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March 30, 2008

Language in 鈥淚 Love My Master鈥? - Nancy Morej贸n

There is a lot to be said about Nancy Morej贸n鈥檚 poem 鈥淚 Love My Master鈥?, but my mind kept going back to it when reading the pieces by Diana Bellessi and Cristina Peri Rossi. Their focus is on translation and the intimate relationship between the author and the translator, as well as between the translator and a text that was not written by her/him.

I see 鈥淚 Love My Master鈥? as translated in different ways:

1) First of all, it is the translation we have in front of us: Spanish-English. Even though the translation itself is just fine, there is something about the way it appears on the paper (the format) that is bothersome: the English version shows the word 鈥淚鈥? a lot and I find that distracting (even though I know the pronoun is needed). Maybe it is because in class we have been talking about Morej贸n and her way of representing not only herself, but all black women in the Caribbean with her poetry. Also, there is the issue of not being able to translate the play of words of 鈥渁mo鈥? (鈥淚 love鈥?) and 鈥渁mo鈥? (鈥渕aster鈥?)鈥攈ow much is lost in this mistranslation or non-translation?

2) Another issue I see is that this text is translated two times and not just one (Spanish to English). 鈥淚 love his delicate red mouth,/from which spill words/that I cannot quite decipher/yet. My tongue for him is no longer his own.鈥? What this woman-slave was thinking and feeling at the time was not in Spanish and Morej贸n is translating from the African language that she must have used into Spanish (the colonizers language). Even though the first language is lost in this translation, we know that the woman in the poem is slowly starting to own her new language and that she will eventually be able to tell her story with it (Morej贸n鈥檚 work would be an example). Now, is this double translation as violent as the experience the poem is describing? Violent for the woman in the poem and violent for Morej贸n? 鈥淭he translator is also implicated in this process, as she watches her language broken apart violently by the original that she translates.鈥? (Bellessi 28)

3) I鈥檓 not sure how Spanish is taught in Cuba, but in Argentina, when children start to learn to read and write, teachers ask them to copy and repeat two sentences when it comes to learning the letter 鈥淢鈥?: 鈥淢i mam谩 me ama. Yo amo a mi mam谩.鈥? (鈥淢y mom loves me. I love my mom.鈥?) As soon as I saw the title of this poem I thought of this and of how maybe Morej贸n was trying to show the way slaves (and women) were treated: like children. The syntactic simplicity of the title conveys the infantilized way the salves were treated, but it also transmits the communication problems between two languages that were forced to live in the same space.

As we approach the end of the poem, we see the word 鈥淢aldigo鈥? (鈥淚 curse鈥?) by itself, isolated. Not only is this woman speaking/expressing/vocalizing, but she also 鈥渟peaks badly鈥? (鈥渕aldecir鈥? means literally to say badly). She is taking language and using it to speak badly about her master. Meaning, she is telling the truth: She doesn鈥檛 love her master; she would like to butcher 鈥渉im like innocent cattle鈥?. As a woman and as a slave, she can鈥檛 just 鈥渄ecir鈥?, she has to invert that and construct her own discourse, so she has to 鈥渕al-decir鈥?. Only by inverting language she can invert the situation she is in and follow the sound of the drums and the tolling bells that are calling her.

One more thing: As she inverts language, it seems that she is also inverting desire. At the beginning of the poem, even though we may find hard to believe that she loves her master, she chooses to start saying exactly that (maybe to show the obedience she had to pretend?) However, we then know the truth of that desire: It鈥檚 not hers. She not only 鈥渕al-dice鈥?, but she also 鈥渕al-desea鈥? (鈥渦ndesires鈥?, if there is such a word). By inverting what she says and what she desires, her voice and her body become free.

March 26, 2008

Memory and Performance in Peri Rossi

In this posting, I will comment a section of Cristina Peri Rossi鈥檚 鈥淟ovely鈥檚鈥?, as translated by Prof. Kaminsky.

鈥淲e handled ourselves well when they came to do the routine check. I had warned my wife that night, 鈥榃hen they come around to question, you don鈥檛 know anything, you didn鈥檛 hear anything. You slept all night. Be polite, and please, if you recognize one of them, if you realize that one of the officers who is questioning you is one of the ones who was in the house, don鈥檛 make the least sign that you recognize him. Do you hear me? Forget their faces, their voices, their expressions, forever. Don鈥檛 act shocked, and whatever you do, don鈥檛 ask them any questions.鈥 They came. Two of them. They were amiable, deceptively friendly. We said that that night we鈥檇 gone to the movies and had slept deeply afterwards, because we were very tired. They liked our answer. The neighbors? We hardly knew them. Did we hear anything special that night? Yes, my wife snored twice, I said, kidding. They left. We looked at each other, calmer. We never talked about the matter again.鈥?

Here we see an example of the suppression of memory; the husband (the protagonist in the short story), after witnessing the disappearance of neighbors, tries to force his wife (and himself) to 鈥渇orget鈥? what happened. He knows that officials will be coming to question him and his wife to see if they know anything, and so he realizes that the only safe choice they have is to not remember what happened. In fact, he is so desperate for he and his wife to forget what happened that he becomes violent with her.

The next day, even though they don鈥檛 speak of what happened the previous night, the memory of the event manifests itself in other ways (namely, the way the husband and wife behave around each other). She breaks a cup, he becomes furious. Even though they must 鈥渇orget鈥? what happened, they will never truly forget it. In this way, memory (or the absence of memory) can be seen as a performance. That is, by performing around each other and around the police officials (not speaking of and not showing any outward signs of their knowledge of what happened to the neighbors), they are in effect 鈥渆rasing鈥? their memory of the event.

The clearest performance is in the actual exchange with the officers. Here the husband and wife perform not only by choosing what to say and what not to say, but also by their demeanor (be polite鈥, don鈥檛 show any sign of recognizing an officer鈥, the husband even goes so far as to joke with the officers). The officers themselves also perform in this scene, by being 鈥渁miable, deceptively friendly.鈥? As we see here, there is a disconnect created between personal memory and official history when the personal poses a threat to the official.

March 25, 2008

Sea and Memory

Both La balsa de la Medusa (Benegas) and Mujer Negra (Morejon) evoke the sea as a site of memory. Ocean-crossing is prominent in both texts as a process of transformation, of loss, and of the unknown, and a test of survival. In both texts, the sea is not remembered as an adventure as evoked in other texts concerning the ocean. Rather, in Benegas and Morejon the ocean is used to implicate trauma.

