in Lydia Cabrera and Nicolás Guillén
New York University
On June 15, 1930, the young poet Nicolás Guillén published a brief article in the Havana daily Diario de la Marina, addressed to the journalist Ramón Vasconcelos, in defense of his newly published Motivos de son:
Despite the novelty of his choice of poetic form, Guillén was not alone in his preoccupation with national identity and culture an isolated trend. The 1920’s and 1930’s also saw the publication in other parts of Latin America of the so-called novelas de la tierra, novels which make the connection between culture and nation a central feature of both their theme and plot. Carlos Alonso has identified these novels as texts written in response to a perceived crisis in the identity of national culture and the relationship of that culture to modernity:
In his discussion of the novelas de la tierra, Alonso focuses on the constructed nature of the ‘autochthony’ portrayed in these texts. This is "culture" created to fill a perceived lacuna, and the discovery of this kind of "authenticity" has very explicit goals: "That is to say, the designation of a cultural crisis is also implicitly if not expressly accompanied by an enterprise of cultural redemption that projects itself temporally into the future" (Alonso 11). Like Guillén, writers in the Caribbean during the same period such as Lydia Cabrera and Alejo Carpentier in Cuba and Aimé Césaire in Martinique, produce texts that aim to portray "autochthonous" culture through fictional creations of their own making. They were also in some ways responding to a similarly perceived national and/or cultural crisis at this time. However, I see some basic differences in the ways that some of them attempt to address it. In particular, I would like to argue that in the cases of Guillén and Lydia Cabrera, these differences are connected to their specific use of elements of Afro-Cuban cultural expression.
Guillén's Motivos de son and Cuentos negros de Cuba (1936), Cabrera’s first short story collection, propose a cultural specificity through their construction of texts whose mixing of oral and written traditions, European stylistics, and local linguistic patterns results in a newly transculturated product. Yet in their use of historically relevant detail and their treatment of temporal context, they also posit a very different relationship between culture and history than the novels Alonso chooses to discuss. Rather than seeking to solve the current ‘crisis of modernity’ by recalling a national culture which is ahistorical, these writers create texts that show an awareness for a diachronic sense of historicity as well as an understanding of contemporary forms of cultural expression. (1) While they may choose to portray the people and situations around them, their writing is nourished by an understanding of the Caribbean’s history and the effects of that history on the situations of today. Furthermore, in their construction of hybrid texts which mix Afro-Caribbean influenced language structures with European literary styles, they posit a very different relationship between literature and national culture, as they bring forward kinds of oral language production that might not have been previously included under the label "autochthonous."
Works such as Guillén’s Motivos de son, Songoro cosongo, and West Indies, Ltd., and Cabrera’s Cuentos negros de Cuba utilize a hybridization of high-culture literary style with similar popular linguistic and narrative styles to augment existing elements of word-play, improvisation and humor already available in language production in the Caribbean. Both Cabrera and Guillén are interested in Afro-Caribbean identity, and in the nature of Afro-Caribbean cultural experience, but radical nature of their work lies in the ways in which they suggest that Afro-Cuban expression is central to Cuban identity as a whole. During these decades, Afro-Caribbean cultural expressions were only beginning to be seen as acceptable for adaptation and incorporation into "high culture". By including these elements in their texts, these writers offer a definition of autochthony which is less based in vanishing archetypes and more anchored in a democratic, pluralistic vision of Caribbean society. By examining the nature of play in Guillén’s poetry and Cabrera’s early short stories– both as a linguistic and rhetorical strategy and as a narrative device, I hope to reveal the ways in which Cabrera and Guillén posit a kind of autochthonous cultural product of their own.
But both the philosophy and the underlying techniques that Guillén develops in Motivos de son are revealed in his further defense of his poetry. Rather than continuing to elaborate his reasons for his choice of a poetic style, he ends his article to Vasconcelos with the story of "the son of those who protested the son". In this story, a group of black men who have gathered to protest the son vote to ban it, only to discover that their "yes" votes have themselves become the chorus for a son ("¿Uté ta confomme? / Sí señó")(22). The son produced by "los que protestaron contra el son" is decribed by Guillén as the ideal that heused as a model for his own poetry: "verdaderamente sencillo, verdaderamente fácil, verdaderamente popular" (21). Guillén’s message to Vasconcelos here might be: these linguistic practices are further ingrained than we might imagine them to be. But he may also be warning Vasconcelos away from condemning or rejecting that which may be a fundamental part of himself.
The ending that Guillén chooses for his article offers the reader an excellent example of verbal Signifyin(g). Signifyin(g), according Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is a term that can be used to refer to a body of culturally performative elements that function in an African American linguistic context. Although frequently associated with verbal riffs and ripostes, "doing the dozens" and "yo’ mama" jokes, Signifyin(g) covers a variety of linguistic practices; it is a "a pervasive mode of language use rather than merely one specific verbal game" (80). Signifyin(g) can be seen as the practice of word play, both motivated and unmotivated, of a humorous or critical nature; however, it maintains a serious intentionality, despite the humor that it may produce. When Guillén ends with this humorous anecdote, he is "Signifin(g) on" Vasconcelos; according to the story, even those who are against the son as a form of expression cannot help falling back into it. The son form thus shows itself to be such a fundamental part of local expression that it is almost impossible to escape it. As well as defending the son as a legitimate poetic form, Guillén seems to be implying that Vasconcelos had better be careful, or he will find himself giving in to (or becoming) that which he most vocally rejects.
