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Three— Women, State, and Family in Latin American Literature of the 1920s
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Literary Women

Artistic and intellectual production by women of this period repudiates these perceptions and gives evidence of transforming the tradition of nationalist literature. In the prose fiction of the 1920s and 1930s, a new social body was produced in which women refused their status as "other" and challenged their domestic assignments. As such, this literature initiated a reevaluation of traditionally perceived gender roles while it situated women's activity in opposition to authority. Its goal, then, was to produce an autonomous female subject, one that escapes the deadening effects of a repressive nationalist discourse, and one in which woman resists her status as an object within the


abstract rhetorical programs of men. Literature of this kind provided a clear alternative to avant-garde movements in Latin America and to the masculinist discourse they produced; it challenged the dominant voices of experimental authors such as Girondo and Huidobro. It also answered the nationalist program contained in the mundonovista novels, in which heroes of near-epic stature laid claim to the vast American terrain.

As the salient examples of this kind of modern sensibility in Latin American women writers dating from the 1920s, María Luisa Bombal, Norah Lange, and Teresa de la Parra subverted patriarchal discourse and the ruling logic of traditional writing. Intrinsic to their project, lived experience guides the premises of their narrative fiction. As itinerant intellectuals who embarked upon the traditional grand tour and traveled frequently between Europe and America in search of a better life, these women participated in the life common to Latin American vanguardistas . De la Parra, for example, left her native Venezuela to study and travel in Europe and sustained active transcontinental communication with writers such as Gabriela Mistral. Lange, the "damisela" of the Argentine avant-garde, wife of Oliverio Girondo, friend of the cosmopolitan circle known as the "Florida Street poets," was born into special privilege in Europe before moving to Latin America. Throughout her lifetime, she engaged in dialogue with international elites. Also a writer uprooted, Bombal was, like Lange, privileged. She left her native Chile and spent many of the vanguard years in Argentina and in Europe, where she became an intimate friend of Lange and other women writers.

Together, the fiction of these women reflects the constant displacement or homelessness of the female intellectual, as much as it voices an opposition to the masculinist avant-garde programs. What we see, then, are women who used their status as exiles to resist the containment of an encroaching nationalist rhetoric. They refused the unifying discourse that maintains the female body in place, limiting woman to reproductive functions or domestic labor. Indeed, almost as a correlative of the anarchist activities described earlier, women writers engaged in a series of deconstructive challenges in which discourses were multiplied and the sites of meaning released from their compartmentalized frames, no longer anchored by male prerogatives in the literary or social domain.

Accordingly, in the writings of these women, narrative situation, structure, and the position of character disregard the masculine attention to birthright, inheritance, and linear order and clearly repudiate the nationalist program. Multiple voices participate in the structuring of fiction, until finally characters find themselves dismissing any identity as unified subjects. In order to sustain this rebellion, feminine heroines, first of all, repudiate any fixed point of origin. Female migration, travel, and orphanhood or abandonment thus provide the motivation for women's fiction of the 1920s. Alone or on the road in search of adventure, the new heroine renounces family and


starts life anew. Like their authors, who traveled extensively between Europe and America, the female protagonists of Latin American avant-garde fiction use homelessness to their advantage and finally unleash themselves from domestic constraints by refusing any heterosexual commitments.

The novel of orphanhood is particularly interesting in the feminist context. It has been suggested frequently that family relationships and particularly the role of the father stand at the center of all activity in fiction.[30] Marthe Robert has observed that the modern novel is in fact a tale about orphans, of lost heroes in search of their parents or surrogate figures of authority.[31] In this respect, the question of the father is essentially one of absence, in which the hero or heroine sets about the task of relocating the missing parent. To put it more directly, the dead father initiates society in the novel; his true status is revealed in the trace of his absence. As such, the novel seeks to piece together fragments of reality in order to strive toward a coherent whole, a unified vision of reality in which the hero finds his destiny by reconstructing his past. The mundonovista narrative that I have described in earlier pages indeed attempts to replicate that quest for a coherent text. Fabio Cáceres, at the close of Don Segundo Sombra , learns of his true identity and brings order to his life through an identified father; Santos Luzardo eliminates Doña Bárbara and marries Marisela in the end, thus suggesting a parallel between the romance mode in fiction and the renewed possibility of an improved and civilized "family of man."

The feminine example, however, is designed to repudiate all models of authority, to unleash the heroine from the bondage of rules and the constraints of romance. Moreover, the feminist model for fiction decidedly strays from the paternal search. No longer is the father a model who asserts his symbolic authority in fiction; in fact, the daughters in these novels of orphan-hood repudiate his influence. Accordingly, the family replacements and surrogates who are sought are drawn not from hierarchical or vertical relationships but from the peers of the protagonist. In this respect, the demise of a father-child relationship calls an end to a certain kind of entrapment registered in the signifying experience; as a discursive act, it ends a clearly repressive gesture and disperses stable meanings or associations throughout the text.

