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Teaching Isabel Allende's 'La casa de los espiritus.' (The House of the Spirits) (Practicum on Teaching Postcolonial Literatures)

As their varied responses to national complexities like the economic recession and the Gulf war show, many students are concerned with issues of sexual, political, and economic repression, and with national identity in general, in ways that they little comprehend. Because Third World and postcolonial literatures emerge directly from such issues, they lend themselves very well to making students more aware of international hegemonic oppression and more conscious of how power works in the United States. Isabel Allende's House of the Spirits interweaves sexual, political, and economic oppression and affirms the national identity of Chile through its focus on the familial sphere. In doing so the novel powerfully raises these issues that are so important for students to confront.

Formally, thematically, and ideologically, the book raises issues that are specially suitable for a course that emphasizes a combination of practical skills and imaginative interpretation. I have in mind something like the Research Writing course at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where about twenty-five sophomores and juniors learn to organize and synthesize their research and, importantly, to be critical of the authority of their sources. Such courses inherently suggest an interdisciplinary structure that can encourage (or should encourage) energetic political inquiry; and Allende's novel itself lends a distinctive structure to my project in several ways. First, the novel holds students' interest; it's accessible and imaginative, relating the experiences of three generations of the Trueba clan amidst familial, social, and political turmoil in an unnamed Latin American country (though Allende is actually referring to Chile, her homeland). Second, it clearly raises issues that fit patterns of research established by Third World and postcolonial critics, thus suggesting both a consistent terminology and a body of primary and secondary texts. Third, the novel's emphasis on "collaboration" suggests a set of pedagogical/research strategies quite different from traditional ones. Finally, the narrative structure of the book opens the possibility for non-traditional approaches to research writing. While such courses will always involve trips to the library to learn discovery-skills, exercises in documentation mechanics and interviewing tactics, and lessons in the specificities of documentary prose style, it is the last two, non-traditional, features of the course that I want to treat in more detail here.

This text is a rich source for a variety of research topics on Latin America in general and Chile in particular, as well as other topics relevant to the novel. One goal for this course is to demystify Latin America in terms of stereotypes frequently attached to it (e.g. "Mexicans are lazy"; "all the women do is have babies"), since such thoughts curtail students' appreciation of Latin American culture. Other topics include the patriarchal ideology of machismo, which affects gender relations and politics in the novel; Chile's recent politics, in particular the 1973 coup d'etat staged against President Salvador Allende's Socialist government, which the author alludes to in veiled terms; the economic oppression of peasant workers as delineated in representative characters' suffering and collective struggle; and the mysticism of several female characters that is tied to the ghost world, tarot cards, and telekinesis.

The question of terminology is crucial. What do words like "Third world" and "nationalism" really mean to students? What associations do they bring to each term? And what do students know of Latin American society and politics, particularly as such elements are historically affected by imperialist penetration by the West? The House provides a starting base for defining these terms and others I provide, like "ideology," "gender," "race," "class," "ethnicity," "culture," "marginality," "hegemony," "oppression," "myth," "destabilize," "identity," "monovalence," and "polyvalence." Students can explore these concepts through oral reports and class discussions based on their research, including supplementary materials on Latin American culture and other postcolonial regions. Such materials might include, for example, Pablo Neruda's "The World"; Shelley Saywell's "Women Warriors of El Salvador"; Octavio Paz's "The Day of the Dead"; Alicia Partnoy's "The Little School: Tales of Disappearance and Survival in Argentina"; The New Yorker's "Price of the Panama Invasion"; Edward Said's "Reflections on Exile"; Krishnan Varma's "The Grass-Eaters"; Salman Rushdie's "A Pen Against the Sword"; Nadine Gordimer's "Africa Emergent"; and Edward T. Hall's "Proxemics in the Arab World." (The anthologies by Hirschberg and Verburg provide many such readings.) With explicit reference to the terminology, "prompt questions" intended to suggest possible paper theses are constructed: What is the value of the individual in Third World (and First World) countries? What is his/her role in the formation of nationalism? Is nationalism "a freedom from tyranny" or (to borrow the words of Timothy Brennan) "the embodiment of tyranny"? In what ways can persons holding traditional American values come to an understanding of such terms? My aim in privileging these concepts is to get students thinking critically about the very terms "nationalism" and "Third World" so that they (re)examine their complex identities as Americans.

