ferré's mother as a woman torn by her husband from her paternal home and whose children inevitably desert her. Ferré in turn writes herself into this family history and into her mother's story by pointing out that she too left home, married and had children who also left her behind. She adds that her rescue from this sense of abandonment lay in her ability to write: “No fue hasta que comencé a escribir que aquel malestar comenzó a disiparse” (15). As a mother, her identity lies in her children; as a writer, her identity lies in her ability to manipulate words, to create and re-create voyages of abandonment and discovery. “Las dos Venecias” purports to be an autobiographical narrative about Ferré's childhood and her ambivalent relationship with her mother; but as we shall see below, other aspects of the book suggest that Ferré is actually problematizing the status of traditional autobiographical writing and the notion of the writer's self that such writing contains.
Although “Las dos Venecias” may invite its readers to take it at face value as Ferré's description of the differences between her mother's life and her own, later essays in the book demonstrate that Ferré is interested in voiding the conception of the self on which that comparison would be predicated. This awareness impels a return to and re-reading of the autobiographical stories in Las dos Venecias—the title piece and “Correspondencias”—in order to see Ferré's examination of the traditional subject of autobiography: the authorial self. As we shall see, Ferré begins the book with a text that masquerades as her autobiography, but which ultimately must be read as an effort to call into question the concept of the unitary self that sustains conventional autobiographical writing. The “autobiographical” stories indulge the expectations of the reader by claiming to put forth Ferré's life story and the true version of her self, but by the end of the book Ferré has challenged those notions of autobiography and the authorial self to such an extent that “Las dos Venecias” and “Correspondencias” should be envisioned as efforts to put into play yet another in the series of authorial personas Ferré demonstrates throughout the book.
“Melografiadas,” the section which concludes Las dos Venecias, contains several sections that perhaps constitute Ferré's most explicit comments on her theories of writing and her perception of herself as a writer. The entire section begins with four poems, one of which literally inscribes Ferré as a writer via the punning title, “Rosario de cuentos.” Two short essays, “Epifanía del cuento” and “Recapitulaciones,” both describe an author; in the former it is an abstract, anonymous “escritor,” while in the latter it is Ferré's authorial self. In fact, the first paragraph of “Recapitulaciones” rewrites the beginning of “Epifanía del cuento,” changing it from the third to the first person. “Epifanía del cuento” begins as follows:
El escritor escribe porque le tiene más miedo al silencio que a la palabra. Escribe porque nunca sabe lo que piensa hasta que lo escribe, hasta que formula su pensamiento en una secuencia ordenada sobre la página. En este sentido, puede decirse que la vida del escritor es una negación del postulado cartesiano “pienso, luego soy”. El escritor dice, “escribo, luego pienso”; o mejor “no pienso, luego escribo”. El día que deje de escribir el escritor dejará de pensar y repetirá con Vallejo, “Vámonos, pues, por eso, a comer yerba, carne de llanto, fruta de gemido, nuestra alma melancólica en conserva”.
The first paragraph of “Recapitulaciones” reads, in turn:
Escribo porque le tengo más miedo al silencio que a la palabra. Escribo porque nunca sé lo que pienso hasta que lo escribo, hasta que lo formulo en una secuencia ordenada sobre la página. En este sentido podría decir que mi vida ha sido una negación del postulado cartesiano “pienso, luego soy”. Yo digo, “escribo, luego pienso”; o lo que quizá sea más cierto, “no pienso, luego escribo”. El día que deje de escribir dejaré de pensar y diré con Vallejo: “Vámonos, pues, por eso, a comer yerba, carne de llanto, fruta de gemido, nuestra alma melancólica en conserva”.
“Recapitulaciones” repeats the first paragraph of “Epifanía del cuento,” substituting the first person for the third. The alterations in the second essay insert Ferré's “yo” directly into the text, turning her originally abstract statements about authorial motivations into apparently highly personal comments on her own literary career. As part of the process by which she transforms the generic “Epifanía del cuento” into what would seem to be a personal analysis of her writing in “Recapitulaciones,” she shifts the emphasis of the second paragraph of the essay from the reception of fiction in “Epifanía del cuento” to her own motivation for producing it in “Recapitulaciones.”
Nonetheless, Ferré does not use “Recapitulaciones” as a way to propose a theory of writing based merely on the personal. Her statements about her inner motivations, her anxieties, her insecurities and her fears may appear to point towards the traditional concept of the author as a subject inscribing her personality in and through her work. Yet given the specific form that those affirmations take, it is possible to read Ferré's declarations of authorial selfhood as ironic manipulations of a narrative “yo” whose referent remains in doubt. Throughout Las dos Venecias and particularly in “Melografiadas,” Ferré tears apart the “yo” which narrates the autobiographies and essays through a series of displacements which create incessant doubles of the textual “yo.” “Recapitulaciones” is in itself a doubled and doubling text, one which, as we saw, mirrors “Epifanía del cuento.” When Ferré changes “el escritor” of “Epifanía del cuento” to “yo” in “Recapitulaciones,” she does not so much affirm her personal right to the credo stated in those essays as she shows the mutability of linguistic markers of grammatical persons such as “yo” and “él.” Ferré empties her “yo” of its traditional content as she demonstrates that the person narrating a text is potentially any voice and every voice. The “yo” of “Recapitulaciones” becomes detached from the conventional concept of the author's self, and the comments it makes about writing and authorship cannot be unproblematically attributed just to Ferré.
This process of destabilization of the “yo” occurs perhaps most notably in the piece which acts as an introduction to “Recapitulaciones,” “La sombra y su eco.” The very title alludes to the doubling of what is already a reflection, to secondary images that are never originary.“La sombra y su eco” begins with the narrator in front of a mirror, in conversation with an unnamed interlocutor who is pressing her to recount a dream. As the conversation unfolds, the narrator sees images from her past, scenes with her mother, taking place in the mirror. These scenes are narrated in the present and future tenses, and the narrator expresses doubt as to whether she is seeing her mother or herself in the mirror. Her interlocutor, another doubling of the narrator, also questions the nature of the reflections, asking, “¿Será ella? ¿Estás absolutamente segura de que no eres tú?” (153). Finally, the narrator sees her image entering a church where her mother awaits, wearing a skirt that is “exactamente igual a mi falda, sólo que está inmóvil, tallada en mármol sobre la lápida. Me mira. Me mira como yo te miro” (154). Throughout the story the interlocutor urges, “cuéntame tu sueno” (151), but successfully elicits a response only with the variant, “cuéntame el enigma de tu sueno” (154), to which the narrator replies, “creo que ahora podré empezar a contarlo:” (154). The colon which ends the story leads to the first line of “Recapitulaciones” on the following page. In this way Ferré splits the narrator's “yo” between the shadow and the echo of the title, between the narrator and her reflection, between the reflected images of mother and daughter, between the daughter and the statue of her mother, and between the narrator and her interrogator. The fact that “La sombra y su eco” revisits the ground of “Las dos Venecias” and “Correspondencias” by describing the relationship between mother and daughter further emphasizes the problematic nature of the autobiographical modality used in the book. The story blurs the distinctions between the autobiographer and her subjects and reveals that “Las dos Venecias” and “Correspondencias” are never the purely autobiographical texts they claim to be.
These displacements of the narrative persona serve to introduce Ferré's statements about her writing in “Recapitulaciones” and to problematize them, as does the fact that “Recapitulaciones” is revealed to be one of the narrator's dreams as well as a distorted reflection of “Epifanía del cuento.” Because the authorial self is continually fragmented by multiple doublings and displacements in “La sombra y su eco,” the commentaries which that self makes in “Recapitulaciones” about her writing and her desire to be “autora de mi propia vida” acquire an ironic cast they would not otherwise have. Ferré's narrator may be the “autora de [su] propia vida,” but the insistent doubling of the narrative self constantly puts into question the nature of that author and the constitution of that authorial voice as well as, indeed, the very notion of “one's own life.” Ferré's claims to narrative authority destabilize themselves because the “yo” attempting to make those claims is shown to be simultaneously multiple and contingent.
Ferré critiques the concept of the subjectivity of the author by on the one hand constructing an authorial self which claims to have access to authentic explanations for her writing and on the other hand consistently casting doubt upon the unity of that self. Women writers in particular have been called upon to explain their works by relating them to their own personalities and lives. Thus Ferré's efforts to dispel assumptions about the relationship of an authorial self to the texts which that self produces and by which it is produced are related to recent critical efforts to disrupt traditional notions about gendered autobiographical writing.4 Working within a traditionally “female” genre of confessional writing, Ferré creates an authorial persona that pretends to be a representation of her self but that at the same time denies its own claims to a mimetic representation by questioning the assumptions upon which that self-portrayal is based. She answers conventional expectations about the creation of a female autobiographical self by offering her readers pieces that purport to be autobiographical and by making statements about her writing that relate it to her “propia vida” and to her psychological needs, saying, for example, “Escribo porque le tengo más miedo al silencio que a la palabra” (155). But any attempts to establish the unitary nature of the “yo” which narrates those statements are constantly thwarted by the doublings that that “yo” undergoes. It is a shadow and an echo, a disembodied voice evoking a dream. The “yo” in Las dos Venecias may be Ferré's authorial persona, but it is one that experiences a series of displacements and doublings until it is emptied of subjectivity and functions only as a vacant sign. She works against her own creation of an authorial self by pointing to the ways in which that self is a production of linguistic and literary devices. The assertions her literary “yo” makes about her life and writing are revealed to be narrative fragments with no more relation to a “true” self than the text-dependent voice which relates them.
