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Beyond the metaphors of life.

MARTA MERCADER AND OLGA OROZCO, each in her own way, are members of what might be called the "Argentine Feminist Literature League," although neither writer can be labeled stereotypically. In their personal literary language, both criticize or reject traditional values in Argentine society in favor of a new liberating dimension of the human destiny. Both have fought hard for their intellectual independence and deserve recognition for having projected themselves into the predominately male world of ideas.

Mercader and Orozco stand on the shoulders of several generations of women who refused to conform to the predestined and passive role that denied them the opportunity to fulfill a literary vocation. One of the first women to triumph over these overwhelming social obstacles was Juana Manuela Gorriti, the subject of Marta Mercader's bestselling novel, Juanamanuela, mucha mujer (Juanamanuela, A Woman and More).

Born in Salta, Argentina, in 1818, Juana Manuela would have been fated to write only letters and diaries, like most women of her age and status. But secretive writing did not satisfy her intense and restless spirit. She resolved to leave public, printed testimony of an extraordinary life in which the drama of exile and a broken marriage was followed by the establishment of her own literary salon and a career in journalism. Juana Manuela also wrote biography and novels about the customs and attitudes of her times. Being both prolific and talented, she has entered history as the best woman writer of the second half of the nineteenth century. Furthermore, her example created a following of women novelists and reporters who were able to pressure magazine and newspaper publishers into accepting their contributions.

That was the beginning. Through perseverance and the quality of their works, women writers finally found the place they deserved in the Argentine literary scene toward the beginning of the twentieth century. These few authors were a cultivated, earnest lot who wrote celebrated novels, translated European authors, and covered current events for periodicals.

Beginning in 1931, Victoria Ocampo and the Sur generation (named after the literary review she created) defined the direction of Argentine literary life for the next thirty years. Ocampo belonged to the aristocratic class, but the fact that her family was well-to-do did not spare her from having to fight against the restraints of paternalism to attain a more stimulating and autonomous existence. She was painfully aware that women were outcasts in Argentina's complex, dynamic culture, and once noted that every woman writer had "in one way or another done what Jane Austen did: hide her manuscript under a blotter when visitors or servants entered the room."

When Peronism finally brought an end to the de facto rule of the landed gentry and its supporters in the army and the church, the great tradition of "Argentine Liberalism" (a form of laissez-faire conservatism), which was promoted by Ocampo and her publication Sur, also collapsed. Moreover, Peron's brand of nationalism and populism changed the intellectual climate of Argentina forever--the culture of the elite became the culture of the masses. At that point, Sur ceased to be in the vanguard, and by the end of 1970, it had lost its ability to influence or interpret what was happening in the country.

Another pioneer who paved the way for an important group of women writers was Silvina Bullrich. She was a member of what is known as the "Intermediate Generation." In various novels, short stories, essays and poems, she shrewdly explored the intricacies of the female soul. Moreover, she made no effort to conceal the fact that her viewpoints were always those of a female author. Bullrich's prose, full of irony and bitterness, did not succeed in hiding her romantic and sometimes religious nature. She once said: "The Christian faith made of us females, women. That is why I always have a cross hanging on my chest. To remind me that my parents did not understand that they were supposed to provide me with the weapons to become a real woman, so that I would not be merely a female. That was Christ's mandate. . ." Bullrich died in 1990 in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

In the 1960s, several women writers attracted the attention of both readers and critics. Among them, the most successful were Beatriz Guido, Maria Angelica Bosco, Alicia Jurado, Maria Granata, Marta Lynch, Elvira Orphee, Luisa Valenzuela and Maria Esther de Miguel. The themes they explored are as varied as their styles. But the problems of Argentina and women's rights are always present in these writers works, whether they be sentimental, expressionistic or surrealistic.

Marta Mercader, like the above mentioned authors, does not write novels to please her vanity or fill empty hours, but to continue a cultural tradition in which a writer has an authoritative voice that she uses to interpret life. Mercader is, moreover, a living testimony of the intellectual power of those who are still an oppressed lot: Argentine women. While speaking of Juanamanuela in the following interview, she reaffirms her belief that the past lurks forever in the present.

Is Juanamanuela a historical novel?

While writing this novel, it was very clear to me that my vision was that of a woman of the twentieth century and that it could not be that of a woman of the nineteenth century. I believe, like Benedetto Croce and Jose Luis Romero, to name a historian and philosopher closer to us, that history is always in the present. The field of history continues to perfect different techniques and auxiliary disciplines so more and more is known about the past of humanity everywhere. Discoveries are made through archeology, anthropology and the use of carbon 14, but nevertheless, this great conglomeration of data is always interpreted according to a present perspective.

What did you do in order to "look at" Juanamanuela from the twentieth century?

