Category Archives: women’s writing

Diamela Eltit: escribir bajo Pinochet

Diamela Eltit opened this term’s Latin American History Seminar series by discussing her life as a writer under the Pinochet dictatorship, which ruled Chile from 1973 to 1990. Addressing a packed seminar room at the Latin American Centre, Oxford, Diamela stated that the theme of writing under dictatorship was a challenging one. Writing that takes place in a particular context is just one version of many possibilities, which vary with individual experience.

She spoke of the years leading up to the dictatorship as ones of great social emancipation and cultural revolution, which caused a paradigm shift in attitudes towards women and family. This led to a rethinking of norms surrounding the body, particularly the female body, and sexuality. Traditionally, Chile has always been a conservative society; for example, Chile was the last country in the western world to legalise divorce in 2004, and abortion is still illegal without exception.

Week 1, Diamela Eltit, Escribir bajo Pinochet

These pre-dictatorship years also brought political changes and economic, social and agrarian reforms, particularly during the Frei administration from 1964 onwards. However, as time went on, Frei encountered opposition from the Left, who felt that the reforms were insufficient, and the Right, who felt that they were too excessive. In the 1970 election, Salvador Allende was elected in a presidential runoff, despite only having achieved around 35% of the initial election votes. Diamela discussed the effect of this on notions of power, democracy and majority. Unusually, a minority had power over the majority. This may have caused a greater politicisation of society, as people everywhere discussed political questions. Even everyday activities such as a catching the bus or going to the cinema seemed to be impossible without encountering political discussions. However, Diamela stated that she herself was happy with the political changes and atmosphere of emancipation that pervaded Chile at this time, despite the politicisation of society. For once, the working class had a voice. However, as she herself was not militant she sometimes felt distanced from those who were more radicalised.

Then, in 1973, came the coup. Despite saying that everyone knew there would be a coup, Diamela said that there was still a sense of shock when it happened. She also stressed the economic impetus of the coup, stating that this was a far more powerful reason than the ideological differences cited. From then on, Chileans had to re-learn how to navigate the public space. There was a curfew and mandatory ID requests, as well as other changes in the law. The city became another, and this had a great impact. Diamela remembers tea breaks with colleagues where the only possible topic of conversation was the weather. Any other conversation was simply too dangerous. People felt under pressure to follow a set way of talking, dressing, expressing likes and dislikes. There was a hierarchical militarisation of the country, Pinochet’s “sueño del control total.”  This was the context in which Diamela’s literary career started.

It took Diamela seven years to write her first novel, Lumpérica, published in 1983. She explained that it was difficult to find the right register. By that time, Chile had no cultural spaces, many publishers had closed, and museums were ideologically aligned to the Pinochet government. Added to that, the new phenomenon of the disappeared made for a very bleak panorama.

Selection of books by and about Diamela Eltit, including her first novel, Lumpérica.

Selection of books by and about Diamela Eltit, including her first novel, Lumpérica.

All publications were subject to censorship, so this did have an effect on her writing. It was strange to write under these conditions, as they took away the final responsibility of the author over their work. Passing the censor could also be slightly depressing in some ways; did it show that you simply conformed to the system? However, she stated that although she was aware of the censor she never wrote for the censor. Many newspapers had ceased to circulate, and those still in print had redacted or blank sections. She did find herself wondering about who actually read all of the material submitted. The permission to have her novel published was signed by an Under Secretary in the Ministry of the Interior (equivalent to the Home Office). Who really was the censor?

Although censorship had an undeniable impact on her writing, Diamela explained that it also affected the literary landscape in general. There was no literary market as such, or literary critics, and there was no strong guiding force from publishers. In a way, this gave a freer ideological rein to writers who were not under pressure to write bestsellers or fit in with a particular publishing or literary trend.

During the 1980s there was a sea change, almost a “segundo femenismo”, as more women entered the workplace. This was partly due to men being imprisoned as well as other social difficulties. The literary canon was male-dominated, and Diamela started to think more about what it meant to be a writer, particularly as a woman. Traditionally, women writers had been confined to the domestic sphere. Diamela decided to break free from that, and particularly made the decision not to talk about her family.