Ferré's literary career began with the inscription in “La muneca menor” of a gendered history based on class distinction, moved on to the recognition of the drawbacks inherent in any historical project which intends to lay claim to totality in “Maldito amor” and now in Las dos Venecias moves to represent a concept of the authorial self as sustained through a series of linguistic and textual manipulations. The texts in Las dos Venecias call into question the statements they make about the status of her writing and her authorial self by putting into play a persona contradictorily characterized by its multiple doublings and displacements. Just as in “Maldito amor” Ferré denied the viability of historical writing, in Las dos Venecias she rejects the construction of an authoritative persona, leaving in its stead a dispersed, disjointed, shadowy “yo.” In this, her latest conception of writing and authorship, Ferré offers her readers a series of fragments that continually work against the very assumptions about subjectivity that they pretend to advance.
Yvette López's article proved helpful in my examination of “La muneca menor.” Also useful are the essays by Carmen Vega Carney and María Inés Lagos-Pope as well as the bibliography compiled by Suzanne Steiner Hintz.
In thinking about “Maldito amor,” I have found useful the essay by María I. Acosta Cruz and the chapter on Ferré in Julio Ortega's book.
This essay intends to trace the evolution of Ferré's literary project in her narrative works. It is possible to see the marks of this process in her works produced within other genres; however, undertaking an examination of Ferré's evolving literary project as it manifests itself in such works lies beyond the scope of this essay, which focuses strictly on her narrative production.
Some critics who focus on the ways in which women autobiographers construct their textual selves as a response to and a critique of canonical autobiographical strategies are Sidonie Smith, Liz Stanley, Leigh Gilmore and Shari Benstock.
Acosta Cruz, María I. “Historia, ser e identidad femenina en ‘El collar de camándulas’ y ‘Maldito amor’ de Rosario Ferré.” Chasqui: Revista de Literatùra Latinoamericana 19 (November 1990): 23–31.
Benstock, Shari. The Private Self: Theory and Practice of Women's Autobiographical Writing. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1988.
Ferré, Rosario, “La cocina de la escritura.” La sartén por el mango. Eds. Patricia Elena González and Eliana Ortega. Río Piedras: Ediciones Huracán. 1984, 137–54.
———. Las dos Venecias. México: Joaquín Mortiz, 1992.
———. Maldito amor. México: Joaquín Mortiz, 1986.
———. Papeles de Pandora. México: Joaquín Mortiz, 1976.
Gilmore, Leigh. Autobiographics: A Feminist Theory of Women's Self-Representation. Albany: State U of New York P, 1990.
Hintz, Susan Steiner. “An Annotated Bibliography of Works by and about Rosario Ferré: The First Twenty Years, 1970–1990.” Revista Interamericana de Bibliografia 41 (1991): 643–54.
Lagos-Pope, María Inés. “Sumisión y rebeldía: El doble o la representación de la alienación femenina en narraciones de Marta Brunet y Rosario Ferré.” Revista Iberoamericana 51 (July–December 1985): 731–49.
López, Yvette. “‘La muneca menor’: Ceremonias y transformaciones en un caento de Rosario Ferré.” Explicación de Textos Literarios 11 (1982–1983): 49–58.
Ortega, Julio. “Rosario Ferré y la voz transgresiva.” Reapropriaciones: Cultura y nueva escritura en Puerto Rico. Río Piedras: Editorial de la Universidad de Puerto Rico, 1991. 87–92.
Smith, Sidonie. A Poetics of Women's Autobiography: Marginality and the Fictions of Self-Representation. Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1993.
Stanley, Liz. The Auto/biographical I: The Theory and Practice of Feminist Auto/biography. New York: Manchester UP, 1992.
Vega Carney, Carmen. “Sexo y texto en Rosatio Ferré.” Confluencia: Revista Hispánica de Cultura y Literatura 4 (Fall 1988): 119–27.
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SOURCE: “Serving Two Masters,” in Nation, Vol. 261, November 20, 1995, pp. 640–42.
[In the following review, Stavans discusses The House on the Lagoon in the context of contemporary Puerto Rican literature, highlighting its less than enthusiastic reception by English-speaking readers.]
There is a border in contemporary Puerto Rican letters that is at once mental abyss and tangible geographical gap between island and mainland, one that literature can map in astonishing detail. Remarkable books like La noche oscura del Nino Avilés, an intriguing, encyclopedic 1984 novel by Edgardo Rodríguez Juliá about religious fanaticism, set in the eighteenth century in San Juan Bautista, remain unknown and untranslated this side of the water. And like Juliá's, plenty of original fiction goes unappreciated abroad. Similarly, the work of classic English-language Puerto Rican writers like Judith Ortíz-Cofer, Edward Rivera and Piri Thomas is underrepresented on their Caribbean island of origin. A dialogue of silences, no doubt, which Rosario Ferré has intelligently managed to solve by splitting herself and her audience in two. She is a perfect embodiment of the Januslike identity of Puerto Rican literature today, faces set back to back, impossibly “loyal to two fatherlands,” as the memorialist Bernardo Vega once put it.
Born in Ponce in 1938 and educated at Manhattanville College and the University of Maryland, where she received her Ph.D., Ferré is first and foremost a Latin American femme de letters—baroque, portentous, savvy, erudite. This might sound odd in light of her latest novel, The House on the Lagoon, a family saga of epic proportions about European immigrants and mulatto servants, which she wrote in English. (In 1989, Sweet Diamond Dust proved Ferré adroit at self-translation, as did her subsequent English rendition of much of The Youngest Doll, a collection of her stories.) Yet such literary bilingualism, too, can be read as emblematic of her island's disjointed soul, and it follows that each of her audiences will have a different set of expectations and tastes.
Up until the nineties, Ferré's career unfolded mainly among a Spanish audience, but her strategy is obviously changing. Her artistic breadth, emotional ardor and intellectual appetite, it seems to me, are direct descendants of the boom generation in Latin America. Like her colleagues Luisa Valenzuela and Cristina Peri Rossi, she was influenced by the improvisational cadence of Julio Cortázar, about whom she wrote a critical study. Over the span of twenty years Ferré has produced many volumes of fiction, poetry, retellings of Puerto Rican legends and folk tales, literary criticism and feminist scholarship.
Ferré is the daughter of Luis A. Ferré, a self-made Puerto Rican millionaire and onetime governor with capital in, among other places, the cement industry and a media emporium that includes Puerto Rico's leading newspaper, El Nuevo Día; her family tree is obviously one inspiration behind her new novel, which is almost candidly autobiographical in a way American readers should find lively and enlightening. Like most wealthy households in Puerto Rico today, Ferré's includes a wide range of opposing political views, from independentismo and statehood to support of the island's status as a commonwealth, from an open endorsement of Spanish as the official language to the relentless fight to make English the national tongue. That multiplicity of clashing viewpoints is the engine behind her book. Her objective, it seems, is to deliver a grand chronicle of Puerto Rico's political and emotional upheavals in the twentieth century by juxtaposing the diplomatic and cultural spheres with the domestic sphere. The result is sweet, if occasionally flaccid.
One problem with the approach is that although Ferré has labored to make her protagonists three-dimensional, the reader cannot but sense an almost operatic texture, with love, hate and tears staged at every turn. Political views are presented in tabloid black-and-white, and clichés are not uncommon, as in the following.
Quintín and Isabel would never see eye to eye politically. Quintín was for statehood and liked to think of the United States as his real country. He considered himself not a citizen of Puerto Rico but an American citizen—a citizen of the world. “If Puerto Rico ever becomes an independent nation, like the Nationalists and Independentistas would like,” Quintín would tell Isabel, “we'll be on the first plane to Boston, where my family still owns some real estate.”
Quintín considered Nationalists and Independentistas a dangerous lot. Nationalism was more a faith than a political conviction, and Nationalists were fanatical.
Her prose simple and unadorned, Ferré la barroca has been replaced here by Ferré la accesible, a writer mimicking early forms of realism à la Balzac and Zola. The structure is straightforward, verging on predictability. Some stereotypes of Puerto Ricans—debated by many, including the illustrious playwright René Marqués—are put to rest, at least partially. Ferré's characters, women and men alike, are possessed by destructive demons forcing them to eliminate any obstacle impeding their success. In fact, Ferré's creatures, while characteristically Hispanic, have features straight from traditional American immigrant sagas: humble, self-motivated, expatriate male dreamers in search of fortune; well-to-do wives parading at benefit galas, keeping secret lovers and nurturing artistic drives.
