Crítica literaria / Fiction / Teaching / Translation / Uncategorized

Writing at Night – Inhabit the Canons: Thoughts About the Queer “I” in Latin American Literature

In every language there is the presence of all its history, carrying with it the tales of its conquest and vanquishing, its periods of enrichment and periods of impoverishment. In the omissions of a language we hear the silences it has brought about on others, and in its eloquence, the story of the way its own people have been silenced. A language cannot speak in a single tone. Every word is a cacophony, every sentence a lesson in history constructed of intrusions and omissions. And this applies to queer  consciousness, queer people, the story of a multiplicitous queer identity sealed within the dominant heterosexual dichotomy.
How do we find our way in what we read of the past, using our own language? As a writer I have traveled, without planning it, between two manifestations of language, emigrating from one linguistic ideological continent to another, literally and figuratively, and I’ve struggled with charting this path for myself. I didn’t always get where I was going, but I’ve found places I could have reached, and begun to understand the places where I have come. This is where I write, where I think. As an immigrant it is definitely a place in between, as a bilingual being, as a lesbian, as a woman, as an activist. These are the notes of my travels.
One of the steps I have taken is to examine my relationship with the literary canons of the cultures that define me, or produce my thinking. Here, I can talk about how I have formulated a relationship with dominant canons of literature which still define who I am— the collective queer “I”– as a person on the margins, and contain me, spark creativity in me, even while failing to support my intrinsic identity, and more importantly my cognitive being which is the source of my creativity. What is surprising in this search is that in spite of marginalization and sometimes literary genocide, not only do I exist, as the people this I represents—  we, the minorities, the marginals—  but that we have been reciprocally influential in the creation of those very canons. This is why I use the queer “I” when I talk about “us” —  it helps to recognize my own agency and impact in all this.
How have I influenced the dominant canons? Indeed, they could not exist without my presence. I am making reference to the concept of opposite elements containing each other, for instance, the absence or presence of light. In fact, what wonderful symbolism—in this imagery we see light as something constructed while darkness is a natural state, interrupted by light.  Can we say then that darkness engenders the concept of light? Why not. But what is instructive is that if light as a concept cannot exist without darkness, then I suggest the concept of heterosexual union could not exist in literature if there were not somewhere the possibility that men would not choose women, and women would not choose men. Characters in literature are only heterosexual then, because within the queer I, I am a lesbian, because we are gay, queer, not heterosexual. And I exist within the canon of Latin American literature as a woman and as a mestiza, for similar reasons. That canon is predicated on a European legacy of language and culture which defines itself against the existence of the very lands and people it has pillaged and murdered. The colonial mentality of most early Latin American literature is an impulse of definition apart from Indigenous and African culture, slowly becoming a blend of all three cultures until the concept of mestizaje in literature is what makes Latin American literature unique.
For a traveler like myself, between the spaces created by this new canon and the adoption of the Anglo American canon, I exist. To search for evidence of that existence I have tried to chart the path of development of consciousness as a writer, to see what the options have been for me and how I came to choose them. This is what I have discovered. First, there is the construction of the lesbian identity that cannot be found specifically in a literary site, but rather in the perspective of that literature. María Luisa Bombal wrote the short story, La historia de María Griselda, after the publication in 1938 of her novel, La amortajada, almost as an excerpt of the novel. She translated the novel into English in 1948 as The Shrouded Woman. It is the classic story of mestizaje and post-colonial class prejudices. In it, class status is judged according to European standards, and beauty according to its proximity to whiteness. Women’s worlds are strictly circumscribed by male authority, yet women are free in the one place where men cannot follow—the supernatural world. This world is symbolized by María Griselda, whose unearthly beauty captures even her mother-in-law, her greatest admirer and the narrator of the book.

