WOMEN and WRITING
MAGALI GARCIA RAMIS
JUDITH BENNETT BROWN
CARMEN LUGO FILIPPI
MAGALI GARCIA RAMIS
PATRICIA ISMOND, B.A. ST. ANDREWS ... ..
ADA M. VILAR DE KERKHOFF, SUSAN HOMAR :
MARIA C. RODRIGUEZ, LOWELL FIET :
drawings by BRENDA ALEJANDRO .
Sargasso 4 (1987) ..,. & -
Sargasso, an independent literary magazine published at
the University of Puerto Rico, publishes critical essays,
interviews, and some short stories and poems. Sargasso
particularly welcomes material written by the people of
the Caribbean and/or about the Caribbean.
Sargasso strives to make current studies in literature,
language, and culture accessible to non-specialists.
The prose should be clear, lively, and understandable to
those not among the initiate. Essays and critical studies
should conform to the style of the MLA Handbook. Short
stories should be no more than 2,500 words in length,
and poems should be kept to no more than twenty to thirty
lines. All correspondence must include S.A.S.E.
Department of English
Rfo Piedras, Puerto Rico 00931
Lowell Fiet, Editor
Maria C. RodrIguez, Co-Editor; special Editor for Sargasso 4
Ada Haiman, Co-Editor; Book Review Coordinator
Thomas Sullivan, Co-Editor
Aileene Alvarez, Treasurer; Librarian; Translator
Myrsa Landr6n, Translator
Angel D. Rivera, Technical Consultant; Layout
Opinions and viewsexpressed in Sargasso are those of the
individual authors and are not necessarily shared by Sargasso's
Editorial Committee. Copies of Sargasso 4 (1987), as well as
previous issues, are on deposit in the Library of Congress.
The cover illustration by Brenda Alejandro .
The idea for a special issue on "Women and Writing"
first arose in early 1985. At that time, we received a
number of strong articles and reviews by and about women
writers, and the possibility of publishing them as a separate
issue was engaging. Slowly other materials began to arrive
and were added. The result is Sargasso 4, probably a more
tightly-packed critical document than any of our previous
issues. Important questions emerge: Do women write differ-
ently than men? If so, how does that difference manifest
itself? Does subjectivity hold a privileged position in
the work of the woman writer? Why are gender determinations
and distinctions so important in Caribbean writing? What
role does the "politics of sexuality" play in the Caribbean
and in Caribbean writing? Sargasso 4 does not answer those
questions, but it does indicate just how vital they remain.
The interview with Rosario Ferre and Magali Garcia
Ramis is particularly important in terms of questions about
"Women and Writing." Both write from well-defined
positions on feminism and creativity, and although neither
is a radical feminist, both articulate fundamental issues
that confront the woman writer and influence the shape and
substance of her work. In addition to the interview,
Rosario Ferre translated four of her poems for inclusion in
this issue, and Magali Garcia Ramis permitted the reprinting
of "A Talk by Magali Garcia Ramis," an essay originally
printed in The DISPATCH published by Columbia University.
Similarly, and in the same context of subjectivity and
writing, Elaine Savory's remarkable poem "From the Source
to the Sea" also requires attention.
The Only item in this issue not directly related to the
Caribbean is the B. A. St. Andrews essay on Margaret
Atwood's Surfacing. Sargasso's editorial policy is to
consider non-Caribbean materials which bear relation to the
Caribbean and/or strike us as particularly sound and clear
examples of critical writing and thinking. The article on
Atwood satisfies both requirements.
New co-editor Maria Cristina Rodriguez is responsible
for much work on this issue, especially for the interview and
arrangements with Rosario Ferr6 and Magali Garcia Ramis.
Maria Cristina and co-editor Ada Haiman will assume much of
the editorial responsibility for Sargasso while I am on
academic leave during the 1987-1988 academic year.
Sargasso changes with the practice of producing each
new issue. The original intention was to establish an
academic journal and then urge the University of Puerto
Rico to provide a budget for it. Sargasso was to be a
department or college-sponsored effort. But financial
support never materialized, and now Sargasso seems to be
headed in the same direction as Bim or Savacou or
Sin Nombre--independent journals without specific and
binding institutional affiliations. Sargasso survives
"by the seat of its pants [and skirts]," and it is probably
better off for doing so. It also seems important to escape
institutional mediation even in its most benign forms.
Newer journals such as The Journal of West Indian
Literature (University of the West Indies) and The Caribbean
Writer (University of the Virgin Islands) share goals similar
to those of Sargasso. But what seems to be our particular
contribution, and the direction we will be moving in with
increasing emphasis, is contact first between the Spanish
and English-speaking Caribbean and, second, between French,
Spanish, and English-speaking islands. It is that
bi-trilingual direction that most interests us.
Special thanks to Ms. Olga Rivera and the staff of the
UPR Copy Center in the Office of the Dean of Administration
and to Dr. Eduardo Rivera Medina, Dean of Academic Affairs
at the University of Puerto Rico, for assistance in
facilitating the publication of this issue of Sargasso.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Brenda Alejandro: (Drawing). . . . . . .
Women and Writing: Juxtapositions
Responses to Questions by Rosario Ferrd
and Magali Garcia Ramis . . . . . .
Elaine Savory: From the Source to the Sea (Poem).
Ada M. Vilar de Kerkhoff: Carmen Lugo
Filippi's "Recetario de incautos":
The Syntax and Semantics of Relayed
Discourse . . . . . . . . . .
Rosario Ferrd: Opprobrium, To the Knight
of the Rose, Positive, and Negative
(Poems) . . . . . . . . . .
Patricia Ismond: Jamaica Kincaid: "First
They Must Be Children" . . . . . .
Judith Bennett Brown: Morningcome and
For My Father (Poems) . . . . . .
B.A. St. Andrews: The Metallic Sensibility
in Atwood's Surfacing . . . . . .
Elaine Savory: the cost of independence (Poem)
Maria C. Rodriguez: The Narrative Work of
Three West Indian Women: An Attempt to
Find a True Self . . . . . . .
Magali Garcia Ramis: A Talk . . . . .
Susan Homar: Jamaica Kincaid; At the Bottom
of the River and other stories . . . .
Maria C. Rodriguez: Michelle Cliff; The Land
of Look Behind. . . . . .
Lowell Fiet: Sistren; Lionheart Gal: Life
Stories of Jamaican Women . . . . .
Maria C. Rodriguez: Mayra Montero; La trenza
de la hermosa luna . . . . . . .
Contributors . . . . . . . . .
Table of Contents, Sargasso 3 (1986) . . .
. . . 33
. . . 45
. . . 56
WOMEN AND WRITING: JUXTAPOSITIONS
Responses to Questions
Rosario Ferre Magali Garcia Ramis
Magali Garcia Ramis Rosario Ferr4
(Magali Garcia Ramis and Rosario Ferr6 are two of
Puerto Rico's most important contemporary writers. Ferr6
is well known for being the editor of the literary magazine
Zona: Carga y descarga in the 1970s, for the collections
Papeles de Pandora (stories; 1976), El medio pollito,
La mona que le pisaron la cola, and Los cuentos de Juan
Bobo (three volumes of "stories for grown-up children"
published in the late 1970s and early 1980s), Sitio a Eros
(essays; 1980), and FAbulas de la garza desangrada (prose
poems; 1982). She published her first novel, Maldito Amor,
in 1986. Rosario Ferre currently lives in the United
States, where she is finishing doctoral studies at the
University of Maryland.
Magali Garcia Ramis is best known as a short story
writer and her first collection, La familiar de todos
nosotros, was published in 1976. Her first novel, Felices
dias, Tio Sergio (1986), received highly favorable critical
response and has been one of the best-selling Puerto Rican
novels of recent years. Magali teaches in the School of
Public Communication at the University of Puerto Rico,
Rio Piedras Campus.
Both writers share concerns about the role of women in
contemporary society, feminist themes in literature, and
the nature of writing as it reflects questions of gender,
ideology, and culture. There are other more coincidental
points of departure: although they write in Spanish, both
published their first book in 1976--collections of stories
written up to that point; and both, exactly a decade later,
published their first novel.
Unlike previous Sargasso "interviews," the following
is an edited composite of the writers' responses to similar
and/or related questions. The order and sequence has been
established by the editors, and each writer responded with-
out knowing the answers of the other, or even that the
other would be asked the same or similar questions. Thus
4 Ferr6/Garcia Ramis Interview
the responses are "juxtaposed" here for the first time.)
Question: Is there a "feminine writing" that can be
characterized by a particular style or by a
choice of themes?
Rosario Ferrd: I don't think there is a feminine style
that differs from a masculine style of writing.
A writer's style responds to vital, literary
experience. An example is Felices dias,
Tlo Sergio [Happy Times, Uncle Sergio] by Magali
Garcfa Ramis, a novel which records the influence
of J. D. Salinger. I believe she knows very
well, and she writes about this in her novel,
contemporary North American narrative as well as
contemporary European fiction. Her work is
nourished by these writers. I must point out
that no woman is mentioned by the narrator of the
novel; all the writers are men. Knowledge and
acquaintance with contemporary writers has given
Magali the workshop experience which I believe
defines the style of both men and women writers.
What does exist is a different vision. I think
that the problems, which are always the same
problems, if they are focused by a woman,
usually, although not always, reflect a
different vision. An example of a woman writer
whose vision is not different from a masculine
view is Isabel Allende. She is a woman who
writes from the point of view of a woman, since
women narrate the story and they are the ones
who move the plot. Yet, in ideological terms,
it is a reactionary novel, even if she attacks
the disintegration of agricultural structures.
This same attack is made in my novel, Maldito
amor [Damned Love], and in One Hundred Years of
Solitude [by Gabriel Garcia Marquez]. The same
process of disintegration of social and economic
order and the evolution to the modern state in
Latin America is depicted. But I think that in
Allende's novel [La casa de los esplritus (The
House of Spirits)] there is a nostalgic longing
for that social order that she describes as in
the process of disintegration.
Allende is an example of a woman who writes
from a feminine viewpoint that is tinged by a
masculine vision. It is a novel that deep down
is saying that fascism is right. It is a
reactionary novel in spite of its ending and the
references to Salvador Allende. There is an
evocation of the patriarchal figure who is
always presented in an ambivalent way. There
are other women who are more feminine in their
vision just as there are men, such as Proust,
who seem to be nourished by a feminine vision.
In Latin America, all men write from a masculine
point of view, even Jos4 Donoso--in his novels
women participate actively in the development of
plot, but his characters are negative. The only
Latin American writer who attempts to use a
feminine vision in some of his short stories is
Julio Cortdzar. But that does not happen in his
novels, where he is terribly machista and a
sadist with women. In Cortazar's stories, women
take the initiative and try to set things right.
Question: Is there a "feminine writing"?
Magali Garcia Ramis: When I read something I usually know
if it's a man or a woman writing. But for me
that is harder to see in literature than it is
in movies. The "text" (in the sense of el texto),
the pattern is very apparent for me if it is a
woman director because of the way she focuses on
women. If you see Pretty Baby by Louis Malle,
taking place in a brothel of prostitutes, it's
a man's point of view. When you see a film like
Love and Anarchy by Lina Wertmuller--that's when
I first discovered that: the way this wcman
chooses the leisure hours of the prostitutes,
when they are helping each other, washing each
other's hair, playing the guitar, just happily--
if that's correct--at least they're in a
tranquil place at 6:00 before the first customers
come. It's a convent-like relationship: a very
intense, intimate, tender, loving relationship
between at least some of these women, and that
really blew my mind when I realized that--it was
so beautiful, and I realized why: it was the
first time that I directly felt that a woman was
portraying something in art that I especially
understood as a woman.
Ferr6/GarcIa Ramis Interview
Rosario Ferr6: Women have more contact with everyday life
and that is why they take their themes from the
concrete reality of everyday life. But that
doesn't mean that if they dedicate their lives
to studying philosophy or science they can't
write in another way, the way most men writers
have written. Women have not had the opportunity
to dedicate themselves to abstract studies
because they have been more determined by the
intricacies of everyday life.
Question: Are problems you face as a writer connected to
ideology and gender? How?
Magali Garcia Ramis: I don't believe that a writer has to
be chained to an ideology. .I don't think you
have to make a political statement every tine
you write. But that problem affects what you do.
How? Because sometimes in depicting an idea--
the idea for a character, for a situation--all
of this political background that is present in
you seeps into what you are doing, even if you
don't want it to.
I see that very clearly in things having to
do with gender, with being female or male. I'll
give two examples. When I was writing Felices
dias, Tio Sergio, for a while I considered the
possibility of this uncle having an incestuous
relationship with his niece. I thought about it,
and I tried to solve the issue from a strictly
literary point of view. That was fortunate;
because I realized that the way I had described
this man he would not be capable of doing that;
not because he wouldn't find her attractive but
because of his own convictions. He would never
violate his own values by seducing a thirteen
or fourteen-year-old girl. It was not in his
being. But on top of that, I was very aware that
if I decided that it would be good--in "literary"
terms--for the novel, it would be very bad for
Puerto Rican women--because in this country the
abuse of young girls by their fathers and uncles
is so common that I would be condoning something just
because it was fun or pretty, which is exactly
what happened and why I am so aghast at the last
part of Garcia Marquez's last novel [Amor en los
tiempos de c61lera (Love in Times of Cholera)].
I like the novel; it's very good and the best
thing by Garcia Marquez since he wrote One Hundred
Years of Solitude; and the whole idea of the guy
with all kinds of women is fine. But the moment
that he seduces a girl who is his ward and that
is presented as something funny and delightful
. .a typical old guy. .she dies and he goes
off with his love. There's no sense of
responsibility. The whole idea that it's fun to
play with the emotions and sexual impulses of
adolescents is very sick. There's a social
responsibility not to show it like that. You
can show it, but not like that, not as something
funny, especially since it adds nothing to the
story. You don't have to seduce a fifteen-year-
old girl to end the story of a man who really
enjoys his life and has all the relationships
he wants with adult women.
And there I see something determining what I
want to do--and I don't think it opposes what I
write or produce or whatever any other writer or
artist produces--but there has to be a
consciousness that those things simply are not
Question: How do your thoughts on writing relate to other
Rosario Ferrd: If I were to rewrite what I wrote on Jean
Rhys, I would make a re-evaluation of her work.
Rhys functions under the cloud of a masculine
vision. She is so negative about women's
relations with men that women always end up in
disasters and never establish lasting relation-
ships with men. I define a feminine optic as
the writer who presents relationships between
men and women as a possibility. By denying
this possibility, a writer is then siding with
men's view of women. There can be a feminine
perspective with a negative vision, but it
belongs to another generation of female writers.
Ferr4/Garcfa Ramis Interview
The latest women writers provide a combination
in their feminine optical vision: to give
testimony about what happened but also to
leave a door open. I think Jean Rhys is so
negative because she belongs to a different
generation. In her time, she couldn't do any-
thing else. She was already breaking so many
Marguerite Duras is something different.
I think she has a more positive vision of women,
even though she also describes all the negativity
involved in a relationship. There is a vitality
that indicates that her statement is not that
there is no solution to the problem. With a few
exceptions, Virginia Woolf leaves doors open for
women in her novels as well.
Magali Garcia Ramis: This links us to the idea of whether
my writing, or any woman's writing, should have
a distinct consciousness of being feminist-
oriented. I think so, even if it is not always
obvious--which may be the best way. I think
there's an undercurrent of very profound feminist
social conscience in all Puerto Rican women
writers right now. Carmen Lugo Filippi's
stories are filled with frustrated women, but
she's not telling you to "go out and liberate
yourself." She's showing you that these people
are really missing out on life. And you don't
have to be a genius to realize why, it's there.
That's why they're so effective; that's why I
think that when her first book came out with
Ana Lydia [Vega]--Virgenes y mArtires [Virgins
and Martyrs]--so many women identified with it.
When they went to give lectures and talks,
women asked them questions about their own lives
as if they were Ann Landers and Dear Abby. All
of a sudden women saw other women portraying
them with all their own frustrations and
Rosario Ferrd: Ana Lydia Vega and Luis Rafael Sanchez use
the same popular street language, but she is
positive while he is negative. I see Luis Rafael
Sanchez as an actor who uses black humor, while
through her language, Ana Lydia Vega has a very
affirmative quality that is very positive.
Magali Garcia Ramis: In my particular case, I think the
idea of defining what it means to be a woman
has been present from the very moment I began
to write. I wasn't always conscious of it,
and that may be why my first novel deals with
that definition. Also, I'm told that first
novels are almost always autobiographical.
I didn't know that until I was very far into
the writing of Felices dias, Tfo Sergio. But
it seemed appropriate: "Oh, no wonder I'm
doing it this way."