The plot moves forward harmoniously, with fiction playing out the forces of history as tropes. This book will evoke thoughts of other family chronicles, some sober, some exaggerated and over emotional, from Isaac Bashevis Singer's The Family Moskat to Carol Shields's The Stone Diaries, from Tolstoy to Salman Rushdie—multigenerational adventures that Mario Vargas Llosa once described as “total novels” about … well, in Ferré's case about everything viewers of Univisión and Telemundo might expect.
But Ferré's is seasoned not so much with rivalry and ideological radicalism as with prophecy, santería sorcery and Afro Caribbean witchcraft. And that, I'm afraid, is where the main weakness is to be found. Her narrative suffers from what I shall call “the Macondo syndrome,” a condition through which writers seem bent on replicating One Hundred Years of Solitude. Her novel's resourceful design, its structure, its pathos are derivative of Gabriel García Márquez, to the point of annoyance. Or better, they seem to be modeled after imitations, and imitations of other imitations, such as Isabel Allende's The House of the Spirits.The House on the Lagoon features a novel within a novel, much like the scrolls of the Gypsy Melquíades. Although individual protagonists trace their roots to Spain and Italy, the plot officially begins in 1917, when Buenaventura Mendizabal, the narrator's father-in-law and the family patriarch (reminiscent of the founder of García Márquez's Buendía dynasty), disembarks from the Virgen de Covadonga in Puerto Rico. And it ends with a plebiscite in contemporary times, when fictional independentistas stage a take over, kidnapping an important executive.
The cast of hundreds includes Isabel Monfort, the heroine and talented narrator, a bit of a recluse not unlike Rebeca, the Buendías' adopted daughter. Then there's Milan Pavel, an architect from Czechoslovakia and Frank Lloyd Wright's protégé, known as “the Wizard from Prague,” who resembles Pietro Crespi, the suicidal Italian music master in García Márquez's classic. And, finally, at the heart of Ferré's volume is Petra, a clairvoyant mulatto maid, like Pilar Ternera, the generous woman of easy virtue frequently sought out by the inhabitants of Macondo.
Resemblances, imitations mirroring other imitations, characters possessed by the strange feeling of being unoriginal, simple echoes, residuals, hand-me-downs, are of course what contemporary Latin American letters are all about. Evidently, Ferré is capable of mastering the recipe. Unfortunately, she doesn't dare take it a step further, subverting its mechanisms. It's a pity, at least for those readers with any form of literary memory.
Yet with The House on the Lagoon, Ferré consolidates her niche in a growing tradition of Latin American novelists, represented by, among others, María Luisa Bombal and Manuel Puig, capable not only of translating themselves but of creating original fictional universes in the English language. She also brings to a wider audience, in charming fashion, the dilemmas of Puerto Rico's divided self, painfully torn between two loyalties since the Spanish American War, if not since the Spanish American War, if not since earlier colonial times. It remains to be seen if the reception to her book breaks the pattern of oblivion granted so many Puerto Rican works published in the United States (one positive sign is that it was chosen as a finalist for this year's National Book Award). Somehow, the Anglo milieu, in its provincialism, has not embraced the oeuvres of Eugenio María de Hostos, Luis Pales Matos, José Luis González, Ana Lydia Vega and other islanders, and to a lesser extent that of the Puerto Rican mainland writers.
Ferré has done everything in her power to reach out: She has switched languages; she has simplified the history and world view of her people without crossing the point of distortion; and she has even utilized a foolproof literary formula. Keeping a double profile, some might say, feeding two different readerships, is the mark of a chameleon. Well, perhaps. But The House on the Lagoon seems intentionally designed for a conventional public in the mainland United States, illiterate in matters of the island. And so, the question arises: Will American readers reciprocate Ferré's effort? Can her island, condemned to a hundred years of Spanish solitude, have a second chance—in English?
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1439
SOURCE: “Constructing and Reconstructing,” in Women's Review of Books, Vol. XIII, No. 5, February, 1996, p. 5.
[In the following review of The House on the Lagoon, Grossman discusses the plot, major characters, and underlying message of the novel, concluding that “The House on the Lagoon gives us a performance of great accomplishment and wit, and the sense of a world held in measured but deeply affectionate memory.”]
Rosario Ferré belongs in the company of those truly bilingual writers (Isak Dinesen was one such, Vladimir Nabokov another) whose irrepressible delight in the play of eloquence and style makes it seem that one language is never enough. In her previous volume of stories, The Youngest Doll, and now in The House on the Lagoon, Ferré has evoked both literary meaning and pleasure from the Puerto Rican predicament of a Latino culture under American domination. Her work, along with that of Julia Alvarez and Cristina García, among others of Caribbean heritage, contributes strongly to the current revitalizing expansion of American fiction by Latina and Chicana writers.
The House on the Lagoon, a National Book Award nominee, is the work of a mature artist, placing one family's history—from 1917 to the 1980s plebiscite on Puerto Rican statehood—in a dense layering of political, racial, socioeconomic and aesthetic contexts. It follows the model of “national narration” defined by Gabriel García Marquéz on the one hand and Isabel Allende on the other: the latter's House of the Spirits may have inspired Ferré's own use of a singular place as the geographic and symbolic center for her work.
The actual house Ferré describes—built originally for the young bride of the patriarch Buenaventura Mendizabal, but destroyed, rebuilt and destroyed again in the course of the novel—borrows the Romantic modernism of Frank Lloyd Wright. Built above a seaside grotto with a flowing spring, it extends to “a beautiful golden terrace at the back of the house, floating over the lagoon.” A cosmopolitan creation, the house reflects an early moment of hope, in a Puerto Rico freed from the dead hand of Spanish colonialism. But that moment passes; the first colonizers' heritage of racial pride and exploitation reasserts itself in short order, rendered perhaps more lethal by Yanqui-style entrepreneurial efficiency.
Rosario Ferré herself was born into Puerto Rico's political and business elite, and she writes with a sharply ironic view of its pretensions. An example is her account of the domestic regime of Buenaventura Mendizabal, who in the mid-thirties, concurrently with the rise of fascism in Europe, has stripped the house down to its terrace and foundations, and erected on them a Spanish Revival mansion of granite, complete with antique-militaristic decor:
Dinner was a very important occasion for Buenaventura, and the dining room was the most prominent room in the house. Up to forty guests could sit at the mahogany table, which had griffin feet and gargoyles carved at each end. The chairs had leather seats and backrests embossed with helmets of Spanish Conquistadors. At one end of the table, under the rug, there was a butler's bell that rang in the kitchen, so Rebecca could silently summon the servants.
The chief narrator of the Mendizabals' story is the daughter-in-law of Buenaventura, Isabel Monfort. With her heritage of Corsican radicalism and protofeminist independence—confirmed by a Vassar education—Isabel is an isolated figure in the family of her husband, Quintin. She comes to understand how her mother-in-law Rebecca, in her youth a free spirit, dancer and poet, has been reduced to abject submission; and Isabel's own decision, in mid-life, to write the family's saga as a novel becomes her way of insuring herself against that fate. Her voice and vision will be affirmed, even though she hides her manuscript away as she writes it.
Although Isabel's marriage with Quintin in 1955 is a genuine love-match, originally sealed with his pledge to abandon the violent machismo characterizing the Mendizabal lineage, the promise does not last. Quintin discovers his wife's manuscript, and from that moment on, her chapters alternate with sections narrated in the third person, in which the husband is shown making critical interpolations and corrections on the wife's work: “You like rebellious characters … but that doesn't mean you should identify with them. Be more careful—when you talk about them the rebel in you suddenly rears its head.”
While Isabel's narrative advances to include revelations about Buenaventura's secret involvement with the Nazi war effort, and about her husband's own career—especially his contribution to his brother's premature death—Quintin becomes increasingly angry and threatened, suspecting the influence on Isabel of gossip from the family's long-time Black servant, Petra Aviles. He wonders, “Could Isabel have fallen under her spell, as Buenaventura had so long ago? Petra had the ability to creep into people's hearts.”
The alliance between Isabel as the lady of the house, who inspires its renaissance as a place of generous love and beauty, and Petra as the African chieftainess who rules an army of servants from the grotto beneath, is a strong and intuitively appealing premise on which the novel's endgame turns. Between them, despite Quintin's bitter opposition, they collaborate in the telling of a truthful family history.
It is true that the emphasis here on servant-mistress bonding, conventionally familiar as it is from sources in and out of literature (one thinks, too, of Susanna and the Countess in Beaumarchais's The Marriage of Figaro), carries with it some unwelcome baggage. In particular, the portrayal of Petra Aviles seems markedly derivative of Marquéz—notably of the figure of the mulatto concubine Petra Cotes in One Hundred Years of Solitude, who, like Ferré's character, is endowed with supernatural powers over fertility and wealth. Buenaventura's prosperity is blithely attributed to the ritual baths Petra prepares for him:
If he was trying to defeat his competitors from California, for example, who had slashed the price of Green Valley asparagus, he would take one of Petra's baths and his white asparagus from Aranjuez would miraculously begin to sell. Suddenly there would be a fad for them in the capital, and people would start eating rolled white asparagus sandwiches, white asparagus casseroles with cheese, lobster and white asparagus bisque.
