REFLECTIONS FOR COLLEGE LANGUAGE ASSOCIATION 2018: “Polyphonous Atemporality: Dual PostColonialism in Nick Joaquin’s Short Stories”

Nick Joaquin: Polyphonous Atemporality: Dual Post-Colonialism in Nick Joaquin’s Short Stories.

Reflections for the College Language Association 2018 Conference

Chicago, Illinois

B. Amarilis Lugo de Fabritz, Ph. D.

Master Instructor,  Russian

Howard University

The transition from colonialism to post-colonialism in the twentieth century raises soe curious questions to the populations left behind in the lands formerly classified as colonial holdings, such as Latin America and the Philippines. Among the most interesting:

a. How do we evaluate the cultural influence of colonial powers on the populations left behind?

b. How do we evaluate the cultural and historical shifts brought forth by the colonial past?

Nick Joaquin provides an interesting case study for these two questions in Philippine literature. He wrote both critical-theoretical articles on the nature of Philippine history and culture, as well as creative fiction that created a vision of colonial influence on Philippine culture as a case of polyphonous atemporality, where multiple cultural influences caused a cultural reality unmoored from standard unlinear temporal ideas.

My presentation will look at one of Nick Joaqun’s theoretical concepts, the way that colonial languages can be used as tools to reflect historical cultural transitions. This concept, combined with an application of the Bakhtinian concept of heteroglossia, when applied to his creative writings, reveal how he manages to create a polyphonous atemporal narrative, where his characters negotiate through different colonial cultural constructs to reflect on contemporary hybrid Filipino reality.



Nick Joaqui's anthology Culture and History

Nick Joaqui’s anthology Culture and History

Nick Joaquin wrote extensively on the issue of culture and colonialism. His essay “Culture as History,” in particular, presented his view on how to negotiate Philippine contemporary culture with its colonial past. He differentiated among Asian, Spanish, and English colonial legacies. He makes various provocative observations,

I. Colonial legacies, which have been absorbed by the Philippines, have become tools in the progress of Filipino culture.

“Here would be no need to save national pride, since this would be purely Philippine History: the Filipino at stage center; with the alien intervenor himself counting as one of the tools with which we acted and to which we reacted. Even Christianity can be included among these tools, not in any derogatory sense but in the McLuhan meaning when he says that clothing, money, the house and the road are tools and that all such tools are “media of communication.” Thus we could solve the problem that most irks us about this epoch: the presence of the alien intruder, who would then be reduced, not without honor, to the role of medium. “

II. The Philippines become a place where the conflict between East and West play out in ways that echo Slavic debates between Westernizers and Slavophiles.

“This is recognized even by those who deny it, as when they assert that 1521 marked a deviation from what might have been our true history; or when they fume that we were Christianized at the cost of our “Asian” soul; or when they argue that if the Philippines had only been completely converted to Islam by the 16th century, the Philippines were already Buddhist, or Taoist, or Hinduist, or Confucianist, or Shintoist, the West would have conquered us in vain, because, being already formed by the media of the great civilizations of the East, we would be in little danger of deviating from the Asian form.

If it be true indeed that we were Westernized to the cost of our Asian soul, then the blame must fall, not on the West, but on Asia.”

III. A dual cultural process emerges, polyphonous atemporality.

“Our problem is in the process, or rather, in history as becoming, for what we cannot accept is that we became Filipino any more than we accept that we became Asian. (If you are of Asia, then you are Asian, period.) Even if we do recognize that a double process was in movement during the colonial era, one process tending to Asianize us and the other to Westernize us, we do so only to discriminate between them and to aver that the former produced what may be called our pancit and lumpia culture, which can be accepted as Philippine because it was Asian, and the other produced our adobo and pan de sal culture, which is Creole and therefore to be rejected as corruption. From a practical existential viewpoint, either process seems as Filipino as the other, and both to be now a single culture in which they cannot be distinguished apart, being too interfused with each other and with everything else in the culture,..”

Nick Joaquín, “Culture as History,” Culture and History: Occasional Notes on the Process of Philippine Becoming. Metro Manila: Solar Publishing Corporation, 1988 1-26

English comes to occupy a special place among colonial languages, since, in his eyes, it is only that literariness as such truly emerges as a tradition in Philippine writing.

“Our fictionists in English are, in fact, the very first group of Filipino writers to be read simply for the sake of reading, or, rather, for the pleasure, the delight, of reading.”

