Domestic Illusions: Manifesting Existential Uncertainty in Loida Maritza Pérez’s Geographies of Home
University of Tampa
“Identity, nationality, and ‘home’ … remain paradoxical” (Candelario 75).
For Afro-Caribbean Latina writers, terms of psychological and physical survival are central literary preoccupations. Cynthia L. Palmer and Dolores Alcaide Ramírez, critics of Loida Maritza Pérez’s work, argue that Geographies of Home is a narrative which concentrates on the struggle to cultivate a whole, black female diasporic identity in the light of “tipos diferentes de hegemonías que intentan oprimir la mujer negra [different hegemonic structures that attempt to oppress the black woman]” (Ramírez 1, translation mine). Critics and theorists of Caribbean and Latin American Literature like Gustavo Pérez Firmat, Linda Martín Alcoff, Carol Boyce Davies, Sandra Pouchet Paquet, Silvio Torres-Saillant and Lyn Di Iorio Sandín among others address the emotional and psychological anxieties associated with constructing a multi-national “recuperated and rearticulated identity that is both individual and communal, here and there, of self and of other, in ways which affirm the roots of origin while the self always remains cognizant of the fissuring, the inability to return to one’s homeland” (Chancy 5). The black female diasporic identity that “remains cognizant of the fissuring,” which has been carefully characterized by the mentioned writers, is often shaped by violently troubling terms of self-relation and intra-familial relation.
The process of migration creates an existential dilemma that is continuously negotiated in the immigrant’s life. Because migration complicates the possibility of viewing home as a cohesive idea, all relationships within the translocated home environment carry within them characteristics of emotional breakage. Gustavo Pérez Firmat recognizes that the disjuncture in an immigrant’s relationships with people and place is a result of constant retrospection. His work emphasizes that many (in)voluntary exiles or immigrants cannot relinquish the memory of a home that no longer exists in order to assimilate to their new homeland: “the exile is someone who thinks imagination is a place. The problem is imagination is not a place. You can’t live there, you can’t buy a house there, you can’t raise your children there…the recreation of Havana in Miami is an act of imagination. But imaginations cannot sustain one indefinitely. Sooner or later reality crashes through, and the exile loses the place that never was” (Firmat 10). Yet, what if in addition to unsustainable imagination, the concrete parameters of the new domestic environment do not adequately “sustain”? For many immigrants, “self-survival becomes a matter of profound doubt” (Brothers 46), and the litany of emotional conditions that ensue-- shame, anxiety, and denial-- are reoccurring reminders of overwhelming incertitude.
This state of internal division is what Doris Brother’s calls “existential uncertainty,” the uncertainty of psychological survival. This term, which aligns with the philosophical claims that philosophers like Lewis Gordon and Michelle Moody-Adams put forward in their perceptions of the Black experience through an existentialist lens, is a framework focusing on how uncertain economic, relational and socio-political boundaries precipitate existential self-encounter. Thereafter, imagination is the vehicle for participating in self-encounter. In Geographies of Home in particular, existential uncertainty appears as a poetic: a visual and metaphysical representation of the immigrant’s relation to self, family, homeland and adopted home. Although imagination is not equipped to “sustain one indefinitely,” the characters in Geographies of Home engage with the imagination as a means of working out anxieties concerning their Dominican cultural heritage.
Like Pérez, Dominican American writers of migration literature depend on intra-textual fantasy and imagination to characterize and challenge the existential presence of the homeland. Julia Álvarez, Sandra Cisneros, Angie Cruz, Nelly Rosario and Junot Díaz have depicted the Dominican Republic as a mythic place, geographic location, memory, and terrorized homeland all within single narratives. The island is as much of a mindscape as it is a reality: a home that is constantly being left and recovered, remembered and denied a place in individual and collective memory. On the other hand, the economic and racial stressors of American life and its various expressions of un-Caribbeaness create tensions within the domestic space that reverberates from the Dominican Republic and meld into new assimilation-related challenges.
Because of these mounting international and intercultural tensions, the inclusion of psychological or physical trauma within the migration text is standard. The “trope of trauma” is an aesthetic tool available to writers not only to provide a believable vision of domestic realities, but its frequency of use in migration narratives reveals that the violence within interfamilial relationships in the immigrant home is a repetition of (and often an attempt to exorcise) the jarring process of leaving one national and cultural home for another. In the texts of Caribbean American women writers it is apparent that exilic turmoil is played out and circulated among members of the transplanted family, particularly between female members of the household. (1)
Nonetheless, the domestic violence, which appears in the transitional phases highlighted in migration literature, does not dissolve the basic desires for belonging and for a unified familial community. Instead, it intensifies the need for stability and anchoring ascriptions to national and domestic identities.