Play, and specifically improvisation, have been shown to have explicit functions within some African cultures. While Gates describes the rituals of play within language itself, Margaret Thompson Drewal, in her groundbreaking study of Yoruba ritual in Africa, examines the function of both verbal and physical games within a religious context. Drewal identifies improvisation –what she titles ‘play’- as a key element in the ritual itself:
In Lettres creoles, Patrick Chamoiseau and Raphael Confiant highlight the importance of the storyteller in the life of the (Caribbean) plantation. "Et c’est lui le seul producteur de littérature audible, une littérature articulée dans l’ethno-texte de la parole, et qui, dans la parole se forge un langage soumis aux ambivalences de la créolisation, à l'opacité du Détour pour survivre…" (41). In a completely oral plantation culture, the storyteller not only creates the literature of that milieu, he is a catalyst for the processes of linguistic and oral transculturation, given not only interpretive power but also the power of language creation.
In their representation of aspects of Afro-Caribbean culture, both writers avail themselves of these rhetorical strategies as a means of creating texts that reflect the local culture and, especially in the case of Guillén, could be used to advocate a particular racial and ethnic identity. In so doing, these Caribbean writers must occupy the role of the storyteller, fusing discourses, bringing a new language into being through the creation of new texts. The challenge for them existed in representing in a written way what had previously only existed in oral form. To move from an oral practice whose very fluidity is subversive in nature to the fixity of a written text requires a specific kind of shift. Yet as Jorge Marcone observes in La oralidad escrita, there is a contradiction inherent in representing orality in written discourse:
For writers such as Guillén and Cabrera, linguistic techniques such as Signifyin(g), along with accompanying strategies such as improvisation, served as links between the new "avant-garde" texts and other kinds of texts, both oral and written, which had previously existed in these locales. The Caribbean folktale, as Eduoard Glissant has stated, "focuses on an experience suppressed by decree or the law. It is antidecree and antilaw, that is to say, antiwriting" (84). Likewise Signifyin(g), whose connection to African folktales Gates clearly establishes, is a linguistic strategy whose purpose, by-product or result can be a criticism or subversion of authority. What sets the work of writers such as Guillén and Cabrera apart are the different ways in which they combine existent oral strategies in the construction of texts which are autochthonous in their character and intention. While not, perhaps, intentionally anti-law, the texts I will examine subvert, contest or play with contemporary assumptions of literary and cultural authority. Guillén in his Motivos de son relies specifically on the choteo-like aspects of humor and word play to create a pointed social commentary, a preoccupation which becomes a more central focus in the later poems that make up Songoro cosongo and West Indies, Ltd. Cabrera’s texts may not reveal the overt political thrust that sustains Guillén’s work, but I hope to show how her short stories can be related to his production by the way in which she herself Signifies on the form and content of the traditional African or Afro-Cuban folktale, challenging both narrative traditions and socio-cultural hierarchies.
Signifyin(g), as Gates describes it, shares certain characteristics with a Cuban form of word-play known as choteo, which Cuban scholar Jorge Mañach analyzes in Indagación del choteo (1924). As with Signifyin(g), the choteo, for Mañach, goes beyond simple humor, serving either as a way to express solidarity and respect, or as a method of "subterfugio ante el fuerte," a means of destabilizing power relations. The disorder which is suggested by the choteo is what produces "la alteración de estado cualquiera de concierto y de jerarquía, así sea en el orden físico y objetivo" (33). Indeed, just as the improvisational character of Signifyin(g) produces a potential multiplicity of meanings, the destabilizing of the established order implied by the choteo would seem to also temporarily create and open linguistic space. Guillén’s use of Signifyin(g) at the end of his text acts to destabilize Vasconcelos’s hierarchical critique, to open a space for other possibilities.
Choteo further resembles Signifyin(g) in that it is fundamentally performative in nature. Mañach notes that the choteo "está estrictamente condicionado en el tiempo y en el espacio" (28); in other words, it ceases to function outside of the moment in which it is performed. Indeed, Mañach goes so far that a habitual use of the same joke or wordplay, outside of any specific context, is something of a faux pas that weakens the form itself, because the loss of immediacy weakens its function. In Guillén’s story, for example, the joke lies in the way that the son is re-created, and performed, in the exact moment in which its rejection is supposed to be taking place. Likewise, his own Signifyin(g) on Vasconcelos is performed within the context of the reading of the article. His re-telling of the story defends his use of the vernacular by staging its own defense.
Based on these commonalities, one could argue that what Mañach identifies as choteo is simply another form of Signifyin(g). Just as Gates argues that Signifyin(g) as a behavior is African-American, indeed African-derived, in nature, Mañach makes a case for the choteo as a peculiarly Cuban form of linguistic expression. The choteo functions as a method of subverting power relations, he argues, because Cubans naturally tend towards destabilizing hierarchies (55). Significantly, Mañach the choteo as having been strongly influenced by Afro-Cuban culture:
In Motivos de son, Guillén uses the choteo as the cornerstone of his linguistic technique to communicate both autochthonous local speech and highlight the repressive social structures in place in Cuba. The first poem of the collection, "Negro bembón" utilizes the perfect harmonization of the son rhythm, local speech pattern, and choteo to interrogate racist physical stereotypes at work in Cuban society.