Joaquin, Nick. “THE FILIPINO AS ENGLISH FICTIONIST.” Philippine Quarterly of Culture and Society, vol. 6, no. 3, 1978 Pg. 121-122

These comments seem to harmonize in a curious manner with Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of heteroglossia, разноречие.

“Literary language – both spoken and written – although it is unitary not only in its shared, abstract, linguistic markers but also in its forms for conceptualizing these abstract, linguistic markers, it itself stratified and heteroglot in its aspect as an expressive system, that is, in the forms that carry meaning… Thus, at any given moment of its historical existence, language is heteroglot from top to bottom: it represents the co-existence of socio-ideological contradictions between the present and the past, between differing epochs of the past, between different socio-ideological contradictions between the present and the past, between differing epoch of the past, between different socio-ideological groups in the present, between tendencies, schools, circles, and so forth, all given a bodily form. These “languages” of heteroglossia intersect each other in a variety of ways, forming new socially typifying “languages.””

Mikhail Baktin, “Discourse in the Novel,” 288,,291

Bakhtin, M. M. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M. M. Bakhtin. Holquist, Michael, ed. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, trans. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996

Putting these all together, we can start detecting the emergence of an intentional polyphonous atemporality in Nick Joaquin’s fictional writing, My analysis will focus on the short story “May Day Eve,” which is available in his recently published Penguin anthology, but which is also available via JSTOR from:

Joaquin, Nick. “May Day Eve.” The Transatlantic Review, No. 5 (December 1960), pp. 26-35

“May Day Eve” is a short story populated by multiple points of view and multiple timelines. This multi-voiced, heteroglot in the Bakhtinian sense, and multi-temporal narrative reflects the co-existence of what Joaquin sees as the three main cultures that constitute the Filipino tradition: indigenous Philippine, Spanish Catholic conquista, and English. While Spanish and indigenous ideologies fight for domination in this cultural space, it is the bending of English stylistic and grammar rules that become the main tool for displaying the, in the case of his story, literally magic effect of the polyphonous ideologies that play off of each other like so many musical cords, that constitute Filipino awareness.

The story revolves around a legend presented by the oldest woman we see in the story, old Anastasia.

“And it was May again, said the old Anastasia. It was the first day of May and witches were abroad in the night, she said – for it was a night of divination, a night of lovers, and those who cared might peer in a mirror and would there behold the face of whoever it was they were fated to marry, said the old Anastasia as she hobbled about picking up the piled crinolines and folding up shawls and raking slippers to a corner while the girls, climbing into the four great poster-beds that overwhelmed the room, began shrieking with terror, scrambling over each other and imploring the old woman not to frighten them. ‘Enough, enough, Anastasia! We want to sleep!’

‘Go scare the boys instead, you old witch!’

‘She is not a witch, she is a maga. She was born on Christmas Eve!’

‘St. Anastasia, virgin and martyr.’

‘Huh? Impossible! She has conquered seven husbands! Are you a virgin, Anastasia?’

‘No, but I am seven times a martyr because of you girls.’”

Nick Joaquin, “May Day Eve” The Transatlantic Review, No. 5 (December 1960), pp. 27

Here we see some of the more common features of Joaquin’s style. Sentences related to dialogue delivery prove consistently short. However, those focusing on descriptive passages tend to blur the rules of normative style and grammar by running on to amazing lengths. The tense play of competing ideologies, much like the tense relationship among second or sixth notes in a chord, manifests itself in the flow of these not safe for grammar school English sentences. In this passage, for instance, Anastasia carries out the rational legal functions of a European nanny, while conveying to her charges the old traditions of pre-Christian Philippines.

“‘Let her prophesy, let her prophesy! Whom will I marry, old gypsy? Come, tell me.’

‘You may learn in a mirror if you are not afraid.’

‘I am not afraid, I will go!’ cried the young cousin Agueda, jumping up in bed.

‘Girls, girls – we are making too much noise! My mother will hear and will come and pinch us all. Agueda, lie down! And you, Anastasia, I command you to shut your mouth and go away.’

‘Your mother told me to stay here all night, my grand lady!’

‘And I will not lie down!’ cried the rebellious Agueda, leaping to the floor. ‘Stay, old woman. Tell me what I have to do.’

‘Tell her! Tell her!’ chimed the other girls.