Can rich evocations of tasty food excuse the essentialist implications here—the African woman defined as a kind of womb of plenty, while the European woman stands for culture? I don't think so; what was seductively reductive in Marquéz seems to me equally problematic here.
Nevertheless, the picture of Petra's domain under the terrace (which includes her room filled with herbal medicines, her shrine to the African “saint” Eleggua—“He who is more than God”—and the spring-fed pool chamber) is memorably drawn in Isabel's account:
The dirt floor was hardly noticeable; the servants sprinkled it with water and swept it carefully every day. Petra had furnished it with an old set of wicker furniture which had originally been used at the house and which Rebecca had discarded. Her wicker peacock throne was an important feature of the sitting room. Every night she would sit on it, wearing her brightly colored bead necklaces and bracelets. She would listen to the servants' complaints, and give them advice.
The novel's conclusion affirms in the strongest terms the necessity of interracial alliances, both sexual and familial, to the future of a Puerto Rican community however defined. And those who stand in the way, like Quintin, are shown as doomed to be thrown aside. It seems to me that in The House on the Lagoon there is a progressive agenda operating alongside a profoundly conservative narrative aesthetic, which is not only compatible, as we know, with modernist and postmodernist moves, but especially characteristic of the magic realist mode of work. The resort to supernatural interventions preempts the workings of social mediation between persons—much as the Latin American coup has so often preempted political mediation. At the level of narrative plot, it's a strategy of despair.
Closure and a measure of reconciliation are reached in Ferré's novel not by a negotiated adjustment of powers but rather by what might be called acts of God or of narrative fiat. As it is decreed that Petra's passing coincide with the passing of the house of the Mendizabals, so it is decreed that Isabel's novel must survive even against the most dazzling array of odds.
That said, there are ample reasons to be grateful for the survival of this novel by Rosario Ferré herself. The House on the Lagoon gives us a performance of great accomplishment and wit, and the sense of a world held in measured but deeply affectionate memory.
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SOURCE: A review of The House on the Lagoon, in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 16, No. 1, Spring, 1996, p. 168.
[In the following review, Friedman unfavorably compares The House on the Lagoon with Isabel Allende's The House of the Spirits.]
The House on the Lagoon is an attempt at a Puerto Rican House of the Spirits, Isabel Allende's 1982 novel. Indeed, the narrator's name is Isabel. Set in Ponce and San Jose, the novel follows six generations of two families from the business aristocracy of Puerto Rico and even provides the reader with a family tree. The narrator's manuscript, which she keeps hidden, is discovered by her husband Quintin who then provides the novel with some self-reflexiveness. He comments on Isabel's style and her truthfulness, offers other versions of the events, and rationalizes the misdeeds of his relatives as related in the manuscript. But because his critiques are not given much space or, for that matter, much intelligence, they are an irritation. They offer neither an alternate view nor reveal a facet of Quintin that is not available from Isabel.
Perhaps it is the comparison with The House of the Spirits invited by its title that does The House on the Lagoon the most damage. Instead of magical realism there are hints about the strange effects of the servants' potions, effects that are usually left vague. Where The House of the Spirits revels in lush imagery, feasts of language, fantastic events, and hypnotic characters, this House was built by Levitt. The characters are terribly predictable: two brothers, one a businessman and the other an artist; rich men's wives who write mediocre poetry and do Isadora Duncan imitations; a cousin with a “birthmark” who, like Hawthorne's character, dies when it is removed. The scale on which the book is written is small. Not much is at stake, and what is at stake is equivocated. Like Allende, Ferré takes up politics and feminism, but the characters, at least most of them, are not fully committed to these politics. Also the issues are never made to feel important. The conflict between Puerto Rican statehood and independence does not approach the dimension of the conflict Allende depicts between fascism and democracy. The trouble is, the characters are usually not willing to sacrifice a dime for their beliefs. So when they do show conviction, it seems to come from nowhere. I believe that Ferré has a story to tell, but is afraid of its implications and so repeatedly backs away from them.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5609
SOURCE: “Text and Countertext in Rosario Ferré's ‘Sleeping Beauty,’” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 33, No. 2, Spring, 1996, pp. 207–18.
[In the following essay, Glenn concentrates on the form and structure of “Sleeping Beauty,” highlighting the function of its fragmented narrative and the play between texts and countertexts from a variety of media that inform the story.]
Rosario Ferré is one of a group of angry young Puerto Rican women authors who have seized the pen and wielded it effectively. Educated on the island and the mainland, Ferré is the daughter of a former governor of Puerto Rico and by birth a member of the upper-class, conservative society she satirizes in her fiction. She has acknowledged that writing is for her a destructive as well as a constructive endeavor and that she is driven by a need for vengeance and a desire to give permanence to what hurts and to what attracts her (“Writer's Kitchen” 215). The anger that impels much of her work is evident in her 1976 collection of stories and poems, Papeles de Pandora (Pandora's Papers or Pandora's Roles).1 In Greek mythology, Pandora is identified as the first woman and is given by each of the gods some power that could bring about the ruin of man. According to certain accounts, her husband, Epimetheus, opens the vessel containing the gifts and thereby releases plagues, sorrow, and mischief upon mankind. The version that has prevailed, however, blames Pandora and her curiosity for the disaster. The first woman is thus identified as a dangerous creature having an evil nature and bent on doing evil to men. Ferré's book tells what Molly Hite has termed the other side of the story, the alternative version that gives events a different set of emphases and values (4). Ferré has spoken of the need to rewrite “history” as it should have occurred, with Desdemona killing Othello and Ariadne deserting Theseus (“Entrevista” 90), and in Papeles de Pandora she engages in revisionary mythopoesis (see DuPlessis). The stories (papers) show not only the roles in which women are often cast but also the attempts some women make to break out of those roles.
Ferré often images her female characters as dolls (decorative, passive, powerless, without voice or will), and the English translation of Papeles de Pandora is entitled The Youngest Doll, after one of the best known of the narratives. The one that concerns me here, “Sleeping Beauty” (“La bella durmiente”) has been much discussed, but little attention has been focused upon its form and structure.2 The story is a collage of opposing texts and countertexts that play off, rub against, and collide with one another. The resulting friction produces sparks. Discordant discourses and dissonant tones highlight conflicts. Different perspectives upon the same events throw into high relief the chasms that separate contrasting views. The structural fragmentation of the narrative and absence of dialogue underscore the lack of true communication among the characters. As Diana Velez has observed, María de los Angeles “has only private internal speech, the speech of dreams” (80n8). Others talk and write about her; she is reduced to silence and marginalized. The two letters she writes do not appear over her signature. The following pages examine how letters from the protagonist, the director of the convent school where she is educated, her father, and her husband clash with one another and with social columns, newspaper clippings, captions written in a photo album, a birth announcement, snatches of the protagonist's interior monologue, and comments by an omniscient narrator. Each of the three divisions of the story—“Coppelia,” “Sleeping Beauty,” and “Giselle”—takes its title from a famous ballet, a nonverbal text that draws inspiration from a written one: E.T.A. Hoffmann's “The Sand-Man,” Charles Perrault's “The Sleeping Beauty,” and Heinrich Heine's De l'Allemagne. In 1987 Ferré commented on her ambivalence with respect to classical music, stating that while she recognized the beauty of compositions by Beethoven. Chopin, Schumann, and Liszt—all men—she resented the fact that she was expected to listen silently, respectfully, to the old masters without being allowed to respond to what they were saying (“Una conciencia musical” 8–9). The role of passive, worshipful listener was alien to her. Equally alien, in all likelihood, was the role imposed by classical ballets, based upon male-authored librettos and music, traditionally choreographed by men and with male-designed sets and costumes. Ferré's protagonist improvises her own choreography, to the surprise and even consternation of certain members of her community.
Ronald Mendez-Clark has pointed out the frequency with which Ferré caricatures various types of discourse in her stories and poems, laying bare the social, cultural, and literary practices that underlie these discourses and the ways in which they (re)present—and misrepresent—women (121–22). Such exposure is essential to the destructive-constructive enterprise in which Ferré is engaged. Examples of exposure and self-exposure abound in epistolary fiction. The male protagonist of Miguel Delibes's Cartas de amor de un sexagenario voluptuoso (Love Letters from a Voluptuous Sexagenarian, 1983) unwittingly reveals himself to be an unprincipled social climber, self-centered hypocrite, and satyr. The main character of Javier Tomeo's El cazador de leones (The Lion Hunter, 1987) bares soul and body in a telephonic novel (one of the modern variants of the epistolary) that degenerates into an obscene phone call that is an assault upon its female listener. Paloma Diaz-Mas in “El viaje de Lord Aston-Howard” (“Lord Aston-Howard's Journey”), a chapter from El sueno de Venecia (The Dream of Venice, 1992), utilizes letters to expose the superciliousness, prejudice, duplicity, and dishonesty of a supposedly civilized English gentleman. Ferré too, capitalizes upon the possibilities for self-exposure that epistolary fiction affords, and several of her letter writers paint devastating portraits of themselves as well as of the social group or institution to which they belong. Janet Altman has demonstrated in Epistolarity: Approaches to a Form how the formal properties of epistles create meaning. The distribution and length of the letters written by different correspondents, their dates, and their juxtaposition communicate information, and the interplay between contiguous missives can be revealing. Epistolary texts tend to foreground acts of reading and rereading, and Altman stresses the importance of the internal reader (Genette's intradiegetic narratee) in shaping these narratives. Letters, after all, are customarily written to a specific person the writer wishes to influence in some way. We, the external readers (extradiegetic narratees), read from at least three points of view: that of the intended or actual recipient, that of the writer, and our own (Altman 111). Epistolary discourse, notes Altman, is marked by hiatuses of all sorts: “time lags between event and recording, between message transmission and reception; spatial separation between writer and addressee; blank spaces and lacunae in the manuscript” (140). These gaps serve to awaken our curiosity, stimulate our desire, and impel our acts of interpretation. Desire plays a crucial role in letter fiction, which often presents histories of rejection, betrayal, and abandonment, and which casts us in the role of voyeurs who peer through keyholes, listen behind doors, and read letters that, according to the conventions of the genre, are not intended for our eyes but instead form part of a private correspondence dealing with private affairs.