FROM THE SOURCE TO THE SEA
poems for a mother's death
this is your birthday
wet cold days
without the garden
misery for you always
and now your voice
is frail and frightening
it has been difficult.
woman of magic
queen of transformations
who could make gawKy me
into a paper rose
whose tongue could silence
shred my pleasure
into a dusty wind
i thought you my mentor
gave you my life to shape
fractured our closeness
we fight too well
too well we know
how to wound one another
sometimes my love for you
is like a spear
splitting my ribs
and one inch from my heart
i harbour memories
you shaping jewel-coloured clothes
for me to gad in
baking bread at four
offering us garments
which spun themselves
out of your eye and fingers
under our rowan tree
packing up picnics
trifle and coffee cake
cream horns with perfect curls:
your love was always
my friend abena
who knows sorrows
'and always and only love survives':
her words sustain me.
like me, she looks out
with a bright eye
but in the poetry
is the chink in the pearl casing
the loop in the suicidal tunnel
out to tenderness
do you know
crab with a yen to be a mollusc
(remember how i wuved
the reptile house
when i was three?)
oh, i can tell
how plated ones
you need to know
my shelless one
who must lash to live
you taught me armour
without knowing it.
i grew my carapace
because your love could sting
you have that cruelty
of one who loves
i have the one
which makes me
into my bones
but how this distance
i need to console you
give you strength
i can only write
'get well now'
on this flimsy card
into the chasm
of our separation.
Vigil: January 10 1985
written in my copy of A Question of Power
around my mother's
most unwilling bed
we bring out stories
wrestle the past to masquerade
for her amusement
she grips my hand
slim pale freckled fingers
clutch at hope
i do not want to die
what can i say?
tinier by minutes
dreaming of childhood
she stumbles over names
none of us heard in years
eager as life to get along
she promises to make
a felt elephant for someone
takes her bright silver bowl
and slowly settles Chinese lanterns
into an orange spray
she nibbles determinedly
on what i give her
placing each sliver
on her fragile tongue
away a moment
i rest my cheek
even in winter
she has colour and shape
pink everlasting blossoms
some gilded leaves
in long green glass
it is her life
above her bed
child prodigy she was
her eyes twinkle
if you remind her now.
pictures of us
crowd the wall
she shrinks meanwhile
into a space
between us and the ancestors
she scolded my father
only this morning
staggered from bed
has always worked before
death is such waste
my sister's thoughts
curve into mine
we sit and wait
playing her favourite music
tending her bed
or the next day...
January 12-16 1985
the last thought
in my mother's brilliant eyes
was red and sunshine.
i whispered out to town
whilst she was sleeping
bought armfuls of young daffodils
and red, red, red poinsettias.
at her bed's foot
they were temptation:
mother, stay still spring
poinsettias from my adopted home
she never saw
are the good colour of that dress
she wore the day she saw my father.
daffodils flown from columbia
to this hurt of snow
determined and delicate in icy air
remind her of new life again.
her sitting room was once in daffodil.
my family dies in winters.
wreaths stiffen in the cold
we scatter flowers
my sister freesias
daffodils for me
my father, upright, sobs
as he casts christmas roses:
flowers gave her tne sign to wait for spring.
and so it is
our piles of wreaths
the roses, crimson, pink,
and freesias bury her heart
under this elfin tree
only until warmer weather
then she'll be out
tending the injured roots
the paler blooms.
Barbados January 21 1985
and my tyrant
both are gone:
the warm sea plucks at me
to heal i tend my child
and sometimes cannot say
Daughter to Mother: March 10 1985
i never felt the pull
of death before
that subtle tide
of wanting to be with you
the counter-tide of mothering
tows me to shore
my tears baste chickens
and i hunt for rituals
i cannot bury you
i need to ask
how to make walnut bread
now to remake a skirt
careful never to crowd you
i never chose your skills
now you are gone
i want them
as if they are your presence
is the first of birthdays
the life i lead is mine now
maybe i'll even paint
for many things i did to please I
now may be meaningless
changes are wrought
as i sit thinking
against the sharp kiss of the wa
when the jam runs out
shall i make new?
or shall i write
i could not say before
words of my changing?
here the bright water brings you
mermaid again, flirting
lustrous-eyed and elegant,
happy and blue for my admiration:
i need not bury you.
caress my feet
and let me go on my own journey
all i ever wanted
was your blessing
University of the West Indies
Cave Hill Campus
CARMEN LUGO-FILIPPI'S "RECETARIO DE INCAUTOS":
THE SYNTAX AND SEMANTICS OF RELAYED DISCOURSE1
The seventies have marked, if not a complete renewal,
at least a significant turning point in the evolution of
narrative discourse in Puerto Rico--especially in the highly
favored area of the short story--with the works of Luis
Rafael Sanchez, En cuerpo de camisa (1966) and La guaracha
del Macho Camacho (1976) serving as lines of demarcation
and inspirational models for the rise of new forms and
practices. In his anthology of contemporary Puerto Rican
prose fiction, Apalabramiento (New Hampshire: Ediciones
del Norte, 1983), Efrain Barradas defines the distinguishing
traits of these practices in terms of
1. the merging of narrators and characters
2. a penchant for the "historical" understood
in aesthetic terms
3. linguistic and ideological identification
with the Puerto Rican proletariat, the
Caribbean world, and the Latin American
4. the direct or indirect representation of a
declining middle class entrenched in 19th
5. a slant towards a feminine-feminist perspective
6. an interest in the "literarity" or the more
formal components of text.2
Even the most cursory glance at these characteristics
will reveal their interdependence beyond thematic or formal
boundaries and premises: problems of transmission and
representation such as the intonational fusion of voices
(characteristic #1), for example, are grounded on ideational
considerations, sexual definitions, and social distinctions
(characteristics #3 and #4).
Going one step further, we can narrow down the list
to two common denominators and say that contemporary Puerto
Rican prose fiction is primarily speech-oriented and
Vilar de Kerkhoff
self-centered: speecn-oriented in that it highlights
aiscursive formations as its practically sole constitutive
element, reshaping and suoorainating, when not openly
displacing all other integrating units of the fictional
world; self-centered to the extent that this display of
verbal activity, sustained by a multiplicity of voices
echoing or goading each other, wallowing in narcissistic
self-interrogation, or engaged in scathing verbal aggression,
all tend towards an identical project: the definition of
or search for a self that is, in the final analysis, the
Puerto Rican self.
whether the actual representation be expressed in
individual or collective, anonymous terms, veiled or direct,
does not constitute a major differentiating factor since
the seeking/sought-after "I" appears as inextricably
enmeshed in the others(s). As a result, interaction,
contrast, and communication (or the lack thereof) emerge
as key notions in describing fictional constructions which
underscore the use of irony, parody, free indirect discourse
and epistolary structures in their presentation of the quest
for a simultaneously individual and national identity.
An outstanding illustration of these tendencies can be
found in one of the most acclaimed publications of the past
years: Virgenes y mArtires (Rio Piedras: Editorial
Antillana, 1981), a collection of thirteen short stories
by Carmen Lugo-Filippi and Ana Lydia Vega. The collection
is structured according to a tri-partite division in which,
starting with the title, Virgins and Martyrs (two and/or
one? mutually inclusive and/or exclusive?), duality,
dialogue, and ambivalence stand out as basic compositional
The first part contains Scaldada's (pen-name for Carmen
Lugo-Filippi) six-story "solo"; the second part brings
together Talla Cuervo's (pseudonym for Ana Lydia Vega)
corresponding "solo" of six; while in the third part,
the authors' voices merge as a "dueto" in the production
of one story, "Cuatro selecciones por una peseta" ("Four
choices for a quarter").
These are stories by women about women: "virgins"
(innocent? ignorant? untouched? unconcerned? revered?) and
"martyrs" (victims? suffering? sacrificed? experienced?)
subjected to the triple assault of
1. the media and other agents of mass communications
in the form of televised "soaps," magazines,
2. chauvinistic, sexist determinations incarnate in
private and public figures such as husbands,
lovers, priests, or simply, "the man in the street"
3. social and political pressures rooted in colonial
structures and other institutionalized sexually-
discriminating mores and values
--all operating within the particular setting of Puerto Rican
life. The way in which the discourse of the "self" (or the
quest thereof) and the discourse of the "other" interrelate
and are relayed within a narrative context starring a gallery
of teachers, secretaries, housewives, dental assistants,
beauticians, or the more anonymous role of "broad" ("la
Tioa"), is of paramount importance in defining the ideo-
logical formations and conceptions of the "self" which are
being activated in these texts.
This brings us directly to the problem at hand: the
analysis of discourse transmission and representation--i.e.
textual areas in which the syntactic, the rhetorical and the
ideological meet--in narratives which foreground existential
and ideological constructions. Our working hypothesis,
jakobsonian3 and bakhtinian4 in origin, is that the ideo-
logical and existential imperatives informing these texts
are, to a large extent, already inscribed in the choice of
formal features (syntactic, rhetorical, phonological); and
that, it is mainly through the study of the latter that the
"literary" (vs the purely sociological, psychological, or
ideological) dimension and value of the former are to be
found. Nowhere in Puerto Rican prose fiction is the semantic
role of syntactic and narrative elements more evident than
in the narratives of Virgins and Martyrs,and, more
specifically, in the first of these texts, "Recetario de
Incautos" ("Recipes of the Foolhardy") by Carmen Lugo-
Filippi where it constitutes a major structuring principle.
"Recetario de Incautos"5 is a very short narrative
(only four pages long) which traces the mental ruminations
of a thirty-six-year-old, overweight divorcee in her search
for the perfect--i.e. exotic, and, at the same time easy to
Vilar de Kerkhoff
cook--recipe with which to impress her sister and her one
time "love" (now her sister's husband).
The opening statement of the text, emitted by the
narrator in the form of a more-than-brief expository report,
immediately plunges the reader medias in res:
Cuando comenz6 a revolver la pila de recortes,
cinco cucarachas descomunales se precipitaron
despavoridas por los bordes de las tablillas
(When she started to rummage through the pile of
clippings, five colossal roaches rushed out
terrified along the edges of the dusty shelves.)
In the initial portion of the utterance, "Cuando comenz6
a revolver la pila..." ("When she started to rummage through
the pile of clippings"), the narrative voice is syntactically
characterized by its usage of the indicative mode, the past
perfect tense, and the third person pronoun; and semantically
and rhetorically oriented towards the matter-of-fact, the
self-effacing, what Bakhtin has qualified as "pseudo-
objective accentuation."6 Yet, in the second half of this
inaugural emission, the echo of another tonality or style
register, semantically and rhetorically marked by hyperbolic
and more "colorful" strains as it produces expressions such
as "descomunales" ("colossal") and "se precipitaron
despavoridas" ("they rushed out terrified") can also be
heard. In this way, from the very beginning of the
narrative, the multi-tonal potential of the narrative voice
is introduced by means of dual accentuation: on the one
hand, the low-keyed; on the other, the "expressive," both
within the common syntactical context of the narrator's
One could argue, though, that this is not so much an
example of internal cleavage within one voice as a case
of contamination from, slippage or transition into another
voice altogether--a fitting rhetorical and semantic preview
of what is to be the character's (vs the narrator's)
intonational register, and which makes its appearance in
the following exclamation: ";Qu6 asco!" ("Yuk!"). For,
in fact, this expression of disgust heralds the onset of
the character's "indirect interior monologue"7--relayed
within the discourse of the narrator (recognizable primarily
through the identification of features such as the
conservation of the third person narrative technique and a
smattering of verbs in the past perfect tense), but
syntactically and stylistically marked by the combined
appearance of the conditional and subjuntive modes, the
imperfect tense ("tenfa que", "habrfa que", "seguiria",
"hubiera"), ellipses, rhetorical questions ("o sf lo eraS ,
ejaculations ("tAh!"),"' lexical fillers' which express
an ongoing internal or external exchange"8 ("despues de
todo", "total", "claro estl"), and other signs of
When mixed with overt (or more covert) indices of
narrative reporting, these grammatical, lexical, and
rhetorical features constitute the principal identifying
traits of the narrative strategy known as "Free indirect
discourse or speech" (FID for short).9 This is one of the
most common devices used in fiction for the representation
of a character's thoughts and sense-impressions, and one
which Carmen Lugo-Filippi liberally exploits in "Recetario."
What must be determined, though, is whether the verbal
fusion and indeterminacy present in FID occurences are
based on intonational solidarity or differentiation.
Since these two types of represented speech and
thought are generally designated by the common term FID,
the distinction established by Bakhtin and others0 to
identify and describe fundamental differences at the
pragmatic (or "trans-linguistic", to quote Bakhtin) level
between practices which linguistically share a common
format is indispensable in qualifying the type of narrator-
character relationship each FID instance establishes and
the function of each FID occurence in the text. Therefore,
the term "Free indirect discourse" (FID) will be used only
for cases of verbal convergence in one linguistic construc-
tion of two differentiated, when not openly contradictory,
viewpointsll; while cases of verbal fusion produced by a
"common tonal orientation" will be referred to as "discourse
by substitution" (DS).12
It is on the basis of this distinction that "IQu6 asco!
habrfa que fumigar pronto aquel rinc6n de almacenaje, si no
querfa verse devorada por ejercitos proliferantes" ("Yuk!
she would have to fumigate that storage area soon if she
didn't want to see herself devoured by these proliferating
armies")--anchored punctuatively and syntactically in the
discourse of the narrator as it combines elements
corresponding to what has been described as the narrator's
more "colorful" tonality with the first identifiable
traces of the character's intonational presence--can be
Vilar de Kerkhoff
classified as DS rather than as FID. This classification
posits the double-edged quality of the narrator's voice in
its inaugural utterance and an empathetic relationship
semantically and rhetorically linking narrator and
character in their expression of a common disgust.
This type of discourse representation is prolonged for
the duration of the "roach" sequence up to the following
proposition: "De buena gana hubiera comenzado el exterminio
en esos mismos instantes" ("She would have ,illingly
started the extermination right then and t-. re"). The end
of this sequence, and the end, for the moment, of DS is
clearly marked by punctuative and syntactical frontiers:
a comma and a co-ordinating conjunction, "pero" ("but").
Following this "pero", the intonational registers of
the narrator and the character separate. The narrative
context continues to take charge of transmission, but
interference and distance are introduced by the narrative
voice's return to the past perfect tense and other markers
(i.e. a colon) of its more detached, pseudo-objective
accentuation: "pero lo apremiante de la situation la hizo
reconsiderar su impulso: tenia que . ." ("but the
urgency of the situation made her reconsider: she had
to . ."). As the narrator's "expressive" orientation
fades, the character's emotionally-tinged voice--always
embedded, however, in the narrative continuum--comes to
the foreground. Once the semantic and rhetorical
convergence of the two voices has been broken, FID
s6lo tenia que revestirse de paciencia y dominar
su ansiedad creciente pues al fin y al cabo no se
trataba esta noche de una visit tan important
como para alterarse en tal forma... Zo st lo
(she only had to arm herself with patience and
control her growing anxiety since, in the end,
tonight's visit wasn't important enough to
warrant her getting so upset... or was it?)
With the shift from DS to FID as a mediating filter
for the now distinct tonalities of both narrator and
character, the presence of a new voice can be detected:
it is the voice of Fashion, Beauty, and Home magazines for
women--a voice which is embedded in the discourse of the
character as an instance of further verbal stratification.
This "voice-within-voice-within-voice" structure combines
the services of both FID and DS: FID to transmit narrator-
character discourse, and within it, DS to present the
character's adherence to the magazines' speech patterns.
The more the character's represented thoughts are high-
lighted, the more her voice emerges as a mosaic of relayed
speech in which the authoritarian thrust of the source-
texts (the magazines) has been retained and is communicated
in terms of pseudo-categorical statements introduced by
modal auxiliaries such as: "habria que," "no podia tolerar,"
"tenia que" ("one would have to," "she could not tolerate,"
"she had to") which fuse semantical force (haber que,
tener que. .) with syntactical mitigation (the use of the
conditional). The absence of lines of demarcation between
the discourse of the character and the integrated voice of
the magazines reveals the degree to which the latter has
been assimilated by the former. The character has become,
so to speak, the sounding board for the linguistic struc-
tures and lexical items--and in so doing, for the ideo-
logical formations--of the magazines.
The subordinate position of the character is enhanced
in still another way, by means of another syntactical
construction: embedded "direct discourse" as introduced
by an orthographic feature, a colon: "Seguiria el consejo
de Vanidades para ojos y pArpados caldos: sombra clara
hacia arriba. ." ("She would follow the advice offered
by Vanidades for drooping eyes and eyelids: light-colored
shadow applied with an upsweep. ."). In this case, the
magazine's discourse is retained in its "integrity,"
isolated, set apart, perceived as an untranslatable order,
punctuated by the "claro estg" (the "of course") of the
character's voice, which only serves so much the more to
accentuate the "degree of dogmatism"13 which accompanies
the perception, and, therefore, the transmission of this
discourse and emphasizes its socio-hierarchical
This sequence, that is, the character's representation
of the magazine's discourse, is cut short, interrupted by a
colloquial "Total" ("After all"); once more, an exclamation
signals a change in tonality. The intonational source of
this "Total" and the syntactical or rhetorical structures
which support it are not immediately identifiable. If the
character's speech has just been described as the
subservient echo of the magazine's voice, it would not be
strong and forceful enough to interrupt the magazine's
Vilar de Kerkhoff
discourse, let alone challenge its validity by changing the
subject: "Total, a Paco tambign se le notarfan las
arrugas. ." ("After all, Paco's wrinkles and paunch
would be visible, too. ."). It would have to be another
voice, a voice with a certain degree of independence from
the magazines' intonational horizon, a voice which could
stand up to it on equal terms and even jokingly spar with
it through parodic thrusts and humorous images: "dieta
perfect, segin Cosmopolitan, para hacer engordar hasta
una cola de bacalao" ("the perfect diet, according to
Cosmopolitan, to make even the tail of a cod gain weight")
--in other words, the voice of the narrator.
