«A Dissertation Submitted to the Graduate Faculty of the Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College in partial fulfillment of ...»
Although whiteness is still upheld as the norm, its definition is more inclusive than in the U.S. Typically in the Caribbean if you are not black you are white, whereas in North America it is the reverse…None of this implies an absence of racism or prejudice, but with roughly half the population being white and another 40 percent considered to be of mixed blood (which, of course, includes degrees of white blood), it is not difficult to see how “negotiating degrees of whiteness” could become a complex ensemble of social, racial, and cultural maneuverings. Thus, in Puerto Rico miscegenation was ultimately seen as a whitening of the black and brown population, and not the opposite. 16 If one considers this view, then one can clearly understand Spivak’s and Hall’s claim that an Other cannot be named as such without a self held against it and that identity is
formed on the basis of exclusion. Therefore, identity is not fixed:
Throughout their careers, identities can function as points of identification and attachment only because of their capacity to exclude, to leave out, to render ‘outside’ abjected…The unity the internal homogeneity, which the term identity treats as foundational is not a natural, but a constructed form of closure, every identity naming as its necessary, even if silenced and unspoken other, that which it ‘lacks.’ 17 In the case of Puerto Rico, blacks and mulattos are othered when held up against the “selves” of white elite Puerto Ricans of European descent, who consider themselves “white.” However, the elite, too, are “Other” when held up against the imperialistic self of the U.S. Therefore, any marginalization be it a result of race or nationality is worthy of treatment in a text. Ultimately, Ferré and Rhys have experienced marginalization to the extent that they can write about the subject matter in their novels without somehow being inauthentic. Another possibility would be to exclude characters such as Petra from the narrative, but this defies reality and the nature of a racially diverse Caribbean. What then, is the alternative for the Creole or Puerto Rican writer? In my view, she has created powerful and compelling Afro Caribbean characters who are forced to cope with adversity but whose wisdom and strength supersede that of their supposed “superiors.” In so doing, those who were once the elite are now the marginalized, following the pattern, for example, of Isabel’s husband Quintín.
Alan West-Durán, “Puerto Rico: The pleasures and traumas of race,” Centro Journal 27, no. 1 (Spring 2005): 54.
Hall, Questions of Cultural Identity, 5.
Quintín’s Marginalization Quintín is an interesting character study, for he becomes increasingly more evil.
The forward of the novel depicts an act of extreme violence on his part, when he nearly beats a boy to death. However, as the novel continues, the reader becomes aware of Quintín’s positive and negative attributes, and may nearly forget the incident with the boy. It is toward the end of the novel that his cruelty is exposed, and it is the text that enlightens the reader and demonstrates Quintín’s obsession with authority and power.
Beginning with the manuscript, Quintín scribbles his own version of events in the margins in an attempt to undermine the truth of Isabel’s story. Some of his corrections are quite convincing, most notably the story of the ballet, when Quintín reveals that Isabel, in a fit of jealously, is the mysterious person who lifts the curtain at the theater (193). His attempt to alter Isabel’s text could also be viewed in a political light. Quintín adamantly supports statehood, and as I have already noted, women in the novel tend to be supporters of independence, because they associate Puerto Rico’s independence from the U.S. to independence from their husbands in their marriages.
Quintín’s desire for control over Isabel parallels his wish for Puerto Rico to hand control over to the U.S. Supporters of independence have called Puerto Rico’s relationship to the U.S. a colonial one, and they see themselves as trapped under America’s influence. If one accepts this view, then Isabel, like Antoinette, may be viewed as a colonial subject who must revolt against her oppressor.
Writing the text is Isabel’s way of resisting the control that Quintín has over her, and Quintín’s altering of her text is his way of attempting to regain that control. This use of the text is reminiscent of Rochester’s drawing, a topic discussed in chapter two, and the text he creates in order to assert his authority and his control over Antoinette’s future.
Similarly, Quintín repeatedly contemplates burning the manuscript, and continually remarks on the rebellious and feminist nature of Isabel’s text, which he so violently opposes. Quintín despises Petra, the wise and independent medicine woman (who shares many common characteristics with Christophine, also an enemy of Rochester). Later in Isabel’s novel, we learn some horrific things about Quintín, many of which recall Rochester. For instance, Quintín essentially disowns his son for wanting to marry a woman whose bloodline is not pure and whose ancestry has “black” blood. Similarly, Rochester comes to suspect that Antoinette also has the same blood in her, and he is repelled by the idea. Despite Quintín’s racist feelings, this does not prevent him from raping Carmelina, Petra’s granddaughter, an event that is not unlike Rochester’s affair with a black servant girl to spite Antoinette. Amazingly, Quintín justifies the act of violence against Carmelina, and what is perhaps even more surprising, Isabel forgives him. Isabel’s complicity is baffling in this novel. She complies with Quintín’s wish to be sterilized, she does not put up a fight when Quintín essentially disowns their son, Manuel, and she signs his revised will which cuts both sons out of his inheritance. She even acknowledges that Quintín is partly responsible for his brother’s suicide. In this way, she is also linked to Antoinette, for Antoinette meekly follows Rochester to England rather than stay on the island. As previously mentioned, Isabel did not foresee a future as a housewife, yet this is what she becomes. As Isabel settles into this role, her writing suffers. She mentions that she goes years without picking up a pen, and Coral, her son’s radical girlfriend, exposes Isabel’s life as lie, calling her a “sellout and a sham” (353).
The reader sees that there is some truth to the statement, for Isabel goes through her life with a determination to be an independent woman expressing her desires for Puerto Rico to be an independent nation, yet in reality she becomes submissive and toward the end of her marriage lives in fear of her husband.