Catalan writer Merce Rodoreda has emphasized the question of language and voice in her fiction. Characters who have no one with whom to speak, no one who will listen to them, at times turn to writing letters in order to make themselves heard, as does the protagonist of “Una carta” (“A Letter”). Rodoreda's strategy of giving marginalized figures—women, the elderly, the uneducated or mentally unbalanced—a literary voice and allowing them to speak out has a parallel in the introductory section of Ferré's “Sleeping Beauty.”3 The story begins with two intriguing letters addressed to “Dear Don Felisberto” (Don is a courtesy title used with Christian names in Spanish) by “a friend and admirer.” The writer identifies herself as a manicurist who works in a beauty parlor located on the lower level of a fleabag hotel, and her letters are purportedly motivated by concern for the reputation of the business tycoon and his ballerina wife. The latter, wearing dark glasses and a scarf over her hair, is surreptitiously visiting a room in the hotel. The writer, echoing a centuries-old theme—woman's honor is easily besmirched, and any slip on her part dishonors the man responsible for her, be he father, brother, or husband—reminds Don Felisberto that “A lady's reputation is like a polished mirror; it will smudge at the lightest touch. A lady mustn't simply be respectable, she must, above all, appear to be so” (89). The second letter adds information about the time of the trysts as well as the room number and name of the hotel, the Elysium.4 Each letter is followed by brief comments by an omniscient narrator that allow us to identify the writer as the ballerina wife. As Altman affirms, “Addressee-consciousness informs the act of writing” (111), and the style of the 21 and 29 May 1973 letters is designed to produce certain effects upon their intended recipient. He must be led to believe that his wife is not only having an affair but is doing so with a man who is far beneath her socially. The references to reputation are aimed at Felisberto's concern with public opinion and his own honor (any red-blooded man should be able to satisfy and control his wife), and the writer anticipates his reactions, such as his turning the envelope over to see if there is a return address and trying to track down his anonymous “friend and admirer,” who in the second note announces that she has quit her job and thus cannot be found. The writer's use of a pencil and her poor handwriting (she uses her left hand to scrawl the address) are extraverbal signs that reinforce the impression that she is a woman of little education. Letters are frequently tools for seduction, but in this instance the two false letters are intended to seduce (lead astray) in a special way. Why, we may well ask, would a wife want her husband to believe she is deceiving him with another man? Is she in fact doing so? How many layers of deception are at play here? The questions raised whet our appetite and propel us into the main body of the narrative.
Part I, “Coppelia,” opens with a social column from El Mundo (The World) of San Juan, dated 6 April 1971. The name of the newspaper is somewhat ironic in that the world portrayed in the column is that of a very limited and restricted social circle; it is less mundo than mundillo. (The diminutive -illo communicates smallness.) The gushing columnist reports on the “marvelous” performance “by our very own Pavlova Dance Troupe” of the ballet by the “famous” composer Leo Delibes. The “soiree” attended by the “creme de la creme,” is proof that the cultural life of the “Beautiful People” (the “BPs”) is reaching “unsuspected heights” (91). The hyperbolic language, sprinkling of French words, and pretentious title of the local dance company speak eloquently of the superficiality and smugness of the island's elite. Over half the column is devoted to a description of the BPs who grace this benefit performance for charitable causes supported by CARE. (The organization's name seems very out of place in this context.) The concern with appearances that was reflected in the introductory letters comes to the fore now in detailed descriptions of the attire of the elegant clotheshorses in attendance. Elizabeth Fernandez, we are told, “wore one of Fernando Pena's exquisite new models, done in sun-yellow chiffon with tiny feathers, which made a striking contrast with her dark hair” (91). The women are presented as belonging to their husbands. The columnist speaks of Robert Martinez and his Mary, George Ramirez and his Marta, Jorge Rubinstein and his Chiqui, Johnny Paris and his Florence. The women have no identity of their own and even their names are not Hispanic but Anglo (more chic, assuredly) or nicknames (Norat 19). Hollywood actresses are the cultural models for these peacocks. The guest star for the evening is Liza Minnelli, and mention is made of Marlene Dietrich and Elizabeth Taylor.
The gossipy writer eventually gets around to commenting on the ballet and its star, María de los Angeles Fernandez, daughter of Don Fabiano and his Elizabeth. One of the highlights of the ballet is Swanilda's performance as the mechanical doll Coppelia. It is at this juncture that María de los Angeles makes a spectacle of herself, a thing no respectable woman should ever do:
[She] began to spin madly across the room. It seems she was improvising, and her act didn't fall in with her role at all. Finally, she sprang into a monumental jete, which left the audience breathless. She leapt over the orchestra pit and pirouetted down the carpeted aisle. Flinging open the theater doors, she disappeared down the street like a twirling asterisk.
The passage is a revealing one, with its depiction of a young girl who refuses to follow an imposed script, rebels against her role as it has been written-choreographed, and makes a mad bid for freedom, leaping over barriers and throwing open doors. The idea that her rebellion and flight are doomed to failure is suggested by the comment that she “later returned to the stage, and danced marvelously the rest of the evening” (92). Women who don't know their place, or who refuse to keep it, are often driven to madness and/or suicide, and the same fate will befall María de los Angeles. This column, which is a biting portrayal of the frivolity and inauthenticity of island society, the machismo of its guys and the empty-headedness of their dolls, sets the tone for the remainder of Part I.
It consists of four letters, the first of which is framed by two fragments of the interior monologue of María de los Angeles. The first fragment introduces her double, Carmen Merengue, the trapeze artist and tightrope walker who was Don Fabiano's lover.5 Carmen is a popular Hispanic name that for opera lovers and moviegoers, in particular, evokes images of passionate, free-spirited gypsies.6 Merengue designates both a Caribbean dance rhythm and a culinary concoction (meringue). Carmen, “this Latin dish, the flying knife, the human boomerang, the female firecracker, with meteorite-red hair” (92) is the antithesis of the convent-educated María de los Angeles who, if her name is any indication, should be virginal and angelic. One is a “bad girl” circus performer, the other is a society “good girl”; one is Don Fabiano's mistress, the other is his daughter. But like the two Isabels of “When Women Love Men” (“Cuando las mujeres quieren a los hombres”), Carmen and María de los Angeles have much in common, including a passion for dance, literal or figurative balancing acts, and their status as victims of patriarchy. Carmen, shut in and shut up in the tiny room her sugar daddy rents for her, cannot bear her confinement and runs back to the circus. María de los Angeles, whose existence is comparably circumscribed, also tries to break out of the prison in which she is confined. The obstacles that stand in her way are more difficult to overcome, as the letters of Part I demonstrate.
The Mother Superior of the Academy of the Sacred Heart writes to Don Fabiano on 9 and 17 April 1971, and he answers on 14 and 27 April. The two powerful figures, representatives of Church and patriarchal family plus State (Don Fabiano is mayor of San Juan), engage in a sparring match in which the stakes are high: the soul of María de los Angeles and the fortune she will inherit. Although one of the combatants employs the language of religion and the other that of big business, the two are remarkably similar in their determination and are well matched. The initial letter is motivated by the shocking publicity about the girl's performance in Coppelia and the Mother Superior's fears with respect to the dangers to body and soul that lie in wait for those who seek fame in what she calls “the world of entertainment” (93), not “the world of art.” She obviously does not want to offend the man who is the main benefactor of the convent and so is quick to express gratitude for his recent donation of a 90-gallon water heater that has made life more pleasant for nuns and live-in students alike. Using the old carrot-and-stick technique, she writes that Don Fabiano's daughter was to receive the Academy's coveted Sacred Medallion at graduation time but, regretfully, she will be expelled from the school unless she abandons the Pavlova Troupe. Don Fabiano promptly responds with the information that he has withdrawn his daughter from the dance company. He then proceeds to issue his own warning. He and his wife, unfortunately, have not been blessed with a son and so María, his only child, is his sole heir. As he pointedly remarks, Mother Superior can certainly appreciate his desire to protect his fortune, for she is responsible for watching over the considerable assets of the Church. If Don Fabiano's daughter were pressured into taking the veil, he would have to remove her from the academy and send her to the mainland to study. He then holds out his own carrot, promising that as long as María thrives under the protection of Reverend Mother, the convent will lack for nothing. Round one ends in a draw. The gloves begin to come off in round two.
