Performing Women and Modern Literary Culture in Latin America

[ Latin American Studies ]

Performing Women and Modern Literary Culture in Latin America

Intervening Acts

By Vicky Unruh

The first multi-country study of Latin American women writers of the 1920s and 1930s, a key period that paved the way for the "Boom" generation of the 1960s and 1970s.

2006

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6 x 9 | 288 pp.

ISBN: 978-0-292-73935-2

Women have always been the muses who inspire the creativity of men, but how do women become the creators of art themselves? This was the challenge faced by Latin American women who aspired to write in the 1920s and 1930s. Though women's roles were opening up during this time, women writers were not automatically welcomed by the Latin American literary avant-gardes, whose male members viewed women's participation in tertulias (literary gatherings) and publications as uncommon and even forbidding. How did Latin American women writers, celebrated by male writers as the "New Eve" but distrusted as fellow creators, find their intellectual homes and fashion their artistic missions?

In this innovative book, Vicky Unruh explores how women writers of the vanguard period often gained access to literary life as public performers. Using a novel, interdisciplinary synthesis of performance theory, she shows how Latin American women's work in theatre, poetry declamation, song, dance, oration, witty display, and bold journalistic self-portraiture helped them craft their public personas as writers and shaped their singular forms of analytical thought, cultural critique, and literary style. Concentrating on eleven writers from Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, Mexico, Peru, and Venezuela, Unruh demonstrates that, as these women identified themselves as instigators of change rather than as passive muses, they unleashed penetrating critiques of projects for social and artistic modernization in Latin America.

  • Abbreviations
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction. The "Fatal Fact" of the New Woman Writer in Latin America, 1920s-1930s
  • Chapter 1. Alfonsina Storni's Misfits: A Critical Refashioning of Poetisa Aesthetics
  • Chapter 2. Walking Backwards: Victoria Ocampo's Scenes of Intrusion
  • Chapter 3. No Place Like Home: Norah Lange's Art of Anatomy
  • Chapter 4. Choreography with Words: Nellie Campobello's Search for a Writer's Pose
  • Chapter 5. "Dressing and Undressing the Mind": Antonieta Rivas Mercado's Unfinished Performance
  • Chapter 6. Acts of Literary Privilege in Havana: Mariblanca Sabas Alomá and Ofelia Rodríguez Acosta
  • Chapter 7. Ad-libs by the Women of Amauta: Magda Portal and María Wiesse
  • Chapter 8. A Refusal to Perform: Patrícia Galvão's Spy on the Wall
  • Notes
  • References
  • Index

In a memoir of Buenos Aires literary activity in the 1920s and 1930s, Alberto Pineta described his nervous, stammering debut in 1929 as a young lecturer for the prestigious cultural institution Amigos del Arte. Highlighting his recollection of the event is the intimidating impact on his demeanor every time he glanced up at the audience and encountered the imposing figure of Victoria Ocampo. Pineta also detailed a gathering of the vanguard Martín Fierro group and the arresting presence of Norah Lange. Her "grace, sensibility, and creative talent," he noted, caused those present to accept "without protest the fatal fact of the woman writer." Succumbing to this fate, Pineta reported having been flattered by the bestowal of her "personal poetry" when she accepted his invitation to dance (69, 89-90; my emphasis). Weaving through an account of the cultural activity of male writers, these anecdotes showcase the eclectic character of a literary world remapping its boundaries. A small but increasing number of women writers inhabited the Latin American literary landscape, but as these stories reveal, their presence was still sufficiently novel to provoke mixed reviews.

Pineta was not alone. In their equation of a woman's talent with her performative presence, his remarks typify their time. Contemporary accounts, literary memoirs, and reviews of women's writing in Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Havana, Lima, São Paulo, and other Latin American cities highlight the growing but still anomalous participation of women writers, artists, and journalists in artistic circles of the 1920s and 1930s. This tumultuous era represents a key period in Latin America's social and cultural history. Literary groups aimed to revolutionize artistic expression, while nascent feminist movements sought civic reforms that paralleled women's increased presence in the workplace and public sphere. Although the rhetoric of cultural modernization and political feminism periodically intertwined in the public conversation, women received radically mixed messages about their changing roles. Popular middlebrow periodicals—Caras y caretas in Buenos Aires, Mexico City's El universal ilustrado, Havana's Carteles and Bohemia, Lima's Variedades, and Brazil's Para todos or Kosmos—celebrated flappers, movie stars, women athletes and aviators, and the New Woman as consumer of modern goods, leisure activities, and incipient media culture. At the same time, Latin America's reformist upper- and middle-class feminists lobbied for civil rights and imagined a useful woman citizen as the guardian of national family values through the concept of social motherhood. For their part, young male writers celebrated a dynamic new Eve as the muse for their artistic modernity: to name a few, the chronometric Señorita Etc. of Arqueles Vela's estridentista novel in Mexico, Oliverio Girondo's flying woman in Espantapájaros (al alcance de todos), Paulo Menotti del Picchia's active and tango-dancing new Brazilian Eve, "useful at home and on the streets" (291), or the Peruvian journal Amauta's New Woman of the barricades who would incite Peru's new men to action (Delafuente, 102).

