Carmen Boullosa (trans. Leland H. Chambers). Grove Press. 192 pp, $12.00
Leaving Tabasco Carmen Boullosa (trans. Geoff Hargreaves). Grove Press. 256 pp, $13.00
Cleopatra Dismounts Carmen Boullosa (trans. Geoff Hargreaves). Grove Press. 240 pp, $13.00
“Woman writer” is, of course, a problematic term. It demonstrates two terrible truisms of contemporary fiction—that there are too few women writing it, and when they do, they write about the clichés that are supposed to be of interest to women, like eating, praying, and loving. (A fourth, parenting, occasionally gets thrown into the mix, too.)
But to call Carmen Boullosa a “woman writer”—and one of Mexico’s best known—seems like a fair description. Off the page, Boullosa is a committed activist for women’s issues, particularly reproductive rights. As a writer, she is committed to depicting what she calls the “universe of the feminine.” Her books are patently female, although not topically speaking—romantic plotlines, if included, are always injected with irony. Boullosa writes with thick, lurid prose about women’s bodies. Her books include scenes of mass menstruation and lesbian orgies, written with an unabashed attention to detail. Her prose—which has been well preserved by her translators, Leland Chambers and Geoff Hargreaves—is swollen with sensuality. For example, an excerpt from a scene in They’re Cows, We’re Pigs, (originally Son Vacas, Somos Puercos) when men are unloading boxes off a ship: “Because the sounds they produced with the palms of their hands and other parts of their bodies, and with skins stretched over frames or wooden boxes, forever striking them until the feverish image of what is only possible when bodies are rubbing together in the black ceremony of the flesh.” Or the way she describes a baker rolling out dough in Leaving Tabasco (originally Treinte Años): “He was doing it with his arms, chest, and one thigh completely sunk in the dough. For some reason, I was reminded of the curate jammed up against my mother’s buttocks.” I almost blush as I type it.
In photos, Boullosa is pictured with her long hair draped over her shoulder, which tends to be left uncovered. Her eyes are outlined in dark black and opened unnaturally wide, as if about propel out of her face. Her seductive stance and observing gaze is an appropriate reflection of her writing; along with her sexy word choice, she tends towards narrators who are uprooted in one sense or another—itinerant pirates, globe trotting writers, deposed emperors—describing a world they do not fully belong to. This choice is partly a feminist critique, partly a statement on the role of novelist, whose assignment, Boullosa would argue, is to distance herself from her subject as a means to inspire reflection.
In an interview with BOMB magazine, Boullosa said that “the market joyfully promotes worthless women writers as long as they reinforce the idea that ladies are dumb and sensitive.” Perhaps this explains why so little of her writing—which has won the Café Gijón Prize and was lauded by Roberto Bolaño, among other Latin American literary juggernauts—has been translated into English. Only three of her novels and fragments of her other work, which includes poetry, plays, and essays, are available for English readers. The three novels are: They’re Cows, We’re Pigs, Leaving Tabasco, and Cleopatra Dismounts (Originally, De un salto descabalga la reina).
They’re Cows, We’re Pigs is Boullosa’s best-known novel and her first to be translated. It’s story about a band of roving pirates who live on an island in the Caribbean. The island—known as Tortuga—is a male-only colony. This doesn’t pose much of a problem: there’s a brothel close-by and, besides, the pirates only touch down in Tortuga between rampaging missions. The pirates are cold-blooded murders who thrive off their killings, and their disposition rubs off on the island somehow. “It was blood, not water that kept Tortuga adrift in the middle of the sea,” Boullosa says, without much more explanation. This is typical of Boullosa—she writes about the fantastic without the gluttony of internal logic, as in science fiction, nor the irreverence of the surreal. Instead her novels include layers of whimsical details—like the blood-gorged Island—that can just as easily be taken as metaphor. Her novels are better categorized as realistic magic than magical realist—when the out-of-the-ordinary occurs, as it often does, it’s framed as a hallucination or excused as a poetic flourish.
However, in Boullosa’s books the fantastic is not limited to a spattering of confusing sentences. It’s the centerfold. Boullosa chooses faraway lands—both in place and time – to write about: Cleopatra’s Egypt, 17th-century pirates, Mexico’s mahogany jungles.
Born in Mexico in 1954, she moved to Brooklyn just a few years ago. “I’m not a Latino writer,” Boullosa told The Brooklyn Rail. “I am a Mexican writer. I publish my books in Mexico and Spain and have my readers there. My literary world is in Mexico.” She continues to write in Spanish, and most of her recent work is set back home. As evidenced by her choice of narrators, Boullosa appears to believe that to be an outsider is a privileged position; her fiction affirms a mantra among journalists that its hard to see something clearly when you’re too close to it.
Leaving Tabasco is a delightful, beautifully written coming-of-age tale about Delmira Ulloa, who, like all the best adolescent narrators, is both precocious and a bit spacey. Delmira’s home is the very opposite of Tortuga—only women are granted entry into her grandmother’s farm. But Delmira’s home life is anything but a bastion of womanly warmth. Her grandmother is strict and discouraging; her mother sleepy and disinterested. When Delmira is nearly raped, her family is quick to blame her for the encounter.