The old woman dropped the clothes she had gathered and approached and fixed her eyes on the girl. ‘You must take a candle,’ she instructed, ‘ and go into a room that is dark and that has a mirror in it and you must be alone in the room. Go up to the mirror and close your eyes and say:

“Mirror, mirror,

Show to me

Him whose woman

I will Ье!”

As we get carried away by the unexpected twist to the fairy tale formula “mirror, mirror, on the wall” we also see the confused presence of possibly Christian, possibly pagan verb “prophesy,” In this case the maga gitana reveals the magic space of the mirror.

This mirror, and the text surrounding the mirror, inhabits s space occupied by what Slavic ethnographers called dvodverie, cultural practices derived by the simultaneous manifestation of dual ideological systems. Anastasia is considered a saint for having been born on Christmas Day and surviving seven husbands, but at the same time she is the maga opening the magic boundary of the mirror on May 1.

The mirror, in turn, becomes a spot that bends time and space, and thus marks the effects of the cohabitation of both belief systems. The mirror literally becomes a place of reflection on the present, the past, and the future. The ritual in front of the mirror repeats itself four times in the course of the text, the first with young Agueda, the second with old Agueda relating the story to her daughter, then with young Don Badoy Montiya, Agueda’s eventual husband, repeating his version of the ritual, and then old Don Badoy reflecting on Agueda’s passing.

Each of these repetitions displays one of Joaquin’s most distinctive stylistic features: the unannounced, instantaneous temporal shift.

“The mother’s lips curled. ‘Yes, he did! But, alas see them at that time. All I could see were his flashing eyes, his curly hair and moustaches.’
‘And did he speak to you, Mama ? ‘
‘Yes . . d. Yes, he spoke to me,’ said Doña Agueda, and bowing her greying head, she wept.
‘Charms like yours have no need for a candle, fair one,’ he had said, smiling at her in the mirror and stepping back to give her a low mocking bow. She had whirled around and glared at him and he had burst into laughter.
‘But I remember you!’ he cried. ‘You are Agueda, whom Inleft a mere infant and came home to find a tremendous beauty, and I danced a waltz with you but you would not give me the polka.’
‘Let me pass,’ she muttered fiercely, for he was barring her way.
‘But I want to dance the polka with you, fair one,’ he said.
So they stood before the mirror; their panting breath the only sound in the dark room; the candle shining between them and flinging their shadows to the wall. And young Badoy Montiya (who had crept home very drunk to pass out quietly in bed)
suddenly found himself cold sober and very much awake and ready for anything. His eyes sparkled and the scar in his face gleamed scarlet.”

The presence of practices that reflect the existence of a Philippine presence of двоеверие (dvoeverie), the marked presence of the performance of a specifically West European form of masculinity, as reflected in desirability being directly proportional with European education — don Badoy had just returned from study in Europe, Agueda’s higher space in society being reflected in her mastery of multiple European dances such as the waltz and the polka, all of these prove fruitless in the attempt to match these social coequals. Their final cultural compatibility derives from their ability to execute the old, pre-Christian ritual in front of the mirror.





One of the benefits of academia is that every now and then you get what is called a “desk copy,” a copy of a publication for you to review for your classes. Most desk copies come as direct requests to the publisher because I am about to have all my students invest on their book for my class. This semester, for instance, I will be ordering Plutopia, by Kate Brown – which is an awesome, awesome historical narrative for those interested in the intersection of urban planning and scientific development.

Sometimes, however, the desk copy just comes to you out of the Book Loving Gods. Such is the case with Red Star Tales: A Century of Soviet Science Fiction. I got the book in the fall at my office mailbox. I remember looking with excitement at the box and saying: “Yay! Desk copy! But which?” I had made sure to assign documents available through my students’ online library access, so a hard desk copy was an unexpected treat. Love of just about any kind of reading is one of the prerequisites of an academic career in the humanities. This was a case of the Book Loving Gods feeding me to the proper algorithm at Russian Life Books and, voila, at my desk was a copy of this nice little anthology of Russian science fiction.

