So Many Worlds – So Many Words:

The Evolution of the Feminist Canon in the Brazilian Novel

Elzbieta Szoka

Columbia University

In light of globalization this title might sound controversial if not entirely doubtful. In light of recent disputes within feminist ideology and theory this multiplicity of views on women at large is a matter of fact. A challenging task is that of understanding and, perhaps, reconciling these opposing phenomena and to decide to which degree this opposition is only apparent.

Aside from the ongoing discussion between French, British, and American feminists, a new voice, that of the Third World feminists has been heard with more and more frequency since the 1990’s. These feminists not only challenge the Western perception of women in the Third World but also their perception of the Third World (with or without quotation marks) as a monolithic entity. In her essay "French Feminism in an International Frame" Gayatri Spivak argues that "The pioneering books that bring First World feminist news from the Third World are written by privileged informants and can only be deciphered by a trained readership." She also points out that in order to learn about the subject matter and to reach the desired readership "(…) the immense heterogeneity of the field must be appreciated, and the First world feminist must learn to stop feeling privileged as a woman."

On the other hand, an emerging group of post-colonial feminists questions the dogmatic and exclusive official feminist discourses, inspired by the doctrines of Western feminists of the 1960’s, considering them "the discourse of the winner." In their argument, politics and race play a crucial role. Chandra Talpade Mohanty concludes that feminist scholarly practices are inscribed in relations of power with all the positive and negative implications that such relations generate. One negative side effect is the ideological and practical hegemony, which replaces traditional "male patriarchy" with the new "female matriarchy". Another negative implication of such one-sided practices is the appropriation of "third world difference" by First World ideologues as an a-historical, monolithic notion and the "colonization" of the complexities, which characterize the lives of women in these countries. Race, as a tool in feminist practices, is discussed by Alice Walker in One Child of One’s Own (…). She points out a necessity of discerning the true feminist for whom racism is inherently impossible from the white female opportunist for whom racism assures white privilege and is therefore an accepted way of life.

In Brazil, this revisionism, which began in the 1970’s, is exemplified in literature by most recent works of Sonia Coutinho who considers herself a "post-feminist" and who openly contests this "discurso vitorioso" reigning at the universities and in publishing houses. Another "enfant terrible" of the "victorious feminist canon" is Patricia Melo, a "female version of Rubem Fonseca", a nickname given to this author by her opponents. In both cases we deal with literature which abandons writerly soul searching in favor of exploring themes of social and political content using a frame of mystery novel, until recently reserved for commercial bestseller writers only. Intertextuality and social expression of female authors is also present in new historical novels, of which Heloiza Maranhão is a recognized pioneer. According to Luiza Lobo, one of the leading post-feminist scholars in Brazil, such intertextuality allowed female writers to free themselves of pure subjectivity and introspection, which dominated literature written by women until the 1970’s.

This intriguing picture of the ever changing feminist canon in Brazilian literature has recently been enhanced by a powerful wave of Afro-Brazilian writers, Conceição Evaristo, Miriam Alves, and Esmeralda Ribeiro, to mention only the few. Most of them are connected with Cadernos Negros journal and Quilombhoje Press. O quarto de despejo. Diário de uma favelada by Carolina Maria de Jesus, a diary of a woman from a shanty, became a corner stone inspiring this new and vigorous literary production. Besides innovative language, these authors of "humble origins" bring in a new perspective on the old subjects of race and gender. These themes have been explored until recently by male and female authors representing the Brazilian middle and upper class, predominantly white or light skinned, in spite of the myth of racial democracy in Brazil, invented by Gilberto Freyre at the beginning of the 1930’s. Freyre’s doctrine of racial harmony in Brazil was perceived at the time as an innovative vision of colonialism and social relations in that country. It also pointed out the uniqueness of the Portuguese as colonizers, idealizing them and placing them above colonizers from other countries with regard to their adaptability and tolerance among others. Outside Brazil, this doctrine was embraced by Salazar’s fascist regime in Portugal (which is quite understandable since it contributed to the strengthening of the nationalist myth called "luso-tropicalismo") as well as by Stalin (which is somewhat puzzling).

With all the changes and mutations of the canon, Lygia Fagundes Telles remains an author who, 58 years after her debut, is still influential on the younger generation of writers, regardless of their literary and ideological orientation. Her acclaimed novel As Meninas (1973) is perhaps one of the most successful literary examples reflecting the repercussions on Brazilian soil of the turbulent clashes between "Existential Marxism" and the bourgeois status quo in the West during the1960’s, which gave birth to new feminism. In various interviews Lygia Fagundes Telles declared herself a feminist and a socialist yet she always admitted that these ideologies have different repercussions in different countries. She also sees a liberation of Brazilian women as different from their European or North American counterparts. As for her writing she confessed:

Eu percebi que o que venho escrevendo nesses anos todos jamais poderia ter sido colocado no papel por uma autora portuguesa, inglesa ou francesa. Veja o caso de As meninas, por exemplo. Está lá cravado nas minhas personagens, um instante da maior importância para a História do Brasil. É o registro, é o meu testemunho de uma época. From today’s theoretical perspective, As Meninas can be viewed as an attempt to look for a common denominator between two opposing feminist thoughts, both of them products of the "Existential Marxism": social constructionist (materialist and historicizing) and essentialist (biological and psychological), which can be ascribed to the main characters in the novel, three college students who share their dreams, fears and obsessions in a boarding house run by the nuns. As we will see this attempt was bound to fail.

