The other day, through a colleague from Princeton University, Luís Gonçalves, I came across an article in the Brazilian magazine Bula: Literatura e Jornalismo Cultural titled “The Ten Best Brazilian Poems of All Time.” Luís’s sour disposition toward the content of such an extraordinary piece of news had been quick to manifest itself. As I read the article, I too, started developing a feeling of immense ill disposition, and though I did not quite know where the feeling was coming from, it wasn’t altogether unfamiliar. And then suddenly: Eureka! I understood that my tri-dimensional nausea, one of soul, body, and mind, was being caused by the fact that none of “the ten best Brazilian poems of all time” had been written by a woman. No poem belonged to “her”!
My aforementioned nausea was vigorously amplified when I realized that the list of the best poems had been chosen by “50 guest judges—writers, critics, professors [and] journalists.” These important personalities holding significant social and symbolical power had been given the task to “choose the most significant poems of all time by Brazilian authors.” Because of the highly masculine tendency of our beautiful Lusitanian language, I could not determine if among those “writers, critics, professors [and] journalists” there was a being with breasts and a vagina, or who otherwise identified as a woman.
Where are all the many Brazilian women, who have, throughout time, written powerful poems? Where is the light, liquid, inquisitive, unparalleled, and deep Clarice Lispector? Or Cecília Meireles, the only woman who was able to find a little hole to sneak through to be included in the longer list of the 24 best poems? Despite being a master of metaphoric and linguistic gymnastics, Meireles did not seem to possess the sufficient elegance to make the list of the ten best, according to the judges of such a famous (or infamous?) list. How much weight must one lose to fit in—one could ask, ironically.
Where is Adélia Prado, Maria Thereza Noronha, Leda Estergilda de Abreu, Dora Ferreira da Silva, Maria Esther Maciel, Nelilde Freitas, Mariana Botelho, Angélica Torres, Marly de Oliveira and Cora Carolina? Is it possible that they are sleeping beauties? That they are waiting for the kiss of the handsome and good prince? That they are lost, dormant in the realm of personal and social unconsciousness, the non-memory of the Brazilian cultural and institutional mechanisms still deeply entrenched in the smell of old billy goat? (Forgive my mountain talk, but I am from Beira Alta).
“The ten best poems of all time” is a sentence, coming at us with the thunderous weight of a seemingly eternal wave. Note the expansive, vagabond, and open vowels in the words “ten/dez,” “best/melhores,” “poems/poemas,” “all/todos,” and “time/tempos.” How infinite are these words, flying, flying, transporting us through centuries and centuries of a world where the voice of the woman is systematically ostracized, absent, invisible, despite the fact that she constantly tries to speak and write. Her voice is shut off, put in a dark, unopened drawer where the light does not see, does not want to see—because the Publisher-in-Chief, the Speaker-in-Chief, is not open to the feminine diatribe.
When I have a little girl (I still have not lost my hope, and every month my body expels impeccable dead eggs that were not put to good use), when I have a beautiful little girl, whom I will name Lucinda, how will I explain to her this absence, this being that is and is not, this being who gives and does not receive, who speaks but has no voice? I think about this and I already foresee Lucinda’s sad eyes, devoid of luminosity, she who has so much light. Lucinda, Lucinda, where can we find you, where are you and where are you going? I cannot find your immense light. And the world, this world is in such need of it—this world that is engulfing itself in darkness.
The low value given to women writers in the Lusophone world is evident at multiple levels: the frequent omission of books by women in school or other educational and cultural contexts and events, the lower number of books by women published by established publishing houses, the infrequent reviews that books by women get when compared to books by their male counterparts, and the general poor promotion of woman-authored books, among other factors. And it seems that we don’t discuss, or barely discuss, this problem. Perhaps we are afraid to be called feminists. There are some Lusophone women writers, who have in the past indicated that they do not like this label. Lídia Jorge comes to mind. And so does Nélida Piñon, though of course it does not take a very sophisticated understanding of what feminism is to agree that both these writers write powerful feminist/women-centered works.
The situation is perhaps most visible in the Lusophone world’s literary prizes. Between 1989 and 2013, we can count twenty-one men and only five women winning the Prémio Camões, the most important literary prize for Portuguese-speaking authors. The 2013 jury panel of the Prémio Camões included the following members: José Eduardo Agualusa, João Paulo Borges Coelho, José Carlos Vasconcelos, Clara Crabbé Rocha, Alcir Pécora, and Alberto da Costa e Silva. Five men and one woman. The prize given to Mia Couto was, without doubt, well-deserved. In 2012, the jury panel was composed of four men and two women, in 2011 it had four women and two men, in 2010 three men and three women, in 2009 five men and two women, in 2008 four men and two women, in 2007 four men and two women, in 2006 four men and two women, in 2005 five men and one women. These examples seem enough here.