A selection of critical works on the writing of Diamela Eltit.

A selection of critical works on the writing of Diamela Eltit.

Whilst learning to live under the dictatorship was hard, so was learning to live without it. In the 1990s she travelled to Mexico as a cultural attaché and worked with political organisations. She spoke of the difficulty of reclaiming words once prohibited, and recalls feeling shocked by the freedom of the press in Mexico after so many years of living with censorship.

At the end of the talk, Diamela was asked whether she wrote as an act of resistance. She answered that it wasn’t, not really; writing for her was more of an exploration of the limits of literature. She felt that she would have become a writer under any circumstances. One audience member asked whether she felt fear during the dictatorship, as she had not mentioned this as a particularly strong factor in her life. Although society was militarised and there were armed police on the streets, she remembers feeling part of a community of artists who opposed the dictatorship, even if they were not militants.

In answer to a question about memory and the continued impact of the dictatorship on society, Diamela remarked on the massive consumerism of neo-liberal Chile in the 1990s as a way of not remembering the past: “el consumo para impedir la memoria.” She herself had always been more interested in the periphery, where there was high inequality, and this is reflected in her literary and artistic activities.

A collection of manuscript and typescript drafts of and notebooks related to Diamela Eltit’s works, personal and work-related correspondence mostly from the mid-1980s to 1990s, and other miscellaneous personal and work-related papers, are held at Princeton University Library.


The Everyday Library of Babel

As scholars and students of literature we are in the privileged position of having turned our love for books into a profession. That means it is very likely that we will be reading every day. At the same time, in our daily lives certain books will have to be prioritized over others in order for us to keep up with the scholarship in our chosen field.  Often, I find in hindsight that I have wasted valuable reading time on articles and analyses that prove utterly devoid of insights, even though the work’s title seemed to promise a plethora of valuable information. Who doesn’t know that feeling of finishing some literary criticism only to regret that one didn’t spend the time reading a decent novel instead? At times I can’t help but wish for Borges’ ‘libro total’ from the ‘La biblioteca de Babel’.  Borges’s book would contain within itself all possible books aka the universe and, although I say this tongue-in-cheek, that would mean I would be well over and done with identifying good reading material for the foreseeable future.

As a result of my being led astray in the world of scholarly publications, leisurely reading time is also often encroached on by the demands of the profession. Thus, I find that I am rarely up to date with the latest bestsellers coming from Spain, let alone those appearing elsewhere. Out of this professional deficiency grew the idea for the Contemporary Spanish Reading Group ‘Freshly Baked’ at the University of Oxford. My colleague María Liñeira and I felt that we wanted to at least try to remain a little bit in the loop by reading books that would not necessarily form part of the literary canon or academic syllabi, including translations into Spanish from Basque, Catalan and Galician.

The reading group meets informally twice a term to indulge in ‘obras recien salidas del horno’, as well as some freshly baked cakes. Prose has thus far dominated our reading, despite us being open and welcoming to poetry and drama as well. Not every chosen text has been an instant hit but that is the surprise effect of this group. Discovering that books I might have formerly discarded as ‘not up my street’ can actually be enjoyable. At the same time, there might be appraised novels that I personally prefer to stay away from.  It all yields ample material for group discussion though – the positive and the negative….

When compiling the programme for the forthcoming academic year we realised with shame that we had only been discussing the works of men in the past year. For the new season we really wanted to strike a balance and decided on an all-female cast. After all, if nobody noticed the male over-representation why should it be any different with a women-only line-up? Thus we are aiming for a wild mix of Galician poetry, Spanish-Moroccan short stories and female perspectives on the Civil War amongst others. Always in the hope that one page of Borges’ ‘total book’ has at least been started…

Dr. Daniela Omlor is the Queen Sofia Junior Research Fellow at Exeter College, Oxford, and co-organiser of the Freshly Baked reading group.