I tried to respect all of the objective data, the historian's consensus, about a woman who was ignored as a writer, sought love, failed, divorced, and fought for her right to continue loving and to pursue her literary vocation. And I lived those conflicts myself because they were mine and those of the women of my time. I say it between the lines in my own novel because I believe it would have been dishonest to present it as if it were really the life of Juanamanuela. I don't know what her life was like and so I give her a literary name that is Juanamanuela, written all together. Only in the last pages of the novel, when I speak of the real character, do I speak of Juana Manuel Gorriti as the person of flesh and blood on whom the story is built.

When I take historical characters I am making literature, although I think that when good historians make history, they are also making literature and even philospheres like Santiago Kovadloff, for whom every vision of life is a metaphor, are revindicating the literary and linguistic nature of philosophic interpretation. Everything is a metaphor and Borges knew it marvelously.

In what measure can this nineteenth century woman be compared to the twentieth century woman? Have you seen any evolution in this aspect?

This generation of Argentine women, as in all countries with modern standards (although we are in a period of deterioration), enjoys a freedom that mine did not have, not to mention the generation before. However, it is an inherited freedom for which they have not had to fight, and perhaps for that reason they are not aware of the sacrifices made by generations of women who have had to slowly shake off the prejudices. Although many rights are now legally recognized, discrimination continues. It continues because of social inertia. It is difficult to change roles. That of bearing and raising children is acceptable and natural, but women today live longer and have the possibility of recovering roles that were before unimaginable. However, men resent this because they feel threatened in their role as the exclusive achievers in society. In all the countries that I have visited, I have found the same tensions, the same loneliness of the woman who tries to be independent and the same agitation of the man confronting a woman who does not match his ideal. It is a difficult and painful transition for the man because he is also accustomed to being the object of the woman's admiration, not her equal.

In your description of Belzu, the soldier and future President of Bolivia, are you trying to illustrate this problem?

Belzu does not have these problems because he is of the old school. He will never be able to evolve.

And when you wrote your other historical novel, Belisario en son de guerra (Belisario in War) in 1984, what conflicts and characters were you trying to embody?

In my research of Juanamanuela, I came across this real character, novelesque and representative of an era. Belisario fought in Argentina; later he fought in the United States in the War of Secession and then in the Mexican war against the French invasion by Maximillian. He was a man who fought for the ideals of freedom which were sweeping through the South American continent in the nineteenth century, but he was also a lover of the fight itself and of military values and glory. I wrote it during the military rule in Argentina. I was horrified by the values that were in effect at that moment. When killing began, although the military regime thought it necessary, it seemed to me a terrible human tragedy. That is why I wrote this novel, which has a beautiful storyline in spite of the fact that it occurs in a conflictive moment in Argentine history.

What would be, for you, the social role of the novelist? You have held public offices in the past, such as Director of Culture of the Province of Buenos Aires. Are you committed (to a cause)?

Every novelist plays his or her role according to personal beliefs. But I maintain that the professional responsibility of the writer resides in the quality of what he or she writes; and there is also a civic-political responsibility. For this reason, I try not to distance myself from the problems of the country. I participate in a political party, I am affiliated, but I do not believe in the defense of any slogan or any partisan position without concession. Those who wash their hands of difficult situations with their lack of commitment are also taking a position.

If there was ever an absolute before-and-after in Argentine women's poetry, Alfonsina Storni, a Swiss-Argentine, was responsible for it when she published her first book in 1916. Until then, the output had been rather modest; afterwards, it was inordinate and lavish.

Alfonsina's life was the very paradigm of feminist rebellion against the prevalent masculine system of values. She not only supported herself, but raised a son alone, while continuing to write. When sickness of body and sould pushed her to commit suicide in 1938, she was already the most influential feminist intellectual among Spanish American writers.

Another well known poet and contemporary of Alfonsina's was Margarita Abella Caprille. She adopted a style which imbued reality with spiritualism and influenced generations to come. Three of the best and brightest in Argentine poetry--Alejandra Pizarnik, Maria Elena Walsh, and Olga Orozco--followed in Caprille's footsteps. Pizarnik, with her fixation for fantasy and tragic poetry, was doomed by a powerful self-destructive drive. She ended her own life in 1972 at the height of her career. The versatile Maria Elena Walsh countered her private preoccupations about love and death with the production of a successful series of records and volumes of children's poems, songs and stories.

For her part, at seventy, Olga Orozco continues to be an inexhaustible source of poetry. She is among one of the few Argentine poets, along with Alfonsina and Maria Elena Walsh, whose works have been translated into English. Orozco's poetry appears in the curricula of several universities in the United States, including the University of California at Los Angeles and San Jose, and the University of Colorado. Her work, Cantos a Berenice is currently being translated into English.

Orozco is a woman of disquieting intelligence and profound spirituality, constantly concerned with the barriers that prevent individuals from acquiring full realization. When she speaks, her words come together naturally in metaphors, opening infinite possibilities of interpretation.

Many people have probably asked you about your passion for magic, the esoteric, your gifts of clairvoyance...