In La balsa de la Medusa, Benegas bases her poem on the theme and painting by G茅ricault. Therefore, Benegas, through poetry, reproduces an artifact of visual memory. This strategy calls into question the differences between recollecting and reproducing memory. While recollecting has the connotation of recapturing something gone astray or lost, reproducing memory perhaps carries with it, more of a manipulation or strategizing of memory. La balsa de la Medusa is an interplay of layered memories, from the oral testimonies of the survivors to the painting to her poem. In the poem, there is no I or we, but rather a refusal to characterize the experience in a personal formation. There is no verb to clue in the reader to who is speaking in the poem. The reader is left without a version to personalize the story, as the depth of memory, despair, and the sea encompass and drown out individuals or a collective. The trauma, or 鈥渄eath without a trace鈥? plays into Franco鈥檚 idea of the incapacity of language to communicate. Benegas writes, 鈥渟in G茅ricault sin Vel谩zquez, sin Chiricio o Borges鈥? as to imply that the existence of the sailors will be erased from memory. Yet, at the same time, as Benegas implies erasure, she rewrites their existence by writing of their death without a trace. Benegas, also writes, 鈥渟in palabras para decir el horror de la muerte tan sabida鈥?. While the sailors of the Medusa have been memorialized though painting and poetry, the incapacity to express trauma to render the experience of desperation and death itself into a communicable expression. The sea itself then is the only form capable of taking in the sailors, and when it does, a freedom emerges from this erasure, into a perpetual infancy and childhood in which memory is not recorded.

In Morejon鈥檚 Mujer Negra, the ocean is evoked as part of the memory of the Middle Passage. The poem starts with giving the reader the sensibilities of smell to attempt to understand the ocean. Smell relies on the body to recall memory and therefore, there is already a gap between the reader and the depicted woman as the reader can never know that exact smell, as we were not there physically to experience it. Morejon goes on to write, 鈥淭he night I can鈥檛 remember it. The ocean itself could not remember that鈥?. It is left out what the woman can鈥檛 remember, as if to speak precisely of the experience of loss and the violence of the middle passage, is something inconceivable. The forgetting of that particular night demonstrates the depth of the trauma perhaps similar to what Franco writes about in her description of Luis Valenzuela鈥檚 Cambio de armas (243). The night becomes a blocked consciousness that is too painful to remember, especially in light of the mujer negra鈥檚 place in with her companeras in a new land. To remember that night might jeapordize the connection with her new land of Cuba. Morejon writes that 鈥渢he ocean itself could not remember that鈥? as if to imply that the grievance of the trauma cannot even belong to nature, that the depth of the trauma has no known precedent.
The ocean itself cannot carry the burden of memory, and therefore memory is blocked, pushed aside, yet at the same time implicated by the absence of recounting exactly what happened.

The Private as alternative archive

The Private as alternative archive
Hirsch and Smith call for a feminist literary criticism that offer alternative archiving that challenges the 鈥減ublic media and official archives [that] memorialize the experiences of the powerful, those who control hegemonic discursive spaces.鈥?(12) Judith Fetterley also demand 鈥榬esisting readers鈥 鈥渨ho interrogate the ideological assumptions that structure and legitimate linear narratives 鈥︹?(12). I think Molloy鈥檚 Cerfitcate of Absence is such an alternative. It acknowledges the 鈥減rivate everyday experience, recognizing that they are as politically revealing in their own way as any event played out in the public arena.

Molloy subverts the notion of a fixed and essential identity. Her personal fragmented memory of her past totally destabilizes and disputes the existence of a 鈥榰nified鈥 self and identity. Although she remembers her past in fragments (counter to Connerton鈥檚 terms of 鈥渞emember[ing]鈥s precisely not to recall events as isolated,..鈥?) her narrative is still meaningful. Even though her narrative is a private recollection of everyday experiences, it is told in context. Through her past, we are connected to her different relationships with different members of family 鈥 her sister, mother and father 鈥 as well as her relationships with her lovers, Renata and Vera. Actually some of the 鈥榯ransactions鈥 that take place in her home 鈥 specifically her father鈥檚 protective acts, otherwise not extended to her sister 鈥 end up being instrumental in her estranged relationship with her body. Her isolated recollections of her relations with these different people help define who she is as she sees since in many occasions she sees herself in some of them. Hence her 鈥渋ndividual identity is shaped by membership in one or several groups [family and lovers]鈥? (7).
I think Molloy challenges the 鈥榤aking of national identities鈥 that assumes fixity and wholeness, for her, identity is dynamic and fragmented 鈥 it is not something you are born with, it is rather in flight and acquired. It is this 'whole' identity that the narrator struggles to discover but it keeps escaping her. Her autobiographical novel in a way questions the 鈥渃ollective memory.鈥? just like Idelber Avelar, 鈥渕emory for her is so intimately bound up with particularities.鈥?(Franco: 255) Does this private memory drain it of historical and political value? This is counter identity and 鈥榗ountermemory鈥 that deconstructs the hegemonic sexuality, wholeness and gender. It is an example of a feminist writing that 鈥渕arks identities in specific ways and provides a means by which cultural memory is located in a specific context rather than subsumed into monolithic and essentialist categories鈥? (Hirsch and Smith: 6) by the powers that be. Molloy uses this fragmented autobiographic writing as a tool to archive her private story.


I choose poems from Benegas ("La Balsa de la Medusa") and Morejon ("Black Woman") to comment.