Thus, we are inclined to classify the new sequence as
FID to the extent that it combines the syntactic,stylistic,
and punctuative imprints of both character and narrator
(i. e. the conditional, the lack of quotation marks, the
matter-of-fact tone, etc.) while maintaining their distinct
orientations. What distinguishes this sequence from
previous examples of FID is the fact that, while in the
latter, the character's voice has been brought to the fore-
ground and the narrative voice, though ever present, has
retreated to a secondary position, in the former, it is the
narrative voice which takes over and literally puts words
in the character's mouth, and, therefore, ideas in the
This authoritarian, or forcefully pedagogical stance of
the narrator and its corresponding tonal expression are
reinforced and reconfirmed by yet another narrative
construction: the use of the second person pronoun--"tu"--
and the present tense.
Total. .y td muy bien recuerdas que a Doris le
encantaba cocinar abundantes pastas con queso
Te sonrfes al imaginar a Doris cachetuda y con
(After all. .and you remember very well how much
Doris loved to cook tons of pasta with parmesan
You smile as you imagine Doris fat-cheeked and
double chinned. .)
The accusatory thrust of direct address is here attenuated
by the choice of the familiar "tu" rather than the more
formal "usted"--this is not Pinguet's Inquisitoire or
Butor's La modification, even though it shares the
latter's didactic, guiding overtones and function.
The narrative voice is not dogmatic, but it does orient
in a direct, though coaxing, manner as it deposits a
series of dramatic scenarios in the verbal conscience of
the character: librettos full of ingenious dialogue,
gourmet delicacies, soft background music, candlelight
atmosphere, scripts not very unlike the type associated
with the magazines the character reads and quotes, but
rendered parodic when interspersed with momentary references
to a more down-to-earth evaluation ("Paco's wrinkles and
paunch, Doris' double chin and chubby cheeks).
Te sonrles al imaginar a Doris cachetuda y con
papada y eso te causa un gran alivio y te hace
volver entusiasmada a las recetas que has colec-
cionado durante aios, previendo ocasiones como
6stas o imaginando invitados importantes a quienes
fascinar con tu cocina exquisite, tu mesa impe-
cable y tus "Mil violines de amor" punzando
suavemente la penumbra de la pequena sala-comedor
iluminada por tan s6lo dos candelabros.
("You smile as you imagine Doris fat-cheeked and
double chinned. Conforted by this thought you go
back with renewed zeal to the recipes which you
have been collecting for years, while anticipating
occasions such as these or imagining important
guests to fascinate with your exquisite dishes,
your impeccable table, and your "Thousand violins
of love" throbbing softly in your half-lit small
living-dining room, illuminated by only two
For reasons which will become clear at the end of the
narrative, the narrator has, for the moment, chosen to
adopt an intonational accentuation similar enough to,
though never identical with, the voice of the magazines
and maintains the control implicit in these syntactic and
lexical choices until it manages to get its tonality
adopted by the character: "En ese instant habria que
arauear adn mAs las cejas, levantar la barbilla. . "
("At that moment, one would have to arch one's eyebrows
even more and pull up one's chin. . .") At that point
in the narrative, the "td" is dropped, the conditional and
the imperfect return, the narrator recedes to the back-
ground, while the character assumes the verbal direction
the narrative voice has traced for her.
Vilar de Kerkhoff
No sooner has the narrator stepped back, than the
character once again brings the voice of the magazines
to a position of prominence, this time by means of the
direct quotation of headlines: "ZES USTED INOLVIDABLE?
UNA FORMULA MAGICA PARA ADELGAZAR SIN DEJAR DE COMER"
("ARE YOU UNFORGETTABLE? A MAGIC FORMULA FOR LOSING
WEIGHT WHILE CONTINUING TO EAT"). Like the narrator
before them, the magazines, too, provide a sequence of
reveries and other such scenarios: "Escenograffas de
suefos comenzaron a asomarse entire las esplendorosas
fotograffas" ("Dreamy settings started to emerge from the
splendiferous pictures"). It is as though the narrator and
the magazines were taking turns in feeding the character's
discourse and tuning her voice.
However, as the cumulative effect of images gains
momentum and the rhythm of the text accelerates through
punctuative, syntactic, and rhetorical structures favoring
exclamations, enumerations, serial development, and
TAh! cuanto hubiera querido prolongar indefini-
damente su ir y venir. . S1, hubiera querido
regresar al comedor. . .
iAh! iquien hubiera podido llegar hasta la mesa
de corte victoriano. . .
Se hubiera sentado discretamente a la mesa . .
(Ah! how she would have liked to prolong her
comings and goings indefinitely. . Yes, she
would have liked to return to the dining-room. . .
Ah! to be able to reach the Victorian-style
table . .
She would have sat down discreetly at the
table. . .
--all culminating in the repeated use of ellipses, and,
finally inacacophony of sounds combining syllables from the
names of herbs and spices, the character, now totally
overwhelmed, is shown as incapable of assimilating, let
alone of using, the language of the magazines. It is out
of her range. What emerges is an utterance without
punctuation and syntax: "tarragonsalsifiperfoliadaza-
But the quest does not end here: "Pero no." Prodded
once again by the narrative voice through the use of modal
auxiliaries (expressions of the subtly authoritarian), the
character loses her momentary aphasia and manages to
recuperate some of her linguistic ability: "Tenia que ser
capaz de lograr las sutilezas del unto, las aleaciones
magicas de yerbas y species" ("She had to be able to manage
the subtleties of the seasonings, the magical alloys of
herbs and spices"); only to be faced with the foreign,
inaccessible distribution of these lexical fields when set
against the more familiar "latas Campbell. .salsa de
tomate. .habichuelas cocidas en agua y sal" ("Campbell
cans. .tomato sauce. .beans in salt and water"). This
confrontation of the foreign and the familiar, the
improbable and the possible is pursued more forcefully by
means of the narrative voice's return to the "second-person,
present-tense" strategy as it conjures, in one last
sweeping movement, elements from one of the before-mentioned
double-edged scenarios, with one slight, but significant
variation: Paco, the brother-in-law, is directly quoted as
saying, "iQu6 habichuelas salsudas tan estupendas!" ("What
perfectly wonderful saucy beans!").
This image-utterance, appearing as it does reinforced
by the cumulative presence of previously-made references to
a world (linguistic, ideological) outside the realm of the
magazines and closer to the character's own range (both
linguistic and existential), when juxtaposed to the stereo-
typed images created by the magazines' discourse, unmasks
the extraneous, artificial nature of the magazines'
"dream worlds" and elicits what is to be the character's
first authentic, autochtonous affirmation and the concluding
utterance of the narrative: "Pendeja, eres una grandisima
pendeja" ("Asshole, you're just a big asshole"). It is the
earthy, colloquial voice of self-affirmation without doubts,
the rejection of imposed (whether they be self-imposed or
not) strictures and models--uttered within the newly-acquired,
painfully-conquered right to minimally-mediated, minimally-
filtered "direct discourse," and even more significantly,
to the narrator's pedagogical "td," the indicative mode, and
speech in general. In her transition from the mental to the
oral, from the indirect to the direct, the character has,
so to speak, found her tongue--and through analogy, opened
her eyes--as she errupts in laughter and emits her self-
mocking, lucid cry: "Pendeja. . ." Ironic vision,
self-awareness, and verbal (syntactic, rhetorical, etc.)
mastery are one.
The narrative voice's true role now becomes apparent.
Throughout the narrative it has put its multilingual capacity
Vilar de Kerkhoff
at the service of the character, pushing her, goading her,
until she could find a voice characterized by a new set of
syntactical, semantic, and rhetorical inflections: oral,
assertive, determined, capable of self-objectivization and
distance. Like Ldon Delmont in La Modification, the
character in this story has been led through her own
interior "voyage through Hell" in order to literally
provoke the emergence of a new voice (blocked? repressed?),
and therefore, the birth of another "self."
Within the Puerto Rican context, the character's initial
situation and subsequent evolution can be read as parables
of the feminine condition in particular and colonial
mentality in general. In both cases, the "I's" growth--
linguistic and ideological--is seen as stunted by continuous
sacralization of the "other," whether it be the foreign,
the masculine, or the institutionalized.
In syntactical terms, the reader, like the character
before him, is called upon to make the transition from the
"conditional," mode "par excellence" of wishful thinking and
hypothetical constructions, of alibis, excuses, dependency
(and diluted energy in general) to the "indicative," mode
of the affirmative, the straight-forward. . of action.14
Ada M. Vilar de Kerkhoff
University of Puerto Rico
Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico
1. An earlier version of this article was presented at the
Colloquium for "M. M. Bakhtin and his circle" held at
Queen's University (Kingston, Canada), October 7-9, 1984.
2. Efrain Barradas, Apalabramiento (New Hampshire:
Ediciones del Norte, 1983), p. xxvii.
3. See Roman Jakobson, "Podsie de la grammaire et
grammaire de la poesie," in Questions de poetique
(Paris: Seuil, 1973) pp. 219-233.
4. See M. M. Bakhtin, Esthetique et theorie du roman
(Paris: Gallimard, 1978) and V. N. Voloshinov [M. M.
Bakhtin], Le marxisme et la philosophies du language
(Paris: Minuit, 1977). [As part of the more
comprehensive project of providing a socio-psycho-
linguistic orientation to the study of language,
Bakhtin explores narrative discourse (and, for that
matter, all utterance) in terms of verbal interaction,
dynamic syntactic and stylistic constructions, existential
intersubjectivity, and social pertinence beyond form/
content, individual/social, time/space, intra-textual/
5. Carmen Lugo-Filippi, "Recetario de incautos", in
Virgenes y martires (Rio Piedras: Editorial Antillana,
1981) pp. 13-16. All translations are my own.
6. M. M. Bakhtin, Esth4tique et theorie du roman, pp. 138-9.
7. "Indirect interior monologue" is to be understood as
sustained represented thought transmitted through
indirect means such as FID.
8. Brian McHale, "Free Indirect Discourse, a survey of
recent accounts," PTL 3 (1976) p. 269.
9. Also known as "Free indirect style" (FIS), "erlebte
Rede," "represented speech," etc., "Free indirect
discourse" has been at the center of an ongoing
discussion among linguists and literary theorists
during the past fifteen years. For a good survey of
the state of affairs of the different positions
(terminological), functional, typological) held until
1978, see Brian McHale, "Free Indirect Discourse:
A Survey of recent accounts," PTL 3 (1978) pp. 249-287.
32 Vilar de Kerkhoff
10. See S. Ullmann, D. Cohn, P. Hernadi, S. Chatman, and
11. V. N. Voloshinov [M. M. Bakhtin], Le marxisme et la
philosophie du language, pp. 189-198.
12. Ibid., pp. 191-3.
13. Ibid., p. 162.
14. It is not by chance that the concluding story of
Carmen Lugo-Filippi's "solo" bears the title "Entre
condicionales e indicativos" ("Between conditionals
I am called Antigone: I was buried alive
by those who owed salvation to obedience,
by those who threatened to abuse with fear,
by those who entrusted to the tyrant's care
their heavy orchards, laden with golden fruit.
With the moon of my menses I wove the shroud
in which I now burn, unblemished, at the dregs of my death.
Centuries have gone by and still my blood
betrays me: it springs, leaps, pours out
on every street corner of the land
each time a rebel dares his curse against the satrap.
TO THE KNIGHT OF THE ROSE
In his embrace I embraced them all:
The rose of stone and the rose of sleep,
the river's rose and the dark wine's rose,
the rose that flamed at noon
over the skull of the sun,
the rose of snow, with which I used to gird
my brow in burning coronets of ice,
the rose that crowns
the rose's thorn,
the rose that weaves love's ecstasy in garlands
at marriage feasts, and that which sifts
slow ash and agony
over the face of death,
the smoke's rose and the poem's rose,
the rosary's rose and the tiger's rose,
the blood red rose and its blood red blue
which will one day make my death
burst into bloom,
my clean swept terrace and the breeze of roses
nodding through the balusters of noon,
the rose that climbed the stairway
and the one that still clings to the lock
now that he's closed the door,
the rose of his sex and the rose of his foot,
pink and still warm upon
the nutritive cloth of morning,
the rose of the lover who greets me and has yet to leave.
In his arms I embraced them all:
the wound red rose as yet unpruned
that wove forgetfulness above its stem
and that unrivaled, everlasting
in all that was or ever might have been,
the naked rose of the rose.
Wandering down time's passageways
from dream to dream I roam
from dream to blow,
bestowing contradiction upon every shadow
that strives to lie over my heart.
Seated at the end of the world
its beat propped up against the sky
it knows no hope in its unhappy quest.
Oh unyielding heart,
rare root by which I rise
to the depths of myself and of that wrath
which alone can soothe my soul, because alone
it stood, sole witness to my birth,
pair me under your cloak of arms, couple me to your dreams
exhume me to your unquiet peace!
In honor of all the tenderness and good
which grew from love's unfantomable abyss,
in honor of that faithful, soft-tongued fraud
with which you argued, in illusion, to mislead
by love's lone company,
in honor of that sheer diamond and that sheer luck
with which you hid and deceived
the bursting point of bliss within your breast,
because you dared bedevil and bejest
at your left ventricle's edge
the executioner's greed
that would mince, slice, strike out the heart
while kneeling in prayer over the bowed neck
of the god,
because your skeleton persists in its embrace
because you kissed an elm, because you loved,
in honor of all these I swear my vow:
along this same, solitary road
your twin, uncoupled heart will one day
come to pass.
Because you loved to serve your lover
a comforting blue coffee on the hour,
because you loved to nurse, within the enclosure of his arm
a fear so great that it encompassed all other forms of death,
because you minced daintily amongst cups and saucers
while your lover tore down the world
razed to the stature of his ankle,
in honor of the swan song and the jewel
with which he wooed you on your last full-bellied moon,
for embalming your heart under the earth
after removing it from his rib,
in honor of your stone-dead birth
and the ever-loving swindle of your skirt,
in liege of those mills of oil and honey
which remained ever silent on your hand,
the lesser and the greater thronging of your flocks
and the smoking, swarming labyrinths of your hives,
for bearing, between your manly lips
upon your manly tongue
under your manly shoulder
a heart that, striking rudely, like a man's
would tear down a mountain by its fists
as your elbows, your legs and your arms
melt in soft rivers of oil and bile
thus confirming the authenticity of your sex,
because you refrained wisely from excess, were prudent
and as a young girl learned to shuffle,
dealing patiently twixt yourself and your shadow,
in honor of all these and a few others
which come to mind as I consider your condition
I wonder who you are, who might've imagined
this face that pauses by my mirror.
translations by the author
JAMAICA KINCAID: "FIRST THEY MUST BE CHILDREN"
The earliest phase of Caribbean writing--fighting to
claim an identity for the black man--began with a sense of
his damaged psyche. Among some of the writers who have
emerged since then, there is a noticeable shift to another
area of exploration. They seem intent on affirming the
character and spirit that was being forged in the region
even while its peoples underwent the ills and privations of
the past. They search out this character in the substance
of family relationships, the urgencies of caring, sacrifice
and struggle experienced at close domestic levels, and
fostering courage and human values.
The trend is noticeable in writers from the French and
English-speaking Caribbean (militancy seems to be the
dominant trend in the Spanish contingent, though I am not
competent to speak about it). Simone Schwarz-Bart in
The Bridge of Beyond (1972) presents a similar theme:
Telumre Miracle finds a bridge to her own self-achievement
as an independent woman in her grandmother's fortitude and
wisdom. The contribution of the Antiguan writer, Jamaica
Kincaid, with whom this paper is concerned, also fits into
this trend. Kincaid, writing from the metropolitan world
of New York, returns exclusively to the childhood experience
of growing up in Antigua. She has lived most of her adult
life away from that setting; but it is to this childhood
experience that she returns to find the possibilities of a
creative adjustment to a world and time so different in its
Jamaica Kincaid made an immediate impact on the literary
scene when she first appeared in the early 1980s. Her two
works so far are At the Bottom of the River, published in
1983, followed by Annie John in 1985. Annie John is a
semi-autobiographical novel dealing with her experience of
growing up in Antigua. At the Bottom of the River is a
collection of pieces combining reflection and memories of
that early experience. The two works are in fact companion
pieces, the one in straightforward prose, the other poetic
and intuitional in style. The substance of the experience
in Annie John reappears in the images of At the Bottom of
One is immediately struck by the originality of
Kincaid's work, an originality that comes both from the
peculiar character of the experience she recalls as from
her singular rendering of it. In the more accessible
Annie John, she re-creates a vivid picture of the Antiguan
setting in which she grew up. It is the typical small-
island environment before urban times. The conditions and
life-style around the capital town of St. John's are still
provincial. There are wooden shingle houses, their yards
equipped with the inevitable breadfruit tree and the heap
of stones for bleaching clothes; kerosene lamps have not
yet been replaced by electricity. The men earn a living
as fishermen and small craftsmen(Annie John's father is a
carpenter); the women are devoted to caring for their men
and children and keeping house. The people still hold to
their belief in obeah cures, superstitions and bush baths.