But where did women who wanted to be writers rather than muses build their intellectual homes? In a cultural arena that still regarded their presence as uncommon or even forbidding, how did they fashion their writing personas, and what did they understand their artistic missions to be? For the women in this book, one answer lies in the striking fact that their access to the artistic world derived in part from public performance: theatre, poetry declamation, song, dance, oration, witty display, or bold journalistic self-portraiture. This performance experience provides decisive common ground in the dissimilar intellectual odysseys of women from remarkably different backgrounds: Venezuela's Teresa de la Parra; Argentina's Alfonsina Storni, Victoria Ocampo, and Norah Lange; Mexico's Nellie Campobello and Antonieta Rivas Mercado; Cuba's Mariblanca Sabas Alomá and Ofelia Rodríguez Acosta; Peru's Magda Portal and María Wiesse; and Brazil's Patrícia Galvão. Moreover, an encounter with the modern literary culture of the artistic avant-gardes, through a literary circle, a prominent male figure, or the adoption of an innovative style, constituted a pivotal moment in these women's development as writers. As self-construed modern women, they channeled their experience with performance into their own intellectual undertakings. Thus their performance training or experience not only provided an avenue to negotiate their public identity as writers but also shaped their distinct conceptions of writing and its purpose. Not surprisingly, images of dislocation pepper the self-portraits of Latin American literary women of the early twentieth century. But notwithstanding their frustrated search for an intellectual home, the women in this book in fact viewed themselves as part of the action and their writing as an assertive intervention in public cultural life. Many undertook a critical dialogue with modern male writers or embraced a vanguard conception of artistic work as a dynamic cultural engagement. But as these women imagined themselves as instigators for change rather than its muses, they unleashed penetrating critiques of projects for social or artistic modernization, including—but by no means exclusively—their casting of women.

Performance, Inquiry, and the "Art of Living" as a Writer

A multilayered concept of performance shapes my readings of these women's intellectual careers in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1996, Bert States made the timely observation that the word performance had assumed a life of its own in critical discourse and become a "keyword," in Raymond Williams's sense of the term (Williams, 11-26), or as States put it, a word that suddenly moves from "normal semantic practice" and takes rhetorical flight: "a word you are hearing, say, a dozen times a week, and you can bet . . . is a proto-keyword spreading on the wings of metaphor" (1). As diverse disciplinary approaches converged in a theoretical fascination with performance, they produced what Andrew Parker and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick aptly term "a carnivalesque echolalia of . . . extraordinarily productive cross-purposes" (1). While many scholars (I include myself) find such mixing it up fruitful, a well-founded complaint that accompanies such keywords in their transdisciplinary chain reactions is that they can mean just about anything. In a constructive response to this problem, in Performance: A Critical Introduction (also from 1996 and now in its second edition), Marvin Carlson executed a masterful mapping of the term's disciplinary roots and evolution in theatre, anthropology, sociology, psychology, and linguistics, as well as its historical and contemporary reinterpretations through various types of performance art. Carlson's work reminds us that, even if we tap into the productive cross-purposes of a word's diverse disciplinary connotations, our critical practice is grounded in our specific deployment of the concepts we choose.

Although I have noted convergences, States on the one hand and Parker and Sedgwick on the other actually come to performance theory from different conceptual lines that are related but not always harmonious: one that sees theatrical activity itself as the primary source for ideas about performance and another that draws on J. L. Austin's concept of "performatives," that is, speech acts that "perform" by actually doing what they embody as they are emitted, to focus on the "performativity" of discourse itself and its consequent (re)iteration. Judith Butler's work is among the most widely disseminated in this line. But Austin's oft-cited prototype of a "performative sentence"—the "I do" of a wedding (4-11)—constitutes a ceremonial exchange that is both profoundly theatrical in the aesthetic sense and shot through with cultural hierarchies and thus highlights the actual close ties between the dramatic and the discursive veins of performance theory. Richard Schechner's work exemplifies a third major line of performance theory focused on performance and culture. In dialogue with the late anthropologist Victor Turner, Schechner showcases the correspondences between certain features of aesthetic theatre—the dynamic between actors and roles, the rehearsal, the repetitions of things done before, and the search for transformation—and community-based, cultural rituals. Schechner's definition of performance as "restored behavior" underlies this analogy between aesthetic theatre and ritual, a comparison that foregrounds the choices among available options that theatre practitioners or cultural communities make in executing their performances, as well as the common ground of these two types of activity as sites of repetition or "restoration" and of potential change (Between Theater and Anthropology, 36-37).