Thus, a new symbolizing mode was inaugurated in fiction. Endowed with fewer stable meanings and now replete with contradictions and echoes, the texts produced in the feminized mode announce their own ambiguity. They register plural narrative voices that challenge all linearity, they insist on a self-referential vagueness, which consumes all marks of difference. As if to challenge the authority invested in a single, hierarchical bond between father and child, the feminine mode in narrative disperses all centralized power. In the modernist texts under consideration, this project has consequential importance, observable in the reformulation of female identity, in the recon-


struction of an inherited symbolic tradition, and finally in the defiance of canonical literary order.

In the novels of Bombal, Lange, and de la Parra, nameless heroines wander about bereft of parental protection while also lacking the burden of children who might inhibit their freedom of activity. Disinherited from any family properties, they encounter a new freedom that permits them to restructure their social world along with their worlds of discourse. Their frequently described anonymity, moreover, allows them to escape the burden of official sanctions or formal institutions that might constrain their activities. But orphanhood also supplies a vantage point outside of history from which one may evaluate questions of genealogy and the laws that govern the family. Thus, if the history of the traditional family is unilinear and without disruption, in these feminist novels the heroines elect disorder. They reject the discipline of the family along with its structures of repression and choose, instead, a less clearly defined course of action. This new space, along with a revised definition of the traditional family, allows them to challenge the rule of the paterfamilias and to initiate an independent path as literary creators or artists. The "portrait of the artist" novel, so important to the modernist tradition, acquires an interesting twist in the hands of women writers, as they situate all artistic work of their heroines beyond the economic circuits of exchange. Neither compensated financially nor publicly recognized for their achievements as artists or writers, the protagonists of these feminist texts withdraw their artistic production from the exchange system controlled by men.

This is especially evident in de la Parra's novel Ifigenia , where the protagonist, orphaned in the world, attempts to make sense of her rights of inheritance.[32] Some have commented on the curious autobiographical element in de la Parra's work, insofar as it reflects the life of wandering preferred by the author, who traveled between Europe and America on countless intellectual adventures. Her contacts with other women intellectuals from Latin America, among them Gabriela Mistral and Lydia Cabrera, created a secure world of letters, nurtured by thoughtful debate and dialogue.[33] In her fictions, de la Parra reproduced the female bonding that characterized her own intellectual life. In Ifigenia , for example, the heroine, fresh from Europe, joins with other women characters in the novel to test the dominant rules that qualify male privilege. The protagonist thus abandons Paris after the death of her father and takes up a new life in America in the custody of her grandmother and other female relatives. It becomes clear that the women characters are of different persuasions, the elders representing domestic tendencies while the young protagonist, María Eugenia, struggles for her freedom. Yet the independent spirit of these women, all left without an inheritance, elevates the spirit of the novel and provides the nucleus of narrative development.


Life without father, although his death is the source of María Eugenia's initial despair, provides the impulse for a first creative liberation. It allows her to come to terms with herself and to challenge symbolic authority in art and life; equally important, this challenge is realized through her experiments in writing, observable in her journals and acts of her imagination. These artistic impulses are made possible through her female alliances, especially in the case of the journal annotations, which are first prompted by an intimate friend.

But what, in fact, is the social status of this artistic production? The election of the epistolary tradition creates a curious effect upon the modern reader, who realizes that the letters presented are not organized for public distribution or for a market of exchanges. They are meant only for a single reading, as intimate confidences shared with another friend. Consequently, as a privatized text, a minor expression in the field of print culture, the journal survives as a document that will refuse to engage in society. In addition, this diary, which stands as a testimonial to self, provides a curious contrast to the ironically omniscient narration that introduces each chapter of the book, thus inserting hybrid readings into the novel as a whole. A halfway house between fiction and reality, the journal invites us to investigate the boundaries that separate fantasy and lived experience within the space of narration.

It might be possible to regard Ifigenia as an unsuccessful bildungsroman if we consider María Eugenia's failure to marry as a sign of her arrested maturation.[34] But I take this as the author's refusal to engage in the consequences of linear narrative. In that way, the story stands in defiance of the common expectations of the life stories of women. Indeed, as a novel that inserts irreparable conflicts in the strategy of the bildungsroman. Ifigenia announces a resistance. In the first place, the bildungsroman is never completely realized: Ifigenia' s heroines abandon romance to pursue their own identity interests; they upset both the linear structure of narrative and the constancy of accumulation. Problems in the early sections of the novel never find resolution in the end. In addition, de la Parra's work represents an overlapping of genres. It is hardly a quest novel, for its objectives are never fully achieved. Nor is it clearly within the structure of romance, for Ifigenia collapses the programs of differing genres by refusing to supply a neat conclusion. There is a conflict between dominant discourse and the feminized discourse of the novel. Feminized novels like de la Parra's fiction are imbued with a language of refusal. Prolonged, nondiscursive pauses permeate the text; madness, silence, and nonverbal spaces offer a challenge to linearity.[35]