Between 2003 and 2012, the Brazilian Prémio Portugal Telecom de Literatura (now the Oceanos-Prêmio de Literatura em Língua Portuguesa, and open to Lusophone writers beyond Brazil since 2007) was given to male writers thirty times and only two times to female writers. The jury panel in this case presents a much more balanced number of men and women, but it would be advisable to have more diversity in terms of the people comprising such panel.
If we look now at the Prémio José Saramago, which is given every other year, between 1999 and 2011 we count five male winners and only two women. I could not find specific information about the gender of all jury members since the prize’s inception, but I did notice that in later years we see a higher number of women and the ratios of men to women are more proportionate.
The Prémio Leya, which is open to all authors who have ties to Portuguese-speaking countries, is among the world’s most lucrative literary prizes. Begun in 2008, the prize was awarded to a woman for the first time in 2013. Its jury panel has always included five to six men and only one woman, and the jury members have barely changed.
When it comes to Portugal, it is almost always male writers who occupy the top positions on the lists put out by the largest and most established publishing houses (e.g., Grupo Leya and Bertrand) and also the ones who are the most promoted, published, and sold, and getting the majority of the prestigious literary prizes, as we have just seen. Moreover, it is also men who are most frequently invited to be part of important national or international events related to literature, are interviewed more frequently and are more regularly featured in prestigious literary journals.
The low visibility of writing by women seems to be even more apparent in countries like Angola, Mozambique, Cape Verde, and Guinea-Bissau, where women have less access to publishing mechanisms. We see even fewer women being published or attaining the level or prestige of their male counterparts. I recently read a text by the Mozambican writer Paulina Chiziane where she speaks of the difficulty she had in getting published in Mozambique and being taken seriously as a writer before she became established as an important literary voice. She even notes that she got some indecent propositions from men who had power within the publishing industry.
There are of course other historic and socio-cultural reasons why women writers still occupy a very peripheral position in literature in countries like Mozambique, which I cannot fully address here. But let me just note that orature was the norm in Mozambique before Portuguese colonization and the Portuguese colonial regime favored the education of the male colonial subject. And of course, patriarchal systems have been, for the most part, the norm in Mozambique—whether we are referring to before or after Portuguese (or Arab, for that matter) colonization.
Is our língua always the língua of Camões, Pessoa, and Saramago, or lately the língua of Cristiano Ronaldo? I must say that I get tired of hearing these names constantly, and the North American diasporic communities are, it seems to me, even more guilty of what I will refer to here as an overload of phallocentric naming, of masculine symbolisms, perhaps because they are in a “foreign” land—a land that may question or take away some of their male power/privilege. The constant affirmation of the male order and tradition may serve to bring back some of that power.
And, we could also add: when the “nation” is distant (and because we may unquestionably believe in its legitimacy as a political model) we create an even more traditional “little” nation inside the “big” nation. To be “other” is hard—and so we “other” are even more “other.” As Frantz Fanon would have argued, when a subject’s power is taken away or diminished, he may try to restore it by affirming his superiority in relation to another (perceived) weaker subject (in this case, the woman). This constitutes, of course, a profoundly sad cycle of violence and power struggles. Should we not find another way? Yes, we should. Indeed we must.
In Toronto alone we have media outlets such as Radio Camões, Camões TV, and several other “Camonian-like” counterparts who have shown a very poor understanding of women’s issues. But these media outlets are owned and controlled mostly by males (many, in fact, by one single person) and so they have the power to say whatever pleases them without even bothering to do basic research on the matter—thus perpetuating patriarchal views and women’s invisibility. And perhaps not surprisingly, many men and women in the Portuguese community, who ought to be able to speak up, listen to such crap and say nothing because there are multiple interests at hand. And of course we cannot forget the fact that the fear of openly discussing these important matters and confronting the dominant masculine order can also be tied to the ultra-religious, conservative, and patriarchal historical past of the beautiful Lusitanian land.
In Toronto we also have the Lusitano restaurant, and I swear I have also seen at least one Viriato somewhere. And we have a Camões Square, and we have a Gallery of Portuguese Pioneers that lists dozens and dozens of men and only two women.