The landscape depicted by La Balsa de la Medusa drove me to the kind of anonymous journey many subaltern groups around the world do in order to survive as well as the problems in recording both quotidian difficulties and the struggle in finding some possibility of hope. The phrase 鈥渓a muerte sin huellas/ death without a trace鈥? suggest the limits of the memory in remembering oppressive stories, since most of the stories we consume are created by the hegemonic system. Before the absence of 鈥減articularities and local nuances that the universal project of history overlooks鈥? (Franco, p.237), that is, the lack of marginalized groups in both History and cultural industry, Noni Benegas offers this poem as countermemory (Hirsch and Smith, P.4) that tells a non official history, a disturbing counteract which seems aware of its collective origin in its refusal of localizing a specific time or space, since there is a mention of diaspora every where, if we recall Gericault鈥檚 painting.
Such act of countermemory is also aware of its own limits (from the same poem: 鈥渘o words to say the horrors of death so well known鈥?) in questioning how to say what is known without trivializing. Then, in repeating what is known 鈥 what we think we know - looking for a different language, Benegas opens a space to retells stories of marginalized subjects鈥檚 in other terms. What would be such a different language? Perhaps this is what Franco identifies as 鈥渨hat cannot be uttered in the language of pragmatism鈥? (p. 238); this is something we can verify in La Balsa de la Medusa which avoids the traps of both amnesia and the propensity to sensationalism. In this sense, Benegas鈥 poem quotes ironically dominant references (detective novel/bad war film) to question frozen and well known representations about death and horror, which are indeed ways to forget the pain before the human death within situations of oppression.
While Benegas doesn鈥檛 give up the task of re telling lyrically those deaths (and, most striking, current childhood purchased) through fragments, she doesn鈥檛 please in offering just fragments. Since she also uses references from the art as well as the culture, it seems to me she tries to recuperate those invisible tragedies into the realm of our collective memory. This poem can be inscribed as part of a more efficient struggle against the amnesia: 鈥渢he politics of amnesia make it necessary to reintegrate fragments of the past into new interpretative structures, making the past say what was not known before or what was silenced and producing reconceptualizations of what has happened in order to salvage and to make note of omissions.鈥? (Franco, p. 146)

The struggle against amnesia is also present in Morejon鈥檚 Mujer Negra through the description of images and artifacts the Black Woman is able to remember to resist the oppression she suffers by gender and race domination: 鈥淚 still smell the foam of the sea they made me cross. The night, I can鈥檛 remember it. (鈥) Perhaps I haven鈥檛 forgotten my lost coast, or my ancestral language鈥?.
In this poem is worthy of mention the fact its structure is constructed by inserting verbs which express not only actions from the past but constitutes an strong suggestion of political resistance within current struggles with the dominant system. This poem casts the pride of being Black Woman through the act of remembering and knowing what she and her group own. Here I don鈥檛 see a discourse of victimization suggested by Hirsch and Smith (p. 8) in using the personal voice, but the capacity of agency from oppressed communities inasmuch as they have to be aware of the importance of questioning and constructing memory as a permanent process of resistance. I wish to suggest that these poems offer resistance in the level of both ethics and language in order to confront dominant discourses; they are cautious constructions we can connect with a responsibility within artistic practices in avoiding sensationalism as well as a complete loss of sense. 鈥淟iterature and art are in a delicate position; for it is all too easy to exploit sensationalism or to fill with words what is not altogether utterable.鈥? (Franco, p.241)

March 11, 2008


WHEN EXCLUSION OFFERS ESCAPE: Gorodischer鈥檚 鈥楥amera Obscura鈥
Mc Dowell argues that gender is socially constructed and that 鈥渕en as a group continue to continue to constitute the majority in the bases of power in contemporary society鈥? (25). She asserts that gender is located in unequal power relations such as in patriarchy.
This social construction of gender, where 鈥渙ne is not born but rather becomes a woman鈥? (13) is highlighted in 鈥楥amera Obscura鈥 in the symbolic representation of women and men: Gertrudis, Chaya Ruth and Leon. First of all the fact that when the great grandmother is expectant, the only name they think of is a boy鈥檚, (surely anticipating the child to be a boy) implicitly shows the value placed on a boy child at that time. Perhaps this is why right from the onset she is unwelcome in the family 鈥 because of her gender.

The power relation between men and women is also located on the marriage institution where husbands are the providers who take care of their wives and children. Therefore women are economically dependent on men; this is why parents prefer to marry their children to well-off boys who can sufficiently 鈥榯ake care鈥檕f their children. This is why the narrator deems himself a qualified candidate, 鈥淚 don鈥檛 do so badly myself鈥haya knows that she can indulge herself and I have never denied her or my children anything.鈥?(96-97) Thus as Mc Dowell argues 鈥渢he legal status of a woman as a dependent and her life and property were in the hands of her father and husband鈥? (16) Thus when a woman gets married, she merely exchanges her father鈥檚 authority for that of her husband鈥檚. This is what Kandiyoti explores 鈥 the reasons why women in the main accepted rather than rebelled against patriarchal structures. 鈥淪he drew attention to different family structures and the ways in which wives鈥ere dependent on particular structures of patriarchal kinship relations, arguing that it was in women鈥檚 self interest to support their long term survival and living standards even while it was also oppressing them and their daughters.鈥?(20) Therefore economic dependence on men makes women to be submissive.
But in 鈥楥amera Obscura鈥 a woman鈥檚 beauty seems to be a ticket to her 鈥榣iberation鈥 in marriage. The narrator emphasizes Chaya鈥檚 beauty-that she鈥檚 even prettier at thirty than she was at fifteen (96). He admits that next to her he is nothing. Ruth too is described as the 鈥榩rettiest in the whole of South America.鈥 It appears that this beauty allowed both women to somehow challenge their husbands鈥 authorities: Chaya insists on putting the Gertrudis鈥檚 picture by the fireplace despite her husband鈥檚 disapproval. Ruth鈥檚 beauty lets her control her husband, alienates him from his friends. Gertrudis on the other hand is described as a very ugly woman with crossed eyes and bow legged. Her ugliness makes her timid, a quality that makes her 鈥榯he perfect submissive wife鈥.
Right from the onset, she takes on her expected role of 鈥渨hat it means to be a woman鈥? in this particular society. Nine months into the marriage, she has her first child. This womanly role is contrasted with Ruth鈥檚 incapability: 鈥渢he worst thing was that she bore no children鈥o give to her husband.鈥?(102) what is implied here is that women don鈥檛 bear children for themselves but for their husbands.
The 鈥榬eal man鈥 in this society on the other hand is not to be alone; he needs a woman to take care of him 鈥 marking women as child bearers and care providers. Gertrudis is locked up in this patriarchal mentality and therefore performs her duties very well. She never stops working and is described as having the 鈥渆ndurance of two men put together鈥?. Therefore 鈥榚ndurance鈥 is a manly attribute.
Mc Dowell argues that 鈥渓ike ideas of gender, different spaces have particular significances and different relations of power that vary over time. For women with small children, for example, the home maybe simultaneously a place of safety and trap.鈥?(31)
Home in this narrative offers different experiences for Gertrudis, her husband and children. It provides safety for the husband and children and becomes a trap for Gertrudis. In fact she is the source of this safety comfort for others that she can鈥檛 enjoy. When they sit and eat, she is busy coming in and out making sure that they are well fed. She is therefore excluded for the same space she shares with her family, the very safety that she provides. Ironically, it is this exclusion that lets her escape and run away with the photographer, for he gives her something that nobody ever gives her: attention. They only notice her absence by the lack of order and comfort she provided for them. In the eyes of the male narrator, what makes her so evil is the fact that she took away their safety and comfort.