According to the book’s publication notes, Red Star Tales: A Century of Soviet Science Fiction resulted from a crowd-funding Kickstarter campaign to help defray the publishing costs of the first run of the book. This is a sad commentary on the state of general publishing these days. This anthology is a great contribution for those who want a broader exposure to science fiction – readers like me, who were raised on the Hitchhiker’s Guide, C. S. Lewis and Doctor Who. Short stories constitute the majority of the anthology, which made it highly digestible in the hour to hour and a half chunks of time I could devote to attentive reading during the school year. The idea that this volume did not benefit from the push of a more traditional publishing house and its publicity resources concerns and saddens me. To draw a parallel, as President Barack Obama stated in White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2016 about the general state of journalism: “As you know, “Spotlight” is a film, a movie about investigative journalists with the resources and the autonomy to chase down the truth and hold the powerful accountable. Best fantasy film since Star Wars.”( It is truly regrettable that more general subject publishing houses should delegate translations, especially translations of genres such as science fiction, to the realm of self-funded publishing.

So… A group of driven translators gets together an agrees to get together an anthology of Russian and Soviet science fiction. (Side note: Sounds like the result of a third pint at ASEEES). Said translators get a few more buddies, a publishing house – in this case Russian Life Books – and a few more buddies to work as editors and social media gurus for the Kickestarter side of things. At least, I imagine that is how it generally happened. The result is a really enjoyable volume of wide ranging stories, covering 1892 to 1992.

Clearly, the more evident market for this collection would be a Russian/Soviet literature survey or a comparative literature course. This collection, however, does rank fairly high on what I would call the airplane/summer beach reading quotient. Read: would this make the two hours before boarding a plane, or an afternoon at the beach or such summer vacation destination enjoyable? The answer is yes, quite so. I am, in fact, thinking of having my tweener son, who has started reading other C. S. Lewis texts, to promise not to wreck the book and have him read it for summer vacation.

The anthology displays an interesting evolution of what I call “narrative technology” in my survey classes. The stories demonstrate the evolution of narrative voice seen in Russian literature throughout the twentieth century. The first interesting feature of the collection is the inclusion of a couple of Valerii Briusov stories, particularly “Rebellion of the Machines.” Students of Russian literature generally encounter Valerii Briusov as one of the founders of the Russian Symbolist movement. The presence of a work from 1908 that should strike fear in my heart of a wireless telephone and a microwave in 2016 really speaks of the universality of art and of a disturbingly accurate level of prescience as far as to how technology would evolve in the future. Mikhail Ancharov’s “Soda-Sun,” written in 1961, is one of the longer selections and displays the narrative leisurely pace of mainstream socialist realist stories. It features a Central Asian locale to represent the exotic other – in this, a Kazakh village. Interwoven with generalized jargon laden language is a meme worthy tidbit: “We look for salvation in endless quests, nut endless questing is endless hunger…” “The Exam,” by Sergei Drugal, from 1979, includes Syntax the cat, and a test that ends up with a placement as a preschool teacher. “Jubilee 200,” by Kir Bulychev, written in 1985, seems to steal a page from the Planet of the Apes series, but ends with a delightfully engaging plot twist. Sergei Lukyanenko’s “My Dad’s an Antibiotic” seems to draw a criticism of contemporary Russian politics.

However, the more charming of the stories is an excerpt from the story “Doorinda” by Daliya Truskinovskaya, from 1990. The story features a newly single mother, Ksenya, somehow ends up with a magic door that transports her wherever she can envision. The fragment has the heavy scent of Bulgakov’s Margarita to it, as she transports herself from place to place and comes back to turn the whole experience into a fairy tale, like Margarita with the little boy upstairs from Latunsky’s studio.

A few of the stories, like “Doorinda” and “Professor Dowell’s Head” feature female point of views which prove an interesting change from the technological jargon that seems to overpopulate the male narrative voices. While these seem to err on the side of hyper-feminized stereotype, in the context of the entire collection they prove refreshing changes of what I term narrative technology. This is a refreshing change from standard Russian classic novelistic fare – sorry, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Turgenev, we sometimes need a break from you! Toss it in your summer bag/gym bag/soccer practice/honor bang hangout bag and enjoy the trip to different realms of the universe. You will even enjoy contemplating switching your vision with your hearing and vice versa!

Red Star Tales: A Century of Russian and Soviet Science Fiction. Yvonne Howell, ed. Montpellier: RIS Publications, 2015. Available through


Roadtrip II: The Midwest

It takes one thousand miles to drive from Washington, District of Columbia, to Iowa City, Iowa. Iowa City is approximately one hour west of the Mississippi River, and is considered part of Eastern Iowa. Eastern Iowa reflects the presence of the Central and East European settlers who arrived during the middle of the nineteenth century, responding to the offer of homestead farms, in a lot of ways. It also shows many of the paradoxical effects of late twentieth century cultural shifts.