21st Century Fiction from Spain

The joint ACLAIIR/IGRS/IC seminar on 18 April brought together researchers, literary critics, translators, librarians and publishers to explore the world of 21st century fiction from Spain. After a warm welcome from Julio Crespo MacLennan, Director of the Instituto Cervantes in London, Geoff West (Chair of ACLAIIR) thanked all the organisers and participants for attending what was sure to be an interesting and enjoyable day.

For anyone involved in researching or purchasing Spanish fiction, it is clear that the publishing scene in Spain is one of very few Spanish industries holding its own in the current economic climate. Although booksales have dropped in number across Spain, Portugal, and the UK, fiction writing from Spain is very much alive and well, and breaking into new markets thanks to the increasing number of translated titles available.

Librarians' panel, L-R: Sonia Morcillo-Garcia (University of Cambridge), Andrea Meyer Ludowisy (IGRS), Geoff West (ACLAIIR Chair/British Library), Joanne Edwards (University of Oxford), Mayte Azorin (Instituto Cervantes, London).

Librarians’ panel, L-R: Sonia Morcillo-Garcia (University of Cambridge), Andrea Meyer Ludowisy (IGRS), Geoff West (ACLAIIR Chair/British Library), Joanne Edwards (University of Oxford), Mayte Azorin (Instituto Cervantes, London).

Librarians responsible for acquiring fiction from Spain know only too well the challenges of selecting from a plethora of new authors and titles, whilst remaining within tight budget allowances. How to navigate this sea of new writing? For those in academic institutions, research trends, conference programmes and taught courses were the main influential factors, with information from publishers, book fairs, literary magazines and blogs all playing a vital part in keeping up to date. The availability of English translations was also a good marker of the popularity of certain titles. With research trends and reader appetites growing ever more diverse, it was necessary to make use of a wide range of resources to keep track of developments.

It became clear from Stuart Davis’ presentation and ensuing discussing that the notion of a fixed literary canon was difficult to apply to the current wave of literature. With the Internet providing more opportunities to publish (or even self-publish) literature and literary criticism, readers and writers are forming their own online communities to disseminate and discuss their work. Some academics are also moving towards writing in newspapers rather than confining their work to scholarly journals.

Fiction in Spain today: current trends. Julio Crespo MacLennan (Director, IC), Juan Angel Juaristo, Stuart Davis (Girton College, Cambridge), Peter Bush.

Fiction in Spain today: current trends. Julio Crespo MacLennan (Director, IC), Juan Angel Juaristo, Stuart Davis (Girton College, Cambridge), Peter Bush.

Juan Ángel Juristo also noted changes not just in the canon, but in the reader. With the increase in female authors mirroring the greater participation of women in Spain’s public life, there has also been a stronger definition of the Spanish reader; female, a middle-class city-dweller, between thirty and forty years old, and with a preference for the novel over other types of literature. Whilst the traditional Spanish literary canon has often focused on male authors writing in Castilian, women writers and authors writing in other peninsular languages have staked a significant claim on the Spanish literary scene.

Spain’s literary landscape cannot be easily separated from its economic, political, and social history. In a recent talk at Oxford, Eduardo Mendoza highlighted the Civil War and relations with Latin American boom writers as two of the most important factors affecting the development of Spanish writing. Both Daniela Omlor and Frank Lough spoke about the growing amount of literature and research around memory, particularly of the Spanish Civil War. The way in which the literature addresses the Civil War depends much on the time it was written. There are now four distinct generations of writers involved with Spanish Civil War novels, ecompassing a wide range of writers. Firstly, there are those who have memories of the war, then those who have no memories of the war but do have adult memories of the Franco dictatorship. These writers are quite different to younger generations, who may have childhood memories of the dictatorshop, or have known only democracy.

Our panel on Trends in research in 21st-century fiction from Spain. Jennifer Rodríguez (University of Liverpool), Daniela Omlor (Exeter College, Oxford) and Frank Lough (University of Birmingham). Geoff West (ACLAIIR/BL) and Rocio Rodjter (KCL) look on from the audience.