Epistolary openings and closings reveal much about the relationship between writer and addressee (Altman 146). They signal the degree of formality or informality, of coolness or warmth, that exists between correspondents, and changes in salutations or closing phrases alert us to changes in the relationship itself. The tone of the 17 and 27 April letters is decidedly cool. The “Dear Don Fabiano” of the first missive has become “Dear Mr. Fernandez,” and Reverend Mother signs off not “Cordially” but “Respectfully.” In her second epistle she rebukes Mr. Fernandez for putting worldly concerns, such as the fate of his distilleries, above a calling from God and piously reminds him that the good Lord has put us here on earth only on loan. She delivers a final punch: “It would seem that the name you yourselves gave your daughter is a sure sign that Divine Providence has been on our side since the child was born” (98). The words “on our side” underscore the idea of rivalry that permeates this exchange of letters. The correspondents are like two boxers fighting for a prize or businessmen bidding for the same piece of property (María de los Angeles). Don Fabiano's note with the news that his daughter fell into a coma upon being told that she could no longer dance, sets the scene of Part II.
In its opening paragraphs, the story of “Sleeping Beauty,” with its celebration of the passive female who waits to be awakened by a kiss from a prince, is filtered through the mind of María de los Angeles and (con)fused with the film The Red Shoes, which tells of obsessive dancing.7 Third and first person alternate:
… she thought she'd make a tour of the castle, … she'd never done that before because something was forbidden and she couldn't remember what, she went through the hallway taking tiny steps tippytoes in tiny slippers, … like Moira Shearer on tippytoes tapping the floor, … DANCE! that's what was forbidden! Felisberto draws his face close to mine, he kisses my check, is it you, my prince, my love, the one I've always dreamt of? … wake up my love, you'll be able to dance all you want, the hundred years are up. …
The language (tiny steps, tippytoes, tiny slippers) indicates how María de los Angeles has been infantilized, and the passage reflects her internalization of fairy tales and ballet plots and the romanticized vision of the world they project, a vision that is far removed from real fife. Her father is more clear-eyed. In the next letter, dated 29 April 1971 and addressed to the Mother Superior, he gives a straightforward account of how his daughter recovered from her coma and was awakened by a kiss from the young man she had been seeing on the sly. Although Felisberto Ortiz is from a humble background, he is sensible and the two are to wed. One hundred years of deep sleep have been modified to ten days of coma and intravenous feeding. The King, Queen, and Prince have been reduced to the less than regal figures of Dan Fabiano, his Elizabeth, and Felisberto. Life, it seems, does not live up to its fictionalized billing. Nor does it always provide “and they lived happily ever after” endings.
The rest of Part II focuses on what is to be the wedding of the year and rounds out the incisive portrait of island society and the mentality of its more prominent members. The 20 January 1972 social column from El Mundo is as effusive as the earlier one. The writer gushes about Felisberto, a promising Young Urban Professional with a PhD from Boston University and a position in the local branch of Kidder and Peabody, as well as about the generosity of Don Fabiano, who has donated a Frigid Icing air-conditioning system to the Academy of the Sacred Heart so that “the BPs will be able to enjoy the glitter of our Holy Mother Church wrapped in a delightful Connecticut chill” (103). She also announces the forming of a new group of BPs, known as the SAPs (Super Adorable People). Once again the satire is savage, the language is hyperbolic, and the United States is viewed as the source of most things good, be they brokerage houses, degrees in marketing, or cooling units. Newspaper clippings pasted by Elizabeth in her daughter's wedding album and captions written beneath the photos of the ceremony complete the portrait. The heading “For my Darling Daughter, so as to Herald Her Entry into the Enchanted World of Brides” (103) echoes the lexicon of fairy tales. The first clipping suggests an oh-so-cute idea for a shower gift: a length of clothesline to which pastel-colored unmentionables have been pinned, all done up in Saran Wrap and decorated with artificial flowers. The second tells what brands of fine china, silver and crystal should adorn a bride's table (Limoges and Baccarat are always in good taste), and the third is a saccharine little piece about the virtues of a Christian, self-sacrificing wife and mother. The photo caption “Married at last! A dream come true!” (105) suffices as an example of the fatuous phrases Elizabeth has preserved for posterity in her daughter's album. After we read these items, we can well understand the desire of María de los Angeles to escape from this milieu.
The new bride's fears surface in the interior monologue that initiates the third act of the drama. Her point of reference is now Giselle and, as was the case with the tale of Sleeping Beauty, she identifies with the tragic heroine of the ballet:
… she suspects be wasn't simple peasant, as he had told her, but was going to turn into a Prince with vested interests at any moment, … Loys always succeeds in his objectives and he's not about to let Giselle get away from him, … but no, Giselle is mistaken, Loys truly loves her, he won't get her pregnant, … she knows its too late, there's no escape now, she feels Felisberto's band pressing her elbow, marching her down the center of the aisle.
The 25 February 1972 El Mundo review of the “fabulous” wedding and reception treats us to a description of the white silk carpet, imported from Thailand, that lined the chapel's main aisle and the 3,000 orchids flown in from Venezuela and placed in rock-crystal vases imported from Ireland. Despite the writer's praise of the “simplicity” of the affair, it reeks of ostentation. Anything imported, it would appear, is superior to Puerto Rican goods. The fitting climax to the extravaganza is the coy announcement of the birth of a baby boy on 5 November 1972: “HELLO! I ARRIVED TODAY” (108). The remaining letters all comment in some fashion on the supposedly blessed event. Reverend Mother Martinez, on 7 December 1972, congratulates Don Fabiano on the birth of his grandson and looks forward to receiving an invitation to the christening. The little cherub, after all, must not be condemned to limbo. Six days later the new grandfather replies with the shocking news that María de los Angeles has decided not to baptize her son. The ever-practical Don Fabiano is particularly disturbed because these “social events” (he does not say “religious events”) are good for business and strengthen bonds of personal loyalty. Reverend Mother promptly fires off a letter to María de los Angeles, in which she surmises that the new bride may be unhappy in her marriage, preaches resignation and self-sacrifice, not self-fulfillment, and reminds the young woman that it is her duty to devote herself to the baby sent to her by God and to put aside her world of imaginary princes and princesses. On 20 December 1973, Felisberto writes, but does not mail, a lengthy epistle to his father-in-law, and the last pieces of the puzzle begin to fall into place.
We discover that before the marriage, Felisberto promised María de los Angeles that she could continue her career as a dancer, without realizing that implicit in this commitment was the understanding they would never have children. After the baby was born—and in the English version of the story Felisberto glosses over the “detail” of his having forcibly impregnated his wife (see note 3)—things went reasonably well until a circus came to town and María de los Angeles saw a redheaded trapeze artist perform. Since then his wife has been “strangely absent” (114) and, to make matters worse, Felisberto has received two anonymous notes, scrawled in pencil. He plans to find out what is going on. The scene switches to room 7B of the Hotel Elysium where a naked María de los Angeles, sporting meteorite-red hair and fused with her double Carmen, practices on a tightrope while the man she has picked up sleeps soundly. The door of the room flies open and—the story cuts to Don Fabiano's final letter to Reverend Mother, dated 25 April 1974. It presents the official, sanitized version of what transpired in the Elysium, speaking of an unfortunate accident in which Felisberto burst in on his wife and her choreographer (innocently preparing a new dance routine), misinterpreted the situation, accidentally shot his wife, and then fell, fracturing his skull. What a neurotic, ambitious scoundrel that Felisberto was, and thank the good Lord that in his infinite mercy he has left Fabiano a grandson! Reverend Mother is, of course, invited to the christening, and she can rest assured that in the future the convent will want for nothing. Everything, it seems, has returned to normal. Fabiano's remark that the dead María de los Angeles, buried in her Jay Thorpe bridal gown, looked as if she were sleeping, “performing for the last time the role of Sleeping Beauty” (118), implies that his daughter, in death, has returned to the patriarchal fold and the role for which she, a female, was best suited. His picture of the beautiful, serene bride of Christ, with “her [wedding] veil billowing around her face like a cloud bank” (117) is undercut by the concluding section of interior monologue, which is a tortured jumble of partially formulated thoughts, echoes of false promises, prohibitions, and pious platitudes, and images of Coppelia, Sleeping Beauty, Giselle, and Carmen Merengue.