Magic and poetry are symbolic conversions of the universe and both are practiced because man feels unaccomplished and deficient. They are vehicles for broadening the limits of the self. They are like manifestations of a desire to change reality, to cut it open or disembowel it by ways other than those of logic.

Could we say that your poetry is religious, metaphysical, magic, sometimes dense; that it unsettles us and forces us to ponder the meaning of life, of time, of God?

At times they find me dense, as if I were circling around in too dangerous a territory, as if I were a sleepwalker at the edge of a cliff.

What does the act of creation mean to you?

The act of poetic creation in itself is a minimal expression of the pure act of creation by the Word. I believe that the poet always sees a bit beyond the immediate. He or she tries to elevate that Word, which has descended as if from a stream, until arriving at that primordial beginning again; to that unity that one may call whatever one will, the absolute ONE, union with God, the Paradise Lost,...

Then would we be talking about a religious concept of existence?

A religion that is not subject to a dogma but that is religion. I believe absolutely in the sacred.

Do you have a philosophical position?

I don't put labels on myself nor do I build my own cage. Let others put bars around me. I don't write philosophy. There are, yes, certain metaphysical elements and my approach might seem a bit transcendental. Life and death are very intertwined, and thus I take the liberty of spying over the fence to see what is on the other side.

In many of your poems, you refer to the "fence", the "wall".

It is the barrier that I face. It's the separation to whicy my own birth condems me.

There is talk of the influence of surrealism in your work.

I have never ascribed to that surrealist group. I collaborated with them because I felt connected. I have never been able to write in an automatic way because immediately instead of moving toward the poem I move toward prayer. I have not been able to start from zero either, as the surrealists do. I cannot forget my training nor my beliefs. But there is an attitude toward life, freedom, justice and love which is shared by the surrealists, as well as a faith in dreams and a multi-faceted reality which does not end in this plane but rather is prolonged much beyond.

You seem fascinated with the creators of Mayan and other pre-Columbian literature. These primitive writers, do they also engage in a dialogue with God?

Yes, only the God is a bit clumsy or elliptic. He doesn't want his face to be entirely seen. I am also spiritual, like the primitive man. Every object has a purpose, sometimes friendly, other times antagonistic, depending on how the day is marked.

What do you think of the evolution of women in Latin America in the last twenty years?

I think that there is a greater intervention of women on all fronts. I am not a feminist. I do not believe in the absolute equality of the sexes without one surmounting the other at different times. I do not believe that the sexes are opposite, but rather that we are complementary.

But have you noticed any evolution in the feminine terrain?

In Argentina, when women wrote it was in a literary style of fainting, of tiptoeing, of a lack of precision; that is to say, they wrote out of fancy or to escape. Few saw in writing itself the shape of their future. Now I see that this has changed. It seemed to me that to collaborate in a feminine anthology was to support a form of discrimination, a margination. Men never segregated me. When they discovered that there were a few of us who could write with a determined quality, not only did they admit us, they exalted us.

You said in your work, Los juegos peligrosos (Dangerous Games) that love itself is a religious game. In what way is it dangerous?

In the extreme of things. Lasting love is difficult, is it not? But I continue betting on love and I believe that it must be fulfilled without having to be platonic. I think that people play at the loss of love because of a lack of imagination. Because nobody sees the unfathomable, the abyss of the other being whose mystery grows the more one gets to know him or her.

In a world so full of conflictual human relationships, it could be helpful to delve further into the mystery of the other.

People see the foam, the surface, they've had enough. Why see beyond?

Or the symptoms remain without looking for the causes.

That is why there is that loss and everything is irreplaceable. If there is some other place where all that is lost is amassed, then my assets are incalculable.

Do you believe in a true Latin American culture?

Yes. There is a different tone, as with Casanueva, Gonzalo Roja. Even Alejo Carpentier has a truly Latin American syntax. But the culture of South America is little known in North America.

Does there exist a school of poetry in Argentina or have the novelists won out?

There is a certain tendency to make language the absolute subject of the poem, that is to say that the word does not move visions, conditions, doubts, desperations, but that it moves incapacities of language, ruptures, accidents. That game seems empty to me. Regarding the novelists, I think they sprang up over the poets due to the question of politics, exile, opposition, transgressions and other conflicts that had the effect of a catalyst for the novel.

Through their creative talent and determination, Marta Mercader and Olga Orozco have paved the way for yet another generation of Argentine women writers to realize their ideals and to pursue a tradition of excellence in world class literature.

Maria Gowland de Gallo is a journalist and founder of Conciencia, a women's civic organization in Buenos Aires. A former professor at Goergetown University in Washington, D.C., she received an Eisenhower Fellowship.
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Title Annotation:interviews with Marta Mercader and Olga Orozco
Author:Gil-Montero, Martha; Gallo, Maria Gowland de
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Article Type:interview
Date:Sep 1, 1990
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