“She had entered the room, and approached stealthily toward the bed. María Griselda! From the pillows, her face emerged serene. Never, oh, never had she seen eyebrows so perfectly arched! It was as if some slim dark swallow had opened its wings over the eyes of her daughter-in-law and had remained there very still in the center of her white forehead. The eyelashes! Black, dense, lustrous eyelashes! . . .  And the nose, the small proud nose . . . And the frail slender neck. And the shoulders rounded like ripe fruit.  And…  In order to help her out of her fainting spell, Alberto had just taken off her blouse, her riding skirt. Oh, her small firm breasts!  So close to her body, with that fine sky blue vein winding between them.  And her round smooth hips.  And her long, long legs!” (201)

I begin with a quote from a classic work of literature by a Chilean author as a way of questioning what are the roots of Latin American/Latina  literary tradition, and what primordial identifications do they contain. This story is classic because it functions  on the assumption of a layered world. The world above is ruled by men and patriarchal principles. The world below, however, which includes the power of life and death, of love and irrepressible desire, of magic, of color, of the indigenous legacy, of food, the soul, and the supernatural principles of a matriarchy, is ruled by women. All of this is accepted as long as the knowledge remains implicit, and this is the key to the Chilean literary psyche—the power of the narrative exists in this world below. Even if the approach and the sensibility is obviously queer, it is not evident unless it surfaces. Once it surfaces, the societal assumptions would be threatened at their core—what isn’t patriarchal is queer—and so, María Griselda can exist as the classic Chilean lesbian story without ever surfacing. It can exist with all its homoerotic sensuality right under the noses of the literary establishment and still be enjoyed by “deviants” many years later.