With his manipulation of the orthography to reflect spoken dialect, Guillén lends a sense of immediacy to his poem. The written text thus presents itself as a speech act, generating its own sense of performativity and establishing the verbal space in which the choteo-like elements can play themselves out. (2) (This performativity would later be heightened by the fact that these poems were often used as texts to be declaimed by professional actors and were eventually set to music.) The use of the local-dialect present in the spelling and grammar of the poem also creates a sense of equality in the narrative tone of the text; the use of a more sophisticated poetic voice would have created a sense of inequality between the between the speaker and the "negro bembón" who he Signifies on. Guillén’s poetic voice thus rejects the literary descriptive conventions of a "literate" speaker, shortening the distance between the speaker and his poetic subject.¿Po qué te pone tan brabo,
cuando te disen negro bembón,
si tiene la boca santa,
Bembón así como ere
tiene de to;
Caridá te mantiene,
te lo da to. (Obra poética 87)
The first stanza of the poem appears to question the man’s self-rejection of his own facial characteristics. Why get so angry at people who call you "negro bembón," asks the speaker, if you have a sweet mouth? The speaker pokes fun at the man for his quickness to anger. At the same time, there is behind the laughter a questioning of the negative context behind the term "bembón", for the second stanza goes on to confirm rather than deny the original description of the object of the poem. Why should this term be offensive, the speaker seems to suggest? Why reject your own identity? The speaker makes it clear that "bembón" is more than a physical description, carrying with it other connotations of identity and social class.
These first two stanzas of the poem contain an inner joke in their play on the words "santa" and "Caridá". "Santa" can mean sweet, but it can also mean blessed, lucky. Caridá could either be the name of a woman, or a reference to the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, implying some kind of charity. In either case, the implication is that the ‘negro bembón’ does not pay for his own upkeep. Keith Ellis has suggested that Motivos de son can be read as a series of love poems in which "what is manifested…is love as it is clearly determined by the historical conditions in which it attempts to exist" (66). If this is the case, "Negro bembón" reveals some of the problems and contradictions of the man’s self-image and economic status. The speaker, while questioning the injustice that makes the term "bembón’ into something offensive, sarcastically observes that the man presents himself as dandy, a man of money and social position, while it is Caridad who makes the material advantages - the two-toned shoes and the duck-cloth suit – available. The joking nature of the choteo is supported by the musical character of the poem; the repetition of both words and phrases, call-and-response format, and rhythm of the piece heighten the emphasis of the joking tone. The estribilla of "negro bembón" and "Bembón así como ere" continues to emphasize the man’s physical characteristics, simultaneously deriding him for his pretensions and celebrating his cultural and ethnic identity.
The poem is significant not only for its recreation of natural-seeming speech; in four short stanzas, Guillén manages to create a fairly subtle and complex portrait of this individual: a dandy, a man who enjoys his free time and seems disinclined to work, who cares for his appearance to the extent that he rejects certain characterizations of himself even as he lashes out at negative stereotypes. This ability to create a rich portrait in few words is what characterizes the other eleven poems of the collection; for this reason, these intimate portraits gain strength from being read as a group.
Motivos de son was Guillén’s first experiment in creating a kind of poetry that remained loyal to the ideal of cubanidad, and especially to a Cuban style which recognized the influence of Afro-Cuban culture. Over time, Guillén became more explicit in his political aims, in his need both to recognize the importance of Afro-Cuban culture in Cuban society and to work for racial equality. Guillén’s seminal articles dealing with racial issues – "El camino de Harlem", "La conquista del blanco", and "El blanco: he ahí el problema"- were published around same time as Motivos de son. In the prologue to his next book of poetry, Sóngoro consongo, Guillén highlights the connection between his political beliefs and intentions of his poetry: "Opino por tanto que una poesía criolla entre nosotros no lo será de un modo cabal con olvido del negro. El negro –a mi juicio- aporta esencias muy firmes a nuestro coctel" (96). Guillén is intent on creating a "poesía criolla," but in his mind this cannot be done to the exclusion of Afro-Cuban culture. He has moved from a desire to create a simple, vernacular poetry that would portray the lives, rhythms and voices of the people on the street to forging a poetry that reflects the racial and cultural make-up of Cuban society.
As his aims become broader and more clearly defined, Guillén’s style also changes. While he does not completely discard his use of the choteo, the broader canvas he is painting requires other techniques that fall more easily under the broader definition of Signifyin(g). Sometimes the poem follows its own inner rhythm. Or it may include words that seem to exist for the sole purpose of maintaining an onomatopoeic structure. Images, which in the Motivos were kept short and reflective of social reality, are now more lyrical, often to the point of strangeness.Gates argues that Signifyin(g) can include any kind of linguistic improvisation that plays with and on the expectations of the listener or reader. In this respect, verbal Signifyin(g) is closely tied to music:
Although rhythm and a certain musicality continue to be important elements in Sóngoro consongo, these poems are no longer faithful to such a rigid structure as the son. Rather, like this musical Signifyin(g), Guillén plays on established rhythmic patterns and expectations, moving outward towards different sonorities and unpredictable rhyme schemes. "Secuestro de la mujer de Antonio", reveals these changes in Guillén’s style. Like "Negro bembón", the speaker of ‘Secuestro" speaks directly to Antonio’s wife. Yet the tone of this poem is radically different:
Music makes its presence felt in the poem from the beginning. While Motivos de son used the son form to shape the construction of the poems, music becomes thoroughly interwoven into this new collection of texts as theme, structuring force, leit motif. One could almost argue that in Sóngoro cosongo Guillén Signifies on his own early work. The first lines play on the double meaning of ‘copa’ as ‘cup’ and the ‘copa’ of a son. Gabriela, Antonio’s wife is literally "thrown into the copa of a son", as she becomes the speaker’s interlocutor and the focus of his own song. In the second stanza she becomes the dancer to the poem’s rhythm. The use of the verb ‘torear’ with rumba implies that this dancing has a vital force, perhaps of anger, perhaps sexual behind it. Indeed, while it’s possible that the kidnapping in the poem’s title is literal, it seems more likely that Gabriela has been stolen for a dance with the speaker.