The traditional industry that has dominated the Iowan economy and Iowan mythology is agriculture. Johnson County, the area where Iowa City is located, has a great number of family farms. Rybel’s Farm, right outside of Solon, Iowa, has some amazingly fresh early sweet corn. Local farmers’ markets abound with summer produce such as zucchini and tomatoes. Residents of the coastlines may not lack for fresh seafood, but in the summer they do suffer from a want of the flavor of corn fresh from the stalk or freshly picked heirloom tomatoes. Early summer harvest also marks the gentler lifestyle –and notice, I use the adjective gentler, not easier — of summer in the Midwest.  This represents the first of the paradoxes of life in the Midwest. Summer may bring gentler weather, but that hides the higher level of labor that you find in expected and unexpected places.

You expect to find more intense labor in Iowa’s dominant industry – agriculture. Fresh corn and other vegetables and fruits may dominate the farmers’ markets, but these usually do not come to mean much to the local palate without the addition pork and corn fed beef, the dominant products from the state’s animal husbandry.  Animal husbandry occupies a place second to corn within Iowa’s culinary mythology. The favored products from this realm are pork and corn fed – emphasis on the corn fed – beef. I have yet to see an Iowa pork farm, but I have to say that – and these, as they say, are considered “fighting words” in parts of the state – I tend to prefer the pork over the beef. But that derives from my Puerto Rican roots, most likely, since Puerto Rican culture favors pork over beef. The Iowa farm cycle culminates in the late summer with the Iowa State Fair, the largest agricultural state fair in the United States.

Food, and the way it is prepared, further represents the merger and evolution of East and Central European cuisines at the hands of the diasporic communities of the Midwest. In any of the German heritage restaurants in the Amanas Colonies – and please note the use of the term “colonies” for this region – the term “salad” refers to any combination of steamed, boiled or shredded vegetables slathered  in mayonnaise sauce. Think of any of the endless permutations of potato salad or cole slaw type presentations so familiar to those of us who have studied abroad in Slavic countries. The epitome of the culinary celebration of this Eastern European past is represented in Saint Ludmila’s Kolach Festival, in June. Saint Ludmila’s Church in Cedar Rapids[i] hosts this celebration of the culinary legacy of the city’s Czech settlers.

Hay stacks along Highway 1 on the way to Solon, Iowa from Iowa City, Iowa..

Hay stacks along Highway 1 on the way to Solon, Iowa from Iowa City, Iowa..

Signs of the presence of increasingly global monocultures have started to manifest themselves within Iowa’s strong emphasis on local agriculture and local self-sufficiency.  A drive among the corn fields in Iowa start to show the signs of the increasing concentration of large agricultural conglomerates, as the fields are marked by the signs of large agricultural seed producers – the kind that do not allow the historically thrifty Iowa farmers to keep any leftover corn seed for heirloom harvesting the next year.

Even the local art scene shows the increasing influence of global forces. At first glance, it seems as if each and every business in downtown Iowa City belongs to a local business person. Among some businesses of long standing are Herteen and Stocker jewelers and Pagliai’s PIzza.  This does not mean that global connections do not affect the popularity of local establishments.  The particular favorite of people in the field of cultural studies is Prairie Lights, the local independent bookstore that includes a wonderful coffee shop on the third floor, as well as regular readings by authors from the University of Iowa summer writers’ workshops. These readings are actually a much bigger deal than anyone may expect from a city in the middle of Iowa. UNESCO has given Iowa City the title of City of Literature. The title is due, in great part, to the presence of the University of Iowa. The University houses a Writers’ Workshop and an International Writing Program that attracts an amazing amount of literary talent to the city. This has turned University of Iowa into a powerhouse within the writing community, in part because of the ability to focus on the writing rather than on a whole gaggle of museums or events to attend each day.

For language and literature types, summer is the highlight of the year in Iowa City. The warm weather, the manageable dimensions of the city, and the breathtaking expanses of the rolling corn and soybean fields offer a writer a welcoming atmosphere to meditate and to create. This writer’s equivalent of the Super Bowl lastas through what I find the most pleasant part of the year in Iowa.

One of the favorite summer establishments right outside Iowa City — Rebal’s fresh picked sweet corn!