At the same time, parents who are not too badly off strive
to bring up their girls "to be a lady" according to the
norms of Sunday School culture. Kincaid recalls the
"manners lady" to whom one was sent for lessons in etiquette
(Annie John 28).1
This particular variety of small-island living is
different in temper from that of a Lamming, for example.
It is not quite the restive plantation milieu of a Creighton
village (In the Castle of My Skin); it is self-contained and
effectively shut off from the realities of race and class.
The atmosphere is one, not of privation, but of spare
essentials. For the child growing up in that setting,
life revolved mainly around school and home. The familial
and domestic tend to dominate life in this kind of environ-
ment; in Kincaid's case, home and setting were indistinguish-
able from each other, as this comment suggests: "I
identified parental restrictiveness with the restrictiveness
of my surroundings."2 This experience of home, as Annie
John records, centred especially on the figure of her mother.
Kincaid's memory clings to that focal experience of her
mother, and her work deals extensively with growing up in
that close childhood relationship between herself and her
The attachment must have been all the more intense for
one who remained an only child up to the age of nine.3
The prominent role of her mother in her life, however, also
harks back to a common feature of West Indian family life
documented by Edith Clarke in My Mother Who Fathered Me
(1957). Clarke showed how the prevailing types of conjugal
relationships in West Indian society conspired to place the
onus of responsibility for children on the mother, and left
the father relatively free of parental obligation. Annie
John recalls being hastily gathered into her mother's
skirts whenever they passed "one of the women that my father
had loved and with whom he had had a child or children"
(17). The father of these removed connections did not
"belong" as fully as she and her mother belonged together.
Add to this the fact that boys were banished from the world
of a lady-like upbringing and we get the background to a
curious feature in Kincaid: the figure of the woman remains
deeply impressed on her consciousness. The image of the
Other, what she idealises as well as resists, always
appears in the form of a woman.4
The particular circumstances of her background, there-
fore, and no doubt qualities of her own temperament, helped
to deepen the seminal bond between mother and child.
Revisiting that childhood, Kincaid gives testimony of the
powerful ties between mother and child in what must rank
among the most penetrating studies on the subject so far.
Annie John traces the various stages of her progress from
childhood to adolescence in terms of this relationship with
her mother. It began with the fulness of maternal love,
care and nurturing in infancy. The experience of being
"weaned," a sundering between herself and her mother,
marked the passage to girlhood. So that growing up, and
beginning to fend for herself meant an experience of
increasing disfavour with her mother, presaging a silent
opposition and undeclared war between them.
Her mother, in effect, was the medium through which she
entered her first world. She provided her with her earliest
glimpses of the bigger world; she was the one most responsible
for initiating her into the inner areas of self by
arousing those complex emotions and sensitivities
associated with the experience of growing up. The deeply
embedded sense of her mother was to follow her down the
years, retaining the painful doubleness of the early period.
Kincaid-Annie John recalls her early prescience of this in
the novel: "For I could not be sure when it was really my
mother, and when it was really her shadow standing between
me and the rest of the world" (107).
"My Mother," an outstanding sequence in At the Bottom
of the River is the mythologized burden of Annie John.
It plots her progress through life in terms of this sense
of her mother, to take the form of a journey extending from
childhood right into the present struggle for survival. The
first piece tells of the painful necessity of being weaned
from the total dependence on her mother, and the submerged
tensions and hostilities that entered their relationship
from that time:
Placing her arms around me, she drew my head closer
and closer to her bosom, until finally I suffocated.
I lay on her bosom, breathless, for a time
uncountable, until one day, for a reason she has
kept to herself, she shook me out and stood me
under a tree and I started to breathe again.
I cast a sharp glance at her and said to myself,
"So". Instantly I grew my own bosoms, small
mounds at first, leaving a small soft place
place between them, where if ever necessary,
I could rest my own head. Between my mother and
me now were the tears I had cried, and I gathered
up some stones and hanked them in so that they
formed a small pond. The water in the pond was
thick and black and poisonous, so that only
unnameable invertebrates could live in it.
My mother and I now watched each other carefully,
always making sure to shower the other with words
and deeds of love and affection.5 (53-54)
The strange movement of imagery here is remarkably
direct and literal in its impact: it is almost as if the
feelings and incidents she recalls actually registered in
that way. This particular piece has been quoted at length
because it gives a clear insight into the underlying
sources and dynamic of Kincaid's style, especially in
At the Bottom of the River. We are taken with child-like
simplicity and spontaneous fantasy into what emerges as the
dream-scape of the subconscious. Images and fragments from
favourite children's stories,6 and strong personal symbols
from Kincaid's childhood surface in the memory of that
experience. Thus, the "pond of tears" separating her from
her mother is reminiscent of Alice's "pool of tears" in
Alice in Wonderland; while the image of being "shook out
and stood under a tree" survives from the memory of being
sent out to eat her dinner under the breadfruit tree when-
ever she was being punished (Annie John 12, 81). These
images hark back to the child's original acceptance of the
world of fantasy and symbol. One factor is of special
significance here. The climate of local superstition and
obeah practices in which Kincaid grew up had a lasting
influence in deepening these impulses towards the
fantastical.7 These extend, increasingly as the sequence
unfolds, into the surreal accesses of dream.
Following on this initial crisis of estrangement, the
relationship with her mother becomes one in which she must
struggle for her very survival. Subsequent stages of the
journey see her engaged in a trickster-like effort to
outstrip and leave her mother's influence safely behind
her ("I had hoped to see my mother permanently cemented to
the seabed"). She later succumbs to the inescapable
destiny of their journey "down the valley" together--an
unhappy compromise whose bitter traces leave "in [their]
trail, small colonies of worms." It is a process of
increasing strife and trial, until she finds her way to an
envisioned reconciliation with her mother, evoked in this
paradisal movement: "My mother and I live in a bower made
from flowers whose petals are imperishable. There is the
silvery blue of the sea, crisscrossed with sharp darts of
light, there is the warm rain falling on the clumps of
castor bush, there is the small lamb bounding across the
pasture. . It is in this way my mother and I lived for
a long time now" (61).
The child-mother relationship thus deepens into an
ultimate significance in Kincaid's Imagination. It is
a paradigm of the struggle between the Self and the Other,
the tug between the yearning for completion and all outside
us that seem to resist it, provoking, as Kincaid tells us,
the will to master or be mastered. Beneath this struggle
lies the final need for union. Kincaid's journey thus
recovers an authentic mythic level in "My Mother": the
loss of innocence and security, initiation into experience,
and the struggle to regain that innocence.
Kincaid remains close to the child's modes of perception
and language in these renderings. The roots of her style,
as earlier noted, lie in the child's instinct for fantasy,
the free play between its imaginings and the world of fact,
its spontaneous connections between widely different spheres
and categories, and the natural simplicity with which it
does all this. We are almost in the presence of the writer-
child, as one reviewer puts it.8 Kincaid seems to have
retained the child-faculty intact. Repossessing it in her
adult years, she authenticates and affirms the power of the
imagination of childhood. What has crystallized in this
child-language extends into a number of powerful visionary
modes in Kincaid's hands. There are accesses of
clairvoyance and divination, of the prophetic and
apocalyptic in her work. In a piece entitled "At Last"
from At the Bottom of the River she reflects on the
irreducible essence of things, despite the world according
to science and technology. The passage in question
attains prophetic, biblical force, while we still hear the
voice of the child: "Will the hen, stripped of its flesh,
its feathers scattered perhaps to the four corners of the
earth, its bones molten and sterilized, one day speak?
And what will it say? I was a hen? I had twelve chicks?
One of my chicks, named Beryl, took a fall?" (18).
The preoccupation with childhood lies at the core of
Kincaid's work and represents a very special achievement.
In exploring it, she renews our understanding of the
meaning of innocence and the value and possibilities of
our first world. The line which I have chosen as my title
appears as a prophetic refrain in one of the movements of
At the Bottom of the River ("Wingless"): "First they must
be children." It gathers echoes of the New Testament.
One must look closely at what she recognizes in this
innocence. It is not a state free from stain and imperfection.
Growing up in Annie John involves an openness and
receptivity to all manner of emotions and impulses,
creative and destructive--love, dawning cruelty, generosity,
possessiveness, instincts of hubris. In other words,
the child is fully in touch with the complex motions
of her own nature and being. It is also the freedom of the
child's natural curiosity, the intentness with which it
relates to the world around it, animate and inanimate
forms alike. In Kincaid's testimony, the mother comes to
contain and embody the world because of the totality with
which the child lived that first relationship with her;
and the struggle to be reconciled with her mother contained
in embryo the struggle to be reconciled with life itself.
In another piece entitled "Blackness," Kincaid intimates
the possibilities and depths of remaining in touch with
these sources as she, now a mother, looks through the
prism of her own child. The image is, as it were, twice
[My child] traces each thing from its meagre
happenstance beginnings in cool and slimy marsh,
to its great glory and dominance of air or land
or sea, to its odd remains entombed in mysterious
alluviums. . She feels the specter, first
cold, then briefly warm, then cold again as it
passes from atmosphere to atmosphere. Having
observed the many differing physical existences
feed on each other, she is beyond despair or the
spiritual vacuum. (51)
And what has all this to do with Kincaid's roots in the
Caribbean? Derek Walcott, in an early response to Kincaid's
work, has this to say: "Genius has many surprises, and one
of them is geography."9 Kincaid grew up in an environment
which helped give her a firm grounding in human relationships
and their tenacity, an uncluttered landscape which kept her
imagination in touch with primal realities. Her own work
is proof of the power of that landscape. In reclaiming
these roots she makes an explicit disavowal of the universe
according to the 20th century view--a system that can be
calculated, programmed and mastered, where the human spirit
is left very little space to breathe. She puts it thus as
she looks through the vision reflected at the bottom of the
river: "the sun was The Sun, a creation of Benevolence and
Purpose and not a star among many stars, with a predictable
cycle and a predictable end. . ."10 In the global
scheme of things, Kincaid's native Caribbean, despite the
brutalities of its past, is yet close to the state of child-
hood, and has the capacity to bring this message.
University of the West Indies
St. Augustine, Trinidad
1. The Farrar, Straus, Giroux edition is used throughout
the present essay.
2. Hillary De Vries, interview with Jamaica Kincaid,
The Christian Science Monitor, 2 May 1985, p. 41.
3. Kincaid is one of four children.
4. Two main figures lie behind this woman-image: her mother,
and the Red Girl (Annie John, Chapter 4), who survives
from a childhood friend associated with freedom, power
and the forbidden.
5. The Pan Books edition of At the Bottom of the River is
used throughout the present essay.
6. A number of significant motifs and images in Kincaid
can be traced back to children's stories. Charles
Kingsley's The Water Babies seems to have left a
lasting impression. The images of its water-world
are a strong influence in Annie John, and there are
several allusions to that work in At the Bottom of
7. There are pervasive references to this climate of
superstition and obeah in both works. The use of
native concoctions in folk "medicine," for example,
gives rise in "My Mother" to an image of the mother
changing into a crocodile-figure after rubbing on a
thick oil made from reptiles.
8. Comment by Cynthia Ozick, quoted in Farrar, Straus,
Giroux Newssheet on Annie John.
9. Derek Walcott, unpublished piece written for and on
record at Farrar, Straus, Giroux.
10. Title piece, At the Bottom of the River, p. 77.
Morning comes, hesitant
fluttering eyelid cautious
a benediction on my head
passed in disarray,
curtailing memories hinging
on the dark side of my mind.
Pools of light
empty me of suffering
yeilding resignation is transformed
by chained moments
into sturdy skeins of will.
I mean to sit like a fat cat
on slippery time
receive life as gift
and not as conquest
earned with acrid lines,
carve crows feet on my heart
and cushion memories into wisdom.
Morning wafts the wispy curtains
like flute concertos,
affirming life rhythms
with the assurance of the
My awakening acknowledges reality
I too am irreversible time,
into me locked part of past
in my arising in the morningcome
part of future.
Judith Bennet Brown
FOR MY FATHER
I trace the furrows on your face
brackets for the love
and pride which made me
with a tiara of braids
made me slip thick feet
into cinderella slippers
and ride, not a pumpkin
but your heart a coach.
I want to pipe the tilting
bottles from your hand
watch the black slivers
disappear from your head
still mortality's grinning gaze
and halt leaden eyelids
fluttering to the dust.
Judith Bennett Brown
THE METALLIC SENSIBILITY IN ATWOOD's
Few novels have scrutinized the images offered to modern
men and women as closely or unblinkingly as Margaret
Atwood's Surfacing. By using the camera as a central symbol,
Atwood highlights the mechanization of the sexes. Photographs
--and by extension, videos and films--of men and women, then,
can effect reality, projecting as real and even as proper
images of man as playboy and of woman as princess, bunny,
playmate. The Surfacer realizes that what appears on film
and what is deemed worthy of recording often paradoxically
exposes what is absent, missing, or undervalued in culture.
Four adults from the fabled "baby boom" arrive on an
isolated island in French Canada; they bring with them
some necessary technology: a video pack, transforming
make-up, film. They are ready to beashow; David, the
director of a project he calls "Random Samples," records
images of stuffed moose, dead herons, disemboweled fish.
His wife Anna is cupie doll and playmate, princess and
bunny; together they embody the most sinister aspects cf
the images offered to the two sexes.
As Susan Sontag contends in On Photography, photographic
images can reinforce a moral position or, in the case of
Surfacing's David and Anna, an immoral one. While the
Surfacer has hoped to find in the marraige of David and
Anna some "special method, formula. .some knowledge I
missed out on,"l she discovers, instead, the dangers of
mechanization to the erstwhile perfect couple.
Ten days of isolation, ten days of relentless silence
on this oracular island reveals their "special method."
Unfortunately, it involves a sado-masochism rivaled only
by characters in an Albee play. While less articulate than
Martha and George, Anna and David manage to annihilate one
another's personal peace quite as effectively. Anna
eventually discloses that David has, in fact, "this little
set of rules" (145). These rules "keep changing" so that
Anna cannot help but break them.
Anna believes that David is "crazy, there's something
missing in him, you know what I mean? He likes to make me
cry because he can't do it himself" (145). Yet Anna fears
losing David quite as much as she fears having found him
out. And, while attempting the mandatory seduction of
the Surfacer, David reveals that he, too, feels locked in
a pattern, locked out of control.
Approaching the Surfacer with his usual pastiche of
unconsidered phrases, this Communications teacher reveals
himself, but not quite as he'd hoped: "I'm all for
equality for women; she [Anna] just doesn't happen to be
equal and that's not my fault is it? What I married was
a pair of boobs, she manipulated me. ." (163). And so on.
As individuals--and as the perfect couple--these two
elements of the microcosm manifest some unsettlingly
familiar aspects of contemporary sexual identity. Anna
and David thus do more than represent some wearisome
example of the "very married," dancing forevermore to
some imprisoning tune. They embody, to be precise, two
contemporary terrors: fear of time and fear of feeling.
These terrors are revealed in the photographs of their
These fears partially explain David and Anna's desire
to escape from personal and cultural history. They refuse,
for example, to acknowledge their parents; Anna dismisses
hers as "nothing people" and David indicts his as "the
Pigs" (19). David and Anna wish to escape from absolutes
such as generational responsibilities. Further, they
wish to escape from absolutessuch as aging.
Time is as inescapable, finally, as emotional history.
Anna lives in her compact, her ruling object, and worries
each wrinkle into its appointed place. David combs his
thinning hair in bangs, signalling his pre-mature baldness.
Baldness, like aging, is always pre-mature and unexpected.
In a youth culture created and advanced by Western,
technological society, this fear is understandable.
But David and Anna represent a more subtle, disastrous
fear by choosing the sexual identities offered by the
technological society. Anna wants to be a princess; David
wants to be a playboy: puerile fantasies, of course,
but fed by this culture.
In Surfacing, the princess and the playboy
distortedly mirror one another in this sado-masochistic
marriage. Anna, unlike the narrator, identifies with the
fairytale princess. The Surfacer, illustrating Quebec Folk
Tales, considers the subject of princesses as foreign as
the language around her: "It isn't my territory," she
states with a characteristically droll entendre, "but I
need the money" (62).
Anna enters the cabin while the Surfacer attempts
another drawing of an "ordinary" princess: "emaciated,
fashion-model torso and infantile face" (62). Fearful
of aging, of a diminishing sex appeal, of weight, Anna
confides to the illustrator that she believed in the early
(as in the later) models of female identity. Her remarks
and subsequent actions economically underscore Anna's
dilemma: "I did, I thought I was really a princess and
I'd end up living in a castle," she admits, walking to a
mirror where she "blots and smoothes her face" (67).
"They shouldn't let kids have stuff like that," Anna
contends. Anna is, as the Surfacer comes to realize,
"the captive princess in someone's head" (194). Anna
chooses a life-long, self-haunting game of "mirror, mirror"
and, as she moves through time, she must confront not only
the princess but the aging queen. Such narcissism proves
Anna is half Playboy bunny, half princess. These parts,
in sum, do not comprise a whole woman. In an insightful
article on Atwood's works, Gloria Onley notes that Anna is
"locked into her Playboy centerfold stereotype, her soul
trapped in a gold compact, her capacity for love locked into
a sado-masochistic pattern."2
Anna is indeed caught between princess and pin-up;
by novel's end, she has learned nothing from her return
to the natural world:
From her handbag she takes a round gilt compact
with violets on the cover. She opens it,
unclosing her other self, and runs her fingertips
around the corners of her mouth. .then she
unswivels a pink stick and dots her cheeks and
blends them, changing her shape, performing the
only magic left to her. (194)
The Surfacer notes more than Anna's fear of aging when Anna
reluctantly "stars" in her husband's Playboy-porno home
movie, "Random Samples." While oblivious to how eschatological
the film's images actually are, Anna is sufficiently
perceptive to call the pretentious, death-loving
exercise "Random Pimples."