While there is a definite rhythm to the poem, each verse maintains its own rhyme scheme. As the poem goes on, the rigidity of the rhyme scheme breaks down so that the force of the rhythm comes to the fore. The first three stanzas can be seen as the invitation to a dance: the end of the first shows the woman as the song, the second stanza calls on her to dance, the third portrays the beginning sounds of the drums as the speaker calls the dancers to come "two-by-two". The internal rhymes in these stanzas (the ‘m’s of ‘quemada and misma, ‘muerde’ and ‘verde’ in the third stanza) sustain the sonority of the imagery. In the fourth stanza, the rhythm becomes more frenetic, and the end of the last stanza reveals a total polyphonic breakdown as the rhyme scheme dissipates, interweaving lines from previous parts of the poem as individual voices that form a counterpoint to the estribilla of "saldrá caminando así". The repetition of this line the last stanza has the force of both the emotional assertion of the speaker and of the rhythm of the chorus of a son. There is also an echo of the story of "los que protestaron contra el son" in the statement "todo el que no esté conforme, / saldrá caminando así"; just as those voting against the son couldn’t help turning their rejection votes into a song, even those against Gabriela dancing will in the end be drawn into the dance themselves.
While music is the central device around which Guillén develops "Secuestro", he also plays with stereotypical images of Cubanness in his use of typically Cuban products. Rum, sugar, coffee all appear as metaphors for female sensuality. Gabriela is described first as a glass of rum. The dark seeds of her eyes "darán sus frutos espesos," a description reminiscent of coffee. The musicality of the poem and the image of the woman dancing combine with these metaphors of produce perfectly in the fourth stanza, in which the woman’s sweat from dancing is described in terms of the sugar harvest: "aquí molerán tus ancas / la zafra de tu sudor" (109). Since many of Guillén’s poems are explicitly critical of the difficult working conditions created by the system of sugar production in Cuba, (including "Caña," the poem which immediately precedes "Secuestro" in Sóngoro consongo), the portrayal of Gabriela’s sweat as liquid sugar is especially interesting. In the sensuality of the dance, another kind of harvest is produced, a production equally natural and equally Cuban.
Guillén’s poetry has been characterized as negrista in its theme and intention, interested only in Afro-Cuban themes as a way to add "local colar" to his work. However, as Aníbal González Pérez states, "The negrista movement was no mere imitation of the "Africanist" vogue in Europe during the twenties and thirties or of the Harlem Renaissance, but part of a broad search for the roots of national identity which took place at the same time throughout Latin America . . . The poetic production of … Guillén is forged within this question of national identity" (286). In his 1937 essay "Cuba, negros, poesía," Guillén does not negate the usefulness of the vogue of things Afro-Cuban, but he is quick to point out that this period of stylistic experimentation is only an intermediate stage in the creation of an autochthonous Cuban poetry:
The poem is structured and presented as if it were the narrative of a guided tour and the reader were just descending from a cruise shift for his or her first view of a Caribbean island. The exclamation points bracketing the first words "¡West Indies!" establishes a tone of excitement, sustained by the list of natural products which follows. Following this exoticizing first view, the second line presents the islands inhabitants as "un oscuro pueblo sonriente" (OP, 134), the smiling natives ready to welcome the distinguished travelers. This atmosphere of an orchestrated performance is further enhanced by the refrain, introduced in italics between parts of the poem, "Cinco minutos de interrupción. La charanga de Juan el Barbero toca un son" (136). The purpose is entertainment, and visitors should not be given any time to get bored. Consider the contrast between this staged welcome for tourists and the first lines of "Llegada": "¡Aquí estamos! / La palabra nos viene húmeda de los bosques, / y un sol enérgico nos amanece entre las venas" (97). The raw energy of earlier poem has been replaced by a static scene; the islands have sold out to the invaders, not those wielding swords but those waving cash.
