does not describe me fully
it is where to start

Friday, June 25, 2010

Cultural Identity – Speaking "Bilingual"

The language purists among you may not want to read further as you might be scandalized. I am proposing that for those of us who are bilingual, speaking in both languages within the same conversation is not only acceptable but also may be the most optimal way to communicate.

On the phone with my cousin the other day, we found ourselves speaking at different times in Spanish; at other times, in English. We would complete two or three sentences in one language and then follow with two or three in the other. Only after shifting to the other language would I suddenly become aware of the shift. The transition had been that seamless and unconscious.

It was a fun conversation. It was as if my cousin and I shared a private code which freed us to be natural with each other. We didn’t have to confine ourselves to a given language box. Indeed, one of the reasons speaking that way is so rewarding is that it is the only time I can reflect fully in my speech my specific life story. I came to the US from Puerto Rico at a very young age, after which I spoke only Spanish at home and in church, while at school I only spoke English. The two tracks remained essentially parallel, and to a large extent, except in conversations like the one with my cousin, they remain so today.

I am not proposing that we stop honoring the syntax of each language when in a monolingual setting. I believe in mastering the grammar and vocabulary of each language, and it is only polite to be place appropriate. Though I am sometimes guilty of this, I also try to avoid a language shift within the same sentence. However, when two people fluent in the same languages are conversing, why not take advantage of the greater supply of vocabulary and grammatical structures available?

Literature will inevitably reflect this. One of the things I found appealing about the Pulitzer-Prize-winning The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz was his seamless incorporation of different languages and styles of speech: colloquial versus learned diction, English versus Spanish, science fiction/comic book language versus regular English. Díaz seemed to recognize that language can no longer be defined by the classroom. It is a lived language. In our increasingly culturally fungible world, this will likely result in more variety and freedom in our modes of expression. At least I hope so.

Friday, June 18, 2010

A Hero’s Journey – Literature's Forgotten Older Woman

In literature, and in life, older women are often lumped into the crone category, desiccated and asexual. Brazilian author Clarice Lispector says it well in her short story, “Looking for Some Dignity.” “… she was dry, like a dried fig …. In old men she had seen many lecherous eyes. But not in old women. Out of season.”

Lespector then says: “But inside she wasn’t parched. On the contrary. Inside she was like moist gums ... And she was alive, as if she were someone, she who was no one [in old age].” The latter refers to the invisibility that also often comes with age for women. Indeed, Lispector’s short story describes a frustrating succession of efforts by the 70-year-old Mrs. Jorge B. Xavier to free herself from the physical, mental, and emotional labyrinths in which, as an old woman, she finds herself trapped. In the end, she fantasizes about romance with a famous young male singer, but asks herself whether it might “… perhaps be repugnant [for him] to kiss the mouth of an old woman?” Demoralized by that possibility, she declares, “there!—has!—to!—be!—a!—way!—out!”

You might ask why I have included this subject as part of my A Hero’s Journey series in this blog. Ah, you say, a crone who is also sensual has pulled off an amazing feat! For that alone, she could be considered heroic. Perhaps, but I am also writing about the older woman/crone in her capacity as the “main character in a fictional plot,” one of the definitions of the word hero.

I was also motivated to write about this subject after seeing an older woman described as “a woman of a certain age.” I then started to survey short stories, mostly, and discovered that, apart from mythology and fantasy, the older woman/crone as a positive figure is largely absent. The literary landscape is full of dewy ingénues, mothers, virgins, wives, and whores but, as in real life, a woman past her supposed sexual prime tends toward invisibility.

There are some notable exceptions. In Chaucer’s 14th century Canterbury Tales, the bawdy Wife of Bath is unapologetically lusty. But, even she, who has wed five different husbands, acknowledges the repulsion her latest, younger husband feels about her. “You say I’m old and fouler than a fen.” Despite that, with the emotional wisdom perhaps only an older woman could have acquired, she manages to overcome his repugnance.

In Milan Kundera’s “Let the Old Dead Make Room for the Young Dead,” a younger man tries to convince an older woman to make love to him fifteen years after their one-time tryst. She, though, is afraid both of what her son will think (“…the idea that his mother could still have a sex life disgusted him”) and of what her lover will think (“…if he got her to make love it would end in disgust…”)

Here are some other delightful stories which focus on the older woman breaking out of her archetypal confines. In “Sophie and the Angel” by Cuban author Dora Alonso, the 80-year-old and ultra-religious Sophie engages in flirtation, and perhaps more, with a supposed male angel, scandalizing her family and priest. In Costa Rican author Rima Vallbona’s “The Secret World of Grandmama Anacleta,” a nonagenarian grandmother bursts out of her long-time bed confinement and goes bowling because someone gifts her with bowling balls (thereby acknowledging her as a vibrant person). Margaret Atwood’s “Hair Jewelry” is poignant in its description of the conflicted feelings an older woman has when she comes across a former lover from her youth.