My own approach to performance brings together these three theoretical lines—the theatrical, the cultural, and the discursive—to argue that the women in this book transformed their concrete experience with performance not only into self-castings as participants in a literary culture that did not welcome them with open arms, but also, and most important, into an analytical tool in the subject matter and the singular literary qualities of their own writing. As a point of departure, I highlight the fact that cultural expectations for women or their actual formal training led the writers I study to perform in the most basic, theatrical sense of the word: reiterating specific scripts, written or implicit, they executed before an audience self-conscious bodily, musical, or verbal acts. Drawing first of all on theatre-based theories of performance, I also argue that these women's writing exhibits a heightened alertness to the epistemological power of performance itself, a more theoretical kind of knowledge and a tool for their analysis that derives from their concrete experience either through actual performing or as women named by their culture—"hailed" or "interpellated," in Althusser's sense (173-174)—as performers.

Although I tease out these women's reflective inclination to theorize their own experience through writing, I am far from proposing that they were poststructuralist performance theorists. For one thing, their subscription to gender or race essentialism—occasional but startling—precludes such anachronistic readings, even though their work was markedly investigative. Rather I hold that performing in the theatrical sense is a practice that generates critical thought in the performer. Contemporary theatre practitioners who are also performance theorists share this view. In conceiving performance as a cognitive process—a way of figuring things out—these theorists privilege the rehearsal phase of performance activity rather than finished products. Thus Herbert Blau, who has long showcased the "doing" substance of performance, casts it as a "speculative procedure" and a "taking on and putting off of ideas" (To All Appearances, 41). Blau draws here on Harold Pinter's description of the dramatic rehearsal as an undertaking whereby "facts are lost, collided with, found again" (quoted in Blau, To All Appearances, 43). On the interface of theatre and anthropology, Schechner theorizes performance through the group-based, dramatic rehearsal, conceived as a "hunt" or a series of actions with "high information potential" (Performance Theory, 182). Drawing on both Schechner and Blau, and showcasing the bodily aspect of performance, Joseph Roach uses the concept of the "kinesthetic imagination" as a rich location for cultural memory, transmission, and change (26).

Drawing on the theatre-based concept of performance as cognitive inquiry, then, this book highlights the arresting role of theatre or performance strategies and metaphors in these women's singular intellectual mode as manifested in their literary investigations into art, politics, gender, and social experience. Although some—Storni, Ocampo, Rivas Mercado, Wiesse, Campobello—did actually compose plays or performance pieces (such as ballets), moreover, underlying my analysis is the premise that theatricality—and its propensity for performative inquiry—can mark any literary genre. This emerges not simply in the thematic focus on performance that characterized many of these women's writing—they sometimes talked directly about performance—but also in their strategic literary-technical choices or in the intricate construction in their work of a speaking or perceiving persona whose performative identity is not always straightforward. Bakhtin highlighted the performative qualities of narrative through the interactive speech acts of dialogism (Dialogic Imagination), a quality that can also mark poetry. Bakhtin also brought into view the theatrical substance of narrative constructions of subjectivity whereby an authorial persona invents itself through sometimes subtle, reciprocal acts of seeing and being seen by an other (Art and Answerability, 27-61).

In this vein, my analysis of these women's work draws not just on the performance pieces some of them composed for theatre or dance but also on their investment of stories, novels, essays, or poems with the critical malleability—the movement—of theatre-based performance. On the most obvious level, narrative can shift toward the theatrical, for example, in a studied preponderance of scene over summary or in descriptions marked by a clipped stage-direction style, features we find in prose by Ocampo, Lange, Campobello, Rivas Mercado, Rodríguez Acosta, Wiesse, and Galvão. More interesting is the frequent deployment of synecdoche—the embodied replacement of one figure or part by another, which calls to mind Roach's definition of performance as "surrogation" (2). Lange, Campobello, and Galvão in particular bring out the performative quality of synecdoche, especially when used for body parts or fashion. This verbal strategy resembles the visual caricaturist's exaggeration of a key element of a face or body, as well as the more malleable ostension of a single feature through posing, gesture, and movement in theatrical performance. As in theatre, such synecdoche-based choices in narrative or poetry underscore the interplay of what will be shown and what will not and the movement between the two. Similar to theatre, the narrative, lyrical, or essayistic construction of subjectivity undertaken by all of the women in this book, moreover, offers a performative dynamic between seeing and being seen, between the flow of movement and the stylization of a pose, between what will be shown off and what will be hidden. In the chapters that follow, for example, Storni's frenetically declaiming poetisas or Sabas Alomá's hyperbolic femininity as the woman intellectual's defense maximize the showing-off, whereas the spying artists created by Lange, Rivas Mercado, and Galvão or the multiple masks of authorial persona assumed by Rivas Mercado, Portal, Rodríguez Acosta, or Galvão all lay claim to concealment.