Similarly, other fiction works by Spanish American women of the period intersperse discursive narration with musically oriented texts; white noise permeates conversation, while gossip and banal exchanges undermine authoritative narration; a constant, irreducible mist occludes the space of narration. This kind of activity in fiction creates a timeless zone in which


narration, sequential order, and logical association are momentarily brought to a halt. It also serves as a specific challenge to the reigning logic of bourgeois perception. In this way, feminist modernism undermines the social ideology of the 1920s without falling into the gratuitous challenges that so often mark the avant-garde experiment.

In novels of this kind, the domestic sphere is never left intact; in fact, the space of the home is subject to constant erosion. This is apparent, for example, in Bombal's La última niebla , which begins with a description of the invasive rain that leaks through the roof of the protagonist's country estate.[36] Nature erodes the home that has held the heroine captive; throughout the novel, the family is seen as an adversary of the peaceful tranquillity of nature. Indeed, in La última niebla , as in the life of the author herself, there is no desired "room of one's own"; rather, the protagonist seeks to escape the house that has inhibited her freedom. Fantasy, then, assists her in her flight from the domestic sphere. Seen in this way, Bombal's novel suggests that liberation may exist for those who can step outside the constraints of the real. Other writers have shared this view: the Argentine Raquel Adler described the fantasies of mystical experience; the novelist Sara de Etcheverts described her character's interludes away from home in images reminiscent of the futurist appeal to flight and movement.[37]

The heroine who successfully escapes from the home finds fulfillment in female bonding, a camaraderie established among women to the exclusion of the masculine sphere. Even more than the novels of de la Parra, those of Bombal emphasize this same-sex bonding as a form of freedom for women. In the novels where Bombal emphasizes marriage and heterosexual fantasy, she still insists that the only plausible relationship is the bonding between female friends. Once again, La última niebla communicates this strategy insofar as the protagonist seeks the support of her secret comrade, Regina. Because of its strength as a secondary text, this clandestine relationship manages to undermine the heterosexual dynamic of the novel. It provides the heroine a source of identity, encoded by reference to musical notation or the visual fantasy of dreamlike experiences. Moreover, this gesture toward a symbolic system that escapes linearity provides an alternative to the historically determined relations of submission and domination which the women have sustained with their husbands.

Female friendship of this kind is often the subtext of women's modernist fiction. This is noted in the prose of British and North American writers—Djuna Barnes, Gertrude Stein, and Virginia Woolf principal among them—for whom an authentically feminist version of modernism is constructed by doing away with the presence of men. Rarely celebrated by critics of literature, this feature of modernism nonetheless offers the real possibility of structural subversion in the modern novel by destroying the stability of the family unit, which often passes as a metaphor for the novel itself.


The case of de la Parra's novel Las memorias de Mamá Blanca is interesting in this respect for, although the family described in the novel is organized by an authoritarian father, the scene of writing and the dialogue that gives the novel its structure are controlled exclusively by Mamá Blanca and the young, anonymous raconteur.[38] The spiritual affinities among the women are given special privilege in the novel in contrast to the masculine world, which invokes questions of inheritance and social prestige. In addition, a pact is established among these two women which draws connections between teller and listener, between the logic of an imagined discourse and the authority of narrative fiction in general.

It has been noted often that in Woolf's novel To the Lighthouse the real relation of value is not that of Mrs. Ramsey and her husband but that of the protagonist and Lily Briscoe, the artist, in their secret dialogue.[39] This bond between characters stirs the discursive situation to emphasize the visual mode of Lily over the linear, philosophical mode of Mr. Ramsey. The shift in emphasis from verbal to visual discourse is similarly enacted in Latin American feminist texts, which often represent the bonding among women as part of a revolt against the logic of language.

The Argentine writer Lange in her novel Los dos retratos offers a useful example of this kind of narrative problem.[40] In this novel, the heroine, orphaned from her natural parents, seeks the consolation of distant aunts, who provide her with a controversial account of her inherited family history. Not having lived through these experiences, she is obliged to reconstruct family traditions through the hearsay of older relatives, who provide an element of distortion and misrepresentation to the narrative. These women guide her through a series of family portraits, so that the visual element in narrative provides an alternative to family lore. The paintings insert the possibility of a double reading in fiction and multiply the temporal markers with which we come to terms with any narrative history. Drawing a comparison between interior and exterior spaces, between framed and unlimited visions, the paintings create a double vision of reality that cannot be reduced to a single image. By extension, the heroine becomes freed from her traditional view of self as a coherent subject within history. Thus, the search for a "room of one's own"—indeed, for a space in the family—begins with a reconstitution of the domestic scenario that emphasizes the feminine impulses toward community.

