Woman through the window. Photo by Doel Vazquez
The Porcupine's Prick
By Carmen Oquendo-Villar
Just as I was returning to Caribbean studies, Mayra Santos-Febres suggested that I write the introduction for Las espinas del erizo: antología de escritoras boricuas del siglo XXI (The Porcupine's Quills: Anthology of Puerto Rican Women Writers). Working on my doctorate at Harvard, I’d taken a detour through the Southern Cone with its imposing paternal figures. As a woman from Puerto Rico, I couldn’t think of a more suitable project than Mayra’s invitation (and challenge).
It was a welcomed opportunity to immerse myself in the worlds of imagination created by the contemporary pens of 21st century women writers who were joining this “commonwealth” called Puerto Rican literature. I found this invitation a tempting incentive to contribute a preliminary study and thus to participate as a critical observer. I decided to accept.
In what fashion are these Puerto Rican escritoras, women writers, laying siege to the traditional literary canon? It was easy for me to recognize that the Island’s system of narrative, even when embedded in the discourse of colonialism and docility, has shared many characteristics with the discursive style of the sovereign patriarchs. According to Puerto Rican critic Juan Gelpí in Literatura y paternalismo en Puerto Rico, Puerto Rican literature was traditionally governed by the concept of literary generations, which in turn revolved around a central father figure. The production of the new women writers was articulated as a corpus—a body of work—that challenged or provided an irritant to what could be considered the first generation of Puerto Rican women writers. As the principal interlocutor in this anthology, this generation emerged in the 1970s as a result of a distancing that undermined the masculine canon, the disfiguration of the father figure and the emergence of the idea of nation as a “house in ruins,” to continue with Gelpí’s metaphor. Santos-Febres argues that this generation of women writers solidified the feminine literary canon in Puerto Rico and internationalized Puerto Rican literature as a whole.
The women writers—innovative and irreverent when they burst upon the literary scene in the waning years of the 20th century—emerged terrified but exuberant through the windows of the “house in ruins” of Puerto Rican literature. As Ramón Luis Acevedo points out in Del silencio al estallido: Narrativa feminina puertoriqueña, the 60s—and the women writers who began to publish then—paved the way for the noisy “boom” of women writers in the 70s. And, ironically, at times, these women writers are invited to cohabit in this anthology in a new house of writing localized in the globalized world of the 21st century. It is a new world that has preserved an acoustic memory of 1960s and 1970s icons, such as these female predecessors or other pop figures of the time, like Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” incursion into Mara Pastor’s “Un completo desconocido.
As an editor, Santos-Febres brings together these texts to produce an understanding that “challenges the formal paradigms of the generation of ’70 and its most important representatives: Ana Lydia Vega, Rosario Ferré, Olga Nolla and Mayra Montero.” The anthology is dedicated to these teachers, these “female masters,” the narrators of ’70, “for having forged a path that I,”says Santos-Febres, “(and many other women) have followed.” The anthology is organized with these literary matriarchs, but also against them. They are the primary interlocutors even if some of the writers in the anthology directly address the masculine literary canon of Puerto Rican and Latin American letters, such as Neeltje Van Marising Méndez’s Yo maté a Abelardo Díaz Alfaro, Sofía Cardona’s La amante de Borges, or Alexa Pagán’s El Cisne, a queered allusion to Rubén Darío’s powerful literary symbol. What are the “formal paradigms” of the generation of ’70 that the new women writers are challenging? Some examples of these paradigms are the use of popular speech as a literary language; the exaltation of the working classes; and a focus on Latin American and Caribbean identity. In the case of many of these older women writers, the paradigm also involves feminine and feminist identity. The new women writers introduced by Santos-Febres distance themselves from these narrative emphases; if these themes do figure in the anthology, they do not dominate it.
