A Room, a House, a City of One’s Own: Four Women Prose Writers from Latin America

Peruvian writer Carmen Ollé with Enrique Verástegui and Vanessa Verástegui Ollé.

Public and Private

“Ah, what a great man that woman was!” said a senile Flaubert to an eminent French short-story writer after reading a passage of a letter written to him by George Sand, a woman who would enter the history of literature with a man’s name.

In the waning years of the nineteenth century, women were still struggling to claim their place, often in fits and starts, in the cultural scene. The sentence that left the mouth of the melancholic novelist had no ironic intentions whatsoever; what’s more, it contained within itself, even then, an impotent admiration or an unnameable praise for a woman of letters.

In almost all imaginable environments, there are specific spaces for each gender, as symbolic as they are geographic, mental, or bodily. What appeared as a truism in those days was expressed in the rigid strata of the public-man and the private-woman; those categories were beginning to dissolve, but they continued to delineate the domains of each gender. In that century and before, the order was: the woman must not publish, she cannot make herself public.

After all, didn’t women from the eighteenth century onward resort to imposture in order to enter the literary scene, as the most common strategy of escaping from the weighty prejudice of public virility? There are enough symptoms―countless examples, really―of this phenomenon to merit a list: Emily Dickinson wrote her poetry shut up in her house, and in her later years she hardly left her room; her work wasn’t widely known until after her death. The Brönte Sisters published their canonical novels as the Bell Brothers. Jane Austen, literary pioneer and barrier-breaker, published her books under the mysterious signature of “A lady.” In the early twentieth century, Colette “ceded” her first works to her husband, publishing them under his name so the public would not be put off by “prejudices again a woman writer.” Nearer to our time, Teresa Wilms Montt made her writing public under the pseudonym (asexual or hermaphroditic) of “Tebac.” The gender-neutral name under which Willa Cather published (as a feminized “Will”) in 1925 was a paradoxical mutatis mutandis of this tendency.

All were confined to private space, sometimes in the shadow of a sadistic man―Delmira Agustini was killed by her husband at the age of 27, representing perhaps the first literary femicide―silenced, but never removed from language. First as readers―a passive, contemplative, private activity―and then as writers.

We see a civilizing sign in writing; reading, on the other hand, is an act of survival, of barbarity, in which women are a central subject. The image of the woman reader is archetypical: Emma Bovary, Dostoyevsky's copyist, the letters from Kafka to Felice, etc. Reading is paused infancy. Writing and publishing, therefore, are transgressive acts, states of rebellion, disputed areas for women.

 

Prose and Poetry

“Prose tells, it communicates; poetry names, it creates language,” says Susan Sontag in her beautiful essay “The Prose of a Poet” (published in 1983 in the Spanish-language anthology Cuestión de énfasis as an introduction to the complete prose of the Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva―perhaps her best poetry). If a  post-structuralist were to intervene, they would add: “prose makes deals; poetry re-produces, it produces in another form.” I recently read the following assertion in Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition: “the public remits to action and discourse (if we understand this as a means of communication); the private to reproduction and work.” The discursivity of prose, the reproduction of poetry. Would it be wrong-headed, then, to speak of a public-prose in opposition to a private-poetry? As I said, History has demonstrated that prose unleashes an internal generic dispute, fighting to serve as a means of expression.

Are echoes of this prohibition still audible today? How do women use prose? In a previous article, I spoke of mutant texts: of the essay, as a verb and a noun. There, in general terms, I indicated that a series of digressions now has the possibility of becoming a literary text, as long as it contains a certain harmony that transcends its content; found, perhaps, in its prose style or its form. In said article, I named no women writers, but why? I asked myself the same question, as there are many women who write in this way, communicating through hybridity and the happy degeneration of genres to which I alluded. I offer my sincerest apologies for this slight. Perhaps this is another form of discrimination. Historically, it has been difficult to talk about women’s writing without falling into hegemonic canons, a slippage that happens in one’s mind out of pure habit. For that reason, here I will talk only about women, as if to weigh the issue. I want to investigate the relationship between women writers and their prose: not common and pragmatic prose, but prose as an art form. I have chosen four women, out of pure, deliberate affinity and my tastes as a reader, to analyze in terms of an evolutionary sequence of independence in the use of prose.