The Signifyin(g) in "West Indies, Ltd." occurs as Guillén builds up these images of happiness and plenty, only to undermine them in the next lines as he reveals the poverty and degradation behind them:
Despite the negative portrayals of the people of this Caribbean island, the object of Guillén’s Signifyin(g) is not really these individuals, but the social hierarchies that have been established on these islands. Guillén finally states this directly in the last stanza of the poem’s first section:
The image of the Antilles as a monkey suggests Gates’ Signifying Monkey, but unlike the animal of the folktales, this is a monkey paralyzed by its inability to act. The islands’ original nobility has been reduced to a creature who can only parody, whose culture has become a stage for welcoming tourists. By selling out to the neo-colonial fantasy of what they should be, the societies in the Caribbean can only come out looking ridiculous in the contrast between their aristocratic social pretensions and the island’s bleaker social reality.Me río de ti, noble de las Antillas,
mono que andas saltando de mata en mata,
payaso que sudas por no meter la pata,
y siempre la metes hasta las rodillas. (136)
If Guillén’s Signifyin(g) moves gradually away from a specifically Afro-Cuban focus in his attempt to found a "poesía criolla," Lydia Cabrera is consistently clear in affirming (and reaffirming) the cultural identity of her short fiction. It is significant that she titles her first collection Cuentos negros de Cuba instead of merely Cuentos cubanos or Cuentos negros. The stories are not African legends, they are an Afro-Cuban creation. In his introduction to Cuentos negros, in fact, Fernando Ortiz implies that he sees Cabrera as more of a faithful compiler of folklore than as a creative artist in her own right: "No hay que olvidar que estos cuentos vienen a la prensa por una colaboración, la del folklore negro con su traductora blanca" (8). While the influence of Cabrera’s ethnographic work in the Afro-Cuban communities of Matanzas and Havana on these stories is undeniable, it seems clear that the texts are Cabrera’s own creation.
In some ways Ortiz’s identification of Cuentos negros as a collection of traditional folktales can be forgiven. Cabrera’s stories contain many of the rhetorical elements common to traditional tales, and place heavy emphasis on oral communication in general. In particular, her stories are filled with the repetition common to oral storytelling, with characters that Signify on each other, and with conflicts that are generated, fought, and resolved through verbal negotiation.Yet even as Cabrera’s work positions Afro-Cuban culture as central to the larger Cuban cultural panorama, her stories disrupt traditional frameworks and defy the reader’s expectations. By Signifyin(g) on both the form and content of the traditional tale, Cabrera interrogates the boundaries of both oral and written discourses in a new way. Her choice of the tale also indicates a particular mixing of oral/written traditions that substitutes a metonymic, collective narrative for the individual poetic voice of Guillén’s texts.
Cabrera’s story "Walo-Wila", which first appeared in Spanish in the Havana magazine Grafos in 1938, two years before the publication of the Spanish version of Cuentos negros, exemplifies the ways in which Cabrera plays with the development of the folktale even as she highlights traditional storytelling conventions. The structure of the narrative follows the traditional lines of the folktale fairly closely: a beautiful woman is pursued by several suitors, but only one can overcome both verbal disguises and physical tests to win her. Yet the text’s spiritual dimensions, as well as the heavy use of lucumí, make this an unusual choice for a debut publication, especially in a magazine that could be characterized as a society journal with a literary edge. (3)
In keeping with the tradition of the oral folktale, the story is simple in both structure and plot. The story centers around two sisters, Ayere Kende and Walo Wila. While Walo-Wila stays indoors, Ayere Kende spends her time on the balcony, attracting prospective suitors for her sister with tales of her beauty while Walo Wila manages to scare each suitor away by telling him she is ugly and diseased. Cabrera’s presentation of the tale creates a sense of orality within the written text. Much of the story is taken up by call-and-response dialogue between the two sisters and various suitors that simulates the relationship between the storyteller and his or her audience, who would often call out repeated lines or phrases. The dialogue between Kende Ayere and the men who pass below the balcony creates a verbal pattern that the audience (reader) can participate in that continues to repeat itself with several suitors until Venado, the last suitor, finally agrees to marry Walo-Wila.
Into this familiar folktale structure, Cabrera introduces interpretative ambiguities and narrative complexities that disrupt facile interpretation. In the same way that Guillén’s poetry in Sóngoro cosongo plays on his earlier son-inspired poetry, opening that structure up to create more free-form rhythm and rhyme schemes, Cabrera plays on the reader’s expectations of "folktale" using what Gates has identified as "another kind of formal parody [that] suggests a given structure precisely by failing to coincide with it – that is, suggests it by dissemblance" (104). By changing and confounding expectations of structure and content, Cabrera expands her text’s levels of meaning to include not only metaphoric and allegorical depths to the story but religious aspects as well.
The story’s challenges to the traditional narrative development of the tale are first made apparent by its ambiguities. There is no physical description of the sisters at the beginning of the story. Neither is anything said about their relationship to each other, nor the reasons for their different behavior. Although the sister who is physically present throughout the story is Ayere Kénde, she is never wooed by any of the men who pass by the balcony. Yet she never appears jealous that it is her sister in whom the men are interested, nor is she presented as the evil or ugly counterpart to her sister’s attractiveness. In fact, it is she who attempts to attract potential suitors for Walo-Wila. Walo-Wila, on the other hand, neither leaves the house nor enters the text in any physical way until the end of the story. Until Venado completes his test, not even the reader knows which of these descriptions is the right one. Both reader and suitors must be swayed by rhetoric, since the narrator gives nothing away, and we are never sure what it is that convinces Venado that he should marry Walo-Wila.