When Isabel begins secretly writing her novel, however, she asserts her own authority simply by telling her side of the story, recounting family legacies that divulge the personal struggles of each character. For instance, without Isabel providing details of Rebecca’s former passions, the reader could easily see her as another submissive wife.
Isabel also reveals how intense radicalism can have extreme consequences, as in the case of Quintín’s grandfather, who was so passionate about statehood that he was pressured to kill Independista rebels. With insight into this deeper meaning, the reader sees beyond the American history and propaganda that Buenaventura witnesses at the beginning of the novel. The novel lays bare the identity struggle of an island that has been shuffled from one country to another, and whose official language, culture, and political status are therefore continually questioned. Isabel is one character of many in this dissertation that uses the text to fill in the gaps of the “non-histoire” formerly provided by Western tradition. As author, Isabel reinforces the validity of Puerto Rico as an autonomous island. Perhaps more importantly, as author, her text allows her to take her independence back from Quintín.
On several occasions Quintín contemplates burning Isabel’s manuscript, and this repeated thought brings forth the element of fire, which will envelope the house on the lagoon at the end of the novel. Isabel’s manuscript escapes the flames, protected by Elegguà the African god, but the fact that the house is set ablaze creates another parallel to Wide Sargasso Sea. Antoinette sets fire to the English house, which represents the destruction of the canonical text and creates a path for post-colonial literature, one that tells the Other’s story. When Antoinette gazes at the fire, she sees events from her past
unfold before her :
Then I turned around and I saw the sky. It was red and all my life was in it. I saw the grandfather clock and Aunt Cora’s patchwork, all colours, I saw the orchids and the stephanotis and the jasmine and the tree of life in flames. I saw the chandelier and the red carpet downstairs and the bamboos and the tree ferns, the gold ferns and the silver and the soft green velvet of the moss and the picture of the Miller’s Daughter. I heard the parrot call as he did when he saw a stranger, Qui est là? Qui est là? And the man who hated me was calling too, Bertha! Bertha! (189) Isabel does not set fire to the house on the lagoon herself, but when she stares at the
blaze, her experience is similar to Antoinette’s, for she sees her life flash before her:
Then I saw my life unreel before me like a film: Quintín rising from our rattan sofa at Aurora Street, taking off his belt and whipping the sixteen year old boy for singing me a love song; Ignacio shooting himself and Petra standing all alone by his grave;
Margarita coming out of the operating room, pale as an alabaster statue, Carmelina and Quintín making love among the mangroves; Quintín unleashing his dogs so they would attack his own sons and making me sign a will to disinherit them; Perla in her coffin, her dark hair flowing around her like a shroud. And I told myself nothing, nothing in the world could justify such violence. (407) Most of the events seen in the fire are caused by Quintín’s desire for power and by his inability to control his temper. A paragraph later, Isabel, in her own act of violence, murders Quintín in self-defense.
As author, Isabel has accomplished two important tasks. First, she has reversed the traditional gender roles of her culture by reducing Quintín’s voice to the margins of her manuscript. Though, as previously noted, Isabel has sometimes been a weak figure in the novel, emulating the subservient housewife, it is important to remember that the entire work is under her pen. When Quintín voices his dissatisfaction with her story, he does so in the margins of her pages, and he admits that his writing style does not possess the artistic flair of hers. Isabel has usurped Quintín’s authority, which brings to light the second important task she has accomplished: she completely writes him out of the story.
By doing so, she reverses the dominating influence, as have all the authors of study in this dissertation. While characters like Petra, Esmeralda, and Coral remain in the story, the dominant white male is forced out. Quintín’s precarious position in the margins, a place where Puerto Rican women and Afro Caribbean characters have traditionally remained, now causes him to be marginalized. With Quintín’s murder, the reversal is complete, a reversal of power similar to Antoinette’s final act in Wide Sargasso Sea.
Silence and Otherness in Tina De Rosa’s Paper Fish “For years I have wanted to hear the voice(s) of the Italian American woman. Who is she? I have wondered. What is her view of life? Does she still exist?”
-- Alice Walker, The Dream Book Omertà is the code of silence pervasive in Italian culture which governs what should and should not be spoken about in public. As Tina De Rosa says, “You never tell anybody outside the family anything that’s going on inside the family.” In writing Paper Fish De Rosa shatters the silence, breaking omertà but keeping her culture alive through the text and giving a voice to Italian American women. This novel is one of selfdiscovery and memory; it underlines elements fundamental to Italian culture but also illustrates the vitality of the Italian American girl/woman who wishes to step beyond the limits her culture has set for her. Critic Mary Jo Bona describes how the American culture and Italian culture clash in their definition of identity: “The primary cultural difference between southern Italian and American self-concept stems from the Italian’s unrelenting belief in the family as the giver of identity to the exclusion of individual Meyer, “Breaking the Silence,” 62.
autonomy.” Often the family unit is run by the Italian male, leaving women narrowly defined to the role of motherhood. This lack of independence extends to the absence of a
literary tradition for Italian women writers, as Helen Barolini points out:
Italian women did not come from a tradition that considered it valuable to them to narrate their lives as documents of instruction for future generations; they were not given to introspection and the writing of thoughts in diaries; they came from a maledominant world where their ancillary role was rigidly, immutably restricted to home and family; they came as helpmates to their men, as mothers to their children, as bearers and tenders of the old culture. 20 Italian American women writers are truly a rarity in American literature, and it is equally difficult to find criticism on novels that are published by these women. Despite the praise Italian American critics have given to De Rosa’s writing in Paper Fish, the work was out of print for many years, and though it has been revived by the Feminist Press, it is not widely taught in American classrooms. Louise DeSalvo comments on how the lack of Italian American women writers affected her writing style, how she did not
dare write about her Italian traditions, not considering it a worthy subject for prose: