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.