Our panel on Trends in research in 21st-century fiction from Spain. Jennifer Rodríguez (University of Liverpool), Daniela Omlor (Exeter College, Oxford) and Frank Lough (University of Birmingham). Geoff West (ACLAIIR/BL) and Rocio Rodjter (KCL) look on from the audience.

Writing memory does not only cover the Spanish Civil War. Juan Ángel Juristo mentioned a recent trend of nostalgia amongst writers and artists to look back to the movida of 1980s Madrid, an era  that has become emblematic for a generation. The protagonist in Almudena Grandes’ novel Castillos de cartón  is reminded of her hedonistic youth as an art school student in Madrid. Pedro Almodóvar’s most recent film, Los amantes pasajeros, is a comic farce that harks back to his more lighthearted earlier works, a stark change from his darker more recent offerings. It is no surprise that during times of recession and crisis, people are tempted to look back to days that seemed more hopeful.

Whilst Europe may be in crisis, there could well be second boom in translation of fiction from Latin America. The major publishing countries of Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil have attracted greater focus in recent years. When asked to choose authors they would like to have translated, our publishing panel chose Mexicans Lolita Bosch, Elena Poniatowska, and Carmen Boullosa. However, there is great diversity to be found in the Peninsula itself, with writing in Galician, Catalan, and Basque on the increase. Jennifer Rodríguez spoke about the growing prominence of women writers in the Basque language, mirroring an upward trend in Basque publishing in general since the end of the dictatorship and the acceptance of Basque as an official language. School education in Basque is also common now, which has helped to push the development of Basque literature. Basque writers such as Bernardo Atxaga and Laura Mintegi are being translated into English, and Basque language and literature is taught at universities in the USA (Nevada) and the UK (Liverpool). Catalan and Galician literatures are also booming, with Jordi Puntí’s Maletes perdudes (Lost luggage) a hit at the recent European Literature Night at the British Library, and a growing number of anthologies of Galician poetry and fiction translated into English.

Rocio Rodjter (KCL) takes the microphone during the Q&A session.

Rocio Rodjter (KCL) takes the microphone during the Q&A session.

The study of translation itself is also becoming popular, as are courses on comparative literature, where the emphasis is not necessarily on reading texts in the original language as is the case with traditional modern languages degrees.  Although the decision to translate foreign fiction into English rests with the publisher, translators are influential and can help to bring attention to new writers. Although the English market is traditionally very closed to literature in translation (according to New Spanish Books it accounts for less than 5% of the market in the UK), some boutique publishers with significant financial backing are able to pick and choose without having to worry exclusively about commercial success. However, despite the low numbers, translated fiction from Spain is on the increase in the UK, and there are many individuals and bodies such as the Institut Ramon Llull and similar that are concentrating their efforts on promoting literature from the Peninsula. The success of other European writers in extremely popular genres such as detective fiction has also helped pave the way for other literature in translation for the Anglophone market.

The panel of publishers and translators, L-R: Amanda Hopkinson (City University), Rowan Cope (Little, Brown; Abacus; Virago), Jorge Postigo (ICEX), Kirsty Dunseath (Orion Books), Jennifer Arnold (University of Birmingham).

The panel of publishers and translators, L-R: Amanda Hopkinson (City University), Rowan Cope (Little, Brown; Abacus; Virago), Jorge Postigo (ICEX), Kirsty Dunseath (Orion Books), Jennifer Arnold (University of Birmingham).

Whilst the economic crisis may be hitting hard in Spain, we can certainly say that fiction from the Peninsula is  on an upward trajectory.  Interest in the literary and cultural output of Spain continues to flourish in the UK and beyond, whether in academic institutions or amongst the general reading public, in the original language or in translation. We hope that events such as this seminar will continue to highlight the strength and diversity of literature from Spain, and look forward to more insightful presentations and discussions at our next fiction seminar, this time on Latin America – details to be confirmed later in the year!

In the meantime, don’t forget to sign up for the ACLAIIR AGM & Seminar on 18 June. The theme of the seminar is e-books, and we have some great speakers lined up. See to register – it’s even free for postgraduates!

