does not describe me fully
it is where to start

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Madam And The Courtesan

Recently, Liz Vega introduced me to Mayra Santos-Febres novel, Our Lady of the Night. Set in early-to-mid-twentieth-century Puerto Rico, Nuestra Señora de la Noche tells the story of Isabel La Negra, a legendary madam. Though black, she penetrates the heart of Puerto Rican aristocracy through the men who frequent her brothel. Overcoming the obstacles of color, early poverty, and her profession, she revels in becoming a powerful, independent woman. That power comes at tremendous cost, including giving up sight unseen her son at birth. Honoring a type of woman usually stepped on or ignored in historical accounts, Mayra Santos-Febres’ novel recounts Puerto Rican modern history from the standpoint of:

“… that dark corner of the hidden Whore who pushes out the bastard nation.” [“… ese rincón oculto de la Puta escondida que puja a la nación bastarda.”]

In my own novel The Old Prophet’s House, set in late twentieth-century Chicago, courtesan Charlyn Blake also revels in her independence. A schoolteacher in her regular life, she conceals from her grandfather, a conservative Episcopalian minister, that she is also the kept woman of a wealthy lawyer.

"Her hand fell on the old Bible on the seat next to her. She stroked its worn leather cover, soft like chamois, the repository of Blake family history; its official history, because it sure didn’t include its secrets."

Charlyn has two big secrets. The open secret is Charlyn’s life style which, except for Grampa, everyone knows about, but which no one publicly acknowledges. The greater secret is the son Charlyn gave up at birth. The unrepentant Charlyn tells herself:

"I couldn’t care less about redemption, Grampa. And I still don’t apologize for having been a mistress, only that you might have found out about it. For that matter, I don’t want power, except to control my own life."

Both Isabel la Negra and Charlyn put up a resolute front. In the end, though, each tracks down the son given up at birth, acknowledging the deep tear in their psyche occasioned by that early choice. I wonder if both Santos-Febres and I succumbed to cultural pressure to portray these two characters as failed women, salvageable only through reneging on their original choice to give up a child. Or were we simply acknowledging the reality of what sometimes happens when a mother abandons a child? Did we honor our characters or did we fail them in the end? Would they be grander, more memorable characters if they continue living with impunity? Do they actually live with impunity?

I remind myself that I did not intend to write about every courtesan who gives up a child, only about my fictional character Charlyn Blake. I suspect Mayra Santos-Febres also did not intend to write about every whore or madam in Puerto Rico. The relevant question should be, Did we honor the characters we set out to write? In my case, I won’t know the full verdict until my readers weigh in. As for Santos-Febres, she made me care deeply about her character and also taught me something about Puerto Rican history. Dare I ask more from a novelist?


~PakKaramu~ said...

Visiting your blog

Ann Victor said...

Very interesting questions you've raised Judith. When one thinks of the esteem in which the Hetaera of Ancient Greece and the Japanese Geishas - both hugely talented and gracious women who happened to offer sex as part of their services to the clients - one has to question if the modern world's puritanical mores have unjustly condemned professional courtesans. Can't wait to read The Old Prophet's House - all your characters are marvellously multifaceted.

Viva Liz Vega! said...

I'm glad you liked Mayra Santos-Febres. I look forward to reading The Old Prophet's House.

A Cuban In London said...

To me a writer is not a reporter so when you write about characters who might be similar to real people you have to bear in mind that you're neither condoning or condemning what they did. This is harder to understand for us the readers, but understand it we must. If you write about late 20th century Chicago is from the point of view of a writer WRITING ABOUT LATE 20TH CENTURY CHICAGO, not reporting it. So, any duty you might feel, at least in my view, better to discard it. The only element to which you ought to be faithful is your narrative.

Yesterday's The Guardian brought a beautiful, articulate and very well written column by Hilary Mantel, the winner of the Booker Prize 2009. Please, do read it,, the Review Section. Its mix of humour and eartnestness has made seek out Hilary's novels now. I'm sorry I haven't got a better link to give you.

What a fabulous and in-depth post this was. Many thanks.

Greetings from London.

Stephanie Thornton said...

Very interesting post! It's sometimes hard to do characters' stories justice, isn't it? But I'd like to read both books- you've intrigued me!

Judith Mercado said...

Liz: I hope you get to read The Old Prophet's House too.

Cuban in London: thanks for the Hilary Mantel lead. I'm going to look for it now.

Stephanie: I hope that my Prophet book will be on your shelf sometime in the foreseeable future ... I just have to talk to the publishing gods and see if they'll humor me.

A Cuban In London said...

It's funny that I mentioned the word 'duties' in my comment because that's what Zadie Smith addresses in this week's instalment from her 15-part series.

Greetinsg from London.

Kathryn Magendie said...

Hey- thanks for the tips on getting the facebook/twitter thingee widget on my blog! it worked .. :) now gonna click yours :)