In Geographies of Home, the novel’s characters balance between turning inward and away (2): the tensions between an individual’s domestic illusions and realities are projected into twisted antagonisms between mother and daughter, sister and sister. Pérez offers her readers liberal access into each character’s internal conflicts that evolve from new or incompatible socio-economic, emotional and intellectual positions deriving from migration and American life.
The narrative opens in a moment when Pérez’s protagonist is turning both inward and toward home while turning away from the psychological stress of racism. Iliana, the protagonist, is a college student at an unnamed private university in New York. She decides to withdraw from school and permanently return home to escape a racially hostile intellectual environment and to help mollify the recent intra-familial rifts that have erupted in her absence. Despite the challenges of negotiating her family’s struggles and her own education and aspirations in the U.S., Iliana is a relatively stable family member. Nonetheless, she has difficulty reconciling her involvement in family drama with her desire for independence.
Iliana’s uncertain survival at university mirrors her own family’s precarious existence in the U.S. Around ten years before the opening of the novel, Iliana’s family (which remains unnamed in the narrative) moves to New York to escape poverty and the Trujillo regime. (3) The narrative details how strict Seventh-day Adventist beliefs, their Dominican heritage and illusions of what home “should be” contribute to family conflicts and personal epiphanies. Among her thirteen siblings, Iliana’s interactions with her sisters, Marina, a schizophrenic, and Rebecca, a victim of domestic violence, are prominent in the text. Similarly, Iliana’s relationship with her parents (particularly her mother, Aurelia) offers insight into the atmosphere of the household. Her tumultuous relationships with each of these characters culminate at the end of the novel, when Marina sexually assaults Iliana, twice. Her parents and siblings enable this violation by ignoring the severity of Marina’s illness. Reaching this point of no return, Iliana finally decides that she can no longer remain at home. Ultimately, she belongs to no home or university. Nonetheless, this detachment is countered by the final paragraph of the text when Iliana momentarily affirms emotional connection with her family (she and her father sobbingly embrace).
Predating Junot Díaz’s play on fukú at the very beginning of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and postdating Julia Álvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies, Pérez’s opening explores how a mother’s spiritual connection to her children leads to her own self-encounter. Over the course of the narrative, we see Aurelia, the matriarch, and her loyalty to her illusions. The most prominent character trait that Aurelia’s daughters inherit is her denial, her vehement dismissal of faith and her failure to accept the reality of psychologically stressful situations.
In the novel’s prologue, we learn that despite Aurelia’s mother's promise to pay a spiritual visit to any of her children who are not with her at the moment she dies, a young Aurelia does not “believe in spirits” (Pérez ix-x). Nonetheless, Aurelia is visited by a black cat and starts having birthing contractions in the exact moment that her mother dies in another part of the Dominican Republic: “The cat entered the room and flung itself against the walls and chairs in a mad attempt to catch its tail. Aurelia’s uterus convulsed—not as if the child inside her were moving but as if the uterus itself were shrinking toward its center” (Pérez x). This scene not only reflects an existential connection between mother and daughter (Aurelia’s mother’s death jumpstarts the life of one of her children), but the nihilistic undertones of the scene, the cat abusing itself, the pulsating uterus suffocating its contents, mark a parallel relationship between the new child and the self-abusing cat while interrogating Aurelia’s unbelief. Although, the rest of the novel makes no direct reference to this moment, the first chapter begins when Iliana hears Aurelia’s voice speaking clearly to her in times of distress, which reminds “Iliana of her own existence and kept her rooted” (Pérez 4). Even though this fact is set in tension with the truth that throughout the narrative–Aurelia consistently fails to validate Iliana’s concerns and her perspective–like the prologue, it makes an existential connection between mother and daughter, affirming the mother’s capacity to strengthen and destroy, the danger and protection of the mother’s words.