poetic engagements with the socio-spatial

In McDowell's "Place and Gender," she argues that people and places are gendered and so social and spatial relationships are mutually constituted" (30). This socio-spatial configuration of space/place is a main focus of her discussion, and therefore experience takes a central role: "the extent to which women and men experience spaces and places differently...show how these differences themselves are part of the social constitution of gender as well as of that place" (12).

This socio-spatial configuration is explored through Benegas' poems, calling attention to how people themselves become part of the landscape. In "Mapmaker," she begins with, "There once was a mapmaker who delicately included the travelers themselves in the routes that she traced" (1-2). The "routes that she traced" become an intermingling of human involvement with the natural world in which traces of human contact become "resinous vestiges" on the landscape--and therefore map--that the cartographer "delicately" constructs (2-3). In "Traveling" Benegas extends the immediate way in which the cartographer extends the physical space she is recording and interpreting to the ways in which we, "travelers," instill our own psychic projections onto the landscapes we interact with: "Travelers who reach Medina de Raj-Kasar/after crossing between two moons/the desert of Al-Ahmir/sigh before the delicate towers and dream/of filigreed chambers and soothful hookahs" (6-10). The space/place becomes a site of construction in which its meaning and existence become inseparable from our own creations of them. But it is not incidental that Benegas chooses to focus on the tourist rather than a speaker in the midst of their familiarized, local geographic positioning. For one, the trope of traveling distances us (both as readers and as tourists in one sense or another) from the ways in which our environment, and interactions with it, become naturalized and routine. This distancing is effective therefore in its ability to recreate us as travelers who take the time to reflect (literalized by the reflections of the Medina de Raj-Kasar in a ring and water) on the impact a space/place has on us, and we on it. This mutually constitutive relationship is reflected in Benegas' line: "Medina de Raj-Kasar traveling toward the Atlas/of travelers/is pleasantly surprised before the fresh-faced passenger/standing intrepid in the middle/of the glittering oasis" (14-18). Positioning the Medina de Raj-Kasar as "traveling toward" and "pleasantly surprised" by the interest the traveler takes in its presence, Benegas effectively represents this mutuality.

If McDowell suggests spaces are created and experienced differently by men and women in different socio-spatial contexts, I'm interested in the political importance that Benegas and Belli create situations in which women actively create, shape, and form spatial layouts, specifically through Benegas' use of the mapmaker and Belli's positioning of her protagonist as an architect. Simiarly, both Molloy and Kozameh employ the trope of the writer as a way of having them shape, make sense of, and ultimately, challenge, their memories of the events surrounding the story. While the former enact these changes physically, and the latter psychically, all of these representations illustrate this concept of the socio-spatial. My only concern with McDowell's concept of how women and men experience space/place differently is its bordering on essentialism (even as she challenges this reading through an engagement with the construction of gender). What do people think about this claim and how do these works reiterate or challenge it?

On Gender and Place

After reading Mc Dowell鈥檚 article, and thinking about the concepts she presents, it seems to me that it could help to clarify some parts of the novels we have been reading. These novels emphasize space and place as a material context for the experiences of the protagonists.

In Molloy鈥檚 novel, the protagonist, who appears as a fragmented self, is secluded in a room (an enclosed space), and she avoids naming cities (places) where she travels to. In Kozameh鈥檚 novel, the females protagonist, a political prisoner recently liberated, while she is walking towards the space of freedom, counts her steps (as if she were measuring the space between one place 鈥搕he prison- and another 鈥搕he outside). She also looks at the terrace of her parents鈥 house asking herself how many steps her mother has taken, to wear the tiles of the floor in the lapse of time she was away, in prison. And in Belli鈥檚 novel, Itz谩 does not have a place. She is displaced by conquest and while she is looking for some place, she inhabits Lavinia鈥檚 body. Whereas Lavinia herself has inherited a house, which she has not ask for, a symbol of a permanent and fixed place. At some point, Lavinia sees her place invaded by Felipe and Sebastian on one hand, and for Itza on the other (Itza invades not only the tree and the garden but ultimately her body and thinking).

Why this emphasis on place? It seems that the three protagonists are struggling against power forces, and/or looking for self-identification. Do these attempts involve recognizing/taking their spaces?

Mc Dowell points out that 鈥淭he key aim of feminist scholarship in general is to demostrate the construction and significance of sexual differentiation as a key organizing principle and axis of power, as well as a crucial part of the constitution of subjetivity, of an individual鈥檚 sense of their self-identity as a sexed and gendered person鈥?.

How do we connect these general assumption with the notion or the importance of space/place?

Constructions of Space and Time in Mujer Negra

Morej贸n鈥檚 Mujer negra situates the narrative of an Afro-Cuban woman within fluid dimensions of time and space. The poem, Mujer negra, is constructed from the perspective of a voice speaking of her past.