The anthology’s texts do not follow a single coherent narrative paradigm. It is important to remember that these writers do not constitute a new generation. Santos-Febres explains in her preface, “I do not follow strictly generational criteria; some of these divas were born before a lot of the others.” She clarifies, “I am focusing on a more solid foundation.” The silence about new Puerto Rican literary production forms part of this “more solid foundation.” There has not been a literary anthology of new Puerto Rican women writers since 1986. “It is as though the literary world had ended on the Island after ’70,” says Santos-Febres. “In part, this is because of the fragmentation of literary collectives, the growing tendency toward Internet publications and, perhaps as a result, exclusively local publishing.” The editor, therefore, extends an invitation to read the anthology in the context of the profound silence surrounding contemporary literature in today’s Puerto Rico.
Although her public persona has projected her on the Island as the contemporary national literary matriarch, Santos-Febres and her edited volume do not seek to inscribe her in that role. Las espinas del erizo: antología de escritoras boricuas del siglo XXI places the women writers in a century that searches deeper but does not venerate the model of literary generations and their imposing patriarchs and now, more recently, their equally imposing matriarchs.
This anthology is organized with a pace that is most closely associated with that of the literary workshop, a very popular phenomenon in the world of Puerto Rican letters. The momentum of a workshop is not genealogical nor vertical; rather, it is closer to the rhizomatic model of French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in which a plant assumes very diverse forms, from ramified surface extension in all directions to concretion into bulbs and tubers. This model has had faraway echoes throughout the Caribbean in the works of Martinique author Edouard Glissant, Cuban writer Antonio Benítez Rojo and Santos-Febres herself.
“Every writer needs her or his workshop,” Santos-Febres wrote in 2005 in the prologue to Cuentos de oficio: Antología de cuentistas emergentes en Puerto Rico, referring in a meta-literary fashion to the process of forming craftspersons in the world of letters. This 2005 anthology, product of literary workshops Santos-Febres has led throughout the Island for decades, follows the model of volumes of short stories published as a result of workshops, such as that of Luís López Nieves’Te traigo un cuento and Mayra Montero’s Vientitrés y una tortuga. In Puerto Rico, the literary workshop has had an important role in the development of narrative since the 1950s when Enrique Laguerre established the first literary workshop at the University of Puerto Rico. Many writers have offered workshops since then. It is significant that it is Santos-Febres—a hallowed woman writer in the Puerto Rican literary world and indeed throughout much of the Spanish-speaking Caribbean—who proposes the re-ordering of Puerto Rican literary history.
While this anthology is inscribed in a literary framework, it reformulates the conceptions of prior anthologies. Las espinas del erizo does not bring together women writers who obediently stick to the model of the inviting editor. On the contrary, in this anthology’s pages, we find a diversity of voices. These voices do not attempt to explain the identity of “woman,” even when they would agree with gender theorist Judith Butler when she asks, “What does gender want of me?”—conceiving the identifying category “gender” as an antecedent to one’s very subjectivity (Judith Butler, “What Does Gender Want of Me? New Psychoanalytic Perspectives,” magistral speech at the Program of Studies of Women, Gender and Sexuality, Harvard University. Dec. 4, 2007). Identity in this anthology is not based on nationality/ethnicity/race or even Puerto Rican or Caribbean identity. All these identities are taken as a given or conveniently overlooked.
What stands out in each story are women “bregando.” a very Puerto Rican word meaning “fending,” “dealing with,” “coping” or “getting by” or a mix of all of the above. This ubiquitous term, studied by writer Arcadio Díaz-Quiñones in his El arte de bregar: Ensayos (San Juan: Ediciones Callejón, 2000), has multiple meanings. According to Díaz Quiñones, “the verb bregar floats, wise and entertaining, in the multiple scenarios of Puerto Rican life...women and men employ this verb endlessly, with freedom and intelligence. Puerto Ricans are always fending for themselves, vulnerable, alert...bregar is, one could say, another way of knowing, a diffuse method without a compass to navigate everyday life, where everything is extremely precarious, changing or violent...” The women of this new literature “bregan” as protagonists; their kind of dealing with the world is not just a passive backdrop. They are women who go beyond their private worlds, who inhabit the public sphere in Puerto Rico, the Caribbean and other undefined spheres.