The performative quality of Latin America's early twentieth-century literary culture offers a conceptual bridge between these women's public activity and the investigative itineraries of their writing. Thus I draw also on the cultural dimensions of performance. I consider the literary world itself as a kind of culture marked not only by evolving habits of the mind but also by shared repertoires of activity, both in art and in everyday life. Closely akin to my own larger view of culture here is the performance-based definition crafted by the social historian Robert Hymes, who proposes that culture is a repertoire from which people choose to "show themselves as cultural actors, as constant makers and remakers of culture, not simply as middlemen through whom culture somehow does its inexorable work" (5; emphasis in original). This "repertoire," Hymes elaborates, is "not a smoothly coherent system but a lumpy and varied historical accumulation of models, systems, rules, and other symbolic resources, differing and unevenly distributed, upon which people draw and through which they negotiate life with one another" (5; emphasis in original). As I consider the early twentieth-century literary or artistic world as a kind of culture in which women writers made use of unevenly distributed repertoires to negotiate their roles as writers, moreover, Pierre Bourdieu's performative conception of modern literary groups is especially germane. Grounded in a conception of cultural practice as both embodied and improvisational—a way of learning by doing—Bourdieu coined the term "the art of living" to describe the intricate, group-based forging of new artistic personae in late-nineteenth-century European literary culture. A "fundamental dimension of the enterprise of artistic creation," Bourdieu argued, was the invention of the "style of an artist's life." Thus writers introduced audacities or innovations not only into their written works "but also into their existence," which, Bourdieu argued, was itself conceived as a work of art (58; my emphasis). Similarly, I myself have argued elsewhere that the early-twentieth-century avant-gardes in Latin America are best understood not as a series of canonical works or experiments in a single genre, but rather as a form of multifaceted activity that coalesced around the quest for a particular, if varied, style. Modern literary artists, in Europe and the Americas, sought a style of acting in the public sphere as much as of writing, and thus I make repeated reference in this book to women's "art of living" in relationship to literary culture.

Given the intricate ties between cultures and their languages, I also often allude to cultural dialogues, debates, or conversations within the literary or intellectual field. Although numerous theorists have explored the social or philosophical aspects of dialogue, my own use of this terminology is grounded specifically in Danny Anderson's formulation, drawing on Steven Mailloux and Kenneth Burke, that literary works (and by extension, multifaceted literary or artistic activity, I would argue) constitute "acts" of participation in a "cultural conversation" and that "the appearance of a text is like a person's entrance into a room where a conversation was already in progress before the text entered . . . and . . . remains unfinished after the text has left the scene, much like the boundless quality of context" (Anderson, 15). But Anderson, like Hymes, emphasizes the uneven distribution of resources in such conversations, noting that Mailloux highlights the "variety of positions or voices" and "rhetorical struggles for power" that constitute them (Anderson, 15). That the women studied here actively chose to intervene in such conversations with their writing—and this book showcases choice—does not imply, then, that their entries were smooth or that all participants (human or textual) joined on anything approximating equal footing. The notion of a textual intervention in a cultural conversation also emphasizes that beyond whatever theatrical qualities they may possess, literary works (not only their authors) "perform" as actors in that exchange.

For investigating women writers' work in particular, the concept of a multifaceted, performative art of living—within a contextually specific literary-cultural world and marked by historically specific cultural conversations, dialogues, or debates—offers an alternative to readings that highlight strategies of oppositional resistance or that characterize women's work as the embodiment of polarized margin-center relations. Such models can impoverish how we read women's writing and obscure their de facto intellectual mobility—again, their choices—in the cultural conversations they join. The art-of-living concept, by contrast, brings into focus the degree to which literary activity and the enactment of an artistic persona constitute not a preconceived project but rather, to use Bourdieu's words, the "taking up" of a "position to be made" (76; emphasis in original). In reading these women's writing and self-portraits, then, I trace the multiple cultural sites and genres through which they moved in taking up specific artistic or intellectual positions in the making.