It is apparent that neither of the two men in the life of María de los Angeles ever comprehends why she is not content to follow the rules laid down by society, stick to prescribed roles, and be the stereotypical dutiful wife and mother. Don Fabiano notes with more than a touch of resentment that his daughter “was a stubborn child [and] never thought of the suffering she was inflicting upon us” (118), and Felisberto acknowledges his need for advice on how “to handle” his wife and “lead her down the right path” (112), as if she were a mare. Reverend Mother Martinez, a powerful and therefore masculine figure who incessantly preaches self-sacrifice and resignation for others, is no more understanding. And Don Fabiano's Elizabeth, a shadow without voice or influence, is of no account. By moving into public space and making a spectacle of herself, María de los Angeles provokes the opposition of all the powers that be. She is what Jean Franco has called a “self-destructing heroine.” Her rebellion against patriarchal institutions and texts and her struggle to improvise new roles does not—cannot—go unpunished. It is significant that the only story she is free to script is that of her own death, and even that script is rewritten by her father. Although he and those like him appear to have emerged victorious from the battle of text and countertext that is waged in the pages of “Sleeping Beauty,” it is the final, incomplete thought of the victim that lingers in our mind: “neither resigned nor content nor” (119). Ferré gives María de los Angeles the last, albeit unspoken, word. Epistles and documents, as well as cultural, social, balletic, and literary (inter)texts project a clear vision of what women “should” be: frivolous, ornamental, obedient dolls. Ferré counters this vision by juxtaposing opposing texts, producing tonal dissonance, presenting different versions of events, fragmenting the narrative, and portraying an unruly young woman who attempts a perilous balancing act. The story of that attempt serves to indict those who would impose confining roles upon a modern-day Pandora and to vindicate her resistance.
Anger, as Ferré declares, has driven many women writers (Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Ann Radcliffe, Mary Shelley, the Brontë sisters) to write. Her observation about “the art of dissembling anger, of refining the foil of the tongue to the point that it can more accurately pierce the reader's heart” (“How I Wrote” 147) is applicable to “Sleeping Beauty.”
See, for example, Apter-Cragnolino, Jiménez, Netchinsky, Norat, and Vélez.
I have used the 1991 translation by Ferré and Diana Vélez because it is also a rewriting and presumably reflects the author's rethinking of certain elements of the story. In the Spanish original, the introductory letters are dated 28 September and 5 October 1972, before the baby is born, and the one letter written by Felisberto, dated 30 May 1973, mentions his having received the day before the second of two anonymous letters. In the translation Ferré changes the dates of the introductory correspondence to 21 and 29 May 1973. It makes sense for these letters to have been written months after the baby's birth, when the magnitude of Felisberto's betrayal is evident. The translation contains additional modifications, such as the use of a variety of typefaces to discriminate among the different discourses, the toning down of the description of the “madness” of María de los Angeles during her performance of Coppelia, and the omission of the section of Felisberto's letter where, in effect, he confessed to having raped his wife—hardly the type of thing you would tell your father-in-law.
This last detail is a nice touch on Ferré's part, inasmuch as in Greek mythology Elysium was the dwelling place of the virtuous after death.
The importance of doubling in Ferré's work has been much studied, especially in connection with “When Women Love Men” and “The Youngest Doll.” See, for example, Lagos-Pope, Lopez, and Fernandez Olmos.
The Carlos Saura-Antonio Gades ballet version of Carmen dates from 1983, seven years after the publication of Ferré's story.
The 1948 film is based on one Andersen's fairy tales, yet another male-authored script.
Altman, Janet Gurkin. Epistolarity. Approaches to a Form. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1982.
Apter-Cragnolino, Aida. “El cuento de hadas y la Bildungsroman: Modelo y subversion en ‘La bella durmiente de Rosario Ferré.’” Chasqui 20.2 (1991): 3–9.
DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. Writing beyond the Ending. Narrative Strategies of Twentieth-Century Women Writers. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1985.
Fernandez Olmos, Margarite. “From a Woman's Perspective: The Short Stories of Rosario Ferré and Ana Lydia Vega.” Contemporary Women Authors of Latin America: Introductory Essays, ed. Doris Meyer and Margarite Fernandez Olmos. Brooklyn: Brooklyn College P, 1983. 78–90.
Ferré Rosario. “Una conciencia musical.” La escritora hispanica. Ed. Nora Erro-Orthmann and Juan Cruz Mendizabal. Miami: Ed. Universal, 1990. 7–15.
———. “Entrevista con Rosario Ferré.” Historias intimas: Conversaciones con diez escritoras latinoamericanas. With Magdalena Garcia Pinto. Hanover, New Hampshire: Ed. del Norte, 1988. 69–96.
———. “How I Wrote ‘When Women Love Men.’” The Youngest Doll. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1991. 147–51.
———. Papeles de Pandora. 2nd ed. Mexico: Joaquin Mortiz, 1979.
———. “Sleeping Beauty.” The Youngest Doll. 89–119.
———. “The Writer's Kitchen.” Trans. Diana L. Velez. Lives on the Line: The Testimony of Contemporary Latin American Authors. Ed. Doris Meyer. Berkeley: U of California P, 1988. 214– 27.
Franco, Jean. “Self-Destructing Heroines.” Minnesota Review 22 (1984): 105–15.
Hite, Molly. The Other Side of the Story: Structures and Strategies of Contemporary Feminist Narrative. Ithaca, New York: Cornell UP, 1989.
Lagos-Pope, María-Ines. “Sumision y rebeldia: el doble o la representacion de la alienacion femenina en narraciones de Marta Brunet y Rosario Ferré.” Revista Iberoamericana 132–33 (1985): 731–49.
Lopez, Yvette. “‘La muneca menor: Ceremonias y transformaciones en un cuento de Rosario Ferré.” Explicacion de Twos Literarios 11 (1982–83): 49–58.
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Mendez-Clark, Ronald. “La pasion y la marginalidad en (de) la escritura: Rosario Ferré.” La sarten par el mango. Ed. Patricia Elena Gonzalez and Eliana Ortega. Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico: Huracan, 1985. 119–30.
Netchinsky, Jill. “Madness and Colonization: Ferré's Ballet.” Revista de Estudios Hispanicos 25.3 (1991): 103–28.
Norat, Gisela. “Del despertar de ‘La bella durmiente’ al reino patriarcal.” Linguistica y Literatura 15 (1989): 17–31.
Velez, Diana L. “Power and the Text: Rebellion in Rosario Ferré's Papeles de Pandora.” MMLA 17 (1984): 70–80.
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SOURCE: A review of The House on the Lagoon, in World Literature Today, Vol. 70, Summer, 1996, pp. 690–91.
[In the following review, Stavans characterizes The House on the Lagoon in the magic realism mode of Latin-American literature, but also praises Ferré's efforts to make her fictional world accessible to English-speaking readers. This essay is a slightly revised version of Stavans' review in Nation (20 November 1995).]
Up until the nineties, Rosario Ferré's career developed mainly on the Spanish-language front. Born in Ponce, Puerto Rico, in 1942 and educated at Manhattanville College and the University of Maryland, where she received her Ph.D., she is first and foremost a Latin American femme de lettres—baroque, portentous, savvy, erudite. This might sound anachronistic in light of her most recent novel, The House on the Lagoon, a family saga of epic proportions about European immigrants and mulatto servants which, by all accounts, was written originally in English. Not that Ferré is venturing into unknown territory. It might be her debut as a fiction writer imagining the universe in Shakespeare's tongue, but it certainly is not her first literary experiment with the language itself: in 1988 Sweet Diamond Dust was early proof of her self-translation skills, which became less workmanlike, more mature a couple of years later, when the University of Nebraska Press published her rendition of The Youngest Doll, a collection of stories (1991). Which means, of course, that, ambitious and prolific as she is, Ferré's hispanophilia does not preclude an accomplished career in English as well, and therein lies her personal dilemma: she is a perfect embodiment of the Janus-like identity Puerto Rico emanates today, a mythical creature with two heads set back to back, impossibly “loyal to two fatherlands,” as the memorialist Bernardo Vega once put it.
Ferré is the daughter of Luis A. Ferré, a wealthy Puerto Rican entrepreneur with capital in, among other places, the cement industry, and also the owner of a media empire that includes Puerto Rico's leading newspaper, El Nuevo Dia (she has written a curious biography of her father: Memorias de Ponce), and her family tree is obviously the inspiration behind her new novel, a candid semiautobiography with a cast of hundreds that American readers should find lively and enlightening. Like most wealthy households in Puerto Rico today, Ferré's includes a wide range of opposing political views, from independentismo and statehood to support of the island's status quo as a commonwealth, from an open endorsement of Spanish as the official language to the relentless fight to make English the national tongue. That multiplicity of clashing viewpoints is the engine behind her book. Her objective, it seems, is to deliver a grand chronicle of Puerto Rico's political and emotional upheavals in the twentieth century, to focus simultaneously on the diplomatic and cultural stages and on the domestic sphere. The result is sweet, if occasionally flaccid.
