Languages at War in Latin American Women Writers

Memories are not only shaped by the past, but by the present in which they are produced. This chapter analyses the role of memoirs as a literary, written form of memory. From this perspective, they will be considered as acts of remembering with the power of making sense of our life-stories. It is not by chance that within the current context of human rights movements, indigenous and peasant rebellions looking for empowerment, civil wars and immigration crises in Latin America, since the end of the 20th century there has been a boom of testimonial-based narratives (memories, autobiographies, and so on) in this region, also known as the “subjective turn.” The boom also coincides with a global trend in biographical and autobiographical works by women in the Western world and life-writing studies.1

True stories of social struggle and state violence have been part of a Latin American “collective memory” (Halbwachs 25-26), and they have shaped the identity of an entire generation of left-wing politicians, intellectuals, artists, popular leaders, and workers.[1] I argue that contemporary memoirs of traumatic historical events by literary authors reshape our images of the historical past, whether they serve as a literary redemption, a sort of artistic and therapeutic response or as further source of information for social scientists. During the 1980s the purpose of this kind of writings was to move the reader toward solidarity and empathy to their causes.[2] In contrast, recent first-person narratives by women remembering their experiences in civil wars, social crisis, or guerrillas show a clearer intention to make sense of their present by introducing shifts in time, looking backward and forward in their own life-story, and creating awareness of their former political ingenuity through self-reflective narratives.

Following philosopher Adriana Cavarero’s conception of life-stories, this chapter departs from the assumption that, unlike fiction, the narrated self in nonfiction is not only a linguistic construction but a representation of a flesh-and-blood, unique person whose story is shared with the reader obeying a human “desire for narration.” I will consider memoirs as a literary subgenre of life-writing or biography, which are life-stories in a broader sense:

Biographies and autobiographies, before being textual sites of a refined and professional hermeneutics, are life-stories narrated as a written text. For as much as they are necessarily constructed according to diverse standards, or according to the epoch or the tastes of the time, they nonetheless tell the story of a narratable self whose identity - unique and unrepeatable - is what we seek in the pages of the text. It is this identity, which may be rendered as fragmentary or multiple segmentation of the self, which would deny its unity. (Cavarero 71)

It is through biographical and autobiographical tales, says Cavarero discussing Hannah Arendt, that the other (the reader, in this case) get to know who the protagonist is: “Personal identity, which - in the gaze of the other or in a momentary encounter - cannot be exchanged for another, thus finds in his or her life-story a temporal extension; or, the continual dynamism of his or her persistence” (Cavarero 73). The uniqueness of the mho, nonetheless, is intertwined with its what, and therefore heroic or everyday actions can tell us more about the person and its context. It is in this sense that a woman life-story can also be that of a collective, for her life is shared with many other lives.[3]

  • [1] See, for example, Adriana Cavarero’s Relating Narratives (1997) and Judith Butler’s Giving an Account of Oneself (2001). 2 I am considering here Halbwachs’ definition of collective memory as the sum of individual memories of a given social group in a given time (2004: 25-26). Expanding Halbwachs’ proposal, a discussion regarding individual and cultural identity formation was updated by Assmann and Czaplicka (1995). They consider “cultural memory” as distanced, objectivized structures of memory, that is, fixed historical events whose memory is maintained through rites, texts, or monuments (128-129). This concept is in contrast with an everyday form of collective memory (“communicative memory”). For the purposes of my analysis I consider memoirs to be a blend of everyday collective memory and cultural memory. Particularly in the case of memoirs heavily based on oral history, like those about guerrillas or other historical events in Latin America which have been ignored or misinterpreted by historians or the State, it is difficult to consider them as fixed memories only because they are texts.
  • [2] The more recent origin of this trend comes from the boom of the testimonial novel or testimonio genre in the region, especially after Miguel Barnet’s Biografía de un cimarrón (1966). This genre privileged first-hand memories, told by a victim of violence, through journalistic or ethnographic-like interviews, to a professional writer. The most polemical work of this genre has been Elizabeth Burgo’s Me llamo Rigo-berta Menchú y asi me nació la conciencia (1983). For more about this topic see Gugelberg (1996). 2 In fiction, emblematic works include Marta Traba’s Conversación al sur (1981), Luisa Valenzuela’s Cambio de armas (1982), and Cristina Peri Rossi’s La nave de los locos (1984). This chapter focuses on lesser-studied nonfiction works.
  • [3] For a discussion on auto/biography approaches from a feminist perspective see Cava-rero (2006). 2 Translations from this work are mine. 3 One of the few photographs from this time shows a shy, kind of scared and physically fragile Elena Garro, hold by her husband Octavio Paz in the middle of a crowded street in Madrid. Because of the photograph’s angle and the protagonists’ appearance, it is hardly the image of two people in a social protest. Her look in
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