Sunday, September 06, 2009

Mayra Santos-Febres and Our Lady of the Night

Our Lady of the Night by Mayra Santos-Febres
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Pub. Date: August 2009
9780061731303 368pp

Liz Vega

As I become wiser in the ways of the world, I find myself being
drawn more and more to irreverent poets, those that do not put brakes to the velocity and intensity of feelings that their words create. A fierce poet I admire and whose words I love to hear aloud is Mayra Santos-Febres. Let me here introduce La Bloga readers who are not familiar with this woman to one of the most vibrant voices among contemporary Caribbean, Latin American writers.
I met Santos-Febres when she was a visiting professor at Cornell and I bought her poetry book, Anamú y Manigua. Mayra, as you can see from the picture, is stunning, or as they say in Spanish, una mujer despampanante. She is the image that Caribbean music conjures up and when she walks into a room you want to know who she is. I will confess that I first bought her poetry book simply because I was drawn to her but I fell in love with her writing from the first stanza,

Sale a darle clemencia al universo
a su lado
se coagula toda bruma
en paralela negritud:
mi abuela
reordena el caos nómada
de todas las mañanas
cuando todavía no bullen
sus deliberadas tetas opíparas
de querer atrapar el escándalo
y volverlo hojas secas para barrer

She goes out to give mercy to the universe
at her side
the mist is all around
in parallel negritude:
my grandmother
reorders the nomadic chaos
of every morning
when her puposeful ample breasts
still do not seethe from wanting to trap the scandal
and turn it like dried leaves for sweeping up

This particular verse is just a small snippet, the entire book is about women in the life of Santos-Febres. She is a writer that venerates and loves her African roots and talks about the inherent problems of Puerto Rican society that denies or doesn't give its proper place to that part of its history.

Those first words that captivated me were written in 1990. Since then Santos-Febres has gone on to become a Guggenheim fellow and recipient of a number of literary awards. She has penned many short stories and novels, her latest is Nuestra Señora de la Noche (2006). It has just been translated into English as, Our Lady of the Night, and is available through Harper Perennial. I read this book in Spanish and while I have never read her in translation I peeked at some of the English excerpts and I am sure it will not disappoint.

Our Lady of the Night, is the story of Isabel Luberza Oppenheimer, better known as Isabel, La Negra, an important figure in Puerto Rican folklore and mythology. In a raw, sensual, prose Mayra Santos-Febres tells us the story of Doña Isabel, a black woman who through her brothel became one of the most powerful, respected and feared women in her town. A feat made even more impressive by the fact that she came out of nothing, was abandoned as a little girl and had to work as a maid, seamstress, even a liquor bootlegger. Mayra Santos-Febres uses multiple voices to depict a 1940's Puerto Rican society that is fragmented by race, class and socio-economic status. She gives us an accurate reflection of the social composition of the times, the hypocritical morality of the upper classes and the struggle of the poor to overcome their circumstances. By the end of the book, the reader has a complete story, that encompasses the different point of views of different characters and different times.

In a sociological context, Our Lady of the Night is a case study of the collision that happens when the primal urges of the tropical Caribbean come in contact with the materialistic American way of life. In another context, to use a frame of reference with which I am all too familiar, it is a kick-ass novela love story with an atypical heroine, fiercer even than Rubí, a telenovela protagonist who also gives up and denies herself the love of a man for the ambition of power.

One of the voices in the narration of Our Lady of the Night, sounded at times, like a prayer or like a Plena, the genre of music that like the Mexican corrido tell the stories of occurences that touch the imaginations of the people in a political, religious, social tone. Incidentally, Plena also has its originis in the same part of Ponce where Isabel La Negra lived. I was fascinated by Isabel's story much like I was fascinated by Arturo Perez-Reverte's La Reina Del Sur, which also became a corrido by Los Tigres Del Norte. Both of these women are characters feared and admired who are able to move in male-dominated spheres, like prostitution and drug-trafficking.

Isabel Luberza's story is one that has captivated other writers like Rosario Ferré. In 1974, Ferré wrote a short story*about two women, Isabel Luberza and Isabel La Negra, one white and one black, one the wife and one the mistress. In this story like in Buñuel's That Obscure Object of Desire, two different women are part of the whole. Ferré's story is an exploration of the duality of woman and the juxtaposition of the whore and the lady, carnal love and divine love, and the bonding that occurs so that one eventually becomes the other.

Ultimately, what I realized in reading Our lady of the Night is that Isabel Luberza Oppenheimer's story is the story of Puerto Rico and its relationship as a colony, a commonwealth to the U.S. and I can't help but quote Mayra Santos-Febres in an interview on her blog:
"Además, tengo ganas de decirte una cosa terrible, decirte "en todas las historias de las naciones hay una puta fundadora". Pienso en Evita Perón, en las madres fundadoras de la nación norteamericana, la mayoría putas. Pienso en La Malinche , mujer vendida como cosa a Cortés. Me gusta pensar en la historia desde esa perspectiva, no desde la del "padre" legítimo de la patria,o desde la Madre sufrida que pare al pueblo legítimo y soberano; sino desde ese rincón oculto de la Puta escondida que puja a la nación bastarda."

I searched for an accurate translation of this quote and was unable to find one, so here's my best rendition:

Besides, I want to tell you a terrible thing, tell you " in all of the histories of nations there is a founding whore". I'm thinking about Evita Peron, about the founding mothers of the northamerican nation, the majority were whores. I'm thinking about la Malinche, woman that was sold like a thing to Cortes. I like to think of history from that perspective, not from that of the legitimate "father" of the country or from the suffering mother that births the legitimate and sovereign people; but from that occult corner of the hidden whore that pushes out a bastard nation.

To learn more about Mayra Santos-Febres

*Ferré, Rosario. "Cuando las mujeres quieren a los hombres." In Papeles de Pandora, 23-38. Mexico: Joaquín Mortiz, 1976. ISBN 9682701066


Anonymous said...

"that occult corner of the hidden whore that pushes out a bastard nation"--
I love that, Liz!


Viva Liz Vega! said...

Hi Rudy, I love that line too and it's even better in Spanish:

"...desde ese rincón oculto de la Puta escondida que puja a la nación bastarda."

Too bad I couldn't think of an equally strong word for puja in English.

msedano said...

Thank you for turning me on to a poet and novel I'd not yet seen. Muy interesting. I discover the Pasadena Library system has several publications by Mayra Santos-Febres.

Olga said...

Thanks Liz. I'm not familiar with her work, but now thanks to you I will definitely check her out.

marjolaine said...

bravo, ms liz. marjo