Ferré la barroca has been replaced by Ferré la accesible, a writer mimicking early forms of realism à la Balzac and Zola. The prose is simple, unadorned, and engaging; the structure, straightforward to the verge of predictability. The accepted perception of Puerto Ricans as docile, reverential, gregarious, noncompetitive—debated by many, including the illustrious playwright René Marqués—is put to rest, at least partially. Ferré's characters, women and men alike, are possessed by destructive demons forcing them to eliminate any obstacle impeding their success. Her portrait of the island's society is that of newcomers ready to seize the day, of racial inequality, of a ruling European culture oppressing its mulatto counterpart, of forbidden miscegenation and cross-racial fertility. In fact, Ferré's creatures, while characteristically Hispanic, have the features of traditional American immigrants, which should make them all the more appealing: humble, self-motivated, expatriate male dreamers in search of fortune; well-to-do wives parading in benefit galas, keeping secret lovers, and nurturing artistic drives. Her book will make readers invoke hundreds of similar family sagas which Mario Vargas Llosa once described as “total novels” involving … well, in Ferré's case, just about everything soap-opera fans might expect.
The House on the Lagoon is seasoned not with sibling rivalry and ideological radicalism but with prophecy, santería sorcery, and Afro-Caribbean witchcraft. And that, I'm afraid, is where Ferré's main weakness is to be found. Her narrative suffers from what I shall call “the Macondo syndrome,” an endemic sickness through which writers worldwide, by a stroke of lightning, duplicate One Hundred Years of Solitude. Her novel's resourceful design, its structure, its pathos are derivative of Gabriel García Márquez to the point of annoyance. Or better, they seemed to be modeled after imitations, and imitations of other imitations, such as Isabel Allende's House of the Spirits. Ferré's book features a novel within a novel, much like the scrolls of the gypsy Melquíades. Although individual protagonists trace their roots to Spain and Italy, the plot officially begins in 1917, when Buenaventura Mendizabal, the narrator's father-in-law and the family patriarch, reminiscent of the founder of the Buendía dynasty, disembarks the Vírgen de Covadonga in Puerto Rico. The tale ends with a plebiscite in 1993, when fictional independentistas stage a takeover, kidnapping an important executive.
The cast of hundreds includes Isabel Monfort, the heroine and talented narrator, a bit of a recluse not unlike Rebecca, the Buendías' adopted daughter. Then there is Milan Pavel, an architect from Czechoslovakia and Frank Lloyd Wright's protégé, known as “the Wizard from Prague,” who resembles Pietro Crespi, the suicidal Italian music master in García Márquez's classic masterpiece. Finally, at the heart of Ferré's volume is Petra, a clairvoyant mulatta maid like Pilar Ternera, the generous woman of easy virtue frequently sought out by the inhabitants of Macondo. Resemblances, imitations mirroring other imitations, characters possessed by the strange feeling of being unoriginal, simple echoes, residuals, hand-me-downs are of course what contemporary Latin American letters are all about. Evidently, Ferré is a devoted alchemist capable of mastering the recipe. Unfortunately, she does not dare to take matters one step further, subverting its mechanisms. More's the pity, at least for those with any form of literary memory.
Others with a less critical eye, however, will surely enjoy The House on the Lagoon. With it Ferré consolidates her niche in the growing tradition of Latin American novelists, represented among others by María Luisa Bombal and the late Manuel Puig (see WLT 65:4, pp. 566–662), capable not only of translating themselves but of unraveling original fictional universes in the English language. She also brings forth to a wider audience, in charming fashion, the dilemmas of Puerto Rico's divided self, painfully torn between two loyalties since the Spanish-American War, if not since earlier colonial times.
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SOURCE: “Family History,” in New York Times Book Review, February 22, 1998, p. 16.
[In the following review, Childress offers qualified praise for Eccentric Neighborhoods, admiring the tone and style of the novel but faulting the characterization and the quantity of individual story lines.]
In recent years, the outpouring of Latin American fiction has come to seem a bit stale, a long-running show in which the literary heirs of Gabriel García Márquez (and even the master himself) must strain ever harder to dazzle us with magic-realist tricks. The most refreshing thing about Rosario Ferré, one of Puerto Rico's most influential writers, is that she keeps her feet firmly planted on the ground. No cows are seen to fly. No passionate lovers burst into flame. The magic in Ferré's fiction arises from the intertwined experiences of human beings, carrying the story of 20th-century Puerto Rico in the arc of their lives.
Ferré's first novel written in English, The House on the Lagoon, was a National Book Award finalist in 1995. Her ambitious new novel feels like a memoir rendered as fiction. The author hails from two upper-crust Puerto Rican families; her father, Luis A. Ferré, was once Governor General of the island. Eccentric Neighborhoods is the story of two fine old families, the Rivas de Santillanas and the Vernets, coming together and breaking apart, gaining and losing several fortunes. The cast includes both a governor general and an observant woman named Elvira Vernet, our narrator, the vessel into which all the family stories are poured.
Elvira remembers long driving trips in the 1940's with her mother, Clarissa, from the city of La Concordia to Emajaguas, deep in the sugarcane fields, where Clarissa's mother, Valeria, and father, Alvaro, raised five remarkable daughters and an unremarkable son. To reach Emajaguas in those days, travelers had to cross the bridgeless Rio Loco, which could rise to flood stage without warning. One day, packed into their chauffeur-driven Pontiac, Elvira and her mother are stranded in midcurrent, with muddy water rising ominously. Four peasants appear with their oxen. “Clarissa opened her handbag, took out a dollar and waved it at them from inside the window.” The oxen are hitched to the bumper, the car towed across. “Once on shore, she slipped the dollar bill to the peasants through a crack at the top of the window and ordered Cristobal to start the car. The Pontiac jumped forward, its shiny blue-and-white surface dripping with mud, and took off at full speed.”
This encounter is emblematic of the novel as a whole. The peasants of Puerto Rico are glimpsed from behind glass, toiling in the heat while the people who have grown wealthy from their labor drive by, waving dollars. Alvaro presides over formal dinners in his grand house with a view of the sea. Every weekend there are picnics on the beach “with an army of servants carrying practically the whole kitchen with them.” Alvaro's daughters—Clarissa, Siglinda, Dido, Artemisa and Lakhme—all inherited “the same swan's neck, milk-white skin and delicate nose, and for that reason Abuelo Alvaro was known … as the Zeus of Emajaguas, father of the five Ledas of Mount Olympus.” This image is echoed by five noisy geese honking in the yard, which “were said to resemble my aunts running after their suitors.”
The first half of the novel is consumed with stories of these swans and their tangled love lives. The plantation culture that produced the Rivas de Santillana fortune is slowly dying, but these people behave as if they will always live in luxury. Their passive sense of noblesse oblige is what dooms them.
The stories are not arranged into anything resembling a plot. Instead, they tumble out of Elvira's consciousness, moving back and forth in time, a process of accretion that sometimes feels programmatic but often has a strangely hypnotic effect. Dido, who wants to be a poet, sacrifices her dreams in order to make a good marriage. Artemisa sets her cap for a wealthy old widower who is obsessed by the bizarre death of his granddaughter. Lakhme is a victim of fashion, and all the Dior gowns in her closet can't help her hold onto a husband. Each of these women tries, without success, to be unconventional and liberated.
Once the aesthetic sensibilities of her mother's family are established, the narrator moves on to her father, Aurelio Vernet, and repeats the process of spilling forth stories. The Vernets are rough-and-tumble types, recent arrivals from Cuba. Elvira's grandfather, Abuelo Chaguito, and his four hearty sons start from nothing and build a fortune in iron and cement.
Ferré makes clear that the families are symbols of larger forces colliding in Puerto Rico after the arrival of the Americans. The Rivas de Santillanas represent the dreamy agrarian past, the Vernets the grasping industrial future. The Vernets, we are told, “had made their fortune cleanly, without taking anything away from anyone. Theirs was a very different situation from that of Abuelo Alvaro, for example, who had made his money by fighting tooth and nail to keep his precious acres of land from his neighbors, the powerful American sugar mills.” Once their fortune is established, the Vernets enter politics, allying themselves with the Americans and the dream of statehood. Ultimately, they find that the future they have brought to the island is not the sleek, efficient society they imagined. Aurelio Vernet's accession to Puerto Rico's highest office is anticlimactic, a time of sadness, disorder, exhaustion.
Elvira, meanwhile, has been so alienated by her mother's patrician, possessive ways that she has married a man she doesn't love; he is, she wrongly believes, “my door to freedom from Mother's hell.” Of course, he turns out to be a door to another form of hell. Only Clarissa's death makes possible for Elvira what her mother “had wanted for herself when she was young: a career that would lead to self-respect and economic independence.” In the end, Elvira's dreams are reminiscent of Puerto Rico's. Although they have both been disappointed in the past, the novel concludes on a hopeful note.
Throughout Eccentric Neighborhoods, the author's voice is bright and vital. The more dramatic of her stories keep the narrative rolling along, but there are simply too many of them. It's easy to lose track of the characters, and some of their fates feel stage-managed; they are more valuable as symbols than as real, breathing presences. Yet Rosario Ferré has set herself a daunting project, trying to render the whole modern history of an island through an intensely detailed study of a group of characters, and if she falls short of that goal, we can still admire the lovely flow of language, the wit and intelligence she brings to the task.
Additional coverage of Ferré's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 131;Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 55, 81; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 145; Hispanic Literature Criticism Supplement, Vol. 1; Hispanic Writers, Vols. 1, 2; Major 20th-Century Writers, Vol. 1; and Short Story Criticism, Vol. 36.