 

Women’s Prose

The women’s prose that I have followed in Latin America advises us that that stone age has ended: many wonderful women writers have entered the scene, like Cristina Rivera Garza of Mexico and Gabriela Wiener of Peru, but their path is still fraught with traps. The fundamental trap is normally the forceful inclusion (as atrocious as any forceful inclusion) of the “woman’s condition” in much of their prose. A paleolithic and propagandistic discursivity with used-up formulas that inspire nothing but further conservatism of form. The self-boycott here is evident, the subjection to the practice of language continues to operate in relation to that “Other,” to a dichotomy, to a dialectic, to heteronormativity; the gravitational force is anthropomorphic, invoking the man. The prose is laden down with aged ideas, and, unlike when the inspiration was rebellion, nothing remains but empty bursts from sad women. A word is worth a thousand pictures, following Fogwill; these typical images have saturated the writing of certain women authors. The phenomenon is not new: political discourse tends to intoxicate literature.

I’m interested in much more meticulous literary operations that transform some women, as prose writers, into pinnacles or zeniths of literature; transforming them, I would even dare to say―as the renowned author Ricardo Piglia said of María Moreno, praising her as the greatest woman writer of Argentina―into the greatest prose writers working today.

 

Carmen Ollé, Por qué hacen tanto ruido [Why they make so much noise] and Retrato de mujer sin familia ante una copa [Portrait of a woman with no family before a glass]

“With the same crudeness with which he sought to fuck me in every position, to do it on the edge of the cot...that was the chosen moment to tell me literary secrets and to praise my poems,” says the Peruvian poet Carmen Ollé at the start of one of the chapters of Por qué hacen tanto ruido (Lima: Flora Tristán Editora, 1992; republished by Intermezzo Tropical in 2015) of her marital relationship with Enrique Verástegui, one of the guiding lights of the 1970s Peruvian poetic-artistic movement known as Zero Hour. With a register completely different from that of her poetry, she creates an autobiographical prose that has the poet as its center of gravity.

I discovered her not long ago. Her most important poems are in the book Noches de Adrenalina [Nights of adrenaline] (Cuadernos del Hipocampo, 1981), which displays exceptional prosody. In her prose works, on the other hand, the flight takes place at a middling height. The exaltation of language is not on the same level. The memories of a woman married to a psychotic poet form the book’s main talking point, proving that prose is still somehow a man’s domain, since the prose’s very content revolves around him, as a symbol that perturbs–as a response to trauma–archetypal figures like those of the father, the authority, or the lover, which persist in writing. In her poetry, by contrast, the tone is one of total empowerment; in this prose, she reveals a great deal of doubt.

Nevertheless, I can’t leave out her latest prose offering, Retrato de mujer sin familia ante una copa (Peisa, 2007), a text whose fragmentary mechanics, much like those of Margo Glantz, create a reflexive fiction in the form of the so-called novel-essay. To understand this mutant form, it’s worth taking a look at De la vida como metáfora a la vida como ensayo [From life as a metaphor to life as an essay] (UNAM, 2015) by Blanca Treviño, which tells of the creation of this narrative-reflexive contraption in which the matter of the text is thought, or reflection, emanating from a given fact.

 

Adriana Valdés, Vistas parciales [Partial views]

I recognized this phenomenon in Chile, in a text written by Adriana Valdés in 2008 to commemorate the twenty-year anniversary of the death of the poet Enrique Lihn―brought about by lung cancer that he began to suffer in 1987, dying the following year―in a sort of domestic ritual on Santiago’s legendary Passy Street. The book is Vistas parciales, published by Palinodia, the first biographical approach to the figure of the poet, which, together with Roberto Merino’s book Lihn, ensayos biográficos [Lihn, biographical essays] (UDP, 2016) constitutes, until today, the seedbed for a future, more complete biography.