After Aurelia has fourteen children and moves to the U.S., insight about the augural night with the black cat comes into focus. She acknowledges that if she did not believe in it before, she needs faith, faith in her mother’s belief system, faith in Dominican cultural history to provide her children with a legacy that up until now, she has failed to impart. This faith is anchored by Aurelia’s intuition:
As she delved into the past she was conscious of something missing in the present—something her mother had possessed and passed along to her but which she had misplaced and failed to pass on to her own children. She could not identify what it was, but its absence was felt as acutely as hunger pangs. And she was determined to discover what had caused the loss and to figure out how she had brought herself to the present moment so that she might guide herself into the future. It wasn’t that she romanticized the past or believed things had been better long ago. She had been poor even in the Dominican Republic, but something had flourished from within which had enabled her to greet each day rather than cringe from it in dread. With bare feet planted on familiar ground, she had trusted her perceptions. Yet assaulted by the unfamiliar and surrounded by hard concrete and looming buildings, she had become as vulnerable as even the Trujillo regime had failed to make her feel (Pérez 23).
Aurelia’s reflection here is one of the few moments in the text where Pérez explicitly addresses how personal values and cultural identity can get lost in migration. For Aurelia, the “something [that] had flourished from within” aligns with her surety of where home was, its constancy: in the midst of her family’s poverty, she found belonging on “familiar ground.” What she “had misplaced and failed to pass on to her own children” is a cultural identity, a collective consciousness and personal wholeness that is not tangible but nonetheless causes her “hunger pangs.” Most importantly, she “loses her trust in her own perceptions,” a personal intuition that is shattered by an unfamiliar, post-migration world that even years after her arrival, still makes her feel “vulnerable.”
Aurelia’s vulnerabilities are exaggerated by her daughters’ self-destructive behavior and failing relationships. When Marina is admitted to a hospital after one of numerous suicide attempts, the doctor explains that Marina “needs help, much more than [her] family can provide.” In response, empowered by her disbelief (or empowered by her rage against reality), Aurelia “let herself out of the office” (Pérez 140) and ignores the doctor’s advice, determined to collect Marina, take her home and care for her there. Eventually, Aurelia is exasperated by Marina’s mercurial, violent condition and seeks to find an escape from the madness, first for herself and then for her family. The solution she creates is fitting for the problem: she conjures up a new approach to home that is purely cerebral, creatively capable of psychologically, if not physically removing from herself the burden of witnessing her children’s sorrows. Seeking to resist the acute existential uncertainty that characterizes her domestic life, she grounds herself in an intuitive source of self-understanding: “Aurelia for the first time granted herself permission to sprout roots past concrete into soil. Throughout more than fifteen years of moving from apartment to apartment, she had dreamed, not of returning, but of going home. Of going home to a place not located on any map but nonetheless preventing her from settling in any other” (Pérez 137). In this moment where comprehension of Marina’s illness takes hold, she copes with her grief through the idealization of home. In her ideal conception of home, Aurelia articulates a desire to turn inward, to be more instinctive. But, this hope for intuition is interrupted by unfamiliar post-migration geography.
Remembering creates an existential dilemma: Aurelia’s desire to sprout roots “past concrete into soil” in a “place not located on any map” presents a paradoxical perception of home, one that is inwardly and psychically rooted yet also “going home to a place” unaccountable on a communal or national record. The journey of “returning” is undesirable for Aurelia because it involves retracing memories of grief: her mother’s death, her brother’s suicide, and the terror of the Trujillo regime. Turning toward these memories would require that she reopen wounds that could not help her to navigate the problems of domestic life in the U.S.
Aurelia’s dismissal of the concept of “returning” illustrates an intimate moment of existential self encounter. Her consideration here prefigures Dionne Brand’s assertion that the diasporic individual and his or her relation to maps are fictions of history, representative of the journey of a “returning” that many resist making. Although Brand’s language implies a connection to the ancestral homeland and Aurelia is dreaming about a home she actually experienced, both approach journey-taking as a product of perception and exposure: "To live in the Black Diaspora is I think to live as a fiction—a creation of empires, and also self-creation". It is to be a being living inside and outside of herself. It is to apprehend the sign one makes yet to be unable to escape it except in radiant movement of ordinariness made like art. To be a fiction in search of its most resonant metaphor then is even more intriguing. So I am scouring maps of all kinds, the way that some fictions do, discursively, elliptically, trying to locate their own transferred selves (Brand 18-19).
Like Aurelia, Brand highlights aspects of identity that are simultaneously intuitive and vulnerable. Brand’s discursive and elliptic process of finding the “transferred selves” of the diaspora echoes the pleading self-interrogation that Aurelia enacts in her mind. Whereas Aurelia’s consideration of “apartments,” “soil” and a place not on “any map” indicates her vacillation between wanting to believe in the possibility of rootedness and desiring her home to be an encompassing, unlimited idea that possesses her, Brand concedes home is a composite shadow of history: pieces, shards of reasoning and movements culled together from “living inside and outside of herself,” turning inward and turning away simultaneously.
