Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

After Judith Ortiz Cofer gave a poetry reading in 1987, a friend, Hilma Wolitzer, suggested that she take some of the images and subjects of her poems and create essays out of them. Silent Dancing is the result of that advice. In this memoir, she creates a unique form because in it she combines her essays with poems that share similar themes or, in some cases, retell or recast the same stories. It is unlike most other memoirs because of this blending of genres. The one-hundred-fifty-page memoir is composed of fourteen brief essays and eighteen short poems, eleven of which were previously published in the poetry collections Terms of Survival (1987) and Reaching for the Mainland (1987).

Ortiz Cofer announces her intentions for the memoir in “Preface: Journey to a Summer’s Afternoon.” Using Virginia Woolf, the British novelist and essayist, as a guide, Ortiz Cofer wants to “trace . . . the origins of [her] creative imagination” because she believes that reclaiming memories can “provide a writer with confidence in the power of art to discover meaning and truth in ordinary events.”

The “ordinary events” that Ortiz Cofer relates to the reader are actually quite remarkable. One is never quite sure how much of the memoir is a “partial remembrance” and how much of the past is, as Ortiz Cofer readily admits, “a creation of the imagination,” but the stories (or cuentos) are all surprising, moving, and evocative of that lost time of her childhood and adolescence.

The epigraph from Virginia Woolf that begins the book identifies the principal focus of the work: “A woman writing thinks back through her mothers.” The mothers that come to life in Silent Dancing include Woolf herself, as literary trailblazer; Ortiz Cofer’s mother and grandmothers, who model roles of behavior for women; and the “mother lands” of Puerto Rico and the United States. Ortiz Cofer must come to terms with the difficulties in each of these relationships and must come into her own womanhood, a womanhood that for her includes motherhood; her memoir is dedicated not only to her mother but also to her daughter, Tanya Cofer. The traditions are passed on, in a transformed manner, from generation to generation of women.


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Silent Dancing rises out of the memories and recollections of one woman, but the shape of that woman’s consciousness was formed by a long tradition of women who wrote about gender issues. When Ortiz Cofer admits the distance she has come from her mother’s dreams for her, saying, “I liberated myself from her plans for me, got a scholarship to college, married a man who supported my need to work, to create, to travel and to experience life as an individual,” she is describing a personal journey as well as the movement of a generation of women. She recognizes this debt in her preface by acknowledging the influence that Virginia Woolf’s writing had on her own. Her maternal grandmother, after having eight children, recognized the importance, as Woolf phrased it, of having a room of one’s own, but Ortiz Cofer, because she grew up during the social flux of the sixties and studied women’s writing, knew even before she married that her own internal life needed to be a central focus for her.

In comparison to other memoirs by women, Silent Dancing is different because of its emphasis on class and ethnicity. Patricia Hampl’s A Romantic Education, a beautiful memoir, presents perhaps the quintessential example of a writer within the dominant culture in America yearning for roots, for a specific ethnic identity. Hampl recognizes the romanticism of this quest and eventually accepts her membership within the relatively generic middle-class, white culture. Ortiz Cofer’s memoir demonstrates the overwhelming difficulties of having a specific ethnic identity. Although her Puerto Rican culture and heritage are rich and powerful, her memoir shows the pain and confusion that result from having a divided consciousness. Because she never quite fits into the fabric of either culture, she always feels a certain distance from both cultures. She writes on the cusp between the United States and Puerto Rico, and she has established herself as one of the preeminent voices in Puerto Rican American literature.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Hampl, Patricia. A Romantic Education. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981. This recollection of a Minnesotan girlhood and adulthood offers interesting comparisons with Ortiz Cofer’s memoir. Hampl journeys into the past and to Czechoslovakia in an attempt to forge roots. A beautiful memoir.

Hasselstrom, Linda. Land Circle: Writings Collected from the Land. Golden, Colo.: Fulcrum, 1991. This memoir, like Silent Dancing, interestingly combines poetry with essays. Hasselstrom mourns the death of her husband and describes her adventure in learning to live self-sufficiently on a cattle ranch in South Dakota.

Mohr, Nicholasa. Nilda. New York: Harper and Row, 1973. In her first novel, Mohr portrays life in New York’s Puerto Rican barrio. This is a candid portrayal of a Puerto Rican girl as she grows from a child to a teenager, learning to deal with racism and poverty.

Rodriguez, Richard. Hunger of Memory. Boston: David R. Godine, 1982. Rodriguez’s work offers an interesting parallel with Ortiz Cofer’s. Rodriguez’s memoir describes the coming-of-age of a Chicano intellectual. His work presents very poi-gnantly the pains of losing closeness with his immediate family because of his assimilation into Anglo-American culture. Unlike Ortiz Cofer, Rodriguez writes directly about political issues such as affirmative action.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. Reprint. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovano-vich, 1991. Ortiz Cofer traces her origins, in many ways, to this collection of essays. A must for anyone interested in women’s writing.