The Woman Who Knows Latin (Inglés)

By | 1 March 2004

Women writers in Mexico, like women writers the world over, and perhaps I should say all writers the world over, work against a background of many real and potential threats to their freedom of expression.

I have written in the past about women who were victimized by censorship in the ordinary sense of the word, women writers such as Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, who was ordered to cease publishing in 1690 by Manuel Fernández de Santa Cruz, Archbishop of Puebla, Mexico; women writers such as Myrna Mack Chang and Alaíde Foppa, one knifed to death and the other disappeared in Guatemala, silenced for their defense of the indigenous communities; women writers such as María Elena Cruz Varela and Martha Beatriz Roque, who were both imprisoned in Cuba for their writings critical of the government, and a host of other women writers, including Rigoberta Menchú and Claribel Alegría, who have been forced into exile, especially during the period of the Latin American dictatorships of the 70s and 80s. There is no lack of examples of women writers, including the finest, who have suffered all these forms of censorship.

In the last few years the International PEN Women Writers Committee organized two conferences in Guadalajara on Censorship and Self-Censorship. At both of them, I heard the same comment, “Yes, governments and paramilitary groups do horrible things to women writers, but these dangers seem remote compared to what we do to ourselves. The problem that we fight every day is self-censorship.”

So I have begun to study another group of women writers, those for whom censorship comes from their own hearts. This group includes many outstanding women writers who have commited suicide, such as the Latin American writers: Alfonsina Storni, Delmira Agostini, Concha Urquiza, Violeta Parra, Julia de Burgos, Rosario Castellanos and Alejandra Pizarnik. (There are also many North American and European women writers such as: Carolyn Heilbrun, Edith Sodergran, Sylvia Plath, Sara Teasdale, Anne Sexton and Virginia Woolf.)

I don’t care about the forensic details of their deaths. I have included in this list writers whose deaths might not be suicide. Almost all of them died alone; few left explicit suicide notes. Nonetheless, the body of their work confirms their identification with unendurable pain and their obsession with the idea of suicide. I will cite especially the work of Rosario Castellanos.

Suicide is a strange violation of freedom of expression, because perpetrator and victim are the same. But I am used to peculiar twists in investigating women writers. In the 80s, in the first meetings that led to the creation of the International PEN Women Writers Committee, we all noticed that the patterns of censorship women writers reported were different from patterns reported by men. Women writers complained against their governments, but they complained more frequently of members of their own families. One writer, since quite famous, said her husband had burned her first novel. A group from Nepal said they could not write about sex at all for fear their mothers-in-law would think them unfaithful or improper wives.

I think that with the women I am talking about today, I am just going one step further, into the souls of the women themselves. In these cases, there are still difficult husbands, but they don’t do the dirty deeds of censorship directly. Their incomprehension and thousands of years of oppression of women have been taken up into the mind of the woman herself. She becomes her own enemy.

One of the recurrent themes in the poetry of these women writers is pain, unendurable pain.

A haunting song by the Chilean Violeta Parra ends like her life:

I curse the moon, the landscape the valleys and the deserts I curse every one of the dead And the living, from the king to his page the birds with their feathers moreover, I curse both palaces and sacristies pain takes control of me. I curse the word love with all its rubbish, so great is my pain.
[Maldigo del alto cielo]

In Lamentación de Dido, Mexican writer Rosario Castellanos identifies with the character of Dido, queen of Carthage, who commits suicide after Aeneas abandons her. For Castellanos, Dido is pain itself.

Ah, it would be better to die. But I know that for me death is not possible Because pain – and what else am I but pain? – has made me eternal …

What is this pain? It appears in hundreds of the poems of these women. It frequently appears as the pain of rejection or abandonment by a lover:

My name is Dido… Dido the abandoned one, she who put her heart under the axe in a tremendous farewell.

But it is not always tied to a specific event. In El otro, Castellanos suggests that she may simply have a vocation to pain, such as the personality type Dostoevski called “Suffering Souls”:

If life hurts us, if every day arrives Tearing up our entrails, if every night falls convulsed, murdered If we suffer the pain of someone, a person we don’t even know…

But it is not only a vocation for suffering. Castellanos’ emotions also erupt in gratuitous hostility, and the victim is herself.

I am a woman: a title difficult to obtain, in my case, and more useful
for associating with other people than a title
conferred on my name by any academy.

I am more or less ugly. That depends a lot
on the hand that applies the makeup...

In general, I avoid mirrors.
They tell me the same thing: that I dress very badly
and that when I try to flirt with someone 
I just make myself ridiculous.

I live across from a forest. But I almost
never raise my eyes to look at it.

I suffer more from habit, from heredity, 
to avoid distinguishing myself more from others of my sex,
than from any concrete reason.

This poem makes me very uncomfortable. How can I protest a poem? It expresses a feeling; can I protest a feeling? But I do, despite the absurdity of doing so. I protest the misogynistic feeling that inspires it, and that it expresses. I concur instead with another, opposed attitude, expressed by the very same writer in a book of feminist essays in which she criticizes and apparently rejects all the attitudes of society which she uses here to excoriate herself.

The title of that book, Mujer que sabe latín, comes from the popular adage, “Mujer que sabe latín no tiene marido ni tiene buen fin” (A woman who knows Latin neither has a husband nor comes to a good end) – a reflection of the unpleasant atmosphere in which every woman writer in the world has grown up.

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