The category “citizen” is fundamental for these new literary subjects. Says Santos-Febres, “The fact is that women appear as agents in these worlds. She passes through them, changes them, and is changed by them; she explores them, now not from the private sphere (as mother, wife, lover, etc., but as a citizen/marginal person/professional woman/traveler, etc. From another gaze.”
This other perspective or, in more literary terms, “gaze,” also affects the way women see the world of the private sphere, as occurs in Mara Negón’s Carta al padre, a text that establishes similarities and contrasts with the generation of ’70 and, also with other some contemporary writers, namely Rita Indiana Hernández, a young Dominican writer who’s a frequent participant of the Puerto Rican cultural scene. Hernández’s novel Papí (San Juan: Ediciones Vértigo, 2005), is a counter point to Negrón’s Carta al padre. The masculine figure is inscribed as a pretext in Carta al padre, while Negrón’s narrative thread explores the father-daughter relationship, a long way from the tense and traumatized depiction of the masculine figure in Hernández’s novel or in the previous ‘70s narrative. This new writing avoids portraying the masculine figure as an Ambrosio, character in Rosario Ferré’s short story,”Cuando las mujeres quieren a los hombres,” in which the shadow of a fearsome man gives rise to unanticipated female solidarity. Formed in Paris under the tutelage of Hélène Cixous, Negrón has become an important disseminator of French-style feminism on the Island. This father figure is her own Caribbean re-elaboration of and detour from the theoretical French construct. The memory of the father, absent and yearned after, is the basis that permits the daughter to explore her own pleasure (jouissance).
The absence of the father figure, a recurrent theme in contemporary Caribbean societies, is responded to by the pleasure of the daughter, a narrative situation that differs from that of Papí. Hernández’ text reflects the fury of a deprived youth on the streets of Santo Domingo, brought up in the swamps of Balaguer’s paternalism. Eventually, after becoming successful, this protagonist’s father leads the life of a 40-something rich guy, commuting between the barrio and Miami. In the process, he turns his back on his daughter. Papí is her furious complaint about her father’s abandonment. In this sense, Hernández is in tune with 20th century Puerto Rican women writers, despite the fact that the story clearly takes place in a post-modern 21st century Caribbean context. Far from the fury, the complaints and outbursts of this type of literature, Carta al padrepresents a taking of pleasure in an interior world in each sentence and on each page. The father is only a pretext.
Negrón’s text is only one example of the conversations taking place in this wide-ranging anthology. The volume encompasses social critique, fantasy, the erotic and intimate perspective, and historical fiction. The tones are as diverse as the writers. So are the plots and narrative techniques. However, none of these stories engages in “pamphleteering.” The stories do not seek to invoke “poetic justice.” They simply explore the condition of being a woman in this world, of being a woman in a globalized world that is still deeply patriarchal. “The reason I want to present the women writers is that they (enter into) the culture of globalization from the vantage point of Puerto Rico,” writes Santos-Febrés in her introduction.
According to Santos-Febrés, the texts of these twelve writers are the spines of a sea urchin which “with different rhythms, embed themselves in the unwary skin of Puerto Rican literature.” With her title, Santos-Febrés inscribes and challenges the cultural tradition of the femme fatale and her toothed vagina, giving it a Caribbean twist and vindicating a shrill, irritating and indeed unfathomable image. The sea urchins, like the women writers in this anthology, are creatures that live comfortably and complacently in the environment, but creatures that also are balls of barbed wire. This house of writing opens the way to an immense and often hostile environment in which these sea urchins live, these creature who enter into contact by making themselves felt.
Carmen Oquendo-Villar (www.oquendovillar.com) is a Puerto Rican scholar and artist. She obtained her PhD from Harvard. Her work revolves around issues of media, performance and politics, film and visual culture, as well as gender and sexuality.