At the same time, grounding this improvisational art of living in a specific time and place necessarily underscores the qualified autonomy that it embodied, and here I draw on the discursive vein of performance theory. For all its capacity for cognitive discovery, a rehearsal-based notion of performance as individual or collective speculation through practice must also contend with the inseparability of experience from the discourse that frames it, to recall Joan Scott's work (33). Here I draw on Judith Butler's concept of the "compulsory citationality" of cultural discourse that forces one to "quote" or repeat it, even as these reiterations can generate change through new, unexpected meanings, or what she calls the "unanticipated resignifications" of "highly contested terms" ("Critically Queer," 23, 28). Although unlike Butler I underscore the active choices women writers made and the periodic new meanings with which they invested the discourses framing their experience, like Butler I show that their options were not unencumbered as to which public identity from the available repertoire they might perform in any given setting. Rather I locate them in a web of competing debates about literature, politics, and gender, cultural scripts with which they could negotiate but that they could not fully escape. The women in this book executed their intellectual choices, for example, in the heart of a literary culture whose gendered discourse of modernity conceptualized them either outside of the modern or as its muses rather than its agents. That the collective art of living and cultural conversations marking early-twentieth-century literary culture in Latin America were enacted primarily by groups of creative young men underscores the challenges women writers faced. If literary culture was the ostensible habitat of men, women were allocated their dwelling place in what I often refer to as a performance culture, a multifaceted conglomerate of media imagery and performative leisure activity, upon which the women in this book invariably cast a discerning, critical eye, even as they embraced their roles as performers. Thus, although they were in no way immune to gender scripting of their time, these women's writing and public personae reveal their razor-sharp awareness of themselves, their defining contexts, and their own historicity. Moreover, their simultaneous negotiation of a supposedly male literary world and an ostensibly female cultural world of performance and modern consumption enacted a more androgynous conception of art, social roles, and culture itself. This androgyny—a repeated motif in the chapters that follow—reverberates throughout these women's serial enactments of mobile artistic personae and in the multiple critical moves of their writing.

A Habitat for Fraternity and the Women Who Wrote There

In the realm of feminist civic movements in Latin America, a network of women activists emerged by the 1920s. But although some women in this book actually met one another and some forged real or imagined liaisons with other women, all negotiated their intellectual lives among men. Even as women's presence in public life grew, literary culture throughout Latin America, irrespective of aesthetic or political orientation, conceived itself as a habitat for fraternity. Thus aestheticist Florida and politicized Boedo writers alike embraced the Argentine novel Don Segundo Sombra (1926), and writers as diverse as Borges and Roberto Arlt regarded its author, Ricardo Güiraldes, as their mentor. In this nationalist epic, published the same year that the new Argentine Civil Code granted limited civil rights to women, masculine plenitude derives from bodily feats executed in a world without them. Fabio Cáceres, a gentleman-writer-to-be whose mixed origins pose a fusion of old money with populist autochthony, advances toward manhood, reclaims his patrimony, and assumes his lettered avocation only when he flees immigrants, bourgeois values, and, above all, authoritarian women to join a band of pampa-wandering men. Comparable homosocial male bonding and rites of passage mark novels pivotal for other artistic projects. Alejo Carpentier's vanguard novel ¡Ecué-Yamba-O! (written in 1927 and published in 1933) locates the emergent Afro-Cuban aesthetic of the Havana vanguard in its black protagonist's initiations, first into a mostly male ñáñigo subculture and then into a gang in Havana. Most notoriously, Mariano Azuela's Los de abajo (1916), whose roving band of revolutionaries forms the novel's collective protagonist, became the centerpiece in the mid-1920s for an acrimonious, gendered Mexican debate about nationalist (masculine) or Europeanized (effeminate) writing modes.

As Robert Irwin has detailed for Mexico, such male bonding abounded in nineteenth-century Latin American fiction. Literary culture of the 1920s and 1930s, however, linked such imagery not only to national projects but also to innovative artistic "positions to be made." Self-consciously modern writers constituted their art of living in their fiction, first-person-plural manifestos, staged polemics, performance events, group nocturnal wanderings, or gatherings at favorite watering holes. Vanguard literary culture in particular was profoundly performative, as writers openly courted or rejected audiences, real or imagined. Graciela Montaldo ties such activity to the democratization of the cultural field, particularly to writers' keen awareness of a growing readership addressed by journalism and a consequent autobiographical impulse to constitute themselves as public figures (26, 53-56). Similarly, Francine Masiello notes that the vanguard writing persona of the 1920s forged a "coherent ego" through a "complex countenance of extra-literary activities" (Lenguaje e ideología, 52). But this pursuit of coherence often assumed the collective countenance of an "everlasting club," to borrow Roach's term for the serial performance of group identity (17-25). Anchoring the self-stories of these literary assemblages was their fraternal group habitat, as in the "Cafe de Nadie" for Mexico's estridentistas, the Mariátegui house on Lima's Washington Street for the Amauta circle, Emilio Roig de Leuchsenring's Havana office for the Grupo Minorista's "sabbatical luncheons," or the oft-named Lange house on Calle Tronador for the emergent Martín Fierro group.