In Vistas parciales, among many other things, we are told of the poet’s death from a distinctly domestic perspective, implying an intimate relationship with the author; but of course, they had been partners for almost seven years. The writing is based on this experience itself, in relationship with the Other, as in Ollé. Adriana’s previous work (Lihn refers to her by her first name in his poems) consists of a few more academic texts that, while not executed in particularly syllabic language, do not reach the heights of this work, in which objective prose―merely mechanical, we might say―obliges the narration to transform, suddenly, into a series of memories, contemplated from diverse positions, forming a decidedly beautiful text with commendable internal coherence.

In one interview, she mentions a nun in love with Shelley. And this is the pulse of her narration, which successfully transmits her amazement before the writer, the poet on the point of writing his final book, in agony, in his ancient house, not because of time, but because of that air of decadence that accompanied him, a diary of death; a death that is made public by other means. In any case, there never ceases to be a man at the gravitational center of her most fully realized text.

 

Margo Glantz, Por breve herida [For a short wound]

In Mexico, the elders make up the avant-garde. Sergio Pitol (1933) and Margo Glantz (1930) have offered, especially in recent years, some works that would be advanced for any young writer, not to mention one plagued by health problems and with several published works behind them, generally in more or less identical forms. That is precisely what stands out in the works of these old souls of Mexican literature: what’s interesting is the way they’re constructed. Especially their latest texts, like Pitol’s autobiographical and reflexive Trilogy of Memory (Anagrama, 2007) or Margo Glantz’s epic anecdote Por breve herida (Sexto Piso, 2016), in which it is neither intertextuality nor the metaliterary (that trick over-exposed by Vila-Matas, Pitol’s student, that, from my perspective, has already dried out) but the hybridity and/or mutation of genres. These are diverse texts, braided together without revealing their seams. Or, as Margo Glantz said at the age of 87 in a recent interview:

very brief texts, (...) pictures of thoughts, paintings of thought, texts that go far beyond aphorism, but that are quite fragmentary, (...) they are not enclosed in any specific genre, not even in philosophy, nor in poetry, but they participate in them all.

The continuation of poetry by other means, however they may be, as Joseph Brodsky says of Tsvetaeva’s prose. Good prose is expressed in delimited strokes; that is its most frequent characteristic. There are ways in which some make themselves understood through short breaths, or carried away by the culture of the capsule to use parts of something to make something else, as in so-called Shanzhai Art.

The series, the production of the series, that which turns the machine to focus specifically on language, to fold over itself, a senseless machine. At any rate, the excesses are dangerous, as coherence is inevitable in order to communicate.

The forms are repeated, the molds are fabricated, and as soon as they are removed from the oven, they do not cease to be pawed at until they are mislaid; and not in cosmology, but in the reader’s boredom. Writing articles, chronicles, or essays has, for some time―not more than a few decades―become an anachronism. The genres have degenerated. And there can be no doubt that a few purists, appealing to a nonexistent judge, still figure in the entourage, presupposing a canon whose foundations lie almost entirely in the Academy.

This is Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorian book: brief sets of symbols (texts) separated by stars, which “the author has selected with care; such that, when seen simultaneously, they produce an image of life,” like the Borgesian Aleph. It’s like the response written to the psychotic theory of Macedonio Fernández, that of the jumpy reader, suggesting that there exists a type of reader who does not attentively read the entire succession of graphemes in a text, but rather passes over some of them (jumping), skimming over the text, evoking it rather than maintaining punctilious relations with any symbol; focusing rather on the recognition of the series, on possible combinations, more than on signs.

Margo Glantz ends in duality, thereby arriving at the “epic anecdote.” A dental treatment and the painting of Francis Bacon, this would be novel’s copy. Fragments that revolve around the possible combinations of these two themes. She creates this new type of fragmentary text, encompassing many registers, and she employs them, like documents, in archives that constitute the book itself. Despite this fragmentation, the text possesses an internal coherence and a sense of complicity with the reader. Glantz achieves this independence and conquers prose like few other Latin American women writers.