The use of past tense verbs creates a temporal distance between narrator, the reader, and the lived experience of the narrator. Morej贸n creates a history of Cuba through the body of an Afro-Cuban woman as literally she embodies narratives of slavery, mestizaje and Cuban independence. Thus, Morejon鈥檚 performs a type of space, a geographical bounding of the nation through an understanding of corporal history and memory. While women have often been employed in male narratives as the boundaries and markers of the nation, Morejon鈥檚 Mujer person allows the mujer to speak for herself and to perform the nation through the articulation of the mujer鈥檚 own experiences. Mujer negra is performing a first-person account, which perhaps can be read as a form of testimonio, of a progressive linearity of exploitation and oppression through slavery to freedom. The use of the past tense to then an eventual, 鈥淎hora soy鈥? is constituted through a progression of past tense verbs that denote action and production. Morej贸n uses a former female slave of African descent as the subject in the poetry rather than as the object. Morej贸n uses historical themes as an instrument to create voice and to locate the mujer鈥檚 place within not only Cuban, but also African diasporic history. While the woman remains anyomonous in contrast to other leaders, such as the referenced Maceo, her voice is heard through the retelling and inscription into writing. Morejon鈥檚 mujer negra recounts a singular story, but is represented through a collective consciousness.
Morej贸n鈥檚 mujer negra deals with experience and history with relation to the concept of homeland. Morejon鈥檚 mujer negra does not describe the middle passage but rather creates two distinct time/space relationships between a mythical unknown African homeland of the past and a Cuban contemporary homeland in which she has struggled for, literally borne its children,and is deeply invested in as it determines her existence. Yet, at the same time, Morej贸n鈥檚 mujer negra acknowledges an ambivalence of memory and loss as related to diaspora and the concept of home. 鈥淎caso no he olvidado ni mi costa perdida ni mi lengua ancestral鈥? demonstrates a potential, but unaffirmed link to home. Loss is encacted in the disconnect of physcical ties to home, yet at the same time this loss creates a new homeland and a new identity with ties to a new space. Morej贸n Mujer negra clearly places the origins of the black woman in Africa, but the contemporary location and existence is based in the space of Cuba. Yet, Morej贸n鈥檚 use of voice signifies a yearning for not completely forgetting one鈥檚 homeland, language, and markers of a cultural self based in geography.

Yet, later on in the poem, Morej贸n鈥檚 narrator grows both more temporally and spatially distant from the home origins of Africa. She determines that she no longer dreams of homeland and self-questions which homes she actually ever belonged to鈥t is is questionable if this is a purposeful forgetting or if Morej贸n elides on the violence of forgetting and loss of dispersal and forced dislocation and disidentification with specific African cultures. In any case, Morej贸n鈥檚 protaganist鈥檚 self-questioning calls into question what the homeland is at all, and what is the significance of knowing one鈥檚 origins when this return can never be enabled. Africa and the homeland then become myth and a mere abstraction unrelated to her new existence and rebirth in the Americas. Morej贸n鈥檚 Mujer negra relates homeland to the intersectionalities of race, gender, sexuality, and labor.

March 10, 2008

Camera Obscura or the tactics of the Weak

"Came obscura" can be read as a vivid example of de Beauvoir's notion of woman as someone who is not burn but made.

The character Gertrudis experienced the transformation of becoming a woman from the simple acceptance of universal notions of femininity to a social gender construction. In the begining, her value was assigned by an inmigrant family interested in intensifed ties with Argentina, the new land/home. It seems to me that is the reason she was incribed as Argentine instead of Germany, vis a vis the dangers experienced by German Jewish during the first half of 20th century.
However, Gertrudis was also constructed and marked as subaltern since the begining: her parents expected a son instead of a daughther to guarantee their offspring within new lands. Moreover, the fact she was both physically and socially unattractive gave her an insignificant value as female partner to fulfilled reproductive functions. If, as Mc Dowell says in commenting Okely's notion of the relational natural of place, "places are defined, mainted and altered thorugh the impact of unequal power relations" (P.5), then it's possible to assert that Gertrudis underwent the consequences of being daugther of a family trying to strenght local social ties (probably with local Jewish community) at that historical time. As subaltern, she had to develop specific social strategies that restricted her subjectivity, identity and her sexed body (P.7). Instead of Ruth Bucman's bad temper, the "prettiest girl in the community" and first Leon's wife, Gertrudis could not be an extrovert girl. She learned to be ashamed because of her lack of social attributes to get married and maybe this was the reason she seemed to be mute, that is, invisible. This was a safe way to deal with the place. And this is also the reason Leon decided to get married her; he wanted some weak in order to avoid place his male authority challenged again. If we recall the list about binary distinctions between genders the author outlines (on P.12) in order to prove that the problem with "difference" is that binary structure of Western societies are hierarchical, that is, "constructs women as inferior to men" (P.11), it's clear Gertrudis enacts for him the best second wife: She, overall, lacks power and is destinated to both home and private tasks. Leon was absolutely sure he could control such a woman.
Gertrudi's transformation into a gendered subject is amazing becasue of the performative clues given by an ideologized narrator in depicting the encounter between peers: an ugly cross-eyed woman and a skinny and lame photographer. As Mc Dowell points out regards different tactics used by the Other, "different groups inhabiting the same spaces can create and shift boundaries by subtle means and, of course, by less subtle means such as force or legal exclusion." (P.5), the encounter between two oppresed subjects get used with unequal social relations gave them the possibility to overcome the lack of hope within their lifes. First, the photographer used subtle tactics in stablishing a sort of complicity to convince her to be in the picture: "if anyone have to be in the picture it is you" (Gorodischer, p.104). The only one who saw value in such opressed subject was a nowhere man, another kind of subaltern and they recognized each other.
To Gertrudis, this encounter enacted the chance to re constructed her self through both less subtle means and a drastic act - for her, in first place - in order to reach an utopian hope, thorugh which she could overcome enqual power relations within domestic and public arenas, according Walby's structures of power regimes. Moreover, the encounter with the photographer enacts the leap to the category of sexual desire that Connell calls cathesis. Since Gertrudis won't be to prove her value into reproductive arena, we can supposed she had, at least, the will to learn about heterosexual desire. We can suppose the fact she was in the picture helped her to realize about the materiality of her own body, since she was used to her own body invisiblity "What definitely is true is that my grandmother Gertrudis sat down at the table with her family, and that was something she never did because she always had to have everything ready in the kitchen while the others were eating in order to serve it on time." (Gorodisher, p.105). Gender may be seen not only as social relationship but also as symbolic construction. (P. 7)
In running away from both her home and community, Gertrudis break with such an historical environment of opression she could never overcome as single individual, both as daugther and as wife. Her passive silence, as depicted by her grandchild, was transformed into the capacity of reaction through the escape as gesture of both rupture and utopian hope. In my opinion, Gertrudis' flight may be seen as the realistic response at hand to the opressed subject who cannot change the historical conditions, but can "shift boundaries by subtle means". Thus, Gorodischer offers a symbolic story about opressive societies and the possibility of subverting such settings through mobility and absence (the tactics of the Subaltern) In doing so, she suggests subaltern's weakness can be tranformed into opportunities to overcome structures of power.
The solidarity the narrator's wife shows with Gertrudis' story enacts the progress reached by Argentine women as subjects with a clearer consciousness about gender as a social construction process.
Coming back to narrator's time, by putting Gertrudis' picture on top of the fireplace, the wife of the narrator not only return Gertrudis' honor but offers a performative lesson to narrator's lack of consciousness about women historical situation. Both Gertrudis subject and Gertrudis' picture undergo what Mc Dowell calls fluid and provisional flows in the process of becoming. Moreover, the silence gesture to hang up the picture instead of explaining what was narrator's mistake shows that gender is constructed and maintained through discourse and everyday actions (P.22).