All photographs used in this post are by kind permission of the Instituto Cervantes, London, and are not to be copied, saved or reproduced. This post was compiled by Joanne Edwards, Hispanic Studies Subject Librarian (University of Oxford) and ACLAIIR Committee member.

El despertar de la escritura femenina en lengua castellana

Exhibition at the Museo de la Biblioteca Nacional de España, 30 January- 21 April.

In her seminal 1989 study, Las románticas : women writers and subjectivity in Spain, 1835-1850, Susan Kirkpatrick traces the trajectory of the likes of Carolina Coronado, Gertrudis Gómez Avellaneda or Fernán Caballero – the pseudonym of Cecilia Böhl de Faber – as they struggled to reconcile their literary ambitions with dominant notions of femininity. Bar a couple of prominent antecedents, like the formidable Santa Teresa de Jesús or Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, these nineteenth-century women were confronted with what appeared to be an almost complete lack of female presence in Spanish literary history. Faced with this vacuum, they had to look beyond their borders to the likes of Madame de Stäel, and across the centuries to legendary Antiquity poetess Sappho. Little did they know of the number of women who enthusiastically participated in the flourishing cultural scene of sixteenth and seventeenth century Spain, a period that witnessed the development of the printing press, just as Carolina Coronado and her contemporaries would pick up their pens almost two centuries later, after repeated improvements to Gutenberg’s original invention ushered in the golden era of periodicals and the emergence of mass media.

It is therefore perhaps rather fitting that the Biblitoteca Nacional in Madrid should host its exhibition on these forgotten women in the Sala de las Musas, the space dedicated to temporary curations and, like Sappho, another reference to Classical culture. Tucked away in the museum adjacent to the library, a legend at the entrance duly informs interested visitors as well as more unwilling troupes of school children that La Sala de la Musas is an allusion to the ‘Institution of Muses’ or ‘Musaeum’, a temple for the worship of these minor deities – the most famous example the now vanished Musaeum of Alexandria and its legendary library. Hence the origin of the word ‘museum’, the guide revealed to a group of ESO students as I entered this tiny sanctuary (‘is this going to be in the exam?’ I heard one whisper to the other). The free exhibition El despertar de la escritura femenina en lengua castellana, which runs from the 30th January to 21st April and that includes International Woman’s Day on the 8th March, offers a brief yet fascinating look into those women who enthusiastically participated in cultural life during a transition period that witnessed the rise of the printing press and the possibilities for dissemination it promised. This period constitutes another key threshold, containing as it does the rise of romance languages, despite Latin retaining a scholarly precedence.

The Biblioteca Nacional by night.

The Biblioteca Nacional by night.

That this awakening of female authorship unfolded in the increasingly standardized Castilian language, as the title of the exhibition highlights, bears witness to this transient period between Latin and its rising vernacular. It also reveals a hitherto unknown involvement of women – at least to those outside specialist fields – in the cultural production of their country. I doubt that the school children, having now formed an impromptu ensemble of scratching biros as they anxiously scribbled down notes, would be able to name many woman writers from the otherwise dutifully drilled Siglo de Oro. Lope de Vega would undoubtedly come to mind, and it is partly thanks to this prolific author that many now forgotten females have been recovered from historical oblivion. His Laurel de Apolo (1630), an invaluable source that lists the main poets of his day, also mentions countless women like Cristobalina Fernández de Alarcón (1576-1646), Juliana Morell (1594 –1653), Bernarda de Ferreira (1596-1644), María de Zayas (1590–1661) and of course Santa Teresa de Jesús (1515-1582), who Lope de Vega describes as ‘de ver que una mujer pudiese tanto/ que haya dado en la iglesia militante/ descalza una carrera de gigante.‘ Without forgetting Sor Marcela de San Félix (1605-1687), the illegitimate daughter of Lope de Vega himself and the “comedienne” Micaela de Luján. Sor Marcela, as her title reveals, took vows, but was also a poet, dramatist and even dabbled in acting, a career trajectory that to a modern audience is startlingly reminiscent of the plot of Sister Act.