Delmira is an imaginative one: she watches her family’s cook, Luz, melt into a puddle of urine. She describes how the old man at the weekly market—who knows the truth behind the mystery of her father’s whereabouts—can instantaneously erect a shelter of scarves whenever they need to speak in private. Roasted lizards come to life, stone figures loot from people’s homes, a woman turns into smoke. The easy metamorphosis between humans and animals, solids and gases couldn’t be more different that the rigid social structure in Delmira’s small town, where there’s an impermeable line between indigenous people and “nice people,” as her grandmother chooses to phrase it. All these magical occurrences are narrated from the perspective of a bored young girl, desperately in need of some escapism. As in They’re Cows, We’re Pigs, whether or not these things really happen is never completely clear. At one point Delmira comes down with a bad fever and starts to question her own memories. “I could no longer say for certain if the odd goings-on that had plagued our Sundays were factual. I had no one to ask,” she says.
Delmira’s salvation from the boredom of small-town life is a high school teacher, who also serves as the local envoy for all things ’60s. The year is 1967 and the teacher has his students read about the Cuban Revolution and listen to John Lennon; later on they stage a rally that draws the interest of the whole country. The late ’60s and ’70s was a transformative period in Boullosa’s life. She was living in Mexico City in its heyday. “The literary world was small and close-knit, and we lived from party to party,” Boullosa wrote in an essay for The Nation. “It was a good time to be in Mexico City, which was a beautiful place back then. Depending on your preferences, you could talk to Paz or Huerta, Luis Rius, Juan José Arreola, Luis Cardoza y Aragón, Tito Monterroso, Juan Rulfo or Salvador Elizondo–not to mention García Márquez and Álvaro Mutis.” Boullosa and Roberto Bolaño ran in overlapping circles, through Bolaño and the infrarealists, a literary cult with socialist leanings, made Boullosa fearful that they would declare her readings too elitist and sabotage them with jeers. (The Savage Detectives is Bolaño’s ode to this period of his life.) The two met many years later, after Bolaño had decamped to Spain; they admired one another’s work and became regular correspondents.
In addition to a strong nostalgia for Mexico City’s golden years, the two of them shared a need to distance themselves from those memories. Bolaño, who spent most of his adult life in Spain, wrote “the true poet is always leaving himself behind.” Delmira follows suit. At the conclusion of the novel, Delmira writes from Europe, thirty years later. “I fled here to write. But it didn’t turn out that way. I avoided my encounter with the truth to meet up once again with my past, my infancy.” Her process closely resembles Boullosa’s, for whom escape is crucial to the novelist’s life. “I am a traveling writer who leaves the margins of her culture for nourishment and in order to see herself through the eyes of another,” Boullosa has said.
Cleopatra Dismounts, the most recent of the Boullosa’s books to be published in English, is told in three sections: first, a lovelorn Cleopatra, moments away from her execution, describes the sorrows of her life, her affair with Mark Anthony foremost among them. This section is a continuous wail; the ratio of sentences that end in periods to exclamation points is about one to one. Like any wailing woman, you hope that she wraps things up soon. Luckily, her scribe, Diomedes, interjects and explains that the preceding tirade wasn’t the real voice of Cleopatra; the Romans had rewritten the text to make Cleopatra sound like a temperamental head-case, which she most certainly was not. “They focus on one aspect of her, representing her as a creature who saw life through eyes blurred by her feelings. An insulting straitjacket for a woman of her energy, complexity, and violence,” he explains. The rest of the novel is Diomedes’ attempt correct the record.
In the next section, Cleopatra tells the story of how she fled Rome as young girl to reclaim the Egyptian throne, a tale peppered with the prose of a number of ancient writers, Horace particularly. In the last—and most titillating—section, Diomedes tries convey what Cleopatra actually said just before she died. This time, she recounts the week she spent with a band of women warriors, known as the Amazons, who are as beautiful as they are gallant, and have a community-wide orgy before falling to sleep each night. The Amazons, unlike the Tortuga fraternity or the matriarchal home of Delmira’s iron-fisted grandmother, is somewhat of a utopia. Cleopatra embraces the Amazons at first, but ultimately concludes that they are repulsive and cuts off all ties to them. She then tries, unsuccessfully, to forge her way through the patriarchy of Rome in 44 B.C. “I opted to see myself through the eyes of a man,” Cleopatra realizes. This decision—conforming to the patriarchy—is what leads Cleopatra to her demise, during her life and after it.
Boullosa believes that the publishing world is not as receptive to women’s voices as it was in her youth. “When I started to publish, at the end of the ’70s, the literary world in Mexico celebrated the emergence of a generation composed mostly of women writers,” Boullosa told BOMB. “It’s hard to explain why the younger generations are more misogynist.” Perhaps this is why she writes about Mexico not from within but from its margins—the gender politics of Mexico City forced her there. On the other hand, Boullosa’s writing is decidedly not autobiographical—unlike that of many “women writers”—and her interest in marginality stems neither from her own experience nor a moral imperative to communicate on behalf of the victim, as in the social realism of early 20th-century Latin American literature. Boullosa chooses narrators who, like her, live on the outskirts by choice—it is their brilliance or creativity that drove them away. In Duerme—one of Boullosa’s novels that is not translated and ought to be—a young European girl named Claire dresses like a man in order to move to the Spanish colonies and escape a life as prostitute. Her identity changes innumerable times in the book, from a nobleman to an indigenous woman and back again, and Claire becomes immortal, resistant to even the most brutal punishments, and free to trample about the rigid social order of colonial Mexico. For Boullosa, to be on the margins is anything but a curse—why else would she have left Mexico where, she has said, her “imaginations, memories, and fictional lives take place.”
Jessica Weisberg is a freelance writer and a fact checker at The New Yorker. Her writing has been published in n+1, The Nation, and AlterNet, among others.
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