But first, implicit in being a lesbian is a deviant female identity. As a woman growing up in the Latin America of the 1950s the first intellectual fact I had to face was the justification of my existence. That this necessity is intellectual, by no means do I imply that it did not influence my social reality. Indeed, this fact percolates through to every woman’s conception of herself whether or not there is consciousness of it. To be a woman, a thinking woman, meant first having to satisfy the purpose of one’s being alive. As a young girl, it was very important to appear completely uninterested in the affairs of men, lest one be identified as a loose girl. At the same time, one must not appear to neglect one’s duty to endeavor to be at least pleasant, if not pretty or beautiful, and always pleasing and humble when expressing original ideas and intellectual curiosity. If a girl was not interested in being pleasant and satisfying the requisite that she please others, and was unduly interested in intellectual pursuits, she might be dubbed graceless, stupid, arrogant, and most injurious of all, selfish.
If a girl did not happen to find sufficient stimulation among girls and the company of other women, such as her teachers, her mother, and her female relatives, she might have been tempted to expand her horizons to conversations with young men and boys. Here, she would risk being dubbed man-hungry or some other such epithet that would immediately become intrusive and violate her own sexuality, whether or not she was aware of it yet. Alternately, if she kept company with men and was not interested romantically, naturally, she would be identified as a tomboy, lesbian, or simply unnatural for not being interested in the very arena which was forbidden to her.
Paradoxically, if a girl was perfectly satisfied keeping the company of girls and women and thrived in her scholarship and intellectual pursuits, she would also be identified as a tomboy, lesbian, or, simply, as unnatural. For a “lesbian girl,” or a girl outside the compulsory heterosexual possibility, let us say, a queer girl, the primordial imperative was about how to maintain this balance in order to be allowed to have an intellectual life. What this lack of latitude for a woman’s agency accomplishes is that at no point then can a woman escape the intrusion of the male presence in her intellectual life, not to mention her social and emotional life, and she must at all times be ready to present some justification for her existence in order not to be thrown out of the acceptable social margin. What this does to a woman who is a writer and a lesbian is that it leaves her very few options to be able to think, write, and have some control of her life.
In mid- to late twentieth century Latin America, then, for the writers of my generation, the literary paths available are basically these two: One is through the untouched purity of the example of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, who had the good sense to get herself safely tucked away in a convent in order to think, write, and have some control of her life. The other is through the purifying effect of suffering which is the example of Gabriela Mistral, who sublimated passion into celibate art and a Christian path to spirituality in order to think, write, and have some control of her life. Basically, the Latin American woman who thinks, must escape male ownership through art that is celibate in nature or at least does not provide a terrain for male occupancy in her work.
To this desolate landscape enters Cristina Peri Rossi. In her narrative, the original voice is male, which satisfies a social demand that intellectually challenging prose allow for an identification and an engagement by the perceived Latin American reading public, which is male. By making the narrator male, and by relating to women in a masculine context, Peri Rossi’s creation can eschew the scrutiny and the rejection that would be given de facto to any narrative that could be termed “feminine.” Particularly in the novels Ship of Fools and Dostoevsky’s Last Night, Peri Rossi offers us this possibility to exist boldly lesbionically and still escape unscathed from the hetero-inquisition. Her poetry in Evohé is another story, but Poetry in general in our culture, is allowed to be another story, from the lesbo-sonnets of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, to the insistently misinterpreted love-as-death poems of Gabriela Mistral.
The scrutiny to which I refer is the invasive prerogative of the Latin male reader/critic which is endowed with the privilege of not merely looking at the work of the female writer but rather into the psyche of the writer herself. In fact, the critical analysis of the female writer’s work is secondary. Therein lies the automatic rejection because the work itself was never intended to be considered, it was only a subterfuge for the initial intrusion. Witness the appraisal of Maria Luisa Bombal’s The Story of Maria Griselda, from a 1977 edition by the writer and critic Amado Alonso: “How fortunate that the masculine profession of writing hasn’t masculinized yet one more female writer! An efficacious expressive element of this sentimental and fantastic halo and of the particular emotional mode is the rhythm, a delicate rhythm, never sing-song nor declamatory. In various passages of emotional intensification, the rhythm of the phrasing acquires the brevity of anxious breathing, a rhythm that is lightly, weightlessly, sustained.” (Translation mine) (86)
Characterization of this sort is typical but it cannot be called literary criticism. The more creative and innovative the writer, the more daring and more serious her work, the more intrusive the gaze will be. The role of the male critic/reader has been accepted to be that of arbiter of acceptable social (read patriarchal) norms. The critic will weigh how well within the norms the writer’s genius falls, (neither sing-song nor declamatory, says Alonso) and then assign praise based on how well a writer continues to be feminine despite the brilliance of her work. This is why, incidentally, this praise comes in the form of a literary piropo, an acquiescence to the writer’s charms as a woman, not a craftsperson, not an artist or a thinker. In the example above we have the epitome, as Alonso not only expresses relief that Bombal’s prose, while brilliant and poetic, does not appear to be a threat to masculine ego therefore less feminine, and he makes a boorish attempt to draw an orgasmic parallel out of his perception of Bombal’s exquisite lyricism in María Griselda.
In the work of Cristina Peri Rossi we might say that she has succumbed as female writer to such historical intrusion, and has transformed herself, through her work, into a neutered writer, that is, male. But it is through the path of creating characters who appear or are assumed to be male that she is able to write about more than what is acceptable for female writers. Bombal had to find a way to write about the enormous power of women by writing about mysticism, nature, and creating in fact, the nascent school of magic realism in the 1930s, so much so that Carlos Fuentes credits her with being “the mother of us all.” But Peri Rossi can write about power, female eroticism, the transgender desire of women for women, and even about sex between women, by eschewing the precise identification of gender in her work. By separating gender from sex, Peri Rossi achieves the novel effect of letting the male reader assume that he is seeing his own persona reflected in the work, while women readers are free to explore Peri Rossi’s radical queer universe without having to endure the intrusive scrutiny of the male critic into the author herself, and by extension, into our own psyche, Eros, and spirit. This is how we manage to exist within our literature, within our language, within our cultural references, when we are unable to claim a cultural/intellectual space of our own.
Surprisingly, there is no limit to the ways we adjust to existing within that canon. Octavio Paz wrote about the decidedly gay non-fiction novel by Argentinian writer, Hector Bianciotti that when we discover ourselves in another language we are finally able to separate ourselves from our past. The novel, What The Night Tells the Day, was the first book written by Bianciotti in French.

“Our past is so profoundly linked to our mother tongue that the resurrection of this past in a different language is both a discovery and a farewell: the encounter with the person we once were becomes a definitive separation.” (vi)