And, and, and… I am well aware I am using this word, a simple conjunction, to the extreme here. Many overzealous editors might accuse me of not being able to write well, write properly, of following an untamed, lunatic, and sloppy grammar. But I assure you it is not that. It is only that my língua wants to speak, untamed at last. A ruler of its own rules and roles too, a grammarian of a “we” singing a grammar yet to be taught to little children in schools, little children who will one day become adults, those beings with big hands, gentle, long, never-ending fingers that command the world, making it be.
Yes, for I mastered the language of the master to a T and then woke up one day knowing that all my verbs were passive, choking me into paralysis. I then, slowly, started to dream: about vast fields where I could run unimpeded, like I did with my darling friend Isabel when we were little girls and knew all the truths of this world and conjured up an unimaginable beyond. We and the goats that we guarded: in the playing, praying fields of Beira Alta. The goats became unicorns and we became with them, flying through mountains, beyond mountains, beyond suns, joining the stars. My darling friend Isabel, who died so young, so young and a virgin, noiva em branco para Deus, like the priest said when performing the last rites.
Hilary Owen and Cláudia Pazos Alonzo’s important and groundbreaking book, Antigone's Daughters?: Gender, Genealogy and the Politics of Authorship in 20th-Century Portuguese Women’s Writing, published in 2011, discusses the invisibility and silencing of female Portuguese writers throughout the 20th century, the difficulty they have had in affirming their voice and being recognized within a highly masculine and patriarchal literary canon. This study also points out that, unfortunately, women writers often adopt “masculine” writing strategies, where the voice, presence, and intellectual and physical force of the feminine appear camouflaged, or are absent so that their works can be accepted by a patriarchal literary elite.
In 1972, the Três Marias (Three Marias) had tried to speak in a língua that was closer to their own selves; they had tried to liberate the beautiful língua lusa that possesses in itself so many and so much and wants to breathe through all its lungs, but their voice was quickly shut down, muted, arrested… They were also literally arrested, tried for blasphemy. (See the book Novas Cartas Portuguesas [New Portuguese Letters] and the Novas Cartas Portuguesas: 40 Anos Depois [40 Years Later] project online for more.)
It seems relevant to note here that in 2013, when I submitted the long version of this essay to prestigious literary journals in Portugal, I encountered reticence and resistance, or was altogether ignored. One of those journals, Colóquio/Letras, said the following: “Despite being interesting, the essay has a polemical tone not adequate to the spirit of our journal, as defined since its inception, and as explained on our website under the rubric “História/History.” Polemic indeed it is, and polemic indeed must it be, for is it not the polemical that brings about change? Is it not the polemical that makes us reconsider the way things are, and envisage the way that they perhaps should be, ought to be? Perhaps to avoid the polemic is to forever inhabit the castle where the master reigns, to be subservient to an oppressive status quo. This answer reminds me of what happened to the Three Marias, because what they wrote was also considered a “blasphemy,” an affront to good Portuguese morals, deeply steeped in repressive Catholicism. Another national journal, Jornal de Letras, did not even bother to reply.
The silencing of women in literature is not confined to Lusophone countries and exists at various levels in many other countries. For example, a 2013 article in El País titled “Escritoras silenciadas en clase de literatura” addresses this situation in relation to Spain. When it comes to Canada, we also note an enormous discrepancy in the number of reviews done on poetry books written by women when compared to books by men, and we also detect a predominance of male reviewers. For the sake of example, during approximately a year and a half (between 2010 and 2012), National Post, a widely read mainstream Canadian newspaper, published thirteen reviews of poetry books written by men and two of books written by women, and the reviewer was almost always the same man.
As VIDA: Women in Literary Arts helped reveal, prestigious Anglophone literary journals such as The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, The Paris Review and others of similar international clout have had abysmal discrepancies in the number of books written by men receiving reviews when compared to books by women, and also in the number of men and women doing the reviews: men receive, in the majority of cases, double or even triple attention and are also the ones doing most of the reviews.
A few more questions we might ponder now: What are the criteria used to decide what constitutes good literature, good poetry? What parameters, models, ideologies, and epistemologies are guiding such criteria? How are these guided and framed by the patriarchal structures that have dominated our society for centuries? Are books by women included in the curriculum of various educational institutions, from elementary to post-secondary schools? Who designs the curriculums at these various institutional levels, and what are the criteria used to choose what books to include? Who gets selected to be part of literary juries for prizes or other opportunities? Who is included in literary events, who is excluded, and why? Who gets promoted as national literary models? Where are books by women and men published? Are the more established publishers equally open to accepting books by both genders? Or are they showing preference (albeit unconscious) for books by men—a preference that may be tied to entrenched institutionalized patriarchal systems that affect our choices at many levels, functioning as a type of preconception? We could ask other questions, but I think these will suffice for the moment.