The tropes of cultural modernism were as gendered as its group affiliations. In European modernist writing, as Rita Felski observes, the modernity of the New Woman provided the "bold imagining of an alternative future," but the "modern" also often embodied "crisis" (14). Thus, she argues, the prostitute, the actress, the mechanical woman, the nostalgia-ridden prehistoric woman, and the voracious modern consumer woman all manifested art's ambivalent response to capitalism, technology, and social change. In Latin America, where more uneven, frustrated modernization marked neocolonialist national projects, or where, as Carlos Alonso has argued, modernity itself was often as much trope as reality, gender anxiety flourished. Linking an embodied art of living—say competitions in physical dexterity at a Palermo sweets shop—to their writing, Argentine vanguard writers, for example, aggressively affirmed the masculinity of their modern experiments. In the preface to his prose collection Aquelarre, Florida group writer Eduardo González Lanuza proclaimed that his was a "masculine book" of "vigorous" art without the "affectations" of the "confectionery" (8). Today's reader is struck not by the vigor of his prose but rather by its ephemeral language. But González Lanuza's preface betrays qualms that the studied lyricism of his modern prose—a quality ascribed at the time to the work of (women) poetisas—might impugn his masculinity (7). Similarly, ironic play notwithstanding, a Martín Fierro review of Girondo's experimental verse portrays these lyric, urban snapshots as manly exploits of "gaucho frankness" that "hurl words" like hunting slings (Sarlo, Martín Fierro, 21). In postrevolutionary Mexico, on the other hand, the defenders of mexicanidad claimed masculinity for realist art with nationalist themes such as Los de abajo and dismissed the lyricism of the Contemporáneos writers, and the writers themselves, as effeminate. Always gendered, then, comparable experimental writing was masculine for its creators in Argentina and effeminate for its detractors in Mexico.

As male writers celebrated the modern Eve as an artistic muse, an intricate public dialogue evinced the unwritten rules for real women's writing. Like the modern civic woman imagined by emergent feminist political reformers, the woman writer was to forge her artistic identity through the "special" qualities of her sex. Just as civic feminists argued that a woman's ostensible moral superiority guaranteed her public usefulness, particularly the creation of healthy (national) families, so did the public conversation about writing affirm that women should be more chaste than men in art as in life. Numerous reviews of women's poetry and prose in mass media and forums self-identified as more literary reinforced them for writing in self-abnegating modes and chastised those who did otherwise for writing like men. A favorable review in a March 1926 Caras y caretas of the poetry collection Rama frágil by María Luisa Carnelli exemplifies these standards: "The verses of this distinguished poetess possess the eminent quality that all poetry should have, and especially those by women: they create emotion softly and deeply. They have no passionate violence whatsoever; rather a sweet resignation translated in always harmonious, well made, and diaphanous verse. Not even love itself can take the poetess out of the atmosphere of tender serenity to which her select spirit has risen" ("Rama frágil," n.pag.; my emphasis). The response to a Carnelli contemporary who did otherwise is instructive. Four years after Don Segundo Sombra appeared, Victoria Gukovsky, a founding member of the Argentine socialist party and an educational reformer, published El santo de la higuera, a collection of gaucho tales. While applauding her continuation of the gauchesque tradition, a review in the prestigious journal Nosotros took Gucovsky to task for giving short shrift to female characters, for using "manly motifs," and above all for writing like a man. "Even the form is masculine," the reviewer complained, adding that had he not known the author, he would have suspected the "indirect hand of a man" in the exacting descriptions of scenes among men; the collection's stories about proletarian children, by contrast, manifested the author's "exquisite feminine soul" (Montesano Delchi, 92-93). This gendered conversation about writing permeated artistic culture throughout Latin America, and the women in this book negotiated their literary personae and writing projects through intricate rejoinders.