March 5, 2008


When Stacey Schlau mentions the terminology used by Castro-Klar茅n and Luc铆a Guerra-Cunningham 鈥渢hat women writers can only conceive their writing by exiling themselves in the hegemonic official spaces of masculine literary models鈥? at same time took me to Daniela鈥檚 observation about silence.
The silence used by Kozameh surely was a result of a political rule imposed by an androcentric society. Kozameh did not really mention the torture, as she left prison with her two notebooks, we do not even know till what point her notes about torture were (not) silenced and as a way to protect herself from being punished and more imprisonment. Schlau also mentions the evidence of 鈥渃ensorship and other forms of silence [used] in the writings of colonial women鈥? something that still happen today. Maybe she is not only traumatized by the violence in prison that prevents her from talking about it, but also she is submitting herself to the pressure a society where gender is constructed everyday putting women in a lower position in relation to men.
I would say that Kozameh had also chosen an exile as the best option to separate herself from all the suffering she was going through as a way to survive. Even though her writings literally describe the most (?) delicate and traumatic moments of her life, she definitely cannot be/ is not healed from her trauma because 鈥渢rauma is beyond language鈥? (Gilmore 6).
鈥淸鈥 Those who can tell their stories benefit from the therapeutic balm of words, the path to this achievement is strewn with obstacles (7).鈥? Kozameh had someway overcome these obstacles being able to put down in writing her experiences, but some other barriers still exist and the trauma will never be completely healed.

March 4, 2008

Hybrid autobiography in "Certificate of Absence"

The political dimension by using the third person as indirect confession in "Certificate of Absence".

"Comienza a escribir una historia que no le deja: querria olvidarla, querria fijarla" (1st part, I: P. 13. Quotations come from the Spanish version)

Who is the Self starts to write a story in the beginning of "Certificate of Absence? Wheter is the author Molloy or the character "the writer", the reader is lead to question the identity of the subject, blurring frontiers between ficcion and reality. I do not mean "Certificate of Absence" is a pure testimonial gender, but the fact Molloy uses own personal data (either cities where she lived or the fact the character is a woman writer) creates both an hybrid and ambiguous autobiography - even Molloy does not use the first person to tell the story.

When Gilmore explains in the introduction of The Limits of Autobiography connections between trauma and a kind of testimony which "tests a crucial limits in autobiography" (2001:5), I think in what extent Molloy's choice for such an unclear autobiography can be explained because of the fact both subjects (the author and "the writer) are lesbians writers from a conservative society. It seems to me that she had to create a literary strategy to resist a literary canon derived from such society. Molloy does not inscribe, for instance, the word "lesbian" throughout the novel, which is the way heteronormativity names sexual relations between women. In silencing such denomation, the author refuses to become the Other, but at the same time the reader will know about lesbian relations amounting to acepted human/sexual relations. However, the disturbing element will remain thanks to the sadomasoquistic emphasis of relations of the "writer". In this sense, what seems both disturbing and marginal is not the relation between two women itself but the painful way it is developed.

As I asserted some weeks ago, one of the most interesting aspects of Molloy's texts is the fact that even "the writer" lives intense lesbian relationships, the author does not transform the novel in what we can call lesbian literature. Then, if we recall that this novel is out of the heteronormativity, maybe we can link it with the trauma associated in becoming an alterity inside a patriarchal society. While for such a society is still out of the norm - being either a woman writer or a lesbian -, Molloy creates a novel in which being a lesbian writer is an important data, but not the most important. In other words, what is shifted inside the fiction is the heteronormativity which tends to mark lesbian (and writers) as the Other. Molloy's option is both remaining unmarked and asserting step by step that "the writer" maybe is she, but only partially. This use of both the silence and the gradual information is gave to the reader seems a way to resist being appropiate by the heterosexual canon.

"Escribe lo que hoy hizo, lo que no hizo, para verificar fragmentos de un todo que se le escapa. Cree recuperarlos, con ellos intenta - o inventa - una constelacion suya." (1st pat, I: P. 13)

Deslindar. Si pudiera deslindar lo que busca cuando escribe de lo que busca cuando suenha de lo que busca cuando abraza." (1st part, VI: P.71)

In displacing the "I" as the rational subject of these memories, Molloy denies not only patriarcal basis of Latino American society (even living among US, France and Argentina, she wrote the novel in Spanish, then I assume Latino American readers are her first target), but cast a critique upon the heritage from the Enlightenment, so problematically developed in colonized societies. In this sense, her memories are both real and imaginary, that is, objective and subjective. Most important, it seems to me that Molloy overcomes binary relations. Molloy, different from Menchu for instance, cannot be acussed of lying: not only because she writes a fiction but because she mixes objective reality wih subjective memories. In a certain extent, the memory is the space of the second invention, nobody besides the author can claim veracity from this story.

Finally, I would like to tell something about the tension between public and private dimensions in Molloy's text, because is my purpose to discuss about the political dimension of texts as this one.
Instead of becoming a commodity spectacle about love affairs of a lesbian writer, Molloy creates a sadomasoquist relation between "the writer" and other women - specially Vera. In doing so, what we see is a closed universe with particular rules/relations. By telling a personal story in such a fragmented way, Molloy transforms it into something public without any great claim on behalf of lesbian rights. However, the reader is faced with the violent personal world of an specific subject: a woman who is lesbian who is writer and who is writing about her affective memories, and this is precisely the point in which personal achieves a public/political dimension that erodes both a literary and political male mainstream or what Schalau defines as "(...) power structure that privileges one group over other" (P.10).

