Literature without labels

A commentary a propos Palabras sin velo.

I once asked researcher and essayist Luisa Campuzano up to what point it was positive to differentiate, distance and extract from the literary corpus the literature written by women or related to women. And though the procedure continues to not please me, I recognise as valid the answer given to me by Campuzano at that time: “if the literature written by women is studied apart it is to highlight it, to make it visible.”

Campuzano herself has said that in the case of Cuban literature, the presence of a significant group of women writers with a more or less constant production and unquestionable levels of quality is a rather recent phenomenon that started being made more visible in the mid 1990s and was present with greater force starting 2000, when those voices began to be heard even beyond our borders.

If I bring up this phenomenon it is a propos the book Palabras sin velo (Unveiled Words, Caminos publishers, Havana, 2013), which again insists on grouping together several women writers, perhaps because among us that need referred to by Campuzano, of “making visible” that literature, is still latent.

However, a clarification must be made: Palabras sin velo, by journalist Helen Hernández Hormilla, is not satisfied with giving greater visibility to those writers but also – and above all – allows for them to be heard, to share aesthetic criteria, life experiences and reflections about their place in society, through the interviews that accompany the short stories selected in this book with a difficult classification, while it gathers in one same volume journalism and literature.

Though such names as Ena Lucía Portela (with an already consolidated work) and those of other younger women writers (with a very strong potential) are missing in the book, it could be said that the rapprochement to the 10 chosen women writers to form part of this book makes it possible to get an idea of the courses women’s literary production has followed in the last 20 years.

With the exception of Esther Díaz Llanillo (1934), María Elena Llana (1936) and Mirta Yañez (1947), who published their first books between 1960 and 1970, the rest of the writers started making themselves known in the late 1980s and 1990s. The second group includes Marylín Bobes (1955), Aida Bahr (1958), Nancy Alonso (1949), Laidi Fernández de Juan (1961), Mylene Fernández Pintado (1963), Anna Lidia Vega Serova (1968) and Karla Suárez (1969).

The presence of such a large number of women authors who started publishing or resumed their career during those years, seems to confirm that it was precisely the crisis that resulted from the dissolution of the socialist camp, officially called Special Period, which in some way catalysed the arrival of so many feminine voices to Cuban letters, contributing the treatment of new individual and social conflicts from an almost unprecedented point of view. However, the reading of some of the interviews made by Hormilla helps to understand that that time determined a much deeper and decisive turning point since despite all the gains that the triumph of the revolution had represented for Cuban women, in the social as well as the legal aspect, in the field of creation they also suffered the consequences of a cultural policy that in many senses represented a slowing down for the expression and development of a literature that was considered not related to the canon proposed as appropriate for that historic moment.

Thus Mirta Yañez refers to a certain tendency that was established as hegemonic between the 1960s and 1970s, which postponed the literature that did not adjust to the epic canon, and practically banished fantasy, science fiction and other “usually suspicious subjects,” because they did not adapt to what was supposed to be reflected by a revolutionary writer. That idea is backed by the testimony of Esther Díaz Llanillo and María Elena Llana, who after publishing their first books in the 1960s also felt that their stories of a fantastic tendency or referring to more personal conflicts were out of place and withdrew from the scene to reappear after the end of that grey quinquennium or black decade, which, of course, not only affected women. Marylín Bobes, a writer younger than them, recalls that during the 1970s she attended for the first time a literary workshop and when she finished reading her poems, almost all of them related to feminine questions, sexual freedom and religion, she was told that no one would be interested in her texts and they were full of petit bourgeois prejudices, She confesses that after that experience she tried to write about issues related to workers, thinking that those texts would be better received, but she never achieved this.

I don’t know if women are actually more sensitive than their male fellow beings or if they have fewer reservations in showing their sensitivity. Palabras sin velo investigates the existence (or not) of a feminine sensitivity whose reflection in literature is a differentiating (or not) quality, of the work of women writers. In that sense, there has always been mention of how much writing (conscientiously or not) marks the author’s gender. “Is there a literature written by women, different from the one written by men, precisely because it is written by women?” researcher Campuzano asked herself on a certain occasion. “Or is it about in some way putting into what is written the mark of an attitude about life determined by gender, by society that builds us as men and women, specific colours and customs?” the specialist again asked.

The answer to these questions, as an aesthetic premise or a declaration of principles, is another of the attractions that the reading of this book holds in store. “I write based on what I am and happily I am a woman,” María Elena Llana says. “I am a woman and I can’t imagine myself as a man, I can’t imagine I could write if I were not a woman,” Anna Lidia Vega says. And though there is a difference in age between them of 36 years, they both recognise that their condition as women is inalienable from their identity as women creators. However, this does not imply that their literature must be measured with a different yardstick or a lower standard. For Aida Bahr, for example, there are “characteristics that identify literature written by women, just like those that identify the literature written by Cubans as compared to other nationalities. It is a question of identity.” And further on she concludes: “good literature has no sex.”

As researcher Zaida Capote affirmed once and is made evident in Palabras sin velo, “what is indispensable is to understand that speaking of women’s literature does not imply affecting the values of that literature, but rather the recognition that it comes from generically marked subjects, whose belonging to a specific gender could have had an influence in its selection of subjects or strategies.”

Therefore let the readers not think (without distinction of gender) that we are in the presence of a book only for women. Very much on the contrary, the 10 women writers express, in one way or another, their total resistance to their work having to be consumed under the label of women’s literature. The 10 short stories also included in Helen Hernández Hormilla’s book Palabras sin velo are proof of this. (2014)

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