Hector Bianciotti is an Argentinian writer who, very much like Julio Cortázar, surrealist, author of Hopscotch and many other “seminal” works, left his native country to live in Europe in the 1950s, specifically, Paris. Bianciotti, however, left because he was from a small town in Argentina and he was gay; he was persecuted, beaten, jailed, and threatened with certain death. He continues to write in Spanish, for the most part, and to have his novels translated into French. This book, which is of ambiguous genre, you might call it a “transgenre” book, is a novel of his life, or a fictionalized autobiography, or perhaps a memoir in the shape of a novel. What is unique for Bianciotti is that this book is in French, and in it, the writer searches and defines his queer identity for the first time.
Octavio Paz is right, was right, in his inimitable brilliance, in saying that the author makes a discovery by writing his life in another tongue, and that in effect he severs that connection when he writes himself in this trans-memoir in French rather than in Spanish. But Octavio Paz has always been an absolutist, a categorical sort of Latin American sage. Remember that he is the one who explained to us the impossibility of the Mexican male (and by extension, the Latin American macho) to open himself up emotionally to another man in another seminal work of our heritage, The Labyrinth of Solitude. Paz told us that if the macho opens up, the way he almost does emotionally in relationships with women, this man would tear himself open, — se raja— and he would never be able to recover his manhood again. Therefore, un hombre que es hombre, would never open himself up emotionally, and certainly not physically, to another man.
But Paz, like the rest of us at least, did evolve and it is quite significant that in the elite world of Latin American letters, he consented to write the foreword to this book in which this pato Argentino se raja con todo el mundo! What we can appreciate about Bianciotti’s journey is that it is in fact both things. A farewell to the limiting definition of himself in his mother tongue, and a reencounter with himself in an expanded context. As queer Latinos who inhabit a bilingual universe, we have developed the ability to exist in two bodies of literature, the one which is our Latin American heritage, and the Anglo-American canon, and furthermore, we are participating in the creation of a body of literature which, hopefully, will begin to blur the distinction between a formalized canon and another—and this is the literature and the language of the margins to which we contribute with our very identities.

A final word about how we find our way from the margins to the center, and back again. An anecdotal reference. When I was growing up in Chile, my native country, I was very definitely a bookworm, and naturally my references for understanding most things in the world of adults came from books. I have fond memories of getting lost in books for days at a time, and one of my favorites was the series of the adventures of Papelucho, a little boy who kept a journal, written by Marcela Paz. I kept a journal, so I identified instantly. Papelucho’s adventures all began innocently enough with him trying to entertain himself in the world of adults and invariably failing to understand some subtlety that only adults knew, which got him into big trouble. All of Papelucho’s references came from books as well, and he inhabited the same large, confusing city of Santiago, in the late 50s and early 60s.  I felt these books were written for the children of my generation.
In the first book in the series, Papelucho Detective, the boy follows a new friend to his house across town:
“As we were walking to Chirigüe’s house, there was a tremendous fight and a guy was hitting another guy and a woman was screaming at them like a radio. Nobody cared because it seems that in this neighborhood people argue like this. The only bad thing was that the lady was yelling, but since no one paid attention to her, she got quiet. It turns out that the guy who won the argument took off and the one who lost was left lying on the ground with his own blood. I said to Chirigüe:
-Maybe he’s dead…
But he laughed.
-He’s drunk, the same as always.
I wasn’t convinced and I approached him.
-Listen, I said to the man. Do you want an aspirin?
But he looked at me with rhinoceros eyes and he spit blood. I knew that spitting blood is the worst thing. Then he rolled his eyes and left them up there, so I was pretty sure he was dead.”(11)