The crone in mythology, literature, and real life presents a complex subject worthy of exhaustive academic treatment. This post is obviously not that. It is merely my attempt to redress an historical imbalance by including the older woman/crone in a pantheon of heroes, where I believe she rightfully belongs. I would love to hear from you about any examples you have of the crone/older woman in literature. Actually, I would welcome any insights you have, related or not to literature.


Short Stores by Latin American Women: The Magic and the Real, edited by Celia Correas de Zapata
Beyond the Border: A New Age in Latin American Women’s Fiction, edited by Nora Erro-Peralta and Caridad Silva-Nuñez
The Art of the Tale: An International Anthology of Short Stories, edited by Daniel Halpern
The CanterburyTales, translated by Nevill Coghill

Other A Hero’s Journey Posts:

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Secret in Their Eyes

The Oscar-winning Best Foreign Film The Secret in Their Eyes is characterized by many reviewers as a crime thriller. Pay scant attention to that. While this brilliant film has a crime which needs to be solved, it is also a haunting psychological drama about obsession, justice, retribution, and love. It is a nuanced vehicle for examining the role a singular passion plays in transforming otherwise empty and ordinary lives.

Here is a brief summary of this superbly acted film, whose original title is El Secreto de Sus Ojos. Set in Argentina, starting in 1974, the film’s inciting incident is the brutal rape and murder of a young woman. Her disconsolate banker husband, unable to come to terms with her death, daily visits a rotation of train stations, believing her murderer must some day pass through there. A Justice Department agent starts an investigation that, despite setbacks and false arrests, he cannot stop thinking about, even in retirement 25 years later. In that time, the husband, too, cannot sever the hold his beloved Liliana still holds over him. Along the way, the true murderer, betrayed by his eyes in a photograph, is caught, only to be released by cynical government forces who turn a blind eye as the murderer wreaks revenge. Told in a series of flashbacks with surprising twists, this is ultimately a poignant portrayal of three love stories: that of the widower and his late wife, the agent and his Ivy-League-educated female boss, and the platonic one between the agent and his alcoholic work colleague/friend.

In Spanish with English subtitles, the movie is based on Argentine novelist Eduardo Sacheri's The Question in Her Eyes. For me, it was a delightful return to hearing again the unique Buenos Aires accent and idiom, but I wondered if the subtitles could truly capture the fast-paced dialogue and Argentine slang. My husband, though, enjoyed the movie immensely despite his only modest comprehension of Spanish. This tale of the tension between love and fear will surely linger with you for a very long time.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Water As Leit Motif

Is there a leit motif in your life and in your writing? Mine is water. Indeed, the defining image of this blog is a waterfall. Its inspiration comes from a scene in one of my novels in which the young 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. My other novels also feature important scenes on or near water. I have written a short story collection whose common thread is living on boats. So water is an important theme in my writing.

It is also a recurring theme in my life. I have mostly lived within sight or walking distance of large bodies of water. I am in awe of desert panoramas and have joyously hiked mountain trails but my deepest self is drawn to water. Is this because I was born on an island?

The real estate market usually attaches a premium to waterfront property, suggesting that the desire to be within sight of water is common. I’m sure historical reasons (like being next to trade routes), environmental (air quality), and prestige of location et al. can account for this desire. Or is there something else at play here? Since we are as much as 78 % water, is it a matter of like yearning toward like? We spend our gestation in a liquid-filled amniotic sac, so are we just yearning towards our origins?

Moving away from hard science, some ancient religions have deities with water identification. In the African Ifá religion and its Western syncretistic variants like santería, each person is thought to be intrinsically a “daughter” or “son” of a particular deity. Does my predilection for water suggest I could be a daughter of Yemayá, a deity associated with water? Interesting thought.

And that is where I will have to leave this post, at the level of interesting thoughts. I don’t have any answers. I simply observe and wonder, particularly at myself for what seem to be instinctual responses I have not consciously generated and do not fully understand.

I would love to know if you have a leit motif in your life and in your writing.