For Aurelia and Brand, the fixed geographies of maps are to be metabolized “discursively, elliptically” like the fictions of identity that they represent. Maps in themselves are illusions that homes (personal and national) for the diasporic individual and immigrant are one-dimensional, points or places drawn with exacting borderlines. Both Brand and Aurelia’s movements toward and away from maps, respectively, echo Gilroy’s claim that diasporic identity is characterized by restless encounter, an “endless struggle towards emancipation” (12).
Furthermore, Aurelia and Brand’s revelations enact inward/outward existential turns and the inevitable realization of every immigrant: “At some point—after months or years or maybe decades—the immigrant begins to find it impossible to sustain, even precariously, the fiction of rootedness” (Firmat 8). Consequently, the existential limits that Aurelia explores in this moment are not only the physical parameters of the home, but the uncertain limits of her identity. Dissolving “the fiction of rootedness” allows her to redefine herself and her relationship to her physical geography on her own terms. The psychological space where she can engage in these reconsiderations is home: “Only now did she understand that her soul had yearned not for a geographical site but for a frame of mind able to accommodate any place as home…she would no longer depend on anyone else to do for her or her children what she should have taken it upon herself to do” (137). Here, Aurelia summons up Michele Moody-Adam’s concept of “self-respect,” an attitude that is “willing to contribute” to securing her own survival (252). Aurelia’s existential awakening articulates an understanding of home that represents the psychic space where one can challenge domestic boundaries and maternal relationships. This successful imaginative test, an intuitive inward turn and a turn away from “rootedness,” becomes the site in which she carves out her own psychological survival in otherwise unbearable circumstances. Her maternal relationships are safeguarded by her decision to exist most arduously in a “frame of mind,” in a persistent motherhood, which she believes will protect her children from their own fallibility.
Aurelia’s challenging relationship with her daughters precipitate her existential self-encounter, allowing her to eventually ground herself in her mother’s spiritism, a position that is unlikely at the beginning of the narrative. Turning inward and toward her mother’s Voudún, Aurelia combats existential uncertainty in order to physically protect her children. Aurelia adopts the belief that her spiritual will, which encompasses “the frame of mind” that is home, is fully capable of altering the natural world. Specifically, while in her own kitchen cleaning and de-feathering a chicken for Christmas dinner, Aurelia uses Voudún to kill Rebecca’s abusive husband, Pasión. In this murder, which takes place both in Aurelia’s imagination and reality, Aurelia is in complete control, willing Pasión to death, literally: “Pasión stumbled toward the door. Aurelia plucked and released more feathers. She did this again and then again, her hands moving at a dizzying speed the air thickening with dust and feathers that choked Pasión” (Pérez 255). Aurelia’s imagination, with the assistance of the supernatural strength she inherits from her mother, becomes an immaterial locale where she can enact her deepest emotional longings. Thus, in using Voudún, a “syncretic Afro-Caribbean” spiritual art (Sandín 67), to murder Pasión in her imagination and in reality, she not only consummates the pure hatred that she feels toward him, but finally, she successfully fulfills her desire to protect her life and her loved ones in a “frame of mind,” a home governed by Caribbean history and unhindered by the geography of the U.S.
The kitchen scene produces the “syncretic” work of productively collapsing Aurelia’s internal desires into reality. By using Voudún to kill Pasión, Aurelia ensures her own psychological survival and that of her daughter, Rebecca. Aurelia manages to create a world without Pasión, a desire that has been lingering in her heart over the course of the narrative. “Plucking” the chicken enables Pasión’s death, evokes the torturous violence that he inflicts on Rebecca’s body, and on a global scale is “emblematic of the torn national body impacted by migration traffic” (Page 12). This psychological space, though uninhabitable for long periods of time, is a departure point from which she can expand the latitudes of her relationships with her mother’s cultural belief system, her homeland, the house she occupies in the U.S. and her children.
Unfortunately, Aurelia’s psychological response to her existential uncertainty cannot always sustain her psychological survival or that of her family. As Firmat asserts, the fact that Aurelia’s concept of home is only accessible when “she had dreamed,” indicates that she desires to occupy an otherwise inaccessible world. In the rest of the novel it is apparent that she recreates her home from this point onward by draping this nebulous, yet nonetheless longed for, “psychic space” over the one that she physically occupies as a means of concealing the cracks in her relationships with her children. Because the home’s inhabitants are troubled by a confused sense of belonging, which accompanies their migration, Aurelia’s desired “frame of mind” and her domestic reality do not match up. Yet, in Aurelia’s deluded perception of her family, her physical home and her idea of what it should be can be one and the same.
