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Reviewing Barbara Mujica.

Dr. Barbara Mujica, novelist, short story writer and professor of Spanish at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., has been a collaborating editor for Americas Magazine since 1990. In addition to reviewing books on a regular basis, this versatile writer has contributed articles on modern art and theater as well as profiles on noted literary figures. Dr. Mujica's first book of short stories, Far From My Mother's Home, is currently at press and scheduled for release later this year. In his forward to this book, Salvadoran writer Mario Bencastro writes, "Mujica tells her story with the magnetism and flair of an old-fashioned storyteller. These tales are truly dramatic and perfectly conceived with respect to form and content. The situations, which are both specific and universal, are brought to life through an abundant and direct language. It is as though the writer were moved by a keen desire to show us each predicament from all angles." The following is taken from a recent interview of Mujica by Bencastro.

Bencastro: Is there a central theme that connects your stories or is each one totally different from the others?

Mujica: The theme that fascinates me and, I believe, is a constant in nearly all my writing, is the interplay of cultures in the Americas. Perhaps because I myself am a member of a multiethnic family, I am intensely aware of how people of different cultures interrelate and how cultural biases sometimes prevent us from understanding one another. My family is a kind of laboratory in which I can observe these phenomena.

Could you elaborate?

In my story "Mary and Magda" I highlighted the obstacles to communication by having Mary speak English and Magda, Spanish. Unfortunately, it's not merely a question of language, but of perceptions. The two women are very much alike, yet, they fail to recognize their similarities. Mary and Magda are both struggling alone to support themselves and their children. Both are tired, frustrated and frightened. Yet, Mary sees Magda as lazy, obstinate, and irresponsible. And Magda sees Mary as exploitive, arrogant, and petty. Their separation at the end is a calamity for both, and both of them know it. Yet, the split is inevitable because their opposing perspectives prevent a bond from forming.

I'm not implying that ethnic differences are always divisive or that the obstacles they present are insurmountable. In "Women," for example, Carolyn and Rosa do form a bond. Their shared basic concerns--family, children, money--unite them. Each recognizes her dependence on the other and tries to be accommodating. In "Sanchez across the Street," grief and compassion--primal and universal sentiments--transcend ethnic differences and bring together two mothers.

In the United States there's a lot of talk about multiculturalism...

It's a common misperception that ethnic diversity is particular to the United States. Migration from Africa, the Orient and Latin America is now challenging the notion of ethnic uniformity in Europe and, of course, Latin America has always been, dating from Pre-Columbian times, a mixture of diverse groups. So, although the components and proportions are different from region to region, we're talking about a world-wide phenomenon.

Stories such as "Mitrani" and "Gotlib, Bombero" focus on the Jewish population in Chile. "The Scandalous Case of Diana Salinas and Jorge Schapiro" depicts the rivalry between Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews in Guatemala. In "Xelipe" the African influence is prominent and in my novel, The Deaths of Don Bernardo, the intermingling of Whites, Indians, Cholos, Mestizos and Blacks is a fundamental element. The assimilating populations in Latin America experience the same sense of alienation and many of the same frustrations as those in the United States. Through my writing, I try to bring out how much experience that we tend to regard as particular to our own society is actually shared.

Of course, cultural distinctions are not the only ones that create dilemmas. Gender is another issue. Men and women often see things from entirely different angles. In "Women," both Carolyn and Rosa understand that their survival depends on their willingness to cooperate with one another, but their husbands are so blinded by egotism that they eventually pull the women apart. In "Xelipe," a society that defines virility as seductive prowess desensitizes men until they become capable of destroying not only women, but even their own children. "Mitrani," on the other hand, depicts a firm solidarity between a man and a woman.

Would you say that your novel The Deaths of Don Bernardo has a feminist focus?

Some critics have said that The Deaths of Don Bernardo does have a feminist focus, although that wasn't necessarily my intention. I did set out to shatter some traditional stereotypes of the Latin American woman, however. None of the women in Don Bernardo are the passive, will-less beings that Octavio Paz describes in El laberinto de la soledad, for example. Although these women are politically powerless, in the home they exert a lot of influence. Although the upper-class women rarely work outside the home, none sees herself as "just a housewife." These are skillful administrators who manage complex households full of adult relatives, children, and servants. They also handle busy social schedules. Dona Enriqueta, the matriarch, is a shrewd manipulator who wields considerable influence in her husband's affairs. The servant women also diverge from the stereotype. These women are far from submissive; they are clever, active, and ambitious--within the limits of their social role. Because they are aware of everything that goes on in the household, they can sometimes manoeuvre themselves into advantageous positions. Azucena, the apprentice cook, is especially adept at using her wits and her wiles to create opportunities for herself.

What about your short stories?

In my stories, nearly all the protagonists are women. They are from a variety of backgrounds, but, in general, they are strong, self-determined people. Even the protagonist of "Tenure," who for decades tosses around in a kind of Kafkian academic inferno, finally develops a serenity that comes from her inner strength and her sense of purpose, rather than from actually achieving tenure.

You direct a Spanish-language theater group called El Retablo. Do your theater activities influence your writing?

For me one of the great miracles of literature is watching a text rise up off the page and become something real, visible, tangible. It doesn't surprise me at all that theater had its origins in religion. Creating a dramatic spectacle is a truly spiritual--almost mystical--experience. It's a little hard to explain. You take the work from the playwright, and then it's no longer his. It's yours. But then you give it to the actors and the point comes, after hours and hours of directing, when it's no longer yours; it's theirs. But then they give it to the audience, who takes it with them. It's a chain of giving. It's a communal experience, like Mass. Directing gets my creative juices flowing. It makes me write more and better. It makes me aware of the visual power of words. I tend to use a lot of dialogue in my writing, perhaps because I can hear my fiction "performed" in my head. And I tend to conceive of stories and novels in terms of scenes.

Although reading aloud is no longer a popular form of entertainment, I often write as though my fiction were to be performed orally. Over the years I have done a lot of public readings of my own material. I love to dramatize it, to "act it out" and, especially, to elicit a response from the audience. For me, this is one of the best parts of being a writer. Usually both writer and reader function in solitude, but this is one time the writer gets to see how his or her work affects the audience. It's very exciting.

About your work as a professor... does Academia influence your writing?

More than anything, Academia inhibits my writing. Colleagues are always telling me to "get serious" and "do scholarship." This attitude and the tremendous amount of work involved in teaching--preparing and correcting exams, advising students, directing theses, attending committee meetings, preparing for conferences and, yes, doing what I hope is meaningful research--make it very difficult to write fiction.

The part of university teaching that I like the best is actually being in the classroom, working with the students. In spite of my complaints, I also attach a great deal of importance to my research. My field is Golden Age literature, with a specialization in theater. If you are working with texts by Cervantes and Calderon you can't help but be struck by their somewhat skeptical outlook, and at the same time, their humor and their understanding of human psychology. The perspectivism of both has influenced not only my writing, but also my personal philosophy.

For me, literature will always be something vital and immediate. A work of literature is the expression of an individual's grappling with real, specific problems. Literature is inseparable from life. That is why I called my last set of anthologies Texto y vida. Whether I am teaching La Celestina or a novel by Manuel Puig, I look for the human predicament and try to get my students to relate to the text on a personal level.
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Title Annotation:novelist and short story writer
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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