Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories.
A couple of quick comparisons will demonstrate the difference between classic male magic realists and Rosario Ferre's magic feminism. In Mario Vargas Llosa's Pantaleon and the Visitors, a lowly army official with a chameleon personality is transformed into Super Pimp when ordered to organize a string of prostitutes to service horny soldiers in remote outposts of the Peruvian jungle. The wit and style with which the fable is spun make us guffaw, but if our consciousness is higher than waist level, in some part of our minds we suspect that being an army whore may not be all that funny in real life. Rosario Ferri (who studied with Vargas Llosa at the University of Puerto Rico) uses like magic to confuse the identities of a notorious prostitute and a society woman in the story "When Women Love Men," but the difference is that she respects both and convinces us that she really knows how each thinks. Is it "Isabel the Rumba, Macumba ... swaying her okra hips through the sun-swilled Antillean streets, her grapefruit tits sliced open on her chest," or is it Isabel Luberza, clinging to her husband's arm "like a jasmine vine to the wall"'7 Here is a story where we readers can savor a marvelous melting of identity, perhaps suspending some disbelief but not locking our whole hard-won ethical system in the basement for the duration of the tale.
In "The Poisoned Story," Ferre uses a conceit made world-famous by Julio Cortizar in "Continuity of Parks." In both a reader picks up a text that tells in circular fashion of his or her own murder. For Cortizar the trick makes of the text an impossible object-a fascinating curiosity. But in Ferre, the woman reader is poisoned by the ink of a book of fairy tales, and by the time she dies we know that her life is a fairy tale gone wrong. A proletarian Cinderella (who married an impoverished sugarcane plantation owner only to metamorphose into the wicked stepmother to his daughter) is poisoned by the patriarchal fantasies she swallowed when young. Like certain Escher prints, both stories seem to be drawing themselves, but while for Cortizar the trick is neat sleight-of-hand, for Ferre it can stand for the way female readers are so often poisoned by the trash they read as girls.
As the daughter of a former governor of Puerto Rico, Ferre has had a bird's-eye view of the ravages of power on her island, and her magic touches often spark eruptions of repressed anger in the face of just such power. From the title story, in which a mild-mannered maiden aunt takes chillingly unexpected revenge on her oppressors through toy-making, dolls are a constant motif when victims become angry. Dolls here do not stand for the infantilization of women in "polite" Puerto Rican circles; they are that warping of the girl-child's potential into convenient little totemic packages. In "The Youngest Doll:' a pompous doctor is horrified to discover that his wife has run off and left in her place a life-sized doll whose eyes are filled with frenzied crustaceans-and that for years he has failed to notice! In Amalia," a girl whose skin is deathly sensitive to sun becomes her wax doll, melting horribly in the heat of the garden when she tries to escape the stifling confinement of the bourgeois household. Later, a bored society woman in "Marina and the Lion" has herself delivered to a costume ball as a princess doll in a cellophane-wrapped box. Cutting through the "transparent skin" of cellophane with her fan, Marina flees the doll box into her vacuous party, but the confinement of her social station can only be escaped at the end of the story through death.
At a moment when it often seems the Academic Literary Critic begins every article reciting a rosary of sacred names and then lumbers on, larded with jargon, to insist that he or she is actually far more interesting than the author being dissected, it is reassuring to see two essays of Ferre's at the end of this book, demonstrating that art and appreciation need not be eternally at war. in "How I Wrote "When Women Love Men,' " Ferre gives a succinct account of Latina and Anglo feminists who helped shape her ideas, along with glimpses of her sources of inspiration. "There is a . . . type of irony, which consists mainly in the art of dissembling anger, of refining the foil of the tongue to the point that it can more accurately pierce the reader's heart:' she tells us in her essay, after having amply shown us in her fiction. In "On Destiny, Language, and Translation; or, Ophelia Adrift in the C. &. 0. Canal," Ferre sets forth brilliantly the forces that tug her in opposite directions as a Latina living now in the United States, and as a Puerto Rican writer torn between "a constant re-creation of divergent worlds, which often tend to appear greener on the other side." Translating her own works "can be diabolic and obsessive," she allows, and she admits, "It is one of the few instances when one can be dishonest and feel good about it." She proves the point by translating a wicked Puerto Rican pun, Tenemos mucho oro, del que cago el loro, as "We have a lot of gold, of the kind the parrot pukes." Ferre clearly knows that cagar means "to shit," not "to puke," and that cago is the past tense, but as her own translator she is free to put sonorous repetition of "p's" and a sense of immediacy above literal accuracy. Thus, in this and in dozens of cases, her translations reinvent her texts and achieve a kind of brilliance few non-authors would be arrogant enough to dare.
From beginning to end, then, whether she is conceiving stories, translating them or providing commentary, Rosario Ferre shines, and it is high time for English-speaking readers to bask in her light.
The wrenching pull of competing cultures and languages is just as important in Mexican-American Sandra Cisneros's art as it is in Rosario Ferre's. Anger repressed bursts the seams of life for Cisneros's female characters, who struggle valiantly to make something beautiful from the ugly fabric fate has given them to work with. Cisneros's first book of fiction, The House on Mango Street (1984), was a collection of prose-poem reflections on a girlhood in which creative talent fought to survive a hostile environment, sensitive memories set down as a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and winner of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. In her new book, Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories, Cisneros breathes narrative life into her adroit, poetic descriptions, making them mature, fully formed works of fiction. Her range of characters is broad and lively, from Rudy Cantu, drag queen par excellence, in whose ears the crowd's applause sizzles like when "my ma added the rice to the hot oil"; to the disembodied spirit of Emiliano Zapata's wife; to a teenage girl who returns to the shrine of the Virgen de los Lagos to ask Mary to take back the boyfriend the girl previously prayed for.
Calques and puns are hidden throughout like toy surprises that double the pleasure of the bilingual reader. The title story, "Woman Hollering Creek," is an impish, literal translation of Arroyo la Gritona, a creek whose name sounds as though it may have been derived from La. Llorona, the weeping woman of Mexican folklore-part Circe, part Magdalene. The irony is that the main character, a young bride brought across the border from Mexico only to be abused, begins the tale crying over her plight, but in the end escapes the stereotyped role of tearful victim through the help of strong, independent Felice, who hollers in exhilaration like Tarzan as the pair cross the river to freedom.
In "Bien Pretty," the last story in the collection, Cisneros beautifully draws the struggle of a talented but underappreciated Chicana painter to connect culturally and sexually with men who circle and abandon her, a situation she survives nobly, "in my garage making art:' The men who know her language and folklore may disappoint, but as painter she transforms one bug-exterminating lover into volcanic Prince Popocatepetl, and on her canvas, as in Cisneros's fiction, the results are at once dramatically specific and universal.
If superstition is the opiate of Latin America's desperate poor, it is no surprise that Ronfio Ferre's ire flowers into magic feminism. By contrast, the toughness that Sandra Cisneros's characters need to survive U.S. streets makes hard-eyed realism her ideal mode. The catalysts are remarkably similar for the two, but the resulting chain reactions of rage delight with a clear chemical difference.