Aurelia’s existential uncertainty is characterized by her ambivalence about change. However, Aurelia finally realizes that home “is characterized by change” (Chapman 136) after Marina rapes Iliana. In the wake of this event, only a few days after being blinded by her family’s togetherness on Christmas, which is “proof to her of all the good parenting she had done” (Pérez 265), Aurelia repeats her deep reflection on the physical and relational condition of her home: “That she and her husband had managed to purchase all these things as well as their own home had often been offered as proof to their children of the stability in their lives. Only now did she concede that nothing was stable—nothing” (Pérez 293). She realizes that the cohesion and freedom that she imagined her home to possess are complete illusions. The image of domestic stability that she sees on Christmas is only a quick turn away from the chaos of abuse that follows. Aurelia’s willingness to “concede” her volatile reality signals another awakening to the existential uncertainty that governs her domestic life. Her admission that “nothing was stable” reneges access to the inward “frame of mind” that she desires home to be. She has determined that after Marina’s diagnosed schizophrenia and Iliana’s ensuing rape, her perceptions of home are only “ghostly traces” (Pérez 1) of an uncomfortable reality.
Despite the trouble there, Iliana feels spiritually drawn back home, literally by the “disembodied” (Pérez 2) voice of her mother, which has psychologically comforted her in the midst of her isolation and estrangement from her university community. The sound of her mother’s voice and her internal safe image of home provide her with a sense of belonging. Negotiating her place at home requires Iliana to create illusions that project the safety that she desires. Desire creates an alternative reality where the denial or “loss” of the desired object is gaping: “While desire is constitutive of loss, desire also generates by-products even as it makes that deficiency conspicuous” (Tate 10). Iliana’s continual hope for safety and belonging in her home “generates” relational “by-products,” or unfounded, false perceptions of home. Even though Iliana conceptualizes home as a refuge, the presence of fear predominates all other feelings she has in relation to her family and its dwelling. Of course, this fear exists in opposition to her desire to belong to her family. But, rather than grappling with these conflicting emotions, Iliana “persuade[s]” herself that home is a place where “Nothing happened” (Pérez 286).
Evidence of Iliana’s denial, moments in which she envisions home to be a refuge, a place of safety and belonging, when it is indeed none of these things plays out in the expression of her unmet desires within the domestic sphere. When Iliana returns home to find Marina extremely overweight and unstable, she appears to be the only one in the family aware of the significance of this change. She hopes that at least her mother would acknowledge her concern and admit that Marina and the family as a whole, has shifted: “Selfishly, Iliana wished for Aurelia to meet her gaze, share a secret, speak words which would loop themselves around the two and draw them near. More than anything, she wanted a gesture able to subdue her fears or persuade her that not everything and everyone had changed beyond recall” (Pérez 33). Iliana’s struggle for psychological survival is symptomatic of a collective, familial breakage. More, Marina’s “schizophrenias” demonstrate an exaggerated version of the psychoses of migration and silence that characterize the other members of her family. Marina’s character and her elusively complex sexual identity “signals the transformation needed within the family unit” (Chancy 71). Although Iliana’s perspective frames the text, Marina’s behavior drives the action in the narrative. Her schizophrenia and its delusions prompt Iliana to confront her own existential uncertainty.
The “myriad of neuroses” that the omniscient narrator tells us that Iliana develops in her childhood frustrations reappears when Marina inspires her self-revelation: “Whenever she tried to focus on Marina’s face, her eyes settled on a single feature rather than on a whole. It was as if a door inside her had willfully slammed shut against a complete view for fear of recognizing something not in her sister but in herself: some shared genetic trait able to hint at her own susceptibility to madness” (Pérez 41). Pérez places Iliana and Marina as the “double” (Sandín 73) or mirror of each other. Unlike Marina who loudly shares the miscellany that comes to her mind and her intense emotions, Iliana, as is Aurelia, is intellectually and emotionally “willfully slammed shut” against the reality of her family’s domestic life.