This video project becomes the symbolic object for
David just as the mirror symbolizes Anna. David is the
erstwhile Playboy and mechanical man who humiliates Anna
by forcing her to disrobe for his movie: "You'll go in
beside the dead bird, it's your chance for stardom,
you've always wanted fame. You'll get to be on
Educational T.V." (158). David's deadening desire to be
a playboy has not abated with time; his puerile fantasy
controls his entire identity.
His woman-as-sex-object perception has eaten away
something vital in his humanity, but he suffers from more
than turgid sex fantasies. David respects no one; he is not
so much a misogynist as a misanthropist. His world view is
distorted, infantile, technocratic. Yet he considers
himself--in a phrase which would surely rankle Leonardo
d'Vinci or Jacob Bronowski--one of the "new Renaissance
Men." (12) David understands nothing of renascence; he
chooses for his film only images of decay, death,
devastation: stuffed moose dressed in human clothing,
rotting heron, dismembered trees. David represents not
the second-coming of the Quattrocento sensibility but,
unsettlingly enough, "the second-hand American." Atwood
uses this term, "second-hand American," according to
Margot Northey's study The Haunted Wilderness, as a
synecdoche for contemporary, technological civilization.3
When, therefore, the Surfacer declares that "Second-hand
American was spreading over him (David] in patches, like
mange or lichen," (179), she notes the contemporary disease
which kills the natural man and his most natural and
David belongs to a male ethos celebrated in James
Dickey's Deliverance; his directoral eye is deadly indeed.
Atwood affirms Susan Sontag's contention in On Photography
that "to photograph someone is a sublimated murder--a soft
murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time."4 The
cinemagraphic rape of Anna--the fallen princess, the aging
bunny--unites her with David who is the failed prince and
aging playboy. Having internalized such fragmentary
identities, David and Anna have become not only sex objects
but also mechanical people.
The final image of the perfect couple is focused and
accurate. Their mind and body schism complete, David and
Anna pose rather than move, perform rather than feel:
She copulates under strobe lights with the man's
torso while his brain watches from its glassed-in
cubicle at the other end of the room, her face
twists in poses of exultation and abandon, that
is all. (195)
These representatives of our sexual freedom indicate its
negative corollary: emotional paralysis.
David and Anna are not merely sterile. Sinister Ken and
Barbie dolls, they have embraced identities offered by glossy
magazines and pubescent commercials. Their sensibilities
linking heart and mind are not so much associated as severed.
Anna in her compact and David behind his camera embody
the worst aspects of our sex-related limitations. Anna is
caught in what Kate Millett, in her classic Sexual Politics,
analyzes as "the familiar triad of passivity, masochism, and
narcissism."5 David is, conversely, imprisoned in the
equally devastating male triad: dominance, sadism, and
megalomania. In accepting the identities offered to adults
by glossy, sex magazines which are considered "chic,"
David and Anna represent the pornographic inversion of the
As representatives of a generation experiencing "Love
without fear, sex without risk" (96), they manifest a
frightening emotional paralysis. Compact and camera
symbolize our impersonal, urban, photostatic existence.
These two stand as the old centerfold; they are a tin
bride/groom statue on a welded wedding cake. In their
failure to connect mind and heart, personal and cultural
history, generational responsibility, David and Anna refuse
to create adult, lively, emotionally complex beings. They
are not, however, dismissible as grotesques; they are not
merely aberrations. They embody a clear and present danger
to men and women in this society.
Through them, the Surfacer recognizes and rejects the
static identities and images offered by glossy magazines and
fairytales. Freedom to copulate must not mitigate against
responsibility; we must feel and act with moral consequences
in mind. In Surfacing, woman as "princess" or "bunny"
confronts man as "prince" and "playboy." David and Anna
present the two best reasons for a continuing dialogue
between the sexes.
Through them, a reexamination of modern division within
the self and between the sexes proves illuminating. This
princess/pin-up and the prince/playboy are sad, of course,
but are also awesome and dangerous. They are victims and
victimizers; becoming more and more static in their percep-
tions of existence, they cannot discern the natural from
the artificial, the life-giving from the death-dealing.
Body-as-object does, indeed, produce emotionally irresponsible
men and women; David and Anna are sexual mechanics. No more.
Atwood's protagonist must examine her identity
against these sexual and generational patterns which she
perceives in the microcosm. And in the Surfacer's refusal
to turn away from these difficult lessons, in her ability
to face disappointment in her hopes for having discovered
"the perfect couple," she brings her generation closer to
connecting the mind/heart. She burns the glossy female
identities; she unravels the film in those "redemptive"
In her refusal to ignore these mechanizing, sterilizing
types, the Surfacer becomes a natural woman, a human
responsible for developing emotional and physical
connections. This acceptance allows the Surfacer, possibly,
to live in time, generously and fearlessly. Her "refusal
to be a victim" saves her from Anna's fate: her refusal
to celebrate death and cauterize all feeling saves her from
She casts off the detritus of the romantic illusion and
its Playboy perversion. The Surfacer, conversely, represents
"a new kind of centerfold;" this woman-in-nature looks
nothing like the imitation woman. After her three day
initiation into human identity, "a tanned body on a beach
with washed hair waving like scarves" (222) she assuredly
is not. Rather, her face is earth-smeared and her hair
resembles "a frayed bathmat stuck with leaves and twigs"
(222). This strangenew centerfold looks like neither
princess nor bunny. She is re-born.
But for David and for Anna, spiritual and emotional
renewal on this island proves impossible; they cannot even
conceive of such connection. To examine these two as a
married unit and as single individuals may clarify how
Atwood dissects the contemporary dilemma for each of the
sexes, or to preserve the metaphor, dismantles the nuts
and bolts of fearsome robotistic sexual identities.
Rediscovery of the natural human, for Atwood, seems
a perilous ascent but a necessary one. Further mechanization
of our species seems unthinkable. In her scrutiny of our
sexual identities, our photographic images, and our human
sensibilities, Atwood proclaims our perils and our
possibilities in a steady, necessary voice.
B. A. St. Andrews
SUNY Upstate Medical School
Syracuse, New York
1. Margaret Atwood, Surfacing (New York: Popular Library,
1976), p. 46. Pagination follows citation.
2. Gloria Onley, "Power Politico in Bluebeard's Castle,"
in Canadian Literature, No. 60, Spring (1974), p. 26.
3. Margot Northey, The Haunted Wilderness: The Gothic
and Grotesaue in Canadian Fiction. (Toronto: University
of Toronto Press, 1978), p. 66.
4. Susan Sontag "In Plato's Cave," in On Photography.
(New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1977), p. 115.
5. Kate Millett, Sexual Politics (New York: Avon Books,
1969), p. 148.
the cost of independence
amber tea with honey
dripped from a silver spoon,
and talk of sixties fevers.
your village place,
ethnic and hopeful,
seems cramped for approaching forties.
we never thought of money
fifteen years ago.
a man you might have married
you sit and scribble,
paying the rent with a fast heart,
under the great wall-hanging
blunt and bright-coloured,
somebody's escape from hunger,
somebody worse off.
your rich voice
has three continents of travel,
risk and your battles in it.
what we must have is options:
we subversive moles
must go mining, dig
under the lawns of custom
which kills women.
take up your exasperated pen.
there is nothing else
but to persist.
& no-one said
not being whores
would bring us
University of the West Indies
Cave Hill Campus
THE NARRATIVE WORK OF THREE WEST INDIAN WOMEN:
AN ATTEMPT TO FIND A TRUE SELF
In West Indian literature, women have only recently
emerged in the narrative genre. Economic conditions,
poor education, little mobility, and the clash between
traditional roles and demanding reality are some of the
reasons for this absence. To explore a different outlook
on the problems which have been presented by other
Caribbean writers since the 1940s, this paper focuses
on the visions of the Caribbean presented by three women
narrators, Merle Hodge from Trinidad, Erna Brodber
from Jamaica, and Paule Marshall from Barbados.
The novel is usually the product of a country that
has achieved a certain degree of stability and awareness
of itself as a nation. The assertion applies to the
Caribbean as well. In the West Indies, the growing
awareness in political and national identity in the
thirties coincided with the founding of several
literary magazines whose aim was to promote a national
literature. Trinidad in 1929, The Beacon in 1931, Bim
in 1942, and Focus in 1943 offered known and unknown
writers the opportunity to publish their essays, poems
and short narratives. Edna Manley from the pages of
Focus adequately expressed the importance of this literary
Great and irrevocable changes have swept this land
of ours in the last few years, and out of these
changes a new art is springing. Historically, art
gives a picture of contemporary life; philosophical-
ly, it contains within it the germs of the future.
This collection of short stories, essays and plays
and poems fills both these roles; in them is the
picture of our life today, the way we think, the
acts we do; but underlying the picture of the
present is the trend of the future, where new
values will predominate and a new approach to
things will be born.1
However, since there were no publishing houses in the
Caribbean, the establishment of a tradition of the novel
came later. Self publication was usually unaffordable,
and the only other option was to go to London or New York
and convince a publisher there of the quality of and
reading public available for the novel.
In spite of all these obstacles, by the 1950s fiction
writing steadily increased. Antonio Benitez Rojo follows
the development of the novel from its incipient beginning
in the first two decades of this century (eleven novels
published) to the boom experienced in the sixties (more
than one hundred).2 The themes in West Indian fiction
vary greatly because of the ethnic groups which make up
this society. But as a result of a common historical
background, virtually all the writers begin with similar
circumstances.A. J. Seymour believes that West Indian
narrative is primarily historical, involving autobiography
and the quest for personal identity.3 The first (and often
only) novel published by West Indian women writers is, at
least to a certain extent, autobiographical, sometimes
limiting their scope and sacrificing needed artistic
distance. Phyllis S. Allfrey, a Creole from Dominica like
Jean Rhys, was the first West Indian woman to publish a
West Indian novel. (It seems necessary to repeat that for
a Caribbean woman to write about Europe or any other reality
does not necessarily make her work a part of a national
literature. We cannot consider Rhys' Quartet a West Indian
novel just because the author was born in the West Indies).
In The Orchid House (1953), Allfrey is primarily concerned
with social and political themes. She presents Joan, one
of the novel's main characters,as a labor organizer who
rejects the values of her social class for the welfare of
There are two writers named Jean Rhys. There is the
young, talented woman, part of the Lost Generation in Paris,
who wrote in the 1920s and 1930s. And there is also the
Creole from Dominica writing about the West Indies in the
sixties. Hence Jean Rhys is both a British and a West
Indian writer. Though the settings may differ, the
characters created by Rhys stem from the same anguish
and love of nature and warmth that their current environments
lack. Virtually all critics agree that Rhys' literary
culmination came in 1966 with the publication of Wide
Sargasso Sea. Like Allfrey before her, Rhys also presents
the Creole's vision of the West Indies. She also includes
the European's vision as a contrast to the Creole who some-
times feels displaced in both cultures. By using the West
Indian background as a historical framework, the author
creates a novel in which the setting and the existing
political situation are directly responsible for the
character's behavior. It is not just the story of a
rejected woman going mad, but of a family whose position
in West Indian society leads a particular character to be
rejected by all social groups, and thus be forced to escape
One of the maindifferences between these two woman writers
from Dominica is the body of literary work they produced.
While Phyllis Allfrey only published one novel, and has
dedicated her life to political activity, Jean Rhys was
able to publish in her lifetime three collections of short
narratives and five novels. Rhys lived for a time in
Paris in a writers' community that offered her the
opportunity to write and publish. Later, she lived a
secluded life that again allowed her to polish her short
and long narratives, among these Wide Sargasso Sea. Living
in England and having ties with the London publishing
world no doubt helped make her works known throughout the
Today, narrative writing by West Indian women is still
very limited. Some, like Paule Marshall, have been able to
publish extensively because of her residence in the United
States. Trinidadian Merle Hodge and Jamaican Erna Brodber
write narratives in between producing other more
publishable material, such as sociological studies. But
each one in her own particular way, through the writing of
short and long narratives, strives for a clear concept of
When Merle Hodge's first novel Crick Crack Monkey was
published (1970) by Andre Deutsch in London, it seemed like
a good beginning for a talented young Caribbean writer.
Yet, in spite of a sound formal education and of travelling
widely. Thus far Crick Crack Monkey remains her first and
last novel. The title announces a regional theme, and at
the same time, summarizes the behavior of the child/narrator:
she is a lying imitator.
The novel opens and maintains a straightforward
narration in standard English. The author relies on
introspection to develop her narrator/protagonist. When-
ever there is dialogue, it is used to depict the two
groups that converge in her society:
We had posted ourselves at the front window,
standing on a chair. Tantie said we were stupid,
for they might not come back till next morning
or maybe even for days but if we wanted to stand
on tiptoe at the window for a week that was all
right by her as long as we got down once in a
while to bathe.
At every moment in the street we craned our necks
--no, it was only Mr. Henry.
"My Henry!" we shrieked, "we getting a baby!" (7)4
It is precisely the social antagonism and class opposition
that is conveyed by the narrator's two aunts, Rosa
(Tantie) and Beatrice, that compose the significant,
coherent structure of the novel.
The child narrator is able to partake of two worlds
that clash in their values and in their awareness of
identity. The countryside is presented as free, spontaneous,
where everyone expresses him or herself as an islander.
School is a passport to a better job, to mobility and to
an easier life. Parents strive to get their children into
school, and they will sacrifice unending hours to
accomplish this. Family is everyone that shares the
common wealth and sorrow. The child's world is full of
aunts, uncles and cousins who provide the warmth and
guidance needed so as not to feel the absence of the real
parents. Almost every action taken is in the name and for
the good of the group or collectivity. Rituals like
weddings, farewells and funerals are cherished as part of
growing together and feeling the protection and support
offered by others.
Aunt Beatrice represents the exact opposite of communal
life. The big town is characterized by its individual
houses with families that build walls around themselves
and suffocate any spontaneity or free spirit. Only proper
English is allowed and things must be called as city
people do, and one must eat the food in the way city
people do. This means following the European models:
to dress, walk and behave as if born in London. Light skin
means immediate acceptance, although exact imitation of
white models will also improve chances for acceptance in
the group. The girl narrator is continually confounded by
the mistakes she makes, and most of the time, she remains
hidden or silent so as not to offend anyone.
"What's the matter, Cynthia, weren't there any more
plates and knives and forks?"
"Yes,"I replied lamely, aware now of the nature of
my transgression but deeply puzzled nevertheless;
I merely found it very comfortable to eat rice out
of a bowl and with a spoon instead of chasing it
all over a plate with a fork.
"Well just you find them for me please!" she
ordered with a vehemence that startled me. "Don't
bring your ordinaryness here! We don't eat with
bowl and spoon here, you're not living at your
precious Tantie now!" (137)
School in the big town serves as the right arm of the
values taught at home. British English is the rule,
fair-skinned children are preferred to the darker-skinned;
one reads of food particular to England and nowhere to be
seen in the Caribbean; characters in children's books are
all European, and England is presented as the ideal and the
goal of everyone. The islands are disregarded or only
mentioned in comparison to the greatness of England.
Family life means that each member rules his or her life
according to his desires without taking into consideration
the needs of others. Parents are providers, and that is
the only role they are allowed to perform. Only the
immediate members are admitted into the family, and every-
one else is an outsider. In this environment, the girl
narrator isolates herself and is treated as an outcast by
the rest of the family. She spends most of her time
meditating on her present and debating on the values of
each social group. The horror of this experience is that
the girl protagonist will reject her Tantie Rosa's values,
and absorb Aunt Beatrice's way of seeing things.
Both in the countryside and in the city, women are
presented as strong,determined, and having full say in the
family affairs. Men are always in the background and
seem weak and subdued. In the progressive environment,
girls are given a religious education, they take dancing
and singing lessons, so that one day they can get a good
partner--meaning ight-skinned and if possible with money.
From the very title of the book, this novel condemns
the way children are educated at home and at school so that
they become British imitators. Islanders are synonymous of
ugliness, vulgarity and ignorance, while Europeans are
depicted as the generators of order and culture. Everyone's
attitude in the city changes towards the girl protagonist
when they learn she will be going to England. Apparently
this is everyone's dream on this island. It is this type
of education received by children at an early age and
reinforced in later years that brings islanders to disdain
their own and admire the foreign.Crick Crack Monkey might
be a denunciation of Trinidadian society, but the problem
is common to all Caribbean societies including the
Spanish-speaking, and especially to the case of Puerto
The Jamaican Erna Brodber has made a name for herself
as a sociologist and has a body of work in that field.
