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?
My writing frequently explores multicultural themes. Born in Puerto Rico, I moved at a young age to the U.S., where my parents became Pentecostal ministers. Early immersion in Latino and religious cultures preceded later experiences as a businesswoman, a White House Fellow, and life aboard a trawler cruising from Martha’s Vineyard to South America. These sometimes incompatible worlds have given me a respectful outlook toward differing points of view. My short stories, poems, and essays reflect my own inclusive, yet sharply defined, journey across cultural and socioeconomic boundaries. I recently published Peace on the Journey, a poetry collection which explores the theme of renewal in the face of adversity.
The defining image of this blog is a waterfall. Its inspiration comes from a scene in one of my novels in which the infant protagonist escapes her mother’s attention and wanders off to a nearby waterfall. While there, she experiences a mysterious sense of wellbeing, which she yearns to replicate for the rest of her life.
"I have made love to my writing and am now in the afterglow."
"Insist on yourself; never imitate. Your own gift you can present every moment with the cumulative force of a whole life's cultivation; but of the adopted talent of another you have only an extemporaneous half possession... Do that which is assigned to you, and you cannot hope too much or dare too much."
Ralph Waldo Emerson
About his fictional town Macondo, widely acknowledged to be inspired by his real home town of Aracataca, Colombia. “Macondo is not so much a place as it is a state of mind.”
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
"Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle."
"The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers fear."
"The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing."
Blaise Pascal, Pensées
"There is vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action and, because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly... to keep the channel open."