Correspondingly, Marina mulls over Iliana’s behaviors and insists that she is deceiving those around her by claiming to be a woman when she is not. Marina’s instinctive about Iliana claim (that Iliana is intersexed) confirms her own neuroses, her own tension-ridden position between illusion and reality. Her assumption about Iliana’s androgyny is predicated on a combination of her mental inability to filter information and her strictly traditional views about gender roles. According to Marina, Iliana “was as self-seeking as a man” and “behaved more like her brothers and shared few personality traits of her sisters” (Pérez 277). This behavior which applies to Iliana’s independence and her pursuit of education in the text is further complicated by Iliana’s brother’s comments about her masculine features: “if you weren’t my sister I wouldn’t know if you were a man trying to look like a woman or a woman trying to be a man” (Pérez 107).
Considering Iliana’s brother’s corroboration about Iliana’s sex points us to the possibility that although she is clearly not intersexed, Iliana’s gender signals her existential in-betweeness, her body (at least in her family’s heteronormative and gender rigid perspective) stands somewhere between illusion/reality and man/woman. Iliana’s physical presence in the narrative incites a “re-evaluation” (Chancy 51) of categorizable sexual and gender roles for those within the narrative. More, we can read Iliana’s psychology and body as vehicles on which her family exorcises the traumatic residues of migration.
In the chapter that includes the rape scene, Pérez’s narrator discontinues full access into Marina’s mind and switches to describing Iliana’s psychology on the night of the attack. Like those nights at her university, where she hears her mother’s disembodied voice, Iliana internally struggles and cannot “shake off the certainty that her sister equated her with the devil and had some wicked plan in store” (Pérez 281). Unfortunately, always uncertain, the adult Iliana folds back into her alarmed eight-year old self and does not respond to her own suspicions because “she no longer knew if her senses could be trusted” (Pérez 281). Iliana’s intuitive thought about her sister’s scheming becomes real and the destruction of her baby doll years before, is repeated onto her own body, total abuse transforms her world a second time: “Back arched against the raging pain, hands clawing futilely at the fitted sheet, Iliana thrashed and writhed. The world, as she had known it, crashed irrevocably around her head as her sister’s hand curled into a fist. Her thoughts screeched mercifully to a halt as that fist crashed against her womb” (Pérez 284). Themes of collapse, uncertain perspective or orientation, prevail in this scene: Iliana’s whole body drowns in the tangle of sheets and against the onslaught of Marina’s body. Iliana is unable to overcome the “crashed” darkness of the room, her thoughts, and Marina’s bouldering fist.
Her thoughts, “mercifully” forced to a halt, lost in the visceral intensity of her physical pain exemplify conflicting realms of self-awareness. Michelle Wright’s conception of black subjectivity, an experience indefinitely bound in violent contention “as that which must be negotiated between the abstract and the real or, in theoretical terms, between the ideal and the material” (3) are apparent in the disappearance of Iliana’s thoughts during the rape scene and her insistence afterwards that “she didn’t do anything to me” (Pérez 286). But, Marina destroys Iliana’s psychic world that guarded her illusions regarding the fragility of herself, her family life and her domestic relationships. For Iliana, negotiating the “ideal” and the “material” after the rape is less complicated; she integrates the two, tearing down all of her emotional hang-ups: “Forgetting required no effort on Iliana’s part. Nor did forgiving. Already the anger she’d harbored throughout most of her nineteen years had been consumed in the wake of her sister’s hand. What remained of rage cooled like ash beneath her tongue” (Pérez 287).
Pérez employs the body-in-pain as a cathartic vehicle for spiritual and emotional release. Iliana’s “cooled” perspective, although short-lived, accomplishes her sister’s goal of exposing that which is “tucked” away, what has been harbored in Iliana’s soul. Yet, within the folds of this exposure, again Iliana “tucks” away other impulses and emotions which ensue from such an intimate violation, she reclaims an assertion that she has had since she was eight: “she had no use for emotions now” (Pérez 287) and begins to see “her body only as part of the darkness that concealed it from her eyes” (Pérez 286).
Deciding to stay in the room after Marina’s first attack, Iliana succumbs to a second, more forceful one, her screams awakening the whole house. When her sister, her brother and her parents enter, Iliana’s body becomes a metaphor for the type of home that she and Aurelia envision over the course of the narrative: visible/invisible, safe/unsafe, violated/inviolable: “Not once had any of them focused eyes on her. Their failure to have done so convinced her that her sister had effectively thrust her to the extremes of their peripheral sight where she was glimpsed, if at all, as not more than an abstraction” (Pérez 290). Iliana’s presence which carries characteristics of the realm of Morrison’s “outdoors,” is an embodiment of the rape in the grand scheme of the narrative. The redundancy of rape confirms a certain uncertainty: By the end of it we are sure that Iliana’s psychological survival is in question.