See Beba Buy Books: The New Woman Consumes and Performs

Clearly these debates on the gender of writing were "about" many things. In Mexico, for one, they signaled the presence of openly gay men in postrevolutionary cultural institutions. Although change was less extensive in some countries (Peru, for example) than others (Argentina or Brazil), historians document the expanded presence of working- and middle-class women in the workforces of Latin American cities, and, as Beatriz Sarlo points out, modern urban leisure activities incorporated upper- and middle-class women into public life in new ways (Una modernidad periférica, 21-25). But efforts to reconstitute traditional roles through the gendered division of literary labor manifested not only anxiety about real social change but also the diversification of the cultural field in which closed clubs were actually more open than they appeared at first glance. Membership in literary groups of the period was a moving target and ideological mix. Rarely was there a single leader or authorial group voice. As the Contemporáneos gathering's designation by one member as the "group without a group" exemplifies (Irwin, 160), determining just who was in or out of any of these groups has generated endless accounting by participant-memoirists and vanguard scholarship. While men were certainly more "in" than women and the latter's presence more vulnerable to historical amnesia, a few women—not only those in this book—participated in or moved through most of the major literary groups in Latin America of this period. Women's vanishing presence in Don Segundo Sombra notwithstanding, moreover, Latin American fiction of the period was deeply engaged with—if often corrective toward—the subject of women's changing social roles, as in Manuel Gálvez's flighty Argentine protagonist of Una mujer muy moderna, the trendy Miss Annie Doll of Martín Adán's La casa de cartón in Lima, the cinematographic women of Jaime Torres Bodet's vanguard novellas, the feminist Isabel Machado of Cuban novelist Carlos Loveira's La última lección, and the cosmopolitan prostitutes who initiate the eponymous hero, Macunaíma, into modern São Paulo in Mário de Andrade's classic. Notably absent from much fiction by men was the new woman writer or intellectual, notwithstanding her growing presence in actual literary culture.

Debates about literature and gender intersected most palpably in the eclectic, high-circulation journalism in which literary writers throughout Latin America collaborated. Angel Rama highlighted the role of Latin American journalism in creating the professional writer, and Aníbal González illuminates the ambivalent liaison between journalism and self-conscious literary practice in the 1920s and 1930s, as writers embraced this source of livelihood and access to audiences while simultaneously distancing themselves from media culture through more rarified concepts of the literary. During this time, in fact, two new social actors—the professional writer and the performing modern woman—cohabited in the cultural imaginary of widely read journalism. The cautionary tale of the fictional Beba, signed by "Roxana" and serialized from October 1927 until March 1928 in Caras y caretas, dramatizes this encounter. Here in narrative and sketches, the short-haired, flapper-styled Beba shops, smokes, attends theatre and films, dances, sings tangos, performs in a tableau vivant for a charity ball, disguises herself for carnival, models a risqué bathing suit at Mar de Plata, and eventually marries upward into affluent porteño society. Although the fun-loving Beba throws herself into this social masquerade, the final installment forecasts the disintegration of her marriage and dire consequences for national life generated by the unfettered freedom and ambiguous moral code she practices. Beba's counterparts populate comparable media in Brazil, Cuba, Mexico, and Peru, in fictional offerings and a plethora of photographic images in the society pages. Women, too, including all of the writers in this book, wrote for popular periodicals. But the popular weeklies devoted far more space to modern women as performers than to commentary on their writing. Beyond numerous features on movie stars and actresses from Latin America, Hollywood, and Europe, these magazines also depicted ordinary middle- and upper-class women—in stances from decorative to seductive—declaiming poetry, posing in tableaux vivants, or representing Greek muses, flappers, Mexican folkloric dancers, Hawaiian hula girls, gypsies, eighteenth-century Parisians, or veiled, quasi-Asian figures.

A defining trait of the modern Latin American woman portrayed by Beba is her equivocal relationship to literary culture. Thus in the first installment, Beba goes to buy books. Although romance novels are her favorites, she also purchases poetry by Mexico's sentimental modernista Amado Nervo, the prescribed model of the day for aspiring poetisas. This portrayal of the New Woman as a reader whose choices warrant regulation juxtaposes an anxiety toward women's changing roles with the literary world's ambivalent relationship to media culture. As Andreas Huyssen argues, European modernists projected such an equivocal stance through portraits of women (say, Madame Bovary) as readers of modernity's mass-produced fare and cast their male counterparts as more reflective readers of artistically superior writing (46). Similarly, Felski highlights the modernist representational link between a woman's indiscriminate appetites as a middlebrow reader and her portrayal as a voracious consumer through shopping (61-63). Gustavo Pérez Firmat notes the gendering of reading itself—"masculine readers and feminine texts"—posed by the fictions of the Hispanic vanguards (59). Within a nascent culture industry, Beba's story stages a virtual encounter between the new professional writer and the New Woman in a bookstore, a locale of growing social importance. Those who write books, the series intimates, might imagine performing New Women like Beba among their readers, as her eclectic tastes test the boundaries of elite literary culture. The Beba bookstore episode manifests a lack of consensus on what kind of material contemporary writers should produce and for whom. But it also showcases related mixed views on modern women's role in cultural life. Given that women poets of the 1920s were sometimes aficionados of Nervo's work, Beba's key reading choice, the series also implicitly casts the new porteña as a potential writer herself.