Although she has written poetry, short stories and drama
and has won several awards in Jamaica, Jane and Louisa
Will Soon Come Home (Beacon Press, 1980) is her first
attempt at writing long narrative. Mostly autobiographical,
the work lacks some of the maturity needed to write a novel
that reflects a totality of world vision. The title
announces a story written in standard English about two
main characters. Both aspects are misleading since the
novel relies on Jamaican dialect and Jane and Louisa are
voices that only appear at the end and do not have an
important influence on the narrator.
The novel is divided into four parts which seem to make
up one sentence: "My Dear Will You Allow Me"/"To Waltz
With You"/"Into the Beautiful Garden"/"Jane and Louisa
Will Soon Come Home." With the exception of the second
part, the novel is narrated and voices are heard and
written down in dialect. Allusions are constantly made to
regional stories without further explanation. These
allusions and the narrative itself do not seem to go the
same way; one is not supportive of the other; it is rather
distracting. The repetition of Kumbla and its apparent
symbolism is not sustained throughout the novel. Perhaps
because this novel has been conceived as a prose poem, it
does not work as a long narrative. Its fragmentation
remains as such and it never quite becomes part of the whole.
This hermetic style does not allow the writer to share a
very valid experience with the reader. The writer relies
mostly on poetic devices that are never adapted to prose,
like anaphora, refrains, symbols, metaphors, assonance.
Yet characterization is not sustained; setting is not
definite nor symbolic; time sequence is violated for no
reason. Flashbacks and foreshadowing are nowhere to be
All of these observations apply to the whole novel with
the exception of the part entitled "To Waltz With You."
In this part people are defined, they feel, they identify
with someone or something. The setting is described in
great detail, for example:
25, 5th street houses a government yard. The term
government yard denotes a set of ten rectangular
rooms joined together. Each room is of the same
exact size as the other and has the same exact
fittings. Directly behind these rooms is a set
of ten smaller rooms, rectangular too but smaller
than the above. These rooms too are joined later-
ally and carry the same exact fittings in each:
a water closet marked 5th street, reg. no. 35,
a toilet, a shower, and a tiny wash basin. (49)5
Even if we are not aware of a basic conflict or problem,
characters move in and out and appear as living people.
Events happen even if they are not dramatized. The
characters feel the effects of these actions. Flashbacks
record memory and recall nostalgic times. The Rastafarian
Baba is almost a mythical figure, yet he is felt and seen
by the narrator as a love giver. Even if there is no
story line in the traditional sense--a beginning, a middle
and an end--this section leaves the reader with the
knowledge of having met people that one can share something
with. There is a common ground for identification.
If a coherent structure is not apparent in June and
Louisa Will Soon Come Home, the novel does attempt to
record the experience of women in a specific kind of
Jamaican society--not the urban, chaotic Kingston life
as pictured in the movie The Harder They Come, but the
basic mountain and yard Jamaican society pictured in the
fifties by Roger Mais.
Jane and Louisa Will Soon Come Home is a novel about
the experiences of growing up as a girl in Jamaica. As in
Crick Crack Monkey, women are depicted as strong,
determined and in complete control of the household, which
seems to be the center of life. Men again appear as weak
or non-existent. The great events in a girl's life are
hushed, for there is a hidden concept that girls should
not be informed too quickly about the changes in their
bodies. Children are treated equally until a girl begins
to menstruate. Then she is immediately separated from her
friends, especially the boys. Yet there is no adult
willing to explain why. And so a girl learns about her
body from what other girls say, or what boys make up.
Girls feel underprivileged for they are no longer allowed
to be as free as boys. Gossip seems to be the way to get
information. When a direct question is asked, no direct
answer is forthcoming. Which adult woman sleeps with whom
before getting married is learned through gossip and
accepted as truth, until other gossip disproves this
version. The dependency of some women on their men is
illustrated in "To Waltz With You," and it is through a
discovery of a woman's qualities that she can then become
independent and rely on her own judgment. Complete
independence of mind is only allowed to old women. Young
or mature married women are looked upon as suspicious if they
are running the show and relegate their men to lesser
As in Crick Crack Monkey, the attempt of the islanders
to look and behave like the British is imposed on old
people but accepted by younger. Light skin is celebrated
and the next best thing to looking like the British is
behaving like them and speaking proper English. Even the
names of certain foods are changed: pear is now avocado,
bammy is now cassava wafers, soup is now broth. This new
language and the customs that go with it are acquired in
school. So again the school system is the one responsible
for teaching children to disdain their own and accept the
European as proper behavior.
Although her ability to convey her ideas in a long
narrative form has been criticized, Brodber's forte is
short prose narrative and poetry. In these forms, she
has an outstanding ability to synthesize a social problem
in a few lines, and Brodber presents the Jamaica that women
know by contrasting it to the tourist or European vision
of this island. Again we find a common bond to other
Caribbean islands. A movie like Smile Orange from Jamaica
also presents these two visions of the Caribbean. And if
we look at the posters and catalogues used for tourist
promotion, we sometimes wonder if we live in that same place.
Of the writers considered here, only Paule Marshall
has published a body of work and is known in the English-
speaking world. Her residence in New York has probably
facilitated the publication and distribution of her work.
Her first novel, in many instances autobiographical, Brown
Girl, Brownstones, was published in 1959 in New York by
Random House. A year later it was published in London, and
in 1982, reprinted by Virago Press in London as a modern
classic. This has assured the distribution of her first
novel and opened the door to future publications. In 1961
Marshall published her first collection of short stories,
Soul Clap Hands and Sing in New York and London. In 1969
she published her second novel, The Chosen Place, The
Timeless People, again with almost simultaneous editions
in New York and London. In 1982 she published her third
novel, Praisesong for the Widow, and last year the
Feminist Press published Reena and Other Stories. For
this discussion, the short narrative, "Barbados," written
in 1961, and the novella Merle, written originally in
1969 and revised in 1983, serve as examples.
In "Barbados," there is a deliberate choice of a male
point of view in Marshall; use of a third-person selective
narrator. The protagonist is a sixty-five year old man
who when young moved to New York from Barbados, worked
there all these years, and now with his retirement has
gone back to the island. This fifty-year exile has taken
its toll and is dramatized in this story by the protagonist's
attitude towards his own people.
There is no rehearsal in Marshall's use of language.
She has her own style that is the result of years of
polishing through the process of writing and rewriting.
Dialect is used in dialogues, but these are very scarce
in this story.
In "Barbados," women are seen through the eyes of a
man who associates the female with objects of sexual
satisfaction. These "objects" must always be controlled
so that they don't change his plans and ruin his life.
For him, women are only bodies who serve him, and a man
can take advantage of this if he does not get emotionally
involved. In this story, Mr. Watford's attempt to put
all women into this stereotype will prevent him from
seeing a human being with needs and emotions who could
have become a friend. It is this young woman in the
story who deflates all his pretenses when she shouts at
"But you best move and don't come holding on to
me, you nasty, pissy old man. That's all you is,
despite yuh big house and fancy furniture and
yuh newspapers from America. You ain't people,
Mr. Watford, you ain't people." (67)6
"Barbados" with its limited point of view criticizes
the attitude of the islanders who left Barbados, emigrated
to the United States, England or Canada and then come back
to the island and show off their money. Their sense of
superiority, their lack of concern for their fellow
islanders is again another situation that seems to be a
common element in the Caribbean.
Paule Marshall has a special love for Merle. In her
introduction (also in Reena and Other Stories) to this new
edition of her novella, she refers to her character in
Merle remains the most alive of my characters.
Indeed, it seems to me she has escaped the pages
of the novel altogether and is abroad in the
world. I envision her striding restlessly up and
down the hemisphere from Argentina to Canada, and
back and forth across the Atlantic between here
and Africa, all the while speaking her mind in the
same forthright way as in the book. She can be
heard condemning all forms of exploitation,
injustice and greed. In El Salvador, Harlem,
Haiti, at the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires and
amid the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, wherever she
goes, she continues to exhort "the little fella"
as she calls the poor and oppressed to resist,
to organize, to rise up against the condition of
their lives. (109)
As in "Barbados," there is complete mastery of her
writing. Marshall uses the urgency of the moment and the
detailed description of small acts to create the ambiance
for her character. She is mostly a writer of characters
rather than plot or language. Because of this preference
for characterization, Merle represents a women who possesses
the spirit of the islands as Hodge, Brodber, and before
them, writers like Austin Clarke celebrate in their
writings. Marshall is able to capture that spirit and make
it the representation of the islands which have been raped,
humiliated and abused, but who can withstand all pain and
preserve their essence. Yet Merle, like the islands, is
not a spirit that just endures, and so survives after all.
Merle is rebellious, idealistic and willing to fight for
her country against all adversity. She never loses hope,
and every blow she receives is met with more strength to
stand up again, resist, and if necessary, fight back.
In this novella, Marshall captures the immediacy of
the present and the nostalgia and passion of loving
selflessly to merge two basic issues. On one hand, there
is the problem of a newly independent country that still
depends on what Naipaul called the "mimic men" to
experiment with the future of its people, with no sense of
developing its own program or relying on its own
resources. On the other hand, there is a desire to salute
the anonymous women of these islands, who have not been
doers, according to those who write the history books,
but rather so-called inspirations for men to accomplish
their goals. Women like Edna Manley, Una Marson, Phyllis
Allfrey need to be extolled rather than hidden under the
massive list of names of male leaders in the history of
the islands. So Marshall has drawn a character who is an
islander, someone with education, who has travelled, has
money which gives her mobility and limited power, who is
concerned about her own people, and is willing to fight
bureaucracy and messengers from Europe and the United
States for the welfare of her own. This conscientious
being is also passionate, loving and willing to sacrifice
herself for others weaker than she, and at the same time
live a moment of love for the sheer pleasure of it. In
Cuba, Merle would be the famous character of Maria del
Carmen, the popular song written by Noel Nicola, who,
in the Spanish-speaking islands, has become a symbol of
the revolutionary woman.
In studying women narrators, the aim has been to bring
to the foreground work done by Caribbean women. In their
writings, each attempts to rescue Caribbean women from
anonymity. The female characters who inhabit these
stories and novels are common folks. They are the women
who stayed home to take care of children. They are the
ones who when they grew tired of waiting, went out and
got a job to support their families. They are the ones
who never gave up in the face of adversity. Through the
stories of these women, and others who did become mimic
women, the writers denounce the Caribbean educational system
that has degraded the autochthonous and praised the
foreign and upheld stagnant middle-class values. Women
who are so close to children, who are the forgers of
future generations can pinpoint exactly where the problem
lies in the educationalsystemof the islands. Perhaps by
listening to these voices we will be able to deal with one
of the fundamental problems of Caribbean people: their
sense of selfhood.
1. Quoted by Kenneth Ramshand in The West Indian Novel
and Its Background (London: Faber, 1974), 71-72.
2. "%Existe una novelistica antillana de lengua inglesa?,"
Casa de las Americas XVI, 91 (julio-agosto 1975): 192.
3. "The Novel in the British Caribbean," Bim II, 43
(July-December 1966): 177.
4. Merle Hodge, Crick Crack, Monkey (London: Deutsche,
5. Erna Brodber, Jane and Louisa Will Soon Come Home
(London: Port of Spain: New Beacon, 1980).
6. Paule Marshall, Reena and Other Stories (Old Westbury,
New York: Feminist Press, 1983).
A TALK BY MAGALI GARCIA RAMIS
(The following selection is a transcription of the talk
delivered by Magali Garcia Ramis on Novermber 25, 1986. It
was first published in The DISPATCH, 5, 1 (Fall 1986):17-19.)
Seventeen years ago I came to New York, to study at
Columbia University, and during the time I was supposed to
be writing journalism pieces in classes and workshops,
I was writing, instead, fiction. Writing, the way I'm
using the word, does not mean actually putting down ideas
on paper. I use "writing" in the sense of creating a
discourse, making a statement; I was writing as I'd never
written before, because the cultural shock I suffered--or
perhaps I should not use the verb "suffer"--the cultural
and personal shock I had the privilege of experiencing,
shook up a very special part of me. And now, invited to
come again to New York to talk about my writing, I felt I
was starting all over again, I was going through a
perfect model of the universal subconscious or the circular
life cycles or any other of those incredible images so
fostered upon the generation I'm supposed to belong to,
by the readings of Herman Hesse or Kurt Vonnegut right
here around the corner of Columbia, on Riverside Park.
I cannot say that I began to write when I came to New
York, but I must admit I first wrote a piece of fiction
here, when it dawned upon me that I had something to
explore and exhibit, something of a confusing nature which
seems to be inherent, according to some studious souls,
to the Puerto Rican spirit, and which is best described by
an untranslatable word of African origin, burundanga,
which in Puerto Rico means something between havoc and mess.
The first time I wrote a story, I did it for a
deadline: a short story contest that was sponsored by the
Ateneo Puertorriqueio, the foremost cultural entity in
Puerto Rico. I had just gotten my Master's Degree in
Comparative Journalism from Columbia, but after a stint
as a press release writer at the University of Puerto
Rico I returned to New York and got a job as a waitress
at a near-by pub called The Gold Rail, now refurbished as
a Chinese restaurant. I was trying very hard not to join
the System, which meant any profession that would require
a neat and tidy dress with a bow or something like that,
and I was questioning everything in my life and the
collective life of my countrymen and women.
As I look back now upon that story and others that
followed, and on my novel, I realize that I was looking
for the definition of three problems, it seems it is
always three with me: the definition of my womanhood,
the definition of my coming of age or adulthood, and the
definition of my cultural-national identity.
The first is the most encompassing, because having
been born and raised in a particularly macho world such
as Puerto Rico makes every woman take a stand. Many,
of course, just take the no-questions-asked approach;
they imitate their elders or siblings and adapt their way
of life to men's definition of life even as they sometimes
wonder if they are doing right. But for the rest of us,
depending on our social strata and/or personal experiences,
defining our roles as women in Puerto Rican society is very
complex. As a writer, I find that even when I'm not
consciously trying to make a statement about women's role,
I seem to include this theme in almost all the pieces I've
written. To begin with, most of the characters I develop
are women, and sometimes they are rebellious women,
rebellious in the healthy sense of the word, not in the
stereotyped way, rebellious because they do not follow the
traditional roles of Puerto Rican women or because they
might defy part of the given set of rules. On other
occasions, just by portraying women as they really are,
I believe that I'm showing their strength, their courage,
their decision-making capabilities--and these are themes
that the women and men who read these narrative pieces can
clearly identify. They serve as mirrors that reflect
back positive traits, strong traits--for Puerto Rican wonen
are very strong--and this singling out, I believe, works
inside people to be able to articulate, to identify, to
dissect and think and look again at themselves.
The second theme is the distinction between being a
child or adolescent and being an adult. For the flower
children being an adult was totally anathema, as were the
responsibilies of adulthood. It seemed we were annointed
to be children forever, to be immature and happy-go-lucky,
to protest vehemently against all wrong and to crusade
for what was right, but not at the price of losing that
cherished innocence that we seemed to have.
Now, this last theme, as I've explained it, is strongly
related to the next, the cultural standards for the flower
children generation. The reality in Puerto Rico, Latin
America and all the Third World Countries, as a whole,
was auite different. We who were born middle class and
white could try to enter into the mainstream of this
childhood dream in the United States; the rest of the
young people of that era couldn't. So there was a
dichotomy between being a child or an adult, and between
being a child of the late '60s or early '70s in New York
and being one in Puerto Rico.
Somehow, all that confusion of ideas and cultural
images made me search for some roots farther back in
childhood, and many of the stories I've written, as well
as the novel, have children as principal characters.
The most complex of all themes, for me, is the one of
our cultural identity, and here I must stop to make a few
observations. Within a colony like Puerto Rico, a lot of
anomalies take place. I am one of them. Brought up in a
Catholic American private school, I learned to love
English and to despise Spanish as a cultural vehicle. We
are constantly accosted by the government and the private
enterprises with a multiplicity of American cultural icons,
and this is felt doubly in American-run private schools.
Our parents send us to them because the public schools,
for more than 30 years, are a shame; children just don't
learn there, they don't learn anything well, with a few
exceptions, so all parents who can afford to or those who
can make loans, will do anything to secure a private
school education for their children.
What these schools do is teach you to pursue academic
excellence according to American standards, and that
implies living intensely as an American even if you have
a name that can never be pronounced correctly by any
living real American. It is an anomaly all right, and it
can produce a strange scene as this: The very first piece
of writing I ever did, in second grade, was something
called a composition. We had all been taught to read and
write in first grade, so in second we had to make sentences,
put them in order, choose a subject and write. We were
given four choices: My Doll, My Kitten, My Vacation and
George Washington. Not Ramon Emeterio Betances, the true
Father of our Nation, not Baldorioty de Castro, not even
our then Governor's father, Mufoz Rivera, a respected
politician in his own right, but George Washington.
We all knew who he was. We also knew who Lincoln was,
and that he had liberated the slaves in the United States.
We did not know there had been slaves in Puerto Rico and
that they too had been freed thanks to the combined efforts
of their rebellions and the "abolicionistas." I, of
course, was seven years old; according to my religion I
knew right from wrong, was capable of committing mortal sins
and thus was capable of many things including learning
my catechism and making my first communion, and big enough
to try history. I chose George Washington. The teacher
gave me an "A" and gave my composition to my mother. It
read thus: "George Washington was the first president of
the United States. He never told a lie. He was a soldier.
He fought in Korea."