The ambivalent presentation of these aspects of the plot helps signal the multiple levels of meaning present in "Walo-Wila," The interplay of these various levels can be seen in an examination of the significance of water in the text. Water is presented first as an important element of the setting, and the offer of water is what initially attracts potential suitors to the balcony. But there are also indications that water also serves as a link to a symbolic/religious reading of the tale. Rather than retrieve the pearls that Kénde Ayere scatters in the sea, (as we might expect), Venado completes his "test" by returning with a gourd filled with water from the realm of Olokkun. Olokkun is an ambivalent, extremely powerful and mysterious Orisha. Some tales state that he/she (gender is ambiguous) is chained to the bottom of the ocean floor, to prevent him from destroying mankind. Venado’s quest is thus in some ways the ultimate quest, a demonstration not only of bravery (or diving skill) but also of faith. Venado’s journey to Olokkun offers the key to who (or what) Walo-Wila may be. It reveals that a text that might have seemed to be one of the least Afro-Cuban-influenced of Cabrera’s Cuentos negros is firmly anchored in the cosmology of the Regla de Ocha. The possible significance of the tale is not revealed until the unfinished last sentence: "Cuando se besan la luna y el mar . . ." (38). While this delicate image is a poetic metaphor for the meeting of the lovers, the constant repetition that Walo Wila "moría, vivía" can imply that she is the moon, waxing and waning. As Venado prepares to dive into the ocean, the calling of Walo-Wila’s name by the seashore is echoed by the sentence which follows: "Y se entró por las olas cortadas a filo de luna" (38). Venado’s trip to the deep is thus a uniting of two elemental forces, a recognition of the connection between the moon and the tides and a lesson in the power and significance of Olokkun.
Some of the ambiguity in Cabrera’s stories may not, in fact, be an innovation but rather a gesture towards the historical function of stories and the storyteller in the Caribbean. As Chamoiseau and Confiant explain, the storyteller in plantation society occupies a role which simultaneously designates him an ‘official’ position, yet makes him the voice of the subaltern, of an enslaved people. Negotiating this position demands a number of narrative strategies:
In its brevity and its focus on one particular story, "Walo-Wila" is largely faithful to many of the conventions of oral storytelling. The story "Taita Hicotea y Taita Tigre" allows Cabrera to broaden the range of her "dissembling" as she plays with narrative structure, temporal range, and Signifying within and upon the text. In particular, these explorations allow her to introduce and explore content of a more specifically Cuban nature which challenge the norms of the folktale. As with others of Cabrera’s stories, this text is really a series of tales, seemingly the "digressions humoristiques" which Chamoiseau and Confiant describe. These first narrations come in such rapid succession that they create a layering of images, giving the first section of the story almost a "Jardín de las delicias" kind of feel. The story finally introduces two of the central characters, Hicotea and Venado. Venado is "Pato de Aire," fast and powerful, but credulous and somewhat naïve; it is Hicotea, trickster figure par excellence who is the crafty thinker of the two.
In many respects, Hicotea appears as the Cuban version of the Signifying Monkey that Gates analyzes. He triumphs not because of his natural physical gifts, but because of his ability to convince, distract, and entrap the other animals in his snares. Desirous of Pato de Aire’s land, Hicotea creates a competition to see "who is the manliest", the goal of which is to withstand a brush fire. Venado jumps into the flames, convinced that Hicotea is also burning, when he is really safe in a cave. Like the Signifying Monkey, whose challenge to the Lion often involves "doing the dozens," Hicotea trades insults with the other animals. Taita Tigre is humiliated when he loses some toes to Hicotea’s knife, but more so by the fact that Hicotea calls him "maricón" as he does it. Even at the end of the story, when Hicotea himself has been captured, he manages to escape by charming the young Tigers into watching him dance in the river. He then makes a fake version of himself using a rock and some mud and sends that back with the Tigers.
Despite the dissembling familiarity of these elements, other aspects of Cabrera’s story make it unclear whether this can even be considered a "folktale". Particularly significant is her treatment of time. Glissant argues that in its treatment of time, the Caribbean folktale is very different from myth:
As Venado and Hicotea cross the ocean, the frame of the story shifts abruptly. Cabrera further complicates the temporal location of the story by introducing a concrete temporal marker. We are no longer in mythic nameless land; instead, the two animals land in a very specific place – "las orillas de una isla feliz," and a very specific time, 1845. This is very different from Glissant’s argument that the folktale presents time as both fragmented and unconnected to any kind of linear construction, that within the structure of the tale "time cannot be conceived as a basic dimension of human existence" (84). Clearly, Cabrera’s story can no longer be seen to be "anti-History", since the year 1845 places the action of the story firmly in the prime years of plantation society in Cuba. It is also interesting to note that this shift from mythic to concrete time occurs over the transatlantic journey, perhaps signaling the shift from the mythic permanence of life in West Africa to life under slavery in the Caribbean. In placing the action within a concrete historical framework, I would argue that Cabrera is Signifyin(g) on the intentions and format of the traditional tale. By introducing a precise temporal location for her story, she creates a text which has the feel of oral literature but which also carries the narrative charge of a written text. The tale may have mythic dimensions, but giving the action a date connects it to the course of history and to the temporal location of the reader.
Together with a multi-layered temporal setting, the text further subverts expectations of narrative authority through its treatment of race and gender. Just as the first section of the story chronicles the development of certain natural phenomena, it also presents the development of a binary idea of race in the form of two very different origin myths. While the first black man, "el Padre de todos los negros," is created Icarus-like when he comes too close to the sun, the first white man becomes white by travelling to the cold land of the Moon. Already a dichotomy has been established; the black man is associated with the sun, with daylight, and with happiness: "La alegría es de los negros." The white man, in contrast, is influenced by the moon, by cold, and is sad by nature: "Son tristes . . . todo se explica" (43). Despite the assertion that this myth "explains everything," the ellipsis’s silence seems to point to something that cannot be narrated. What, precisely, does the sadness of the whites explain? The silence seems to point to the trauma of slavery so that even as the story itself never directly addresses the issue the history of that issue is always in the framework of the tale.