As we know (or should know), there are multiple unfortunate social and historical reasons that have, throughout the vast centuries of life on this beautiful planet of ours, allowed men to write more than women. But we do indeed live in the 21st century and still we consistently see that it is men who mostly get published by established published houses, who receive the majority of reviews, who are more promoted, and who are more visible in all kinds of contexts, including in schools, and in international literary events. So I cannot help but think that it is indeed the old ideology of male privilege that continues to dictate most of the action within the literary industry at large. And this we call institutionalized, editorial, educational, and cultural patriarchy: an ideology that is so enmeshed in itself and so self-unaware that it cannot even see the darkness in which it lives.
My mother did not know how to write: she gave birth to ten children. For decades and decades life came out of her and no one ever thanked her sufficiently. A woman of labor and in labor is forgotten like that. Her voice and her desire to write were annihilated by other more important duties, staring at her right in the eye: boys and girls asking for bread. Ten of them.
I write, my sister writes, and has been writing for a long time. Finding the time she can to give voice to the soul and to life (her life) and find reason to continue and understand and suffer and love. I write, my sister writes… We spend nights awake, stolen from sleep, because during the day the children are rascals exploring life, running everywhere, and we ought to guard them, watch them, guide them. These duties added to so many others—calling us when the sun is up, high in the sky. We spend nights awake to give birth to this thing that eats at us inside, this thing that wants to illuminate the world and offer some other dimension, open up an angle through which a new song can be sung, a new word, a new alphabet can be invented. But our egg, which we birth in blood and sweat, is not seen in the world, lighting it up, paving the roads to the future, feeding the present.
Our egg remains hidden in our nest. But we, who gave birth to it, already know it well. What we want, what we yearn for, is for it to be seen, eaten, caressed by the world, to softly and fluidly enter the ears of the other—that other whom we deeply want to love and desire to know better. What we want, what we yearn for, is for it to be seen, eaten, caressed by the other, so that he can also know us better, more profoundly, and in so doing, be able to better see himself in the mirror that we offer him. Two beings: you and I, becoming (being) through one another so that both of us will be reflected in the faces of little girls and boys born every day from both our bodies, yours and mine, because up until now we have not yet been able to bring life into the world any other way.
Our procreation. Little boys and girls who go to school, read books, hear lectures, write Masters and PhD dissertations, compose pastoral symphonies—little boys and girls discovering the genome we are made of, in awe, with awe at the richness and diversity of our biology, our souls, our potentials. Boys and girls who have difficulty finding female models in the harsh terrain where we walk every day, in the cultural, social, and political axes, where we continuously struggle to survive—feminine epistemologies that will teach them, opening for them astonishingly beautiful doors with their unique way of being, seeing, and feeling the world.
Double frames: widening the view before the playing field (like Isabel and I, in the playing, praying fields of Beira Alta—when we imagined the world). The mirror that they now have (those boys and girls), through which they constantly look at themselves is not complete, it lacks the other light, which is different but of equal value, dignity, and honor. This light would give them, those boys and girls, a nuanced, full(er) existence. As Emmanuel Lévinas points out, it is the other, an other different from us, who assures (reassures, too) our self, reminding us that we are a person, that we have an “I.”
And do you remember what the astute Luce Irigaray says, that woman of pure, smooth, and poetic philosophy, do you remember what she says in her “Fecundity of the Caress,” correcting the ontological posture of Emmanuel Lévinas a little, for he sometimes stinks a little too much of exacerbated masculinity? Do you remember what she says, how she extends Lévinas’s idea of relationality to encompass the otherness of the female and the otherness of the male, how she argues that the male and the female complement one another in their difference, and that it is in fact this difference (this otherness) that aids the development, the birth of the other (the male and the female)? Let me remind you how she says it in her own words:
The most necessary guardian of my life is the other’s flesh. Approaching and speaking to me with his hands. Bringing me back to life more intimately than any regenerative nourishment, the other’s hands, these palms with which he approaches without going through me, give me back the borders of my body and call me to the remembrance of the most profound intimacy…. Both fulfilling the cycles of their solitude to come back to the other…. Touching can also place a limit on the reabsorption of the other in the same. Giving the other her contours, calling her to them, amounts to inviting her to live where she is without becoming other, without appropriating herself…. To give back to the other the possible site of his identity, of his intimacy: a second birth that returns one to innocence…. Dwelling with the self, and with the other—while letting the other go…. Remembering the act not as a simple discharge of energy but for its characteristic intensity, sensation, color, and rhythm…. A kind of house that shelters without enclosing me, untying and tying me to the other, as to one who helps me to build and inhabit…. Scent or premonition between my self and the other, this memory of the flesh as the place of approach means ethical fidelity to incarnation. To destroy it is to risk the suppression of alterity, both God’s and the other’s. Thereby dissolving any possibility of access to transcendence.