By including the double rape scene, Pérez places the readers face-to-face with events that are often relegated to the “the extremes of their peripheral sight,” trauma that exists no “more than an abstraction” in our collective consciousness. We are forced to see it twice, to not miss it by any means, to even abide in that moment of violence as if it is itself a geographical site, a home. The double rape not only indicates Iliana’s delusional insistence that she can psychically dismiss the first trauma that her sister dealt her, but it also connotes the double exposure of Iliana, to herself, to her family and additionally doubly exposes her family’s collusion through their “tradition of silence” (Pérez 191) and their failure to protect Iliana by not admitting to the gravity of Marina’s illness.
Aurelia denies that Marina could have known what she was doing to her sister, yet of course this statement is countered by Marina’s dual attempts. Iliana finally confronts the reality that it is her sister’s knowledge of the twisted nature of the family’s domestic relationships, not her sister’s illness that attacked her that night: “Her sister knew. Her sister knew precisely what it was she’d done. She knew and was pleased that no one else would ever detect what it was she had destroyed. She knew and depended on shame to silence Iliana and to efface whatever self she’d been” (Pérez 290). Ultimately, Iliana realizes that her home is not safe; it is just as dangerously abusive as the university that she restlessly abandons. While vomiting in the kitchen sink when it is all over, she finally understands the truth about the home environment and the family that she desperately wishes were different: “Her primary thought was she wanted to go home…Every spasm of her body, every tremor and heave only reminded her that she was already there” (Pérez 290).
Finally, Iliana attempts psychological recovery by admitting to herself that her illusion of home and its pulsing reality are altogether different. Unfortunately, Iliana’s desire for home which is coupled with the awareness that she is “already there,” retraces violations she experiences over the course of the narrative. This time, the assault Iliana experiences intimately changes her perception of home and her potential to safely exist there. In this moment of great realization, she turns inward (“her primary thought was that she wanted,” “every tremor and heave only reminded her”) while turning away (“go”) from the fact that she is “already there.”
Marina’s delusional plan to out Iliana illustrates Pérez’s narrative accomplishment, which is “to reveal to others what [they] did not wish…to see” (Pérez 275). She endeavors to save her audience from the “insidious” notion that the brutality that this Dominican family experiences and inflicts on each other is unique. Pérez gropes us with a productive intention: she forces an entryway in our minds for the disturbing realities that exist within the United States and abroad, compelling us to examine the existential uncertainties that lead this particular Dominican family to create and challenge illusions of home and the intimate relationships there.
Pérez employs Aurelia’s psychological wandering and Iliana’s rapes to explore the boundary-crossing’s diverse manifestations of psychic disruption. Although Pérez makes only a modest number of explicit narrative links between the family’s immigration and their dysfunction, an exhaustive analysis of the text must take “the chaos of [their] uprootedness” (Mootoo 31) into consideration. Rebecca’s diminished self-worth, Aurelia’s anxious struggle between trusting intuition and revealing vulnerability, and the “myriad of neuroses” (Pérez 189) that Iliana and Marina develop indicate a shared, yet distinctly expressed psychic erosion resulting from the isolating social, racial and economic pressures of immigration to the U.S.
Aurelia, Iliana and Marina’s character traits communicate that the family’s collective existential uncertainty is an expression of their fearfulness of American culture and their gradual loss of Dominican identity. In the very last moment in the text which occurs right after Iliana’s father punches her in the face for coming home late on the night following her sexual assault, Iliana perceives her father to be “more afraid of the world than she had ever been” (Pérez 320), viewing her father’s failings alongside her own. She insists that rather than moving home to help her family, a claim that she relied on at the beginning of the novel, “she had returned not so much to help as to be embraced. She had wanted more than anything, to belong. Having spent years plotting how to leave only to discover, when she finally did, that she felt as displaced out in the world as in her parents’ house” (Pérez 312). Iliana’s discernment here anticipates her father’s self-encounter. He has an epiphany about his personal motivations which occur on the penultimate page of the narrative: “Papito’s posture remained that of a man conscious of having failed his children and fostering no hopes of being redeemed before their eyes. His tone was one of disillusionment, not with any of them but with himself. Listening to him, Iliana suddenly understood that it was himself that he’d been blaming all along” (Pérez 320).