Most important, Beba's story signals the dynamics between liberation and regulation encompassed in the idea that the role of modern Latin American women in artistic culture was to perform. Neither the designation of women as performers nor the acting-out of societal gender tensions and regulations through theatrical modes (whether on traditional stages or in the alternative public spheres of growing cities) were new phenomena in Latin America or in international Western culture. In late-nineteenth-century Latin America, private performances by upper-class Latin American women for select, family-based audiences displayed a limited education in literature, poetry declamation, music, and the plastic arts. But in the twentieth century's early decades, expanding leisure activities increased the more public venues where upper- or middle-class women could perform—chaperoned social events or clubs, charity functions, or service organization fund-raisers—and still maintain the respectability denied women who did so for a living. In the context of these events' social usefulness, moreover, journalistic images of the modern woman as a performer synthesized the concept of women's "special" social role embodied in feminist campaigns for the new civic woman with the mobility implicit in the New Woman as a dynamic consumer of leisure activities.

This imagery of constant body movement and urban mobility through multiple cultural sites—Beba, we should recall, is everywhere—evokes the futuristic dynamism of the avant-gardes. It also encapsulates the difference between the performing woman as object of contemplation or inspiration that populated late-nineteenth-century Spanish American modernismo (or Brazilian symbolism) and her New Woman heir of the 1920s and 1930s. If the static tableau vivant, which persisted in the Latin America's middlebrow print media of the 1920s, reiterated earlier gender scripts, photojournalism on Isadora Duncan, Josephine Baker, Amelia Earhart, and on local and international women dancers and athletes advanced more porous, androgynous notions of gender and striking imagery of bodies in motion as a signifier of change. But this media iconography of the New Woman appeared side by side with cautionary pieces that plumbed in sensationalist or satirical modes the potential nefarious consequences of too much public mobility—and resulting androgyny—for women and in reaction to more hybrid social gatherings, for example chaperoned dance clubs or días de recibo (open-house days) in Mexico City (Collado, 111) or the growing multiclass practice in Rio de Janeiro of fazendo a avenida, in Portuguese literally "making the avenue," making the scene (Hahner, 80).

That women's performances provoked the regulatory impulse underlying Beba's story and comparable fare throughout Latin America testifies to the recognition of their (potentially threatening) transformational power. In 1923 Enrique García Velloso, an Argentine playwright and author of popular fiction that cast women's changing mores as a problem, published Piedras preciosas, a manual of poetry declamation dedicated to his daughter. The contrast between the guide's normative dictionary of gestures and intonations and its cover art of a declaiming woman—a cross between a genie and a flapper—signals the era's deep-seated ambivalence toward women's performances. Their potential for upending gender norms and for autonomous creative expression unfolded in the rising star of Argentina's Berta Singerman, which also underscored the renewed penchant for modern male writers to recast performing women as their muses. Singerman, who synthesized a songlike declamation mode and gestures into a personal performance style, recited in packed halls throughout Latin America and Europe and elicited hyperbolic praise from male writers as diverse as Mexico's Salvador Novo and Spain's Unamuno or Valle Inclán. Journalistic accounts throughout Latin America underscored the power of her voice and body in motion and her transfiguration of a lyrical repertoire by others into her own aesthetic form.

Casting a woman on display as the muse for male creativity was nothing new. But as a more dynamic and independent figure than her immediate predecessor—the decorative, often immobile femme fatal of Spanish America's literary modernistas—the New Woman model of musedom signaled change. Much as the classical muses synthesized the capacity for inspiration with their own artistic talent, the performing woman as portrayed in Latin American literary culture of the time offered a bridge from representations of women as art objects or catalysts to their conception as cultural actors. The women in this book all underwent, to varying degrees, the performance training that marked the education of Latin American women. They all also performed before an artistic or intellectual audience at some moment in their careers and in a specific cultural circle. Several—Ocampo, Lange, Campobello, Rivas Mercado, Portal, and Galvão—were at some point explicitly invoked as sources of artistic inspiration. Most of these writers evidenced acute insight into the role of contemporary performance culture in women's experience or into a penchant to render women as performers. Most also criticized what they saw. Thus Singerman as a performing New Woman more often served as their target than as their role model. But to expand on a central proposition of this book, performance activity—even when it shored up gender norms in the face of change—provided these women a far richer repertoire and more malleable site for negotiating their art of living as intellectuals than did reigning models of women's writing, embodied for example in the poetisa. These women's experience with performance was pivotal for their choices as writers and their conception of writing as a critical move in cultural life.

By Vicky Unruh

Vicky Unruh is Professor of Latin American Literary and Cultural Studies at the University of Kansas.