The practical work of the course consists of two parts, oral presentations and research papers, the latter being an extension of the oral assignment. The emphasis on cooperative solidarity in The House -- it importantly figures the solidarity and dialogue among different characters who often hold different ideologies -- can help shape this work. In groups of two or more, students can work collaboratively on this project for half the semester. (For the second part of the semester, students will work on papers that focus on cultural aspects of other Third World regions of their choice.) In-class workshops allow students to consult with me regarding interpretation of the novel, thesis statements, or presentations for the oral and written assignments. These workshops also give students the opportunity to share sources with their classmates and talk with groups about how they plan to present their findings. In the library students can separate into their groups to do team research.

It is important that students critically examine any biases and values they bring to or share with the text so that they understand their positions as First World subjects. Allende's work is useful in this respect because its structure and emphasis on gender issues raises questions about interpretation: the text consists of the interspersed personal narratives of Clara del Valle, her granddaughter Alba, and Clara's husband Esteban Trueba, and often offers different versions of the same events. In a sense then, readers are presented with different sources or interpretations of the same topic. Allende's display of different points of view can be made explicit in students' oral presentations through their role-playing of different characters. Because role-playing helps situate students in (comparatively) different positions as readers, this agenda should expose them to their own ideological positions and force them to confront issues of interpretation.

Oral presentations should derive from students' research for their first papers. Rather than simply report their findings to the class, each student contextualizes his/her research by speaking from one character's point of view or by assuming the role of a named or unnamed character. Also, students may create new characters not found in the novel or they may choose the same character. For instance, two students from the same group pursue related research topics, and each chooses the same character through which to present their research findings. Likewise, students from different groups choose, for example, the clairvoyant Clara del Valle, who often falls into months-long silences. However, the students treat different research topics that are relevant to this character: one focuses on mysticism; another chooses the role of middle- and upper-class women in Latin America; and another takes issue with attitudes toward Catholicism. Proceeding this way stresses certain issues pertinent to research: having students contextualize their findings through characters' voices emphasizes the point that any text speaks to particular ideologies. Another point is that texts can be (are) rewritten, just as in The House Alba and Trueba recast Clara's journals by filling in gaps of the family history with their own distinctive perceptions.

For these presentations students may decide to extend or change a scene in The House -- or they can create a new scene -- in order to incorporate their findings. For example, two students are interested in researching the murder of the author's uncle, President Salvador Allende, especially United States government involvement. In the early stages of their research, the students learn that President Nixon and the CIA played important roles in supporting the military coup, and they focus their research on this. Their presentation dramatizes what readers don't get in the novel (that is, Nixon and CIA officials are not characters in the book): one student assumes the role of President Nixon, the other assumes the role of a CIA official as they deliberate, via telephone correspondences, over action to be taken on Chile. Based on the students' research these conversations may reveal the goals that the U.S. government actually had in its economic and political relations with Chile, as well as its support of the coup d'etat. Towards the end of the presentation the students, now out of character, offer to the class their interpretations of the United States government's actions. Speaking to the concepts "Third World" and "nationalism," one student argues that the government's unethical support of the coup helped maintain Chile's Third World status by encouraging the country's economic dependence on the United States. The other student basically agrees but stresses that the United States government's apprehension toward Allende's Marxist government stemmed from their fear of the spread of communism; he concludes that the ideal of democracy reflects American nationalism, a good thing. The two argue and open their discussion to the class.