The year was 1954, we had just gotten out of the war in
Korea, I had no sense of time, I knew a war had been going
on where soldiers had been killed, I surmised that was
Washington's war. I guess I was already showing signs of my
true vocation: writing fiction against a true social back-
ground. I think my innocence was funny; I believe the
choice of themes we were given was a lack of respect
towards my country, and one that goes on and on and on.
As I grew older, this problem became more complex,
because I was not capable of finding myself in any
definition. I thought I was an American and that was that.
By some bad twist of fortune, I had been born on an alien
planet, and someday I would come to New York and become
a career girl like those in Three Coins in a Fountain or
in Valley of the Dolls. Meanwhile, the strict conservative
definitions given for being a Puerto Rican were not only
bothersome for me, but totally alienating.
There were reasons for this nationalistic, closed
stance, but I did not know then enough history or social
sciences even about my country, to be able to understand
what had happened in Puerto Rico. In 1898, after the
Spanish-American War, the well-to-do and the small emerging
middle class of Puerto Rico thought they would enter an
economic bonanza under American rule. When this did not
happen because the laws were changed to favor the new
colonial power, and the plantation owners lost all they
had and the coffee plantations came tumbling down and
sugar was made king because Americans wanted sugar, and the
Spanish-owned businesses lost their privileges because the
American-owned ones got theirs, a simplistic bad vs. evil
symbolism took hold of the national psyche. Everything
was pitted against its opposite. Thus, if to be an American
was to be Anglo Saxon, Protestant, worldly-wise etc., to
be a Puerto Rican was to be Latin, Catholic, God-fearing,
isolated. . This took different tones, but it entered
our cultural mainstream with an idealization of life in
the countryside under Spanish rule. By the mid-fifties,
after the war, the remnants of this vision penetrated
many intellectuals even more strongly, because now the
mass media were infringing upon tradition and cultural
values with American everyday values and traditions.
The problem for my generation of white middle-class urban
people was: Where did we fit? We had no links, seemingly,
with our Puerto Rican agricultural past; many of us were
first or second generation Puerto Ricans, for our fathers
or grandfathers had come to the Island in the last great
migration from Spain, perhaps Corsica, and before we had
been allowed to stand firmly on our heritage, we had been
misled into believing that our historical and cultural
heritage was exclusively from the U.S.A.
My first novel deals with these three themes, because
I as a woman fiction writer feel a great emptiness, a
historical vacuum, a sense of having been forcibly deprived
of something that even the poorest peasants that attend
rural school in Mexico have: a clear sense of belonging
to a country, a people, an identity that can change, as all
things must change with the advent of time, but an identity
upon which to welcome change. I feel as though I were one
of those children of olden times, the literal bastards
whose parents were not known, who could not celebrate their
true birthdays because no one could tell for sure when they
were born, who could never look upon someone and be sure that
that person was kinsman or woman. I think this haunts me,
even as I now know I am Puerto Rican, although different in
some ways from other Puerto Ricans. But I also know I need
strongly to learn more about us, and I resent immensely how
they've hidden from us all we've ever accomplished.
Now, how all that relates to the literature I write has
to do with a particular approach I've chosen, and that is:
I don't want to be a propagandist. I respect art and
literature immensely and believe these human endeavors work
best when they are being themselves. This does not mean
that a message, an accusation, a call to arms must be
absent from literature, not at all; this means that I as
a Puerto Rican writer, have to be on the alert all the
time so as not to fall into a trap that we have made for
all of us: the trap of using art, and specifically
literature, to pursue a political solution to our colonial
Because in a colony every artistic endeavor becomes a
statement of existence as a nation--it shows the world we
exist--many artists confuse their roles and start doing
work in a seemingly artistic fashion but with a clear
political aim as a guiding factor. With very few
exceptions, this has resulted, in Puerto Rican literature,
in a profusion of well-intended but totally unreadable
pieces of fiction.
It is not true that very little is written and published
in Puerto Rico--you can go to the bookshelves and find
maybe 100 novels and short story books or memoirs written
in the past 10 years by others who are not among the 10 or
15 well-known fiction writers, and you'll find an incredible
amount of good ideas, themes, plots and characters converted
into worthless writing. Why? Because we are so damn
I think the generation of writers I belong to is the
first to begin to free itself from the obligation of
writing to preserve our cultural identity. And we are
preserving it, but precisely because we are not bending
our writing to this specific task. We might say: Writing
well is the best revenge. If we write pieces of fiction
that are good enough to transcend the shores of Puerto
Rico, we are doing more for our country than the 100 books
full of praise for the rain forests, the Grito de Lares
uprising in 1868 or the coqui--a native tree frog that has
become a solemn symbol of Puerto Ricans' love for our
Island and tragic mythical death if they are brought to
live abroad--and other themes.
Carmen Dolores Trelles, an excellent critic of literature
who is not well-liked among Puerto Rican writers because she
is always healthily pointing out our faults as well as our
merits, says that the problems that most often plague
Puerto Rican literature are the artificiality and rhetoric
of our writers. I agree on that point, for, reading many
short stories and novels, one finds the author present all
the time, telling the reader "Hey, look at ME, I'm here,"
like the people who suddenly appear on TV and start
waving back home and saying hello to their mothers. They
are there, perhaps, because we Puerto Ricans are natural
hams--we love theatrics, we love having the spotlight on
us collectively maybe because we've never had power, we've
always been dominated, so we love being there on stage,
even if only to receive a year's supply of washing
74 Garcia Ramis
Another problem that plagues our literature has to
do with style--we Puerto Ricans tend to be quite literal,
sometimes simplistic in our approach to ideas, again maybe
because a lack of definition in our major processes makes
it imperative to have definitions in small details, and
this reduces a lot of important, complex issues to simple
ones with simple solutions in our literature.
So, as Puerto Rican writers, I believe we have to be
conscious of all these things at the same time:
1. Trying to be excellent--like true writers all over the
2. Trying to be true to ourselves.
3. Keeping in mind that all we write is, whether we plan
it or not, a statement that tells the world that we
exist as a nation.
4. Trying to get the average Puerto Rican to read us
instead of buying American paperback best-sellers or
Latin American romantic sub-literature as their only
5. Trying to be just, to have a sense of justice when we
deal with Puerto Rico in our literature and not to
fall in the traps of stereotypes that are formed
outside Puerto Rico and might seep in through us.
6. Knowing we are part of Latin America but being honest
and coming to grips with the fact that we are not
exactly or not only Latin Americans, that as Puerto
Ricans, with 87 years of intimate contact with the
United States, we have many traits in common with that
7. Trying to be honest about the impact of mass media
and popular culture in our country, and not allow
ourselves to fall into an academic wasteland where
all our artistic endeavors might be applauded but
would never be able to step out the door because people
would not be able to relate to them as they can relate
to the media.
When I went back to Puerto Rico after New York I
started to work as an apprentice graphic artisan. The
first silkscreen print I made was a quote from Nationalist
leader Pedro Albizu Campos that ran thus: "Me dediaue' a la
polltica porque nacf en un pueblo esclavizado. De haber
nacido en un pafs libre hubiera dedicado mi vida a las
artes, a las ciencias." (I dedicated myself to politics
because I was born in an enslaved country. If I had been
born in a free country I would have dedicated myself to the
arts, to the sciences.) That poster sold out, everybody
who wanted to go into politics wanted one. Now, as I look
back into all the good that actors, writers, graphic artists,
painters and musicians have done for putting Puerto Rico
on the map of the world and helping Puerto Ricans be proud
of ourselves, I believe in saying: I've dedicated myself
to art precisely because I was born in an enslaved country,
and without falling into easy propaganda, the best
political work we can do is to do the best writing that we
are capable of.
Magali Garcia Ramis
University of Puerto Rico
At the Bottom of the River.
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1983.
"Columbus in Chains," "Figures in the Distance," "The Red
Girl," "The Circling Hand," "Gwen," "Somewhere Belgium,"
"The Long Rain," "A Walk to the Jetty" (stories by Jamaica
Kincaid, The New Yorker magazine, 1982-1984).
Jamaica Kincaid is one of the most interesting of women
writers (to reaffirm feminist critic Elaine Showalter's
refreshing truism "women who write are women") from the
Caribbean to have appeared in recent years, but her works
seem to be one of that literary world's best kept secrets.
Yet her stories have not been published by little-known
reviews and publishers, rather by recognized and widely
published magazines such as The Paris Review, Rolling Stone,
and especially The New Yorker, where she is a staff writer.
I came upon her work thanks to a dear friend who began
sending me her more recent collection (for it certainly
is a collection) as it appeared in The New Yorker and these
stories sent me back to her first Look, At the Bottom of the
This book is interesting for some of its stories, as
a first book usually is. It is not a coherent collection
but the better pieces share a common ground--narrations
concerning a girl's childhood and her special relationship
with her mother: "Girl," "In the Night," and "My Mother."
All the stories are told in the first-person singular
and the narrative voice is predominantly that of a girl.
However, there usually is a distance to this "I," a know-
how, a maturity, an ironic ring even that gives the
girlish "I" the perspective of the grown-up looking back
and reconstructing, reinventing, reordering a childhood.
In the three aforementioned pieces, the narrative
discourse is most fluid, most controlled, most authentic.
"Girl" is a very short piece in which the "I" appears only
twice, in response to a seemingly unending list of rules
and instructions a mother (the "you" voice) gives her
daughter to insure she is well prepared for the present
and the future, to be "a lady and not like the slut you
are so bent on becoming."
Although this world is built upon the strictest
regulations and restrictions, as if everything has always
been and always will be the same, the narration manages
to convey the image of a stable, loving and happy world
that surrounds the girl who soaks up all this knowledge.
This image or feeling is achieved through a very subtle
use of irony imprinted in the first place upon the syntax of
the many phrases which make up the one sentence in the
story: the phrases begin with "wash," "cook," "soak,"
"always," "you mustn't," "don't," "this is how." In second
place, these categorical rules which cover everything from
household duties to children's games ("don't scuat down
to play marbles--you are not a boy, you know"), from
manners to morals. The sustained syntactical structure
underscores the fact that every item is given the same
importance in the mother's eyes.
"In the Night" begins as a third-person narrative but
falls into the "you" that falls into the "I," and "I" that
belongs to a girl who is trying to make sense of the world
around her, the world in which she will one day become a
woman. This is a touching, innocent voice that seeks
reassurance in the fact that when she marries, she will
marry a "red-skin woman" (the mother's outstanding feature)
who will tell her things that begin "'Before you were born'"
so that "every night, every night, I will be completely
This story, like many in the book, is fragmented,
divided into sections. While in other pieces this is done
to solve narrative problems of fluidity and continuity,
in this story the fragmentation communicates the girl's
feeling of disorientation "in the night" and also creates
a dream-like atmosphere.
"My Mother" is also a fragmented narration of scenes
shared by mother and daughter told from the daughter's
point of view. Although the girl may sometimes hate her
mother or fear her, she cannot picture the world without
her, she sees herself through her mother's eyes, she measures
herself against her.
Once again, the syntax is striking because at times
it reminds the reader, in its structuring, of the syntax
associated with elementary school textbooks.
The fishermen are coming in from sea; their catch
is bountiful, my mother has seen to that. As the
waves plop, plop against each other, the fisher-
men are happy that the sea is calm.
These passages contrast to others more complex,linguistically
and rhetorically; passages which add a lyrical, at times
cosmic dimension to the narrator-girl's perceptions.
In the other pieces in this collection, Kincaid seems
to be feeling her way to find a voice that suits the world
she wants to represent. The narrative discourse is unsure,
groping, genuinely and not formally fragmented. The clear,
comfortable, actualized present of the child often becomes
muddled and unresolved.
But this collection's interest increases as one
becomes familiarized with the eight stories that have
appeared in The New Yorker over a period from 1982 to
1984, probably written after those published in the book.
These eight stories cover a period in young Annie
John's life (later published as Annie John [New York:
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1986]) in Antigua from the
time she is approximately a ten-year old to the time she
is seventeen, finished with her schooling and off to
England to become a nurse. These are endearing, compelling,
riveting, bittersweet stories in which Kincaid has achieved
full control, full maturity as a storyteller.
The narrative voice is always the "I," but an "I"
that changes subtly from the innocent, secure, trusting
child who mischievously tests the mother's limits to the
insecure, ambivalent, hostile, unhappy "I" of the teenager
who aches to break away and be independent, resenting the
strict upbringing which has not allowed for smooth rites
Each story is built around a moment in Annie's life
that synthesizes the character's feelings, experiences
and development at that particular time. It is once again
the child telling her tale but behind this girl-narrator
is the woman-narrator in control, determining the
atmosphere of the story mainly through the use of irony.
Witness this passage in "Columbus in Chains" in which Annie
talks about a British classmate during a history class on
Columbus and his "discovery":
I could see how Ruth felt from looking at her face.
Her ancestors had been the masters, while ours
had been the slaves. She had such a lot to be
ashamed of, and by being with us every day she
was always being reminded. We could look every-
body in the eye, for our ancestors had done
nothing wrong except just sit somewhere, defense-
less. Of course, sometimes, what with our
teachers and our books, it was hard for us to
tell on which side we really now belonged--with
the masters or the slaves--for it was all
history, it was all in the past, and everybody
behaved differently now, and all of us celebrated
Queen Victoria's birthday, even though she had
been dead a long time.
. .1 was sitting at my desk, having these
thoughts to myself.
This irony slowly turns toward the maturing Annie and
her family, as she becomes aware (in "A Walk to the Jetty")
that "now there they are together and here I am apart" but
"they are just the same and it is I who has changed": the
harmonious world in which her mother was the most beautiful
woman and her father the gentlest, most generous man and
Annie fit perfectly in her lap or the crook of his arm is
a disjointed world now, in which she is taller than they are
as they walk to the boat that will take her away:
We must have made a strange sight: a grown girl
all dressed up in the middle of a morning, in
the middle of the week, walking in step in the
middle between her two parents, for people we
didn't know stared at us.
Kincaid is at her best when she tells of impressions,
experiences, happenings, details that create the characters,
the atmosphere. Her narrator's intonation is right on key,
even though she has avoided the pitfalls of dialect
transcriptions, common to much of Caribbean literature.
Her weakest moments are those in which Annie John becomes
contemplative and philosophical--these passages seem imposed,
pedantic even, and marr parts of the most recent stories.
Above all, Kincaid is a woman writer for whom gender is
far from a liability. One of the reasons these stories
ring so authentically is because Kincaid absolutely controls
the feminine creative discourse. These stories cover that
area feminist criticism has called "borderline" because
it touches upon aspects of the male-dominated world but
feeds itself generously from materials pertinent to a
Kincaid inserts her work in the over-all tradition but
unabashedly recognizes the feminine literary tradition too
through the narrative discourse of an Annie John who has
been educated into docility and submissiveness, has found
ways to happily subvert that world in childhood, but as a
young woman must resent being trained to achieve
control of such a little world that is the woman's while she
pains to understand and control her full life and environment.
It is in the transition from happy childhood to
ambivalent young adulthood, told in the first person, that
Kincaid shows her expert handling of the narrative tech-
niques that tell the tale of a female character as seen
by the inquisitive woman writer. Much ground must still
be covered to fully understand the feminine literary
tradition and the characteristics of feminine writing as
such, and a Jamaica Kincaid gives us much help.
University of Puerto Rico
Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico
The Land of Look Behind.
Ithaca, New York: Firebrand Books, 1985.
In The Land of Look Behind, Michelle Cliff has chosen
to collect previously published works of prose and poetry
as well as new material. The result is an uneven book with
some excellent selections and others that need to be
polished or undergo complete change.
In her preface, "A Journey in Speech," Cliff ponders
on the process of writing for a Caribbean woman, and
concludes that instead of writing as a Jamaican, she is
really responding to an experience shared by all countries
which have undergone a similar historical and political
We are a fragmented people. My experience as a
writer coming from a culture of colonialism, a
culture of Black people riven from each other,
my struggle to get wholeness from fragmentation,
producing work which may find its strength in
its depiction of fragmentation, through form as
well as content, is similar to the experience of
other writers whose origins are in countries
defined by colonialism.
And so her voice is no longer a personal one, but now
speaks to and for third world people, whether they live
in Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, or if they
have exiled themselves in a capitalist developed country.
Of the selections from Claiming an Identity They
Taught Me to Despise, the best written is the one that
carries the title of the book. Using as a basis for her
claims Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea, Cliff empathizes
with Antoinette/Bertha, the child who did not know the
place she belonged to; the young woman who trusted and
was disrobed of her name and her island; the mature woman
who burns her jail and plunges into the darkness, at last
knowing who she is and where she wants to be.
To imagine I am the sister of Bertha Rochester.
We are the remainders of slavery--residue:
In the section "Love in the Third World," Cliff has
two excellent parts entitled "Constructive Engagement"
and "Battle Royal." The first part deals with South
Africa and Cliff tells of her impression on reading about
a black girl who was a witness at a trial where a young
white man was accused of running down a black boy on a
bike with his car. At the end of the story, she asserts
the possibility of this incident happening in New York,
Pretoria, or Los Angeles. The second part deals with the
invasion of Grenada where she gives seven rules for
invaders. In an ironic style, Cliff ridicules the
"humanitarian" reasons given by the United States for the
&he weakest section of the book is entitled "If I
could Write This in Fire, I would Write This on Fire."