Lange's literary experiments against stable forms of authority also have a peculiar structural correlative. As I argued earlier, Los dos retratos is about the reproduction of portraiture and the questioned stability of the past. The author tests the static limitations of any form of representation by invoking a hallucinatory realm, or a descriptive sphere without recourse to linear order. By this act of disruption, the portraits call a halt to the family romance in progress; paradoxically, they cancel the search for the father that might have


motivated the fiction in the first place. In this manner, the novel simultaneously questions the symbolizing process and breaks open the cluster of meanings and images previously fixed in a unified manner.

The family, the home, and the logos of patrimonial authority are all suspect in the avant-garde fictions of Latin American women. Because these structures served to hamper their freedom rather than offer them solace, women writers used these themes and images to question traditional restrictions imposed by society. At the same time, this challenge to the legal status of the female self involved a reevaluation of conventional definitions of the body. Thus, the female body described in feminine avant-garde fiction is not a vehicle of reproduction or an object of masculine desire. Rather than representing the female body as victim of the destructive effects of patriarchy, these writers celebrated the woman's body for its independence. In fact, their protagonists are usually childless and without male companions. Their bodies, moreover, bespeak fragmentation and exuberant disorder. In short, they refuse to collaborate with the demands of the masculine imagination. Consequently, the body of woman is often presented with an attention to minute detail, such that the composite form is all but lost to the reader.

In de la Parra's Las memorias de Mamá Blanca , for example, detailed attention is given to the hair and clothing of characters in order to emphasize the contrived artificiality of women's sphere. Far from corroborating the mythical schema in which women reproduce nature, de la Parra's novel offers the feminine as an alteration of nature, a forceful transformation of the presumably untainted realm of women's beauty. In other cases, the female figures described in the fictions of the 1920s are presented as ill and lymphatic, and at physical odds with their environment. The only way in which their bodies are restored to salubrious integrity is through a successful liberation from their conventional roles with men. Even in La última niebla by Bombal, the doublings and mirror reflections of the heroine's body upon the body of her alter ego challenge the single-lens optics with which woman is traditionally regarded. The pluralized body thereby comes to represent an act of creative resistance; in its fractures or mirror reflections, it eludes a single source of identity. Consequently, in the avant-garde novels of Bombal, Lange, and Parra the female body is reclaimed as an independent presence.

Women's fiction of the 1920s is marked by these countless acts of narrative resistance as if to offer a challenge to the symbolic traditions within literary history. The domestic sphere is exploded with new possibilities for representation; symbols of the feminine are inverted, and the discursive-arrangements in narrative are restructured. In Bombal's short story "El árbol," included in La última niebla , the tree that serves as a central metaphor for the regeneration of life ceases to stand in alliance with the world of women; nature, as a traditional analogue of the feminine, is viewed here as a hostile, unsympathetic adversary. And while Bombal strives to break the


analogy between woman and nature, she simultaneously removes her female characters from the repression of any dominant logos. In La última niebla , for example, the mist that enshrouds the protagonist bears no real relationship to any identifiable signifying system. Alternately described by critics as an invitation to a surrealist dream state and a withdrawal by the heroine from her milieu, the mist nevertheless stands as an ambiguous, undecipherable blind spot in Latin American narrative; it breaks all attempts at linearity and refuses to accommodate itself to any binary logic. Like the music, dream states, and visual discourses of the fictions mentioned earlier in this essay, the mist described by Bombal refuses a single interpretation; it inserts heterogeneity into the novel, as if to unravel the neatened fabric of any single pattern of meaning. As such, it creates a new locus for the activities of the imagination.

This ambiguity and multiplicity in fiction by women carries rich suggestions for writing. Literature by women of the 1920s provides a new definition of gender within the structure of the family; and, insofar as equivalents had been drawn previously between the family and the national good, women's literature challenges nationalist discourse as well. Put another way, the feminine in literary discourse now stands in opposition to conventional treatments of the domestic sphere and the patriotic mandate. In addition, as these writers propose new definitions of the feminine—seeking an autonomous subject relieved of the weight of tradition—they invite serious speculation about the possibility of a feminist version of modernism. Insofar as writers like Bombal, Lange, and Parra question the process of representation in fiction, they also engage in the major challenges of the avant-garde. But the feminist response goes further by responding to the assumptions of writing in the masculine tradition. Their writing opens narrative space for radically new discursive practices; by identifying alternative forms of disruption that modify the symbolic tradition in letters, women's writing thus brings into question the problematic status of gender hidden in the texts of the canonical avant-garde.

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Three— Women, State, and Family in Latin American Literature of the 1920s
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