Gilmore's 'Limits of Autobiography'

Gilmore鈥檚 鈥楾he Limits of Autobiography鈥
Gilmore鈥檚 main argument is centered on the relationship between trauma and self representation. She argues that autobiography 鈥渃onstrain[s] self- representations because of its legalistic definition of truth telling, its anxiety about invention, and its preference for the literal and verifiable鈥s a genre, autobiography is characterized less by a set of formal elements than by a rhetorical setting in which a person places herself or himself within testimonial contexts as seemingly diverse as the Christian confession鈥︹? (3)
Her concern is that the scrutiny and judgment that these testimonies open themselves to (as the private becomes public) can be as equally damaging as the trauma experienced by the writer. It is this 鈥渇ear that threatens the writer into continued silence鈥?, thus retreating the writer to the very silence she/he is trying to escape through autobiography. (This reminded me of an essay I recently read through which art historian Benjamin Buchloh launches an attack on a German artist Joseph Beuys. He accuses Beuys of a falsified autobiography which he sees as symptomatic of a dangerous cultural tendency of disavowing a traumatic past and a retreat into myth. He therefore discredits Beuys鈥檚 work based on this 鈥榝alsification鈥 鈥 in the same way that Stoll discredits Menchu.)

It appears to me that it is this fear and awareness of a sympathetic but judgmental audience that pressurizes Leonor Lopez de Cordoba鈥檚 into a Christian like confession at the beginning of her melancholic autobiography. It is as if she鈥檚 swearing under oath in a courtroom, to tell the truth and nothing but the truth: 鈥淭herefore may all who see this testament know how I, Dona Leonor Lopez de Cordoba鈥wear by this sign 鈥 that I worship, that all is written here is true, for I saw it, and it happened to me鈥t is my intention that it be left as a record: I ordered it written as you see before you.鈥?(21) She is definitely aware that as her private story becomes public, it invites judgments and she is actually appealing to her audience to treat it as a record of her experience (though Joan Scott would argue that even personal stories of experience are still subject to questioning, in her essay 鈥楨vidence of Experience鈥). She cushions her narrative with very strong Christian beliefs, which I read as a technique of safeguarding her narrative against harsh judgments.
Leonor seems desperate to legitimize her story by substantiating it with evidence of her lineage, particularly her father鈥檚 aristocracy as she says 鈥淎nd he rose very high in rank, as can be found in the Chronicles of Spain.鈥? (22) This confirms Gilmore鈥檚 view of autobiography鈥檚 nature to base its authority in the discourses of truth and identity.
Gilmore further argues that although telling the traumatic stories is beneficial, there are a lot of obstacles. She sites alternatives that some writers resort to, 鈥渟ome writers move away from recognizably autobiographical forms even as they engage autobiography鈥檚 central questions鈥? and I wonder if perhaps this is the reason why Molloy refuses to label her story an autobiography and creates an anonymous narrator? (Although this is clearly autobiographical). It seems that Sigea was also trying to avoid these harsh judgments that come with recognizable autobiography 鈥 by resorting to implied and unconventional autobiography. She seems interested in telling her story 鈥渨ithout subjecting it to a literal truth test or evaluated by certain objective measures.鈥? (Gilmore, 14) Aware of the scrutiny that might befall her song (if it gets published), Sigea writes in the last lines 鈥淎s other folk may doubt all that you say, my song, stay here with me, and I shall harbor you while yet I may.鈥? It looks like she was not writing this for an audience, but just to release her pain 鈥 to contain her trauma in language with the hope of getting healed as Gilmore believes.

I/We in Writing

Stacey Schlau鈥檚 The Use of the Word and Leigh Gilmore鈥檚 The Limits of Autobiography complicate ideas of genre and demonstrate the various ways in which writers employ and subvert genres, especially that of autobiography. Both acknowledge the constraints of genre and the difficulties in breaking the canon. The genre of testimonio provoke the limits of fiction, autobiography, individual and collective, personal and political. Both critics suggest that perhaps writing cannot fall into binary categories, but rather writing that perhaps might be understood as autobiographical, testimonio, or other push the limits of genre.

Gilmore comments that writers who have experienced trauma, often employ an autobiographical mode of writing that is written outside the constraints of an autobiography genre. Much of this choice seems to rely on ideas of definitions of truth and the legimitization of the writer in recounting and claiming stories and the relationship of the story to the self. Gilmore suggests that "conventions about truth telling, salutary as they are, can be inimical to the ways in which some writers bring trauma stories into language. The portals are too narrow and the demands too restrictive. Moreover, the judgments they invite may be too similar to forms in which trauma was experienced. When the contest is over who can tell the truth, the risk of being accused of lying (or malingering, or inflating, or whining) threatens the writer into continued silence鈥?. Schlau also interesting enough, references silence as a mechanism and strategy that threatens patriarchal norms. With these differences, I agree with Schlau that it is important to read texts in context of in which the writing occurs. Part of the controversy in testimonio and autobiographical writing seems to be due to the concept of I. Many writers appear to use I, not just in an individual sense, but also in a collective identity of bringing the voices of other women to be heard. As writing is political, the ability to write and publish permits the writer to be in a privileged position. Writers, then might use this position to recount the stories of others who are not in the same position. Perhaps written with the idea of collective solidarity, there is a collapse between I and we. The autobiographical mode of writing then becomes a way of representing, and cannot be read as purely realist, but rather a realist interpretation of the self/we. This also brings into play the use of memory. By criticizing the veracity of autobiography and testimonio, critics then often perhaps assume that true autobiography uses a pure memory that is infallible. Yet, memory changes according to context. Kozameh鈥檚 Steps Under Water employs various third person/first person modes in order to express a collective identity of self and we. Kozameh also does not shy away from admitting that her story is not purely her own, but also the stories of others. Given the trauma that she experienced, is it not honorable to want to remember and put into print the memories and experiences of others? Yet also, trauma is perhaps not necessarily personal, but collective, and in this sense, perhaps there is no choice but to collapse the we/I/them. In Persona, Morejon also questions the I and we. She starts the poem with a question. 驴Cu谩les de estas mujeres soy yo? She sees herself not through just a mirror but through other women. She also sees a collective identity based on slavery and oppression, and while she suggests that it is not skin color, it is implicit in her rhetoric. When she questions if Todos mis huesos, 驴ser谩n m铆os? /驴Me los habr谩n comprado en aquella plaza remota de Gor茅e?, she literally places her body into a collective identity of history in Cuba, and suggests that her very body is not necessarily purely her own, but rather part of a larger collective experience in which Afro-Cuban women were dispossessed of their own bodies. The trauma of slavery and its legacy is an experience, suggested by Morejon, of potential solidarity. This is a reference to both the act of buying slaves, but also to the ways in which Afro-Cuban women are related by these experiences. Morejon speaks of her identity then in terms of an identification with other women, who have also experienced this legacy. Kozameh and Morejon both use their writing to speak for themselves and for others. However, by speaking for others, it it not necessarily an appropriation, but rather a legitimization and the acknowledgement of the multiple ways in which one experiences that cannot be understood merely by an I.