These recollections of her childhood and adolescence seem
like notes for a novel not yet worked out. She has not
developed the objective distance needed to make it
meaningful and coherent to readers who do not know Michelle
Like Paule Marshall and Jamaica Kincaid, Michelle Cliff
is a Caribbean woman writer who uses her recollections of
"home" to write stories and poems that capture a particular
experience, not shared by mainstream North American writers.
Because they live in the United States and have become part
of either the New York writing community or of women's
studies programs, they have an advantage over other Carib-
bean writers who remain at home: they are able to publish.
Maria Cristina Rodrfguez
University of Puerto Rico
Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico
THE MESSAGE IS: IT CAN HAPPEN ANY-EVERYWHERE
Sistren (with Honor Ford Smith, editor).
Lionheart Gal: Life Stories of Jamaican Women.
London: The Women's Press, 1986.
. analyse and comment on the role of
women in Jamaican society through theatre,
to organise ourselves into a self-reliant
co-operative enterprise, and to take drama
to working-class communities.
. taken together, they are a composite
woman's story, within which there are many
layers of experience.
Lionheart Gal, 1986
What I propose here is not so much a review as an
exploration of certain of the critical issues raised by
Sistren's publication of Lionheart Gal. At the core of
this collection of 15 "testimonies" of Jamaican women a
fundamental question remains to be resolved: does Lion-
heart Gal ask to be considered as Literature? Are these
"life stories," "testimonies," taped and edited recollec-
tions, compilations, diary entries--most in Jamaican Eng-
lish as opposed to standard English--this "composite woman's
story"--of the members of the women's theater collective
Sistren examples of "writing" or stories or sociology or
what? Is there a difference? What happens to the privi-
leged position of the writer in such a composite, collec-
Lionheart Gal confronts a series of other gender,
class, race, and ideology-related concerns as well, and it
demonstrates that women's struggles in the third world have
implications for European and North American societies as
well. But the questioning of writing and literature serves
as an apt point of departure, not only because it leads to
other issues, but more importantly, because it establishes
a parallel between the accomplishments of Sistren over the
past decade as a performance group and their new "literary"
undertaking as an alternative to class and gender restric-
tions in the arts. The process of Lionheart Gal "followed
basically the same methodological steps as the theatre
process, that is,taking in from women through testimony
and shaping into a final product." Thus literature, like
84 Book Reviews
theater before it, is conceived as a collective creation
springing from the everyday experiences of the women who
"write" it. The project, then, proposes the same kind of
"revision" of the conventional idea of "literary text"
that the work of Sistren has realized in the "revision"
of "performance text" and establishes the principle of
collective authorship in theater and narrative.
Sistren is Jamaica's unique, and now internation-
ally known, women's theater collective. Uniqueness derives
from its survival and critical success as a cultural/per-
formance unit at a time when most similarly conceived
groups in other--usually more affluent--social settings
either failed to materialize or dissolved rapidly after
initial setbacks. The members of Sistren have worked
together since 1977, when most were employed as street
cleaners or teacher aids in the "make-work" special employ-
ment or Impact--or Crash--Program of the Manley (1972-
1980) government (the program was abandoned by the current
Seaga government in 1981). According to director Honor
Ford Smith, the 13 women who gathered for the first meeting
were asked what they wanted to perform and replied, "We
want to do plays about how we suffer as women. We want
to do plays about how men treat us bad." The first en-
counter is also described in one of the "stories":
One Thursday evening, my supervisor
told me ah was to go up to 4 Central
Avenue, to get ready for a Worker's
Week Concert wid di odder teacher-aides.
. Di teacher took us into a room
and shut di door. What bring me alive
was when she ask everybody fi talk about
dem experience. Talk about factory,
go-go dancing, and di various area in di
ghetto where we live. We even talk about
prostitution. . We start to discuss
deeper . . we did our first play
Downpression Get a Blow . . After
dat, we keep on meeting--doing drama
and talking out our life experiences.
("Foxy and di Macca Palace War")
From that point, the process of collecting testimony, im-
provization, group analysis, consciousness raising, discus-
sion, rehearsal, and performance continued. Downpression
Get a Blow was the first and was followed by other major
productions such as Bellvwoman Bangarang, BandooLu Version,
Nana Y'uh, QPH, The Case of Iris Armstrong, the documentary
film Sweet Sugar Rage, Muffet Inna a We, Youth and Youth
Know Yuh Truth, in a progression of roughly one major new
performance text per year, and numerous other workshop
Along with the productions, Sistren has also
accomplished other major objectives: community programs
and organization, a permanent location (house) with office
space, rehearsal rooms, library/women's resource center,
design-print-silkscreen workshop, and a quarterly news-
letter/paper. In effect, Sistren has lived its early credo
of becoming a "self-reliant co-operative enterprise."
Although their journey has by no means been an easy one
(and they continue to struggle to survive), the group has
flourished to become a cultural and educational center for
working-class women, where information services, support,
and community action parallel, and at times overtake, crea-
tion, rehearsal, and performance. But perhaps, that is the
real sense behind the group:
Our work in Sistren allows us to explore
women's issues without anyone breathing
down our backs to tell us these things
can wait because they are "secondary" or
or that if we talk about how men oppress
and exploit women, we are being "anti-
male" or "dividing the struggle." The
problems of half the population cannot
be regarded as secondary, and the people's
struggle will never be fully a people's
struggle until women and their concerns
are fully integrated into it.
The importance of Sistren in the lives of the individual
members is best related by the women themselves:
When we form di group ah began to meet
and talk wid odder women. Ah hear dem
experience and ah hear dem view. We sit
and we talk problem. We improvise and
mek plays. After a time we start draw
pictures too. After doing dese creative
work, we always discuss. Dat is how ah
come to find out how and why certain tings
happen in me life, how ah can work on di
problems and how ah can make it better.
Ah get fi find out dah ah am gifted wid
drawing and designing. Over di years we
build up a silk-screen project. . .
Ah start mek designs based up off me own
life, di lives of women sugar workers,
domestic workers, old women and di teen-
age maddas. Now di main designer for
Sistren prints is me.
("Me Own Two Hands")
The final "testimony" of Lionheart Gal records a
progression of particular interest:
Our play opened at the Barn Theatre. It
is called Bellywoman Banqaranq, because
it is about teenage pregnancy. I thought
up the title. Betty's baby-father came
to the dress rehearsal and threatened to
beat her up because she wasn't staying
at home and taking care of the children.
Sistren had to smuggle her out of the
theatre . .
Why do men always feel threatened anytime
we woman begin to exchange thought and
experience . . Wid Sistren him feel
extra threatened because we a deal wid
issues pertaining to women.
. one of our main aims is to make the
private area of women's life a matter of
Before anything else, Lionheart Gal is a tribute to the
accomplishments of Sistren, a record of over a decade of
continuous and distinguished production.
Of the 15 narrative accounts composing Lionheart
Gal, 13 are by women of working-class and/or peasant ori-
gins; the narrators of the remaining two are university-
educated and/or from middle-class backgrounds. However,
the theme that surfaces most frequently in each testimony
is violence: beating, rape, abuse, political bloodshed--
immediate, painful, physical acts of aggression that make
women the victims of male frustration--and the more subtle
institutionalized violence of an atrophied, man-centered-
dominated society that privileges the position of the in-
dividual male and encourages masculine egocentricity.
Thus, the university scholarship winner and teacher union
organizer, the white-appearing daughter of a light-skinned
doctor-mother and a white absentee father, the never wed
mother of three from the ghetto, the runaway from rural
poverty, the poorly paid, non-unionized restaurant cashier
who can be fired without notice--all are separated by far
less than normally assumed. Their struggles, whether a
physical battle with a savings-tealing boyfriend or pro-
test against fossilized social conventions and sex-related
restrictions, are the same.
But what is perhaps most eye-opening about these
"stories" is the completeness of their vision. They pro-
vide a "composite" view and tell what women, especially
under-class women, have been unable to reveal so fully
before. But the true surprise is that none of it surprises,
nothing arises to test the speaker-writers' credibility,
and the reader knows immediately that all societies--not
only Jamaica--have similar "other," although probably un-
written, testimonies and alternative histories that ques-
tion the institutionalization of sexism as the embedded
structure of that society.
Are the narrative accounts of Lionheart Gal
"Literature"? Fortunately, no one knows what "Literature"
is any longer, and anyone who claims to have that informa-
tion is no doubt on the wrong side of the question anyway.
But I think of the humor of "'Exodus' A Run"--"Him never
too righted. Coconut did drop inna him head when him
lickle-bit and di head go and come."--and the poem that
ends "Di Flowers Vase":
Without a father,
my children must grow.
Without life, our lives must go on.
Without hope, we are not hopeless.
Without education, we shall be educated.
Without a reality, we shall emerge
Forever we shall be without in this world that
we're living in
But, I am determined . I won't go without.
Normally, the narratives in Jamaican English are more
successful as "stories" than the two--"Grandma's Estate"
and "Red Ibo"--that are most consistent in their use of
standard English: those stories, however, tead to have
stronger agendas and be more information-packed. But
taken as a whole, these are all stories of empowerment,
of individual and collective growth, of recognition of
self and discovery of others, of poetry and a search
for authentic language. They are the collective voice
of Sistren, speaking out and demonstrating that such
stories can now be told.
As a child, me never know yuh have grass
roots actresses. Me did tink di only
actresses yuh have a dem glamorous woman
weh come pon di screen. I like to put
grass roots reality on stage because it
can help young working class people be-
come aware of their potential. . .
I used to look up to black entertainers.
Dey were among di first to teach me dat
black people are not born to be poor and
exploited. I hope my work can do the
("The Emancipation of a Household Slave")
La trenza de la hermosa luna.
Barcelona: Editorial Anagrama, 1987.
The Caribbean has always been a place of great
mobility, whether it is island hopping or trying one's
fortune or misery in the metropolis. Yet nationalism has
also been a great concern of islanders who refuse to be
called St. Lucians when they are from St. Kitts, or resent
the presence of Jamaican soldiers more than North American
combat troops, as in the case of Grenada. Although Mayra
Montero has lived most of her life in Puerto Rico, where
she arrived at an early age, Puerto Rican writers have
always felt uneasy in grouping her as one of "theirs."
She was born in Cuba, of parents who decided to abandon
Cuba after the Revolution and settle in a neighboring
island that seemed to have the political stability they
had lost. Even though Mayra Montero's father chose to
continue his economic, social, and emotional ties to the
exiled Cuban community in Puerto Rico, his daughter became
immersed in national politics, and began to look at the
world from a progressive and sometimes radical viewpoint.
Montero became a news reporter for a daily newspaper, and
later was news analyst for world events. She wrote about
Nicaragua and its Revolution; the civil war in El Salvador;
the misery, the spirit and radicalization of the Haitian
masses. Her writings became literary pieces where words
would report, analyze, and bring out beauty where death
seemed to prevail.
In 1981, the Institute of Culture decided to include
Mayra Montero in its list of young writers by publishing her
first collection of short stories, Veintitres y una tortuga
(23 and a Turtle). At that time, she announced that she was
involved in writing a novel. The larger task of writing
a novel is an activity attempted by many contemporary Puerto
Rican writers, but accomplished by very few. In 1986,
Rosario Ferre and Magali Garcia Ramis published well-received
first novels, although both still need to learn to incorporate
other elements of the craft of this changing and growing
form. This year (1987), Mayra Montero joins Ferr4 and
Garcia Ramis by being the third woman writer to publish a
critically acclaimed novel in recent years. La trenza de la
hermosa luna (The Braid of the Beautiful Moon) is an
enchanting and haunting story told by a writer who knows her
craft and is able to use all her tools to convey a total
La trenza de la hermosa luna is set in Haiti in the
days prior to Baby Doc Duvalier's departure. The dictator
is not just a shadow, but a reality that, like Gabriel
Garcia MArquez' protagonist in El otofo del patriarca
(The Autumn of the Patriarch), moves with a heavy burden
that does not allow him to simply disappear at the right
moment. In La trenza de la hermosa luna Haiti-the nation,
Haiti-the people, Haiti-Nature are seen through the eyes
of Jean Leroy, the exile who has returned home when called
back by his childhood friend, Pap& Marcel, the houngan of
Gonaives. Leroy is one of those Caribbean men who has
moved from island to island working on the boats and
settling in different places to try his fortune. He has
learned Spanish and English and has a sense of belonging to
an area and not only to one nation. After twenty years,
he returns to Haiti and attempts to mend the absence-created
gap by continuing things as they were, never considering
that timr.e does not stand still. The woman he left behind,
Choucoune, is a haunting memory that he needs to turn into
flesh. Friendship and love are entangled in the daily
violence where small acts of rebellion are punished by death.
Everyone is affected: a son, a husband, a lover, a friend.
Alliances are formed to seek the missing and corpses, and
later to follow the rituals of burial and mourning.
Montero has transformed the fantastic elements of Latin
American writers such as Julio Cortgzar into reality and
magic in a region that sustains itself amidst poverty,
death, torture and catastrophe, through the powers attributed
to the houngan. But these same people will not accept a
false alliance between those interpreters of the gods and
the dictator, the destroyer of hope and change. Montero
herself uses magical words that take the reader into a world
of mystery which holds many surprises in life, love and
death. Characters never truly reveal themselves, they
always hold an element of surprise that keeps other characters
guessing, while the reader slowly becomes enmeshed in a
world not familiar to Hispanic readers.
In La trenza de la hermosa luna Montero has succeeded
in writing a Puerto Rican novel that uses as a setting an
apparently different culture and has shown how artificial
are the barriers in the Caribbean. Haiti, Puerto Rico,
Jamaica, and the rest of the Caribbean share a magical world;
one that contains misery and where death is a constant
companion, but also one where a new world can be built.
Alejo Carpentier in El reino de este mundo showed us in
1949 that Haiti set the style for renovation and that with
Mackandal and all our spirits and bodies, we can make that
world a possibility. Mayra Montero returns to Haiti to rescue
once more the magic of the Caribbean.
Maria Cristina Rodriguez
University of Puerto Rico
Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico
NOTES ON CONTRIBUTORS
Brenda Alejandro is a Puerto Rican artist living in New York.
Her M.A. 'is from Hunter College and she is currently finishing
doctoral work at Columbia.
Judith Bennet Brown is from Jamaica and studied at the University
of the West Indies. She currently lives and works in Puerto Rico.
Rosario Ferrd is one of Puerto Rico's best known contemporary
writers. ier novel Maldito amor was published in 1986, and she
is finishing doctoral studies at the University of Maryland.
Lowell Fiet teaches in the English Department at the University
of Puerto Rico and is the editor of Sargasso.
Magali Garcia Ramis is well known in Puerto Rico as a short
story writer, and her novel Felices dias, Tfo Sergio appeared
in 1986. She teaches at the School of Public Communication at
the University of Puerto Rico.
Susan Homar is the director of the Comparative Literature
program at the University of Puerto Rico. She is known for
critical works in the areas of Caribbean literature and dance.
Patricia Ismond is the head of the English Department at the
University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, Trinidad. She
writes frequently on West Indian literature, and especially
on the poetry of Derek Walcott.
Maria C. Rodriguez teaches in the English Department at the
University of Puerto Rico and specializes in women's studies,
Caribbean literature, and film criticism. She is a co-editor
of Sargasso and special co-editor for this issue.
Elaine Savory is the head of the English Department at the
University of the West Indies, Cave Hill, Barbados. She is
poet, performer, critic, and scholar.
B.A. St. Andrews teaches at the Upstate Medical Center of the
State University of New York and has published in journals
such as North Dakota Quarterly, The Bloomsbury Review, Cedar
Rcck, and Saturday Review.
Ada M. Vilar de Kerkhoff is the director of the Department of
Language and Literature at the University of Puerto Rico.
She specializes in French literature and contemporary critical
SARGASSO 3 (1986)
TABLE OF CONTENTS
George Lamming and Gordon K. Lewis:
Intersections and Divergences
(Interview) ............................... 3
Nancy Dew Taylor: A Break in Our Routine ...... 31
Tony Hunt: On My Way to Work This Morning
(Poem) .................................... 40
Gordon K. Lewis: The Making of a Caribbeanist .. 41
Dante Pasquinucci: The Perspective of Progress
in Humacao (Poem) ........................ 60
George Lamming: Politics and Culture .......... 61
Richard Cameron: C4sar Andrew Iglesias, ed.;
Juan Flores, trans. Memoirs of Bernardo
Vega: A Contribution to the History of the
Puerto Rican Community in New York ....... 69
Lowell Fiet: George Lamming; The Pleasuresof
Exile ................................... 78
Rosa Luisa Marquez: Pedro Pietri; The Masses
Are Asses ............................... 96
NOTES ON CONTRIBUTORS ........................... 90
TABLE OF CONTENTS, Sargasso I, Vol. I (1984)
and Sargasso I, Vol. II (1984) ............. 91
F O RTHC OM I N G in SARGASSO
New Caribbean Poetry
New Caribbean Fiction
(Deadline for submissions for SARGASSO 6 is February 1st
1988. Stories should be no more than 2,500 words in length;
essays and critical studies should conform to the style of
the MLA Handbook. Please include S.A.S.E. for correspondence
and/or return of materials submitted.)