The novel’s version of "social constructionism" is exemplified by Lia Schulz who is politically engaged in the "New Left". She is a daughter of an ex-nazi who escaped Germany disenchanted with a turn taken by his beloved ideology and who married his dark skinned maid in Salvador, Bahia. The fruit of this union, Lia obsessively dedicates herself to political and social causes, rejects any form of conventional bourgeois experience "natural and essential" to her gender (including self grooming). She desperately searches for an answer to the absurdities of existence in a capitalist world and perhaps for some form of expiation for her father’s mistakes. She also harbors a slight inferiority complex with regard to her mother’s background. Lia’s complex is instigated by racial relations in her country, which was still haunted by the sad legacy of colonialism when the novel was written. She denies it by fanatically embracing Afro-Brazilian mysticism and rejecting any form of North American imperialism, including Jimmy Hendrix’s music.

In spite of ironic presentations of some of the dilemmas experienced by Lia and other characters the novel is a compassionate portrayal of their existence in the cultural and ideological limbo. The choice of characters with their ethnic and social backgrounds as well as their beliefs and life styles is highly intentional. If Lia can be inscribed into the category of a militant New Left, arguing among other things for a liberation of women in Brazilian society, another character, Ana Clara, represents all the negative aspects of this liberation movement taken to the extreme: nihilism, drugs, involuntary, often unconscious, promiscuity. Ana Clara is a victim of the distortions of the cultural revolution of the 1960’s. She is a daughter of an abused lower-middle class mother and was sexually abused as a child herself. Like the "essentialist" Lorena, the third character, Ana Clara is white and attractive. Unlike Lorena, who belongs to the privileged class, she is poor. Her social status of which she is fully aware positions her somewhere between the perfection of an "essential woman" represented by Lorena and the challenge of a "socially conditioned woman" drifting towards Lia’s assumed materialist world view. In that sense Ana Clara personifies a failed attempt to reconcile the two thoughts about women generated by the "Existential Marxism" ideology. She dreams of wealth and elegance while she drowns gradually in the gutter, metaphorically and literally. In both cases the figure of an absent father is crucial as it is replaced by an older object of romantic attention, platonic in Lorena’s case and seen as a tool to social ascend by Ana Clara.

As far as the perception f the body is concerned, in various parts of the novel Lygia Fagundes Telles casts her ironic eye on phallocentric readings of Freud yet she takes the oppression of female body seriously. She is an advocate of the theory, according to which a woman inhabits a world based on her perception of her own body. All three characters exemplify this theory: Lorena with her constant grooming, Lia with her aversion of grooming, and Ana Clara allowing a constant abuse of her body by men, alcohol, and drugs. Of the three characters, the most traditional Lorena is also the most reminiscent of the feminine as created by Clarice Lispector in the sense of constant reaffirmation of traditional values seen as feminine by the society and at the same time of an attempt to break away from them. Lorena’s position in the novel is that of the middle ground (aside from her upper-middle class status) between two extreme attitudes of women of the time, one militant and the other self-destructive. She is a virgin, she spends a lot of time grooming herself and dreaming of her elderly love object who is married and a father of many. She studies law, listens to Jimmy Hendrix, jazz, and classical music. She is a Samaritan who helps others, a legacy of her religious upbringing. She attempts to please the others, often against her own will. Her platonic relationship with M.N. whom she does not want to steal away from his family and her decision to move in with her depressed mother are perhaps the most significant examples of her sublimating her will.

On the other hand, the "Claricean" model, not to say canon, is also present in Lorena’s constant attempts of rupture and reconsideration of the feminine values as formulated by a culture that she inhabits, a culture with specific expectations from the gender. In this process of rupture Lia and Ana Clara play a crucial role. The three characters coexist in a constant give and take situation enriching each others’ lives and inspiring each one’s choices. Lorena is the most conflicted of the three characters yet the strongest. A great deal of her strength is connected directly to her wealth. She is able to help her constantly broke friends on the practical level and does not have to worry about her own survival. However, the spiritual strength which makes it possible for her to survive the emotional turmoil in her own life and in the lives of her friends cannot be ignored and it has to be seen as a consequence of her religiousness and her attachment to the tradition.

The novel is an attempt to reconcile these points of view and attitudes, which find a powerful symbolic ending: Ana Clara dies of overdose, Lia emigrates, and Lorena stays. We learn that a new girl is coming to São Paulo to live in the boarding house. She is from the Amazon, an area of Brazil that has immediate resonance in the minds of readers familiar with that country. In the last scene of the novel, Lorena is taking a shower before going to the University. While in the shower, she has an imaginary dialogue with her new friend, in which she instructs the newcomer what to do if her long lost cat comes back or if MN decides to finally give her a call. (The scene takes place after a very dramatic night, during which Ana Clara died in Lorena’s room, a death that Lorena had to disguise so that the nuns wouldn’t get in trouble with the police, and during which she had to say good bye forever to Lia departing for a political exile in Algeria.)

Lygia Fagundes Telles’ clairvoyant novel ended but the discussion among feminists continues and if one wishes to anticipate what the outcome of this discussion might bring for the time being, today’s Western societies provide some answers which coincide with the novel’s symbolic ending: most of the bards of counterculture died of overdose or related causes; the "essentialist" arguments are losing their appeal in academic life but they are gaining a strong, sometimes dangerously strong, presence outside academia, such as in the main stream’s cult of the young and thin or its categorizing of gay and lesbian sexuality as being "unnatural"; and, finally, the promising cultural constructionism still remains on exile in the Ivory Towers of academe.