Automatism, Art, and Summer Vacation…

In the essay “Art as Technique,” Victor Shklovsky argued about the importance of perception, and how breaking away from normal perception is an important aspect of art. “Normal” objects, non-artistic objects become so commonplace as to fall away from our normal range of perception. “..Either objects are assigned only one proper feature – a number, for example, or else they function as though by formula and do not even appear in cognition…”[i]  Every now and then something happens to remind one of the importance of removing the effects of automatism to enhance one’s artistic appreciation. In this case, summer travel reminded the author of this situation.

Summer travel, in a way, is when most people actively engage in the process of artistic appreciation. The goal is to go somewhere where they can “disconnect” themselves from daily routine. This can take the form of the traditional trip to the beach, where, if one is fortunate, one gets to sit and appreciate the sand, be it between their toes or elsewhere inside their clothing. In the author’s case, it was a minor mechanical mishap that brought the point home.

The incident occurred –in Northern Virginia – technically, although the rest stop is actually a little over an hour South of Washington, D. C. After making a quick pit stop at a Virginia state rest stop and admiring the amount of super caffeinated beverages in the vending machines – it became evident that somehow my car’s parking lights remained on during the rest stop. Nothing seemed to make it possible to turn off the lights. After getting started down the road with the worry of having to call up the auto club for a jump start the next day, I notice a little red button on top of the steering wheel that had not been there before. That, it turns out, was the switch to turn on the parking lights with the ignition off. After driving this car for more than four years, this was the first time I had noticed the existence of this switch, which I had triggered when trying to wipe dust off of the odometer window. This was a clear case of automatism at work. The thousands of times that I had looked at the odometer window had made it so that I had completely come to recognize only the formula of the odometer, and the parking light button did not even appear in my cognition.

This episode illustrates the difficulty of appreciating the beauty and art present in everyday life. People who live in Seattle for a long time, for instance, become immune to the breathtaking scenery of Mount Rainier, or the beauty of Puget Sound, or the Olympic Mountains. People who live in Puerto Rico for their whole lives come to think of the ocean in January as “too cold” for swimming, while thousands of tourists come and swim in the warmest water of their lives. This is not a case of sensory deprivation, but rather sensory oversupply. As Shklovsky stated, “…art exists that one may recover the sensation of life…” This implies the question: how can you make it so you do not miss the art in everyday life when the tendency is to appreciate everyday life from a position of highly developed automatism?

This brings us back to the importance of summer vacation, and the problem with the disappearance of unstructured summer time. A typical schoolchild’s summer vacation is now three weeks shorter than it used to be. When summer vacation does arrive, the child is thrown into a cycle of highly structured activities as they go from one full day summer camp to the other. This is the result of two contemporary conditions: double wage earner families that need the camps as babysitters when school is not in session, and parents who want to make sure that their child does not fall behind in the increasing “arms race” among parents trying to create as “well-rounded” a student as they can. Children no longer have the opportunity to explore the world around them on their own time—to independent develop the ability to apprehend the world around them form a position of defamiliarization, instead of arriving to a state of adult automatism by the age of eight. When families finally get a chance to travel together, it is only for the one week of summer vacation. Families place so much pressure on making sure every minute is filled with activities that no opportunity exists for parents and children to enjoy their surroundings from a state of artistically productive boredom. Yes, it may seem oxymoronic, but sometimes the most productive state of perceptive defamiliarization is boredom, the kind of boredom that is increasingly missing from the increasingly overly structure


[i] Shklovsky, Viktor.  “Art as Technique.”  Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays.  Ed.Lee T. Lemon and Marion J. Reiss.  Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1965. 11-12.

About Putin’s Inauguration and More on Bakhtin and Dostoevsky

Before I get to my main topic, I wanted to provide a link to the Russian Channel 1 footage of Putin’s inauguration.

Do not be intimidated by the fact that it is the Russian television channel – language matters little in this exercise in semiotic analysis. Just let the footage run. You will be able to tell fairly clearly when Medvedev arrives at the Kremlin, when Putin arrives at the Kremlin, and when Putin takes his oath of office.  Later in this entry I will also provide links to articles in English that will provide more details about the setting, in case my kind reader would like to learn more about the setting of Putin’s inauguration.

For reference, think about the spectacle put together for Obama’s inauguration back in January 2009. Washington’s metro system had record ridership, and the city was overrun with people who wanted to share in the experience. It was so cold that Itzhak Perlman and Yo-Yo Ma “lip-synched” their performances.[i] Everyone remembers it was cold because everyone stood outside to witness the event.