The silence of that ellipsis seems to hang over the rest of the text, since after having introduced the subject of race so provocatively in the first section, the subject is dropped as the story crosses the ocean. The description Cabrera gives of the new island on whose shores Venado and Hicotea land resembles nineteenth-century Cuba, and the two friends are quick to understand the new system of ownership in which "la tierra no era del que la tomaba y se decía su dueño, sino de quien la compraba" (47). Details of society on the island fluxtuate between revealing characteristics which correspond to the Caribbean of 1845, and a situation suggestive of the mythic time of the beginning of the story. "¿Has oido? ¡Aquí vamos a ser hacendados!" Hicotea tells Venado, yet there is no mention of the labor situation on their haciendas. Indeed, the story makes it appear as if Hicotea and Venado work the land entirely themselves.
The island is described first like a kind of paradise; the animals are sure that "ninguna desgracia podía ocurrirles bajo aquel cielo nuevo que era como una caricia" (47). The women, in a similar vein, are described as flowers. The description of the men, however, is fascinating in its ambiguous tone: "y muchos hombres parecían mujeres, las caderas blandas y el pie menudo. Vestían de blanco y hablaban con la voz azucarada" (47). The narrator is describing the rich, white plantation owner, but he comes off sounding like the fin de siècle flanneur. Since it is anthropomorphic animals who populate the story, this description would also seem to be referring to them.
If the narrative voice already disrupts prescribed gender and racial identities, Hicotea further challenges the norms of his new island community through his trickster identity. Gates states, "Signifyin(g)…is the sign of rule in the kingdom of Signification: neither the Lion nor the Elephant –both Signifieds, those Signified upon – is King of the Jungle; rather, the Monkey is King, the Monkey as Signifier" (63). In his ability to trick his fellow animals, Hicotea embodies this anti-authoritarian sentiment, as most of his tricks intentionally disrupt social organization and the distribution of power. In an economy that explicitly operates on monetary exchange, he wins Venado’s land through an unfair bet. While all of the animals in the community are preyed on by his tricks, Hicotea reserves his cruelest jokes for Tigre, who is portrayed in the story as an "Animal Grande que tiene en sus muelas la autoridad y con las muelas la mantiene" (58). Hicotea’s abuse upsets the balance of power in a community where this power is clearly wielded by the physically strong.
But even though Hicotea would seem to conform to the classic idea of a trickster figure, Cabrera makes it clear that he is something more. For Hicotea is not just a wily, Signifyin(g) member of the animal kingdom; he is a santero and a palero who has brought his magic powers with him across the ocean, "escondida en sus pupilas, el arte de curar con las yerbas, los palos y los cantos" (48). Although in many instances he relies on his powers of persuasion, in many instances Hicotea uses his abilities as a palero for his own gain. When he realizes how nice it would be to have Venado’s land in addition to his own, his first action is to send his friend three "Chicherekús", possessed dolls, that torment him during the night. And his musical instrument, which he uses to attract (and then hurt) the other animals, is called the "cocorícamo", which Cabrera is careful to footnote as being defined as "lo imponderable" according to Ortiz. Hicotea’s powers are not at odds with his verbal skill; in many ways they seem to be interconnected, since Hicotea’s magic is produced as he sings or plays. The subversive nature of his trickery is thus given a special edge, and an added dimension. (Perhaps suggestive of the belief in the role of santeria and palo in the Afro-Cuban communities.)
After looking at texts such as "West Indies, Ltd.," where Guillén’s Signifyin(g) adds an acid intensity to the poem’s explicitly political thrust, one might be tempted to see Cuentos negros as somewhat apolitical, since the stories rarely address issues such as the social position of Santería head on. Yet Cabrera does use the Signifyin(g) nature of her stories to introduce anti-authoritarian elements. In "La prodigiosa gallina de Guinea" (Cuentos negros), she uses an animal folktale to present a very real challenge to authority. The story is heroine of this story is a Guinea hen, who, in an effort to get food for the barnyard poultry, leads an assortment of social characters on a journey to Havana. Like Hicotea, the Gallina de Guinea convinces people to follow her with promises of her singing, having a small boy call out, "¡Esta es la prodigiosa gallina de Guinea que si me pagan canta, si no me pagan, no cantará!" The first to follow her are the farmer and the workers on the farm, but soon she is followed by the mayor, the prison warden, the governor, the governor’s wife, and even the King and Queen of Spain. All of them continue to pay her so she will continue to sing.
Through the Pied-Piper journey of the Gallina, the story Signifies on the structure of colonial society. In the same way that the Medieval theatre pieces around the "dance of the dead" showed death coming for the richest man and the most regal king, no authority figure in Cuban society is safe from the charms of the Gallina’s singing. These colonial leaders ignore social convention, giving her money, allowing her into the palace, and finally letting her music take over the general population, so that the story ends with a full scale carnival. The Gallina herself goes from being a "pícara desvergonzada" (a possible reference to her trickster-like function within the text) to being treated as a local celebrity.