 

María Moreno, El Affair Skeffington y Black Out [The Skeffington affair and Blackout]

In El Affair Skeffington (Bajo la luna, 1992; Mansalva, 2013), María Moreno makes a game of written performativity; the reflections of her character are her own, as she indicates on the back cover. This is a similar movement to that of Nabokov in Pale Fire, where, starting from a poem cited in the beginning (and evidently written by Nabokov himself), he weaves a narrative plot in the form of comments on this poem. In Moreno’s case we see the opposite; she invents the biography of a French girl who rubbed elbows with the Parisian delicatessen crowd of the 1920s, a devotee of incipient psychoanalysis, a sexual tourist, and a dedicated bohemian, to later comment on the discovered manuscript (that pop-Borgesian resource) of a series of poems by Dolly Skeffington, a poet more or less forgotten in the canon. Here, imposture serves as a way to hide “authorship,” which is attributed to a fictional character.

Moreno’s chronicles have been much more widely read than her fiction. El Affair Skeffington is from 1992 and is, in fact, both her first novel and her first book. At the start of her career, her creative process was noticeably different. She disguises her poetry (the private domain) behind a fictional character, representing her resistance to publishing it.

Generic domains disappear in her most recent book, Black Out (Random House, 2017). The limits have been surpassed and genre is insignificant. Perhaps the prose tells something in itself, through its dissolution in the mind, through its monotonous rhythm that puffs and pants in one’s memory. A prose that can tell of anything. Quite Faulknerian, without a doubt: drunk or rambling without direction, with that same disorientation as a path to document. The journey comes before conceptualization or tempo. The bow tenses.

The woman has her own language, she writes in exquisite prose, and anything, no matter how diminutive, can be born through the strokes of her pen. Could a man write like María Moreno? Possibly, but that doesn’t matter. This prose is neither masculine nor feminine, but rather a hyper-lax prose. I know it might be too much to make this comparison, but anyone who has read her work will have noticed that her use of language is no longer married to genre, nor does she simply allow herself to be absorbed in the particular themes related to the “enlightened and drunk woman,” but rather she demonstrates the behaviors of a living, self-sufficient organism. That’s what Charles Olson said about energy, about the perfect relationship that the text must maintain as contained energy, like the relationship that constantly leaps from the reading to the reader, provoking that which many of us, I believe, are familiar with: a sense of bedazzlement, the way a text can change you.

Alcoholism, the supposed protagonist of Black Out, does not boast of its sordid, dark condition. It is never mentioned as something immoral. If it causes a certain self-destructive impulse, it also makes up, in its beginnings, the medium through which to enter the circle of men who argued about the Argentine culture of the 1970s. The woman is deprived of these circumstances, perhaps due to her historic condition, and nonetheless, the flattening or reparation of the customs of the men of letters allows her to enter the circle. María Moreno invades and modifies that school of men of letters, bohemian, with two excesses in life―alcohol and intellectual rambling―in which a woman was a rare sight: there is no more sordidness, but rather the elegance of surveying the obscure. The relationship between alcohol and literature is a communion. There are no artificial paradises. It is not a private and individual paradise, but rather a collective ecstasy, as Baudelaire said of wine. The woman departs from the place assigned to her by the man―the house, the private sphere―and unfolds into the public with all her mysteries and uncertainties.

There is an Argentine tendency to psychoanalyze everything up to the most innocuous detail of a family dinner–a tendency filtered through the modus operandi of the critical or reflexive prose of María Moreno. Memories are observed with the distance of a taxidermist: pain does not seem like pain, but rather like a fiction, or perhaps an anecdote told as a stylistic exercise. There is no high praise of decadence, nor is there a rehashed way of indicating “reality” (in its dirtiest meaning, we should say). There is simply a game played with memory, a passage through the back patio, like that of a guide directing a group of tourists through a zoo. Not without elegance, of course. Not without doubts, since, as we know, style is the sum of uncertainties.

Sebastián Diez
Santiago de Chile, Spring 2017

Translated by Arthur Dixon

Languages

LALT No. 4
Number 4

The fourth issue of LALT highlights underrepresented but deserving voices from across Latin America, with a focus on women writers as well as special sections dedicated to genre-bending science fiction, indigenous-language poetry and prose, and the essential relationship between author and translator.

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