It is worth remembering though that to enter a religious order was more akin to a career path than an exceptional conviction during a time when religion was so closely interwoven into the fabric of society, and the choices of women were more limited than today. For women who did not want to enter marriage, lacked independent means or wanted an education, becoming a nun was a socially accepted route to schooling. A section of the exhibition is thus dedicated to women like Santa Teresa de Jesús, Sor Ana de Jesús (1545-?, 1621), Sor Ana de San Bartolomé (1549-1626), Sor María de la Antigua (1566-1617) or Sor Hipólita de Jesús Rocaberti (1549-1624), and on the other side of the Atlantic the indefatigable Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1651-1695). Not only did these women write works that displayed their intellectual prowess, but they also played an important role as conductors and disseminators of (what have since become) classics of Spanish mysticism by such emblematic figures as San Juan de la Cruz and Fray Luis de León.

However, the convent walls were not always a safeguard from potential censorship and persecution. Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz was forced by a suspicious Inquisition to part from her many scientific instruments, her literary collection, and to become estranged even from her ideas, compelled to declare herself ‘la peor de todas’. Equally Santa Teresa de Jesús had all her books confiscated, who undeterred is said to have exclaimed ‘¡Ahora Señor, tú serás mi libro!‘. Others like Sor Ana de Bartolomé or Sor Ana de Jesús had to flee and lived out their days in Belgium.

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz by Miguel Cabrera

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz by Miguel Cabrera

The figure of the female mystic, who has later occasionally fallen into the trap of becoming romanticized or reduced to a mere national archetype, is not the only type of woman writer here presented. A section is dedicated to a number of women whose high social extraction coupled with a degree of freedom afforded by personal finances, position or other varying individual circumstances, enabled them to indulge in their literary ambitions. A central figure in this secular Parnassus is the incredibly successful yet enigmatic María de Zayas (1590–1661), whose works went through numerous editions and were translated into several languages before her literary star gradually faded into obscurity in the nineteenth-century, her novellas considered now vulgar. Despite her prominence during her lifetime, very little is known about the author herself, and her figure remains shrouded in mystery.

Similarly, the polyglot Luisa Sigea (1522-1560), who amongst other languages mastered Latin, Old Greek, Hebrew and Portuguese in addition to Spanish. Her best known work, Sintra, was penned in Latin, a testimony to her ability to effortlessly navigate between Classical culture and the vernacular. Sigea, however, was the victim of the printing technology that had placed her on the literary map. A Frenchman by the name of Nicolas Chorier took advantage of her fame by signing her name to an erotic novel he authored titled La Academia de las Damas. Oliva Sabucco (1562-?), on the other hand, had to defend the authorship of the seminal Nueva filosofía de la naturaleza del hombre, no conocida ni alcanzada de los grandes filósofos antiguos, published in 1587 and which exhibited an impressive knowledge of not only the prevailing philosophical debates of the time, but also the main medical and scientific developments. Hugely praised, her own father attempted to publish an edition in Portugal under his name.

Inspired by the talent, fearlessness and intellect of these pioneers, many of them hitherto unknown to me, I left the Sala de Musas and walked to the adjacent main library. As I traversed its corridors on the way to the main reading room, admiring the handsome neoclassical building, my eyes would routinely scan the portraits that decorate the galleries. Depicted on them are the recipients of the prestigious Cervantes prize, awarded since 1976 to authors deemed to have made a significant contribution to the Spanish language. I have so far spotted two women, although I have heard there is a third one, out of 38 writers in total. It is my hope that one day this sanctuary to knowledge houses more muses, that they are not rescued from the archives, dusted off and brought out only for special occasions in Sala de Musas. But that is a much bigger project, in which the national library in Madrid is but a mere piece.

Rocío Rødtjer is a full-time library lurker and a second year PhD student at King’s College London. Her thesis attempts to redefine conventional notions of modernity to accommodate the plethora of female bylines that started to populate the literary landscape of fin de siècle Spain, particularly in the press – an emblematic vehicle of this budding modernity.