The Personal Is Political

Lisa Lenard-Cook
6 min read
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Watercolor Women Opaque Men
Ana Castillo
(Curbstone, paper, $15)

Confessions of a Berlitz-Tape Chicana
Demetria Martinez
(University of Oklahoma Press, paper, 14.95)

Lilus Kikus and Other Stories
Elena Poniatowska
Translation and introduction by Elizabeth Coonrod Martinez, illustrations by Leonora Carrington
(UNM Press, paper, $15.95)

If one is to use current book review headlines as a measure, it seems it’s once again fashionable to suggest that the novel, because it’s a mode for exploring the personal, has outlived its usefulness. Countering these (mostly male) harbingers of doom, women writers have long understood that not only is the personal political, it’s likely the best route toward connecting with readers, in the process making them more aware of how those in other milieus try to live their lives. Death-knells be damned, women writers continue to experiment with not only the novel, but other forms as well.

Three recently published books showcase the political possibilities of three different genres. Ana Castillo’s Watercolor Women Opaque Men, Demetria Martinez’ Confessions of a Berlitz-Tape Chicana and Elizabeth Coonrod Martinez’ translation of Elena Poniatowska’s Lilus Kikus and Other Stories couldn’t be more dissimilar in approach. Yet, read together, these three books offer a passionate chorus against marginalization and despair.

Castillo’s book is a novel in verse, more specifically free verse tercets, which documents the life of Ella, a daughter of migrant workers who escapes into a theoretically better life (she cleans office buildings) in San Francisco. Castillo’s distinctive voice, sharpened on So Far From God (1993) and honed on Peel My Love Like An Onion (1999), here cuts sharply through to the heart of the matter: “But they are not wanderers or of mysterious origin, / But indigenas—mestizas— / With everything that passes through that tropical paradise.”

As evidenced in such snippets, what’s most intriguing about Watercolor Women Opaque Men is the author’s insistence on the mythological underpinning inherent in the everyday. Castillo’s characters are cast as not only Aztec wanderers, as above, but also Greek gods, Jewish martyrs and Catholic saints as well as working-class heroes. The tercet form allows the characters to sing their everyday lives with Homeric bravado: “Among the millions / who come to keep things going. / Put the strawberries on dinner tables / In midwinter. / Landscape the front yards and gardens / without much haggling in case / You get mad and call immigration … ”

Poet William Carlos Williams, a frequent user of the tercet, noted that its particular rhythm captures a distinctly American phrasing. Castillo’s decision to use the form for her characters reminds us that we are all immigrants, all strivers and hopers and dreamers. Her effort to expand the fictive genre by revivifying an ancient mode is admirable and ambitious.

Albuquerque’s Demetria Martinez’ book is a compilation of columns and essays written over a 15-year period. Like Castillo’s, Martinez’ work explores life lived at the ragged edges of society and the people who do what they can to better not only their own lives, but those of others. Unlike Castillo, however, Martinez uses her own more privileged life as a mirror into the more difficult ones she encounters. She is quick to point out, “I’m no writer of manifestos. I’m a storyteller.”

Arrested in 1987, at the age of 27, for conspiracy against the U.S. government after writing about the Sanctuary Movement, Martinez’ subsequent trial made headlines worldwide. (She was found not guilty on First Amendment grounds.) Her novel Mother Tongue (1996), based on this experience, cemented her role as a chronicler of those struggling to find a better life in the U.S. Several of the columns collected here touch on the trial and its aftermath.

Yet while Martinez has never shied from grappling with difficult social issues, Confessions of a Berlitz-Tape Chicana offers a slightly different Demetria than some of her earlier work. Coming from a perspective at once Catholic and humanist allows her a singular approach to personal religion versus organized religion, as in this tidbit from “Leaps of Faith”: “God cannot be contained by human stupidity and prejudice. The church is no democracy; what we need is a miracle.”

Leaps such as this are common throughout Confessions, and Martinez as usual mixes prose and poetry, and English and Spanish, to make her points. For her many fans, the book provides a welcome compilation of previously uncollected pieces. For those who aren’t familiar with her work, it’s an invitation to read more.

While practically unknown north of the border, Elena Poniatowska is considered an icon in Mexico, where she’s lived since her family took refuge there during World War II. Founder of the newspaper La Jornada and Fem, Mexico’s first feminist magazine, she is the first woman to win the Mexican National Award for Journalism. Lilus Kikus, Poniatowska’s first published work (in 1954), was long considered a children’s book until feminist readers began to examine it more closely and discovered the subtext that had been there all along.

Elizabeth Coonrod Martinez’ translation captures both the spirit and the rhythm of Poniatowska’s original novella about the coming-of-age of a girl in Mexico’s moneyed society after World War II. Even in this privileged milieu, though, a girl’s path is clearly delineated, and the energy of Lilius, a child with a vivid imagination and inquisitive nature, is slowly but carefully stifled over the course of the novella. In the final chapter, Lilius is sent to convent school where: “They informed her that one day she would be an adult person, and that she could not be an old-clothes street peddler, because that was very badly thought of. Then they explained about ’badly thought of' and being honorable. If she wanted to have children, she must certainly first seek a husband. And they told her about the professions. Being a millionaire is very convenient; being a gardener is not praiseworthy.”

The line drawings by famed Surrealist artist Leonora Carrington which accompany the text were created after Carrington first read the book in the mid-'50s, and their depiction of a grown-up world as seen through a child’s eyes prefigures the later work of Jules Pfeiffer. (See especially the little girl and the politicos on page 45.)

As E.M. Forster pointed out, there’s a fine line between preaching and poetry—and it’s also the line between good writing and great writing. Writers who are passionate about the world in which they live can’t help but inject their politics into their writing. But, and here’s the thing, the path to great writing lies in taking readers along for the journey, rather than insisting that they see things precisely as the author does. In these three books, activist writers Ana Castillo, Demetria Martinez and Elena Poniatowska remind us that they are women who not only have found the poetry in politics, but practice what they preach as well.

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