The Legacy of BA-Lunda: Black Female Subjectivity in Luz Argentina Chiriboga's Jonatas Y Manuela

Article excerpt

This introductory analysis accompanies my English translation of the first five chapters of Jonatas y Manuela [Jonatas and Manuela] the novel published in 1994 by Ecuadorian writer Luz Argentina Chiriboga, one of the few contemporary Afro-Latin American women novelists whose work has been widely disseminated outside of her country. My discussion of black subjectivity in the novel will center on two aspects: the literary account of the enslavement of one African woman (Ba-Lunda), and the textual recuperation of a black female servant (Jonatas). Jonatas was the life-long companion of Manuela Saenz, a famous participant in the 19th century South American political arena.1 The presence of Luz Argentina Chiriboga on the literary scene is worthy of note, given that women of African descent have been largely absent as writing subjects; further, they have traditionally been depicted in objectified fashion in Latin American literature. The stereotypes of black and mulata women are legendary holdovers, particularly from the negrismo poetic movement, which typically offered linked images of the land and the enslaved women as "hot": sweltering sun and sweat-drenched brows; swaying palm trees and swinging hips. Even in contemporary Latin American prose most representations of black female subjectivity may be found in male-authored texts, for the simple reason that there are very few published works by women novelists of African descent.

Chiriboga drew favorable critical attention with her first novel, Bajo la piel de los tambores [Drums Under My Skin] (1991).2 The work chronicles the experiences of a young mulata character named Rebeca as she undergoes a sexual and political education that enables her to discover how her race and gender function within a variety of social interactions. Chiriboga broke thematic ground with this novel by writing of sexual matters not often treated in Latin American letters from the perspective of a woman of African descent: birth control, marital rape, sexual relations with a priest, and cross-dressing, to name some of the most intriguing subjects. However, as Miriam DeCosta-Willis points out in her excellent study of eroticism in the novel, Rebeca achieves "a kind of sexual freedom" but eventually "surrenders to a bourgeois femininity because she has internalized the socially-sanctioned values of a patriarchal society" (24). Bajo la piel de los tambores is therefore innovative and subversive on one level, but ultimately succumbs to a reification of "passive femininity" in the narrative confines of a traditional female romance novel. Chiriboga's style contributes to this unsettling feeling. For example, she uses commas where one conventionally places full stops or semicolons, which produces a breathless, run-on effect. Rebeca's thoughts about the priest exemplify this style: "Lo contemple de arriba abajo, lo vi mas guapo, mas joven, mas exitante, quise decirle que me gustaba, que no solo Amelia y Aracely tenian el privilegio de recibir sus caricias, y no pude porque Sor Maria de la Concepcion con disimulo nos miraba al pasearse por el jardin" (40) ["I looked him up and down, I saw that he was even more handsome, younger, more exciting, I wanted to tell him I liked him, that not just Amelia and Aracely had the privilege of receiving his caresses, but I couldn't because Sister Maria de la Concepcion was furtively watching us as she walked through the garden"].

In her poetry, Chiriboga cultivates a literary style that evokes the dual nature of her first novel in its subversion and conservatism. Some of her poetic images from La contraportada del deseo [The Other Side of Desire] (1992) could have been borrowed from authors who exploit the familiar depiction of the black woman as an exotic, sensual figure. Many of her metaphors are fairly conventional, such as the body as geographical territory to be conquered, or as edible object to be savored by the male lover. Yet these poetic figures embody femininity and embrace afroethnicity in overt defiance of stereotypes, as if to reclaim a previously appropriated sensuality and desire through dance, music, and other cultural practices. …