Women Writers, New Disciplines, and the Canon

Article excerpt

I started late. I was forty-two when I received my Ph.D. in 1979. I had had many lives before I went back to graduate school to study Latin American Literature. Actually going back to graduate school was one of the better things I have done in my life. Not only did I come in contact with exciting ideas and intellectual challenges, the world had changed since I had been in college. Or perhaps I hadn't started so late. Even in college I was struggling against disciplines and against established canons. When I was a senior at Connecticut College for Women in 1959, majoring in Spanish, I decided to write an honors thesis, one of the options the Department allowed. The Head of the Department was a Spaniard, a peninsular specialist whose name shall remain anonymous. He was fond of spending class time talking about how he would drink wine in the cafes of Madrid with such notable writers as Federico Garcia Lorca, Ramon Valle Inclan, and other Spanish writers. You know the type. Of the other two professors in the depa rtment, one was an instructor who taught basic languages because she had never finished her Ph.D. and the other was a Latin Americanist. In his classes, we studied the prominent and often boring writers of the nineteenth and early twentieth century (this was before the great boom in Latin American Literature), and so I read novels by male writers who are virtually unread today. The only women we read were the so-called great "poetesses" (heaven forbid they would be called poets): one poem, "Hombres Necios" by the great seventeenth-century Mexican nun, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, where she chastises men for their infidelities and double standards, and one poem by the early twentieth-century Argentine poet, Alfonsina Storni, where she criticizes men for their infidelities and double standards. Oh, and a great novel Dona Barbara, written by Romulo Gallegos, where the central character is seen as the devourer of men and dies in the end. I never understood why she was so angry at men because the crucial scene, wher e she is raped, had been edited out of the student edition we read. I guess young women at a genteel girl's school should not have known about those things.

Well, because it was an option, I decided to write a thesis ... not about women writers (at the time this would not even have occurred to me) but about two Latin American male poets I considered interesting. Jose Santos Chocano, a mestizo poet from Peru, who sang about the Indians, their culture, and civilization as the founding discourse of the Peruvian nation, and Nicolas Guillen a mulatto poet from Cuba, who wrote about the struggles of Blacks. I did research, wrote my thesis, and was denied honors. Perhaps my thesis was not very good. But the official reason given to me was that Latin American Literature was not on the same level as Peninsular Literature and thus not deserving of study.

Time went on. I was back in graduate school, and one of my first classes at the University of Arizona in 1973 (after the Civil Rights Movement, the Chicano Movement, and the Feminist Movement) was a course, the first of its kind, on Latin American Women Writers. What a revelation! These women were strong and powerful; they wrote poems about things other than men and their infidelities, and they spoke to me. I wrote my dissertation on one of the women, Rosario Castellanos, a fabulous Mexican poet who, as we say in Spanish, "no tenia pelos en la lengua / she had no hairs on her tongue," meaning that she was forthright and said whatever she needed to say. Beyond this revelation in this class, one of my classmates was the Chicana poet Margarita Cota-Cardenas. It was Margarita who invited me to a student poetry reading where she was reading her poems. I had never conceived of such a thing as Chicano literature, but in 1973 this new discipline was fermenting, passionate, revolutionary. And of course, my interest wa s piqued and has never waned. …