What she says is Beautiful. What she says and how she says it, using language like a dance of freedom, where you feel like you are swimming in a circular, never-ending, benign sea; your body and soul are yours and also the other’s, your self is a self and yet it is also an other, and it is this “otherness” (yours and theirs), in its strangeness and incomplete accessibility, that enlarges your beingness, your vision, your awe, your divinity, your possibility.
It is “her” who reveals to “him” what “he” is, or aids in that revelation—through the gentleness of a hug that wants to feel his body, his contour, but without wanting to break it, to absorb it in itself (for we are not cannibals, or we are and we are not). It is “him” who reveals to “her” what “she” is (or aids in that revelation)—through the gentleness of a hug that wants to feel her body, her contour, but acting carefully not to break it, not to incorporate it in itself (for we are not cannibals, or we are and we are not).
Do you also remember the fabulous tale of Ugolina, the bitch in José Saramago’s novel O ano da morte de Ricardo Reis (The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis) who ate her own puppies? It’s a tale that evokes the many internalized oppressions and ideologies we carry within us and which make us act in unconscious self-destructive ways. Do you recall why the sinister bitch ate her own offspring? Let me remind you. She destroyed her little ones because she lacked adequate and well-balanced nutrition during pregnancy. She suffered, we can infer from all the symbolism embedded in the story, from an overindulgence in masculine meat (the great, thick, long, omnipresent, and destructive Phallus). And so the poor animal was unable to find within her own self a single clean, healthy, and uncorrupted cell—one that would be open to loving her own feminine body, mind, and spirit, and in that act of brave self-affirmation open up a little door from which to show the world the precious matter she carried inside herself: that shining gem eagerly waiting for a home in the outside world. But Ugolina, ladies and gentlemen, was a bitch living during Salazar’s time: the time of paternal, patriarchal, and religious fascism. Or so it seems, for we are still sisters of Ugolina ourselves, eating from the same (similar) Phallus.
Do you recall the solution presented in the novel for this act of horrendous (auto)cannibalism? Let me remind you: to give Ugolina adequate, balanced nutrition composed of different types of food, in other words, a proper “ideological nutrition” that would entail affirming women’s values through various social, cultural, and political mechanisms so that she could be seen, heard, spoken to, spoken of, exist, feel that she existed… In the novel, we are also told that if switching to balanced nutrition does not fix the problem, and the animal keeps eating her own puppies (her own self, in fact), then the solution to end the malevolent, deprived behavior is to kill the bitch (or not allow her to mate, or even to have her spayed).
This seems a rather radical feminist position. Marxist, too—but we cannot deal with that beast here as we would need another equally long, if not longer, diatribe. Perhaps it is indeed too radical, but as some will argue, when necessity speaks, it demands. As a female character in one of Saramago’s other novels, A jangada de pedra (The Stone Raft), tells us: “Sou feminista por irritação” [“I am a feminist by irritation”], in other words, when it is necessary.
Unfortunately, the need to be a feminist, to act as a feminist, to write as a feminist, to stand up for the rights of women, continues to be a very real one in our society—for we have plenty of occasions where She is discarded, annihilated, stepped on. Were that not the case, I would not have availed myself to write this diatribe, for I do have many other commitments awaiting my attention—and which in fact put bread on my table. But bread alone does not feed the soul. Bread alone does not nourish all that we are. The tragic story of Ugolina has taught us that.
Today I spoke. Through my own voice—and that of my mother. And so many others. I am not sure I was heard. If you heard me, send me a signal, write me a letter.
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Irigaray, Luce. “The Fecundity of the Caress.” Feminist Interpretations of Emmanuel Levinas. Ed. Tina Chanter. University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State UP, 2001.
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Zed, Natalie. “Closing the Gap: Reviewing Canadian Books of Poetry Written by Women.”