Meantime, if you look at the footage of Putin’s inauguration, one is struck by the feeling of claustrophobia of the ceremony within the Kremlin’s main palace. The presence of soldiers dressed in uniforms that seem out of the Napoleonic period adds to the sense that this was not a ceremony designed for the Russian public, but for the select few oligarchs who got invited to this private event.  The ornate nature of the interiors –Putin was inaugurated in the Kremlin’s St. Andrew’s Hall, the former throne room of the tsars, which stands in stark contrast to the Stalinist monumentalist marble foyer from which Putin departed in Moscow’s White House – really gives the whole even an imperial air which is very missing from the United States’ more populist inaugural celebration.[ii]

Even more disturbing are the aerial shots taken when Putin and Medvedev were driving to the Kremlin palace for the actual inauguration. It seems like Moscow is a ghost city, with no one but the Napoleonic period honor guard standing outside the palace to greet the President/Prime Minister and the Prime Minister/President. Pay attention at the points between 16:30 and 23:50. That is six minutes of Putin driving in a caravan through hundreds of abandoned blocks in one of the largest cities in the world. In the United States, you would have the sidewalks overrun with people trying to get a glimpse of the caravan.  Moscow, in contrast, looks like a ghost town.

The eerie absence of people stands in stark contrast to the apparent activity that occurred the day before the inauguration. The Huffington Post, among the more mainstream online news sources, noted how over 120 people were detained as opposition protests drew more than 20,000 people into Moscow the day before the inauguration. [iii]

This leaves one wondering about the nature of political change in Russia since the end of the Soviet Union.  Specialists tend to agree that Russia has evolved into a strange form of parliamentary oligarchy. The emerging protest movement, which has mobilized the younger emerging middle class in ways never seen in Russia, presents a particular challenge. Will Putin find a way to allow for an increasingly diverse range of political actors to gain equal access to the political processes in Russia? Or will Putin turn to a more “stereotypical” authoritarian mode of governance?

The wonder of living in Washington, D. C., is that we have so many people actually interested in this topic that you can expect that I will have more to say on this topic later this month. ….


Which brings us back to the previous topic of Bakhtin. I know, this constitutes some of the horrible writing that I try to battle in my classroom. There really is no graceful way to transition between Russian politics and Dostoevsky – what am I saying? Dostoevsky was the man (cheesy cliché, check!) when it came to trying to work out political and philosophical questions in artistic form. This is what made him Bakhtin’s favorite novelistic writer. There – transitional link with Putin’s ornate, traditional coronation –er, inauguration – established.

Going  back to Bakhtin’s essays on Dostoevsky, in his chapter  «Основная особенность творчества Достоевкого и её освещение в критической литературе», “Fundamental Features of Dostoevsky’s Work and Its Manifestation in Critical Literature, ” Bakhtin points out that what most characterizes Dostoevsky’s literature is that it has no genetic or causal categories. Rather, he saw details in the world around him, gradations in significance and meaning.  In chapter two, “Dostoevsky’s Characters,” Bakhtin observes how:

«Не только действительность самого героя, но и окружающий его мир и быт вовлекаются в процесс самого знания, переводятся из авторского кругозора в кругозор героя.»

“Not only the reality of the hero himself, but also his surrounding world and reality become part of the very process of knowledge, change from the author’s point of view to the character’s own…” [iv]

These characteristics come through in one of Dostoevsky’s shorter works, Notes from the Underground. If you want to follow along, you can access an online version courtesy of the University of Virginia library system: (Side note: if you like the collection of texts in this site and you live in Virginia, do not forget to write to your legislator and let them know the University of Virginia, and its library system, rock!)

Now that we have a unified source to reference, we can start by taking a second and being impressed by Constance Garnett. Constance Garnett lived at the turn of the twentieth century and single-handedly brought classic nineteenth-century Russian literature to the English speaking world. While new translations of a lot of these works have emerged in the last thirty years, when I was starting my studies in Russian literature the Garnett translations were the only translations we used. And she was a woman. And she translated over seventy one volumes of literature. I have not even written one whole volume of literature in my life, I cannot even imagine how she managed to work her way through so much material.[v]

Now that credit has been given where credit is due, let us go back to the actual text. The story is a strange little narrative of a man who finds himself quickly losing any and all hold on reality.  He starts by revealing his former experience as a low level government bureaucrat – in clear homage to Gogol’s “The Overcoat.” The narrator is not a pleasant person – he starts by admitting he is a “spiteful man” at least four times within the first