Here's another example: two students have researched how machismo perpetuates sexual oppression as expressed in the novel. One student chooses the character Alba, who is imprisoned and raped by her grandfather's bastard son; the other chooses the conservative patriarch Trueba. These students present their research as a dialogue between grandfather and granddaughter, in which the presenters-now "transformed" into the characters -- discuss why they are critical of machismo. The student "Alba" insists that machismo is dangerous since it makes men tyrannical, and talks about her own rape and Trueba's rape of peasant women. "Alba" incorporates her research findings into the dialogue by explaining in more detail how the machismo ideology constructs gender and perpetuates stereotypes of Latin Americans that people often associate with Latin American Third World countries. The Trueba persona agrees with "Alba" but explains the historical and cultural importance of machismo. Drawing conclusions from her research, this student discusses its significance in privileging the individual and in traditionally shaping Latin American identity. She weaves into her discussion Trueba's own successful rise from poverty to wealth.

To stress the point that the traditional research paper format is ideologically derived and not a given, written papers are to be contextualized with the novel, thus encouraging students to maintain their role-playing through integration of their individual perceptions with their respective characters'. Just as important, The House encourages non-traditional writing through its implicit questioning of narrative authority. The two students who researched the United States government's role in the 1973 coup create a written narrative that in approach and organization differs from their oral presentation. Their paper takes the form of a televised speech by Nixon to the American public in which he divulges his and the government's complicity in the coup. These students incorporate into the president's narrative a critical discussion by Nixon of the concepts "Third World" and "nationalism." Modeling their approach on the novel's structure (displayed as the interspersed personal narratives of Alba, Trueba, and Clara), the two students who studied machismo shape their written paper as journal entries written by Alba and Trueba.

Given the nature of the project I would encourage a biographical reading of The House. Understanding certain events and persons that inspired Allende's writing of the novel can only be helpful to students. As in the above examples, I expect students to examine critically any ideological contradictions reflected in the novel, through class discussion or their research. For instance, a political science major who researches the coup from a Marxist perspective claims that President Allende's Socialist government was more interested in centralizing power for itself than in helping the country's economically oppressed. This student discusses how such a view problematizes many of the characters' participation in left-wing activity.

Courses like Research Writing are frequently the only ones that offer research challenges in an interdisciplinary context to students with different majors, and any text or tactic that will help them gain access to these issues should be encouraged. Although the idea of students' assuming characters' points of view may seem elementary to some, my students have found such projects challenging and interesting; they like the creativity involved. There is always, I suppose, the problem in my assuming students' interest in the novel. But here I put faith in the author of The House of the Spirits as well as the course project.


Allende, Isabel. The House of the Spirits. Trans. Magda Bogin. New York: Knopf, 1985. La casa de los espiritus. Barcelona: Plaza y Janes, 1982.

Brennan, Timothy. "The National Longing for Form." Nation and Narration. Ed. Homi K. Bhabha. New York: Routledge, 1990. 44-70.

Hall, Edward T. "Proxemics in the Arab World." Verburg 23-31.

Gordimer, Nadine. "Africa Emergent." Verburg 564-76.

Hirschberg, Stuart, ed. One World, Many Cultures. New York: Macmillan, 1992.

Neruda, Pablo. "The Word." Verburg 478-79.

The New Yorker. "The Price of the Panama Invasion." Verburg 630-33.

Partnoy, Alicia. "The Little School: Tales of Disappearance and Survival in Argentina." Hirschberg 378-86.

Paz, Octavio. "The Day of the Dead." Hirschberg 582-87.

Rushdie, Salman. "A Pen Against the Sword." Hirschberg 481-92.

Said, Edward. "Reflections on Exile." Hirschberg 422-27.

Saywell, Shelley. "Women Warriors of El Salvador." Verburg 637-50.

Varma, Krishnan. "The Grass-Eaters." Hirschberg 282-85.

Verburg, Carol J., ed. Ourselves Among Others: Cross-Cultural Readings for Writers. 2nd ed. Boston: Bedford, 1991.
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Author:Tayko, Gail
Publication:College Literature
Date:Oct 1, 1992
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