What is significant in this story is the contrast presented between the Afro-Cuban aspects of the Gallina and the European-based (colonial) authority wielded by the King, Queen, and the governor. More than any of the characters we have examined previously, the Gallina de Guinea exhibits clearly Afro-Cuban speech characteristics. She prays to the orisha Yewá, uses lucumí words such as "mundele" (white man), and her song is based around the words "Ariyénye," an expression that Cabrera herself defines elsewhere as "satisfacción, contentura, demostración, saludo que se da con alegría" (Anagó, 59). (As in traditional oral folktales, this song is highly repetitive, and as the other animals and people join in the rhythm seems to be encouraging the reader to do so as well.) In contrast to the Gallina, characters such as the Governor and the Mayor seem heavy with the trappings of authority; the Governor, in particular, is described as having "el pecho fulgurante como un altar cubierto de cruces y medallas de oro" (161). By placing this tale in Havana, Cabrera makes more deliberate reference to Cuban society than in previous stories. Hicotea travels over the sea to reach the island of the story, but the Gallina is clearly Afro-Cuban, and her triumph thus becomes much more a celebration of the place of Afro-Cuban culture within Cuban society as a whole.
While not as overtly a trickster figure as Hicotea, the Gallina does embody some trickster attributes. Trickster figures are by nature subversive and anti-law, and the Gallina’s dance is a physical force that actively subverts social authority, turning the status quo of class (and racial) hierarchy upside down. The lighthearted rhythm of the her song breaks through the sober attitude of the ruling classes, as all the characters, regardless of ethnicity or social standing, end up dancing to the comparsas and the rumbas. Unlike the chaos that is created by Hicotea’s abusive schemes, however, the Gallina’s actions serve to unite people rather than ridicule or destroy them. The story creates a utopian vision through this anti-law stance: as the people dance, "Hasta la guardia civil odiada parecía buena" (162).
The utopian ending scene is not merely imaginative; it also makes clear references to a real historical situation, although Cabrera is careful not to clearly locate "La prodigiosa gallina de Guinea" within any temporal framework. The language of the first sentences of the story ("Diablos tenían a la Lluvia prisionera en una tinaja") gives the narrative a mythic character, but later elements clearly place it during the nineteenth century, when Cuba was still a Spanish colony. During this time, and even well into the period in which Cabrera was writing, many elements of Afro-Cuban religion and culture were illegal or heavily censored. Despite a growing interest in some kinds of Afro-Cuban music, in the 1930s it was a criminal offense to perform publicly in a comparsa band (Moore, 145). The Gallina’s singing creates a situation that not only gives Afro-Cuban music a space for full expression, but opens all of Havana - "bozales, ladinos, criollos, rellollos, negros, blancos y amarillos" (162) – to participating in it. As the cabildos present the various dances and folkloric performances, their place in Cuban society is legitimated and their role in Cuban culture is revealed to be a fundamental one.
While Cabrera’s stories are not overtly political, like Guillén she was conscious of both the importance and the risk of her focus on Afro-Cuban culture. In the introduction to her ethnography on the abakuá religion, La sociedad secreta abakuá narrada por viejos adeptos (1969), she observes, "Así en Cuba, sin riesgos, se puede ser indianista. No hay indios. Pero sondear en el viejo, incalculablemente rico fondo cultural africano, que los siglos de la trata acumularon aquí, es tarea que muchos tachan de ‘antipatriótica’ y negativa" (8). To deal with subjects related to Afro-Cuban culture was to highlight an element of Cuban culture whose relationship to the dominant society was ambivalent at best. Play in Cabrera and Guillén becomes a political tool in their attempt to include this cultural material, a way to mitigate racial criticism, and a method of making potentially "unwelcome" elements a fundamental part of their autochthonous products.
Vera Kutzinski has argued that Cuban high literary culture in the 1930s
and 1940s was engaged in a process of co-opting Afro-Cuban culture. She
seems to follow Alonso’s argument when she states, "Anthropology and literature
collaborated in amalgamating nationalism and culture into a depoliticized
ethnographic discourse whose effect was both to recuperate and to absorb
gente de color through their folklore" (145). Yet I think that Cabrera
and Guillén’s work runs counter to the interpretive goals of much
early twentieth-century ethnographic work, for rather than simplifying
cultural systems, they refuse to flatten out existing cultural differences.
Indeed, they use linguistic play and textual Signifyin(g) to disrupt the
cultural norms inherent in traditional reading practices. If the folktale
is thematically "anti-law", Signifyin(g) echoes this in its rejection of
conformity to the thematic and stylistic boundaries of both the "real"
world and the world on the page.
(1). Note that for Guillén, the crisis is not one of modernity, but of the threat of foreign invasion through marketing, the loss of cubanidad, or Cubanness, to the lure of foreign influence and foreign investment in Cuba.
(2). Marcone suggests that performativity is in fact inherent to the definition of oral discourse: "De acuerdo con este entendimiento, ‘texto oral’ o ‘discurso oral’ deben ser pensados como performance (‘actuación’) y/o como una producción dialógica de los sujetos que interactuan a través de la comunicación oral" (37).
(3). Lucumí is the Cuban word for the
Yoruba language as it is spoken in Cuba. It is also used to refer to the
cultural and ethnic heritage of an individual.
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