This book might seem rather exotic to many nine-year-olds, but to me, the references and the context of Papelucho’s world were perfectly familiar. The name Chirigüe is common, a nickname, the indigenous word for a little bird, very small and light, and also for luck, what fate might bring. Papelucho’s friend was actually a young man who lived on freight trains, a hobo, thrown about by the wind and circumstances. In my neighborhood, it was not a rare occurrence for people to have fights or yell outside their homes, but I had also been in such streets in the outskirts of Santiago and my impressions had been similar. Like Papelucho, I did not yet have the tools to judge people based on class or occupation. And from reading Spanish classics, or translations such as Ivanhoe and Robin Hood, I also knew that spitting blood and rolling of the eyes probably meant curtains for the afflicted.
When my family immigrated to the U.S., however, I found myself in English class at 14, reading Beowulf before I could conjugate regular verbs. The textbook presented the students with some approximation of what Old English must have sounded like, and the teacher came up with an apparently brilliant creative writing exercise. He asked us to keep journals of our daily life as if we were Saxon soldiers stranded in the battlefield. I’m certain my classmates struggled with this assignment, but for me, aside from the language barrier, this required a contextual leap for which I was unequipped. I was unrooted and sourceless in this literary landscape. Finally, with rudimentary phrases, I based my soldierly adventures on my memories of the Spanish translation of Ivanhoe, and somehow managed to pass the course.
I have pondered this incident because of what it shows about our approach as readers to texts, how they are presented and how, when we fall outside of what linguistic dominance presumes about us, we adjust. When I read Beowulf in English, and later the works of Chaucer, and Shakespeare, I was no longer reading what had once been foreign literature to me. What was presented was the canon of English literature and the way it was presented presumed an internal perspective of the culture.  Shakespeare was taught the way Cervantes had been taught to me before. When I read Don Quijote I was expected to shift my references in time, but not culturally. Children reading the adventures of Don Quijote and Sancho Panza in Latin America are presented with a canonical work and presumed to understand and to identify with the work in a holistic manner. Cervantes forms part of my canon as Shakespeare forms part of the Anglo-American one. I am supposed to understand the subtleties of 16th century Spanish humor the way people born in the United States are expected to muse knowingly over Hamlet’s existential despondency.
Canonical works are presented to the reader with the presumption of relevance, and for the most part, we manage to understand context by cultural osmosis; we breathe it in the air, we know how to perceive dominant culture no matter who we are, and based on who we are, we know how to find our place and the writing’s relevance to ourselves, and whether to relate to it, or reject it.  When one is a Queer reader traveling between languages, this journey becomes second nature.
What happens when a Latina or Latino queer writer writes outside of the expectations of that dominant culture? S/He will be held up against the traditional dichotomies of gender and sexual orientation, of culture and of language. When Sylvia Molloy, Argentinian writer and scholar, published the most decidedly lesbian novel En breve cárcel (Certificate of Absence), her narrator, unlike Cristina Peri Rossi’s,  was clearly female and the love object was clearly a woman. However, this is what we read on the back cover of the 1981 edition: “… a symbol of love and its fixation upon writing, it narrates in a closed chamber, of Spartan and rigorous nudity, the weaving and unraveling of memory— compulsive, violent, overwhelming— of love that is lived and at once alienated and acknowledged by the act of telling it…” (My translation).
Ultimately, our work (and our lives) will be examined through a construct that bears no relationship to who we are, yet our identity is made up of the very same elements that exclude us. In order to find out who I was when I began to write, I had to write. But I could not write until I knew who I was, until I found the places I existed in spite of being told that I didn’t exist. When I looked at my early writing I found that I could be defined as a product of my first literary canon, as well as the one I adopted. As much as I wanted to reject the archaic voices, they were part of me, and the voice that finally emerged from me, the one I could comfortably call mine, has been tempered by the echoes of GabrielaMistral, Manuel Rojas, García Lorca, Neruda, Parra, as well as by the childish inflection of Papelucho. What’s more, if I look at the continuing arc of my writing I see things that surprise me, such as having to accept that the quest that Erica is on, the protagonist of my novel, Living at Night, has overtones of Don Quijote, but also, undertones of Rubyfruit Jungle.
In the end, my Quijote might be a working class hero and in the landscape  of the Latina Queer I, they will be lesbians who have existed in the cultural and the literary legacy of the languages we have wrested from the conqueror.

1.    Works Cited

Bianciotti, Hector.  What The Night Tells The Day.  New York; The New Press, 1995.

Bombal, María Luisa.  La historia de María Griselda.  Chile; Ediciones Universitarias de Valparaíso,

______.  The Shrouded Woman.  Austin, TX; University of Texas Press, 1995.

De la Cruz,  Sor Juana Inés.  Obras Completas.  USA; Continental Book Co., 1998

Mistral, Gabriela.  Tala.  Buenos Aires; Editorial Losada, S.A., 1946.

Molloy, Sylvia. En breve cárcel (Certificate of Absence). Barcelona; Seix Barral, 1981

Paz, Marcela.  Papelucho Detective.  Santiago; Editorial Universitaria, 1960.

Paz, Octavio.  El laberinto de la soledad  (The Labyrinth of Solitude) NY; Penguin USA, 1997.

Peri Rossi, Cristina.  Dostoevsky’s Last Night.  New York; Picador USA, 1996.

______.  La nave de los locos (The Ship of Fools). Spain; Planeta Pub. Cor., 1995.

______.  Evohe: Poemas Eróticos. USA; Azul Editions, 1994

*All translations mine.


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