Witnessing, Trauma, and Autobiography

In Stacey Schlau's "The Use of the Word," she suggests that by looking at "the matrix within which women, politics, and narrative intermingle" we can understand how "[w]itnessing has played a vital role in defining that configuration" in Spanish America.

As Daniela points out, through alternative and subversive writing strategies--most notably through the construct of silence--women writers have, and continue, to create narratives of resistance that often allow us to see "the collective in the private." But it is not just within the narratives that women writers have challenged masculinist writing norms. As Schlau suggests, "Latin American women writers of narrative forms have stretched the boundaries of genre, creating a multiplicity of hybird genres. The nexus of politics and narrative, the urgent need to remember and disclose, has made possible a vital, thriving literary tradition." Schlau's focus on witnessing, collectivity, and genre hybridity places this piece in dialogue with Leigh Gilmore's "The Limits of Autobiography: Trauma and Testimony," which then brings us back to Kozameh's Steps Under Water.

Gilmore's essay begins by placing the autobiographical form squarely within western Enlightenment ideals, a genre with a "rational and representative 'I' at its center," but similarly to Schlau, Gilmore quickly moves to suggest how this form has been successfully challenged, coopted, and appropriated by writers who seek to critique and resist the central claims of the genre; namely, its "truth" value, its reliance on a coherent 'I', and the inadequacy of language for representing memory and trauma. Although Gilmore is not solely focusing on women writers, it is important to note what a central role they play in the extended analyses her book is comprised of, as well as in her short citations and examples. Central to Gilmore's discuss is the role of trauma in contemporary autobiographies, and she explicitly cites the testimonial as a genre that "insist[s] on the centrality of speaking of pain" (2), even at the same time that it "takes trauma as the unrepresentable to assert that trauma is beyond language in some central way" (6). This paradox is central to Kozameh's work, not only in the tension between the telling and not telling in the narrative, but also in how the narrator explicitly calls attention to the inadequacy of language even as she continues to narrate. Alongside the notion that trauma exceeds language, Gilmore argues that "language is pressed forward as that which can heal the survivor of trauma" (6).

To go back to Schlau's suggestion that the "matrix within which women, politics, and narrative intermingle" allows us to understand the central role of witnessing in Spanish America, Kozameh's Steps Under Water appears to do just this. As a testimonio, witnessing--and witnessing and experiencing trauma specifically--is central to her project. But as her preface suggests, it is not only from the position of the coherent western "I" that she speaks. Purposely disrupting the space between the individual and the community, Kozameh's "I" encompasses a "we," a narrative move that allows us to "see the collective in the private" (via Schlau), and fundamentally challenges autobiography. But what does it mean to bear witness? Why write on trauma in this genre when the narrative's veracity stands to come under attack as in Menchu's case? Especially since as Schlau states, "[w]hen women use mainstream genres to articulate a different kind of standpoint, they run the risk of cooptation or imitation." Clearly, as Spivak and other postcolonial thinkers have articulated, despite this inherent risk--and even to a degree because of it--the testimonial has use value "as a mode in which to represent oneself as a speaking subject" (13). And, as Gilmore begins to articulate, there is the possibility of healing through narrative (6-7). In Kozameh's case, and in the case of testimonios more generally, does such healing extend from the writer to the reader? Does Kozameh's encompassing "I" really expand to include the voices of those she experienced such trauma with? And can they heal through the reading of the text to the extent with which Kozameh possibly experienced healing as result of writing it?

March 3, 2008

Schlau and Kozameh-Silence

While reading The Use of the Word by Stacey Schlau I had to stop at a paragraph where she says: 鈥淎 linguistic technique that women writers utilize to great advantage is silence, which appears to be a shattering of self, but which ultimately functions as a challenge to patriarchal norm.鈥? I immediately thought of what we had talked about in class referring to Alicia Kozameh鈥檚 novel and the silence that we found when it came to writing about torture.

Kozameh chose not to describe (what surely was) the most gruesome part of her more than three years in prison, but that silence was used as a way to defy the patriarchal norms imposed by the military government that ruled the country at that time. I think that it was also a way not to conform to the masculine point of view, which may have preferred to see a clear and plain description of what happened to her. We (in class) didn鈥檛 seem to miss such an account of the horror, as we found it in other elements that Kozameh chose to put under a brighter light: Hugo鈥檚 jacket, a sick compa帽era dying, babies drinking rat soup.

As Schlau points out individual silence is 鈥渁 deliberate strategy meant to contradict and resist the canon.鈥? By fictionalizing her story, Kozameh frees her writing of the traditional rules of the autobiography and allows her character to talk about her own story, but also about the stories of all the other women she met along the way鈥攚hether in prison or in exile. And she may have chosen not to describe physical torture, but the book is filled with psychological terror (from the cop that wears Hugo鈥檚 jacket and follows her everywhere to the stories of exiled compa帽eras).

鈥淔lexible discursive boundaries permit a variety of narrative structures, set in the conversational frame of the region鈥檚 bloody recent history. Generic ambivalence enables these authors to move directly from the personal to the political, from individual experience to collective national tragedy.鈥? Although Schlau refers to Elvira Orph茅e and Marta Traba, she could be talking about Alicia Kozameh, don鈥檛 you think? What Kozameh wrote was so true to so many women that the police felt necessary to threaten her during a democratic government. Apparently, her silences were louder than her words鈥攂oth being part of her writing.

March 1, 2008

benegas & sigea files

i've typed/scanned the poems for wednesday by benegas and sigea so you can bring 3 sheets of paper to class instead of _burning cartography_ and _water lilies_. (i wish i knew how to make a pdf....)

benegas file

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sigea file

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