Iliana’s hopes for her family’s well-being and safety are the same ones that her father had but could not bring to fruition. Her rape scene becomes a source of reflection for the whole family, particularly her father, who is painfully aware that his aloofness, his distancing spiritual piety is partly responsible for the chaos in his house. Pérez suggests that the reconciliation of the mother-daughter begins with the father’s acknowledgement of his failures and a need for change. The father-daughter embrace implies that the healing of the mother-daughter relationship (Iliana and Aurelia) is not yet possible and may take longer to unfold.
At the end of the novel, Iliana successfully begins to re-imagine herself and her home as evolving concepts, changing as she continues to develop methods of psychological survival. She insists that even the violent nature of the home will become foundational to creating a new life outside of it. Declaring a definitive war on her prior existential uncertainty, Iliana proclaims that “I will survive all this” (Pérez 313). Rape produces in her the willingness to confront the distinctions between the illusions and reality, which were avoidable before the climactic violation. The commitment to survive, “wanting” (Gordon 2000 15) and “willing to contribute” (Moody-Adams 252) to her own survival is a means of placing her illusions about home in the past, claiming a future that exceeds “all this”: the boundaries of the house and the memory and pain associated with it. She is putting away, hiding her conception of home in the folds of her memory, collecting her “best and worst” (Pérez 321) family memories to establish a grounding personal history which influences the way she sees everything: “everything she had inherited from her parents and had gleaned from her siblings would aid her in her passage through the world. She would leave no memories behind. All of them were her self. All of them were home” (Pérez 321).
Lucía Suárez asserts that Pérez’s characterization of Iliana in this final moment “entails not only self-discovery but also self-affirmation through her final denunciation of a personal, family and national history that has obliterated women’s lives” (152). Although I do not wholly agree Iliana’s departure at the end of the novel strongly exhibits a “denunciation” of her oppressive past, there is evidence in the novel’s last words that indicate that she is turning outward to discover the life that awaits her outside of the house in Brooklyn. Additionally, in viewing her memories as “her self” and “home,” the reader is inclined to turn again to Pérez’s juxtaposition of reality and imaginative thought, which includes memory. Therefore, the Iliana who naively needed refuge from her academic and personal home at the beginning of the novel is now content with the imprint that her family has on her life’s trajectory. Maybe she has adopted her mother’s paradigm of home, a “frame of mind” capable of keeping her yearning for belonging alive. Finally able to relinquish the ideal refuge that home should have been but never was, Iliana manages her world without the anchoring stability she once sought in her family.
To conclude, on one hand the very last scene of emotional breakdown in the text simplifies the important cultural work of this novel. Pérez’s neatly-tied-up ending to Geographies of Home, a scene where Iliana and her father sobbingly embrace, implies that Iliana has swiftly found a way to handle her family’s violence. Pérez’s narrative form before this last page relies on characters’ incapacity to balance multiple antagonisms, multiple battles occurring internally and externally. Moreover, in Geographies of Home, we see how “reality crashes through” (Firmat 10) the illusions of each family member, especially those of Aurelia, Iliana and Marina. Pérez’s narrative poetics involves examining failures on multiple levels: personal, familial, national, and racial. Her narrative style operates like a conscience, exposing negative emotions that undercut positive impulses or agency and revealing family relations in which failure is ever-present, internally troubling and most apparent in the breakdown of interpersonal relationships.
On the other hand, the final moment emphasizes the “emotional terrain of migration” (Mendoza and Subramanian xiv), particularly the ways that existential uncertainty, the unpredictability of human relationship and the angst about psychological survival that ensues, is an important component of post-migration life. The father-daughter embrace does not negate the future presence of existential uncertainty but rather suggests that there can be mutual yet momentary certainty in reconciliation and expressions of vulnerable cooperation and reciprocal comfort.
(1). A preoccupation with female chastity and its connection to mother/daughter immigrant violence are apparent in Edwidge Danticat’s Breath, Eyes, Memory, Audre Lorde’s Zami: Another Spelling of My Name and the tumultuous mother/daughter relationship in Paule Marshall’s Browngirl, Brownstones.
(2). The turning inward that I discuss here is for the purposes of existential contemplation. They are akin with those discussed in Carol Y. Bailey’s “Performing Fiction: The Inward Turn of Postcolonial Discourse in Anglophone Caribbean Fiction.”
(3). Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina: Dominican Republic’s dictator from 1930-1961. He seized control of the Dominican government through a military coup and maintained power through oppressive and corrupt means. In 1937 Trujillo ordered an “ethnic cleansing” of Black Haitian immigrants in the country which resulted in the slaughter of 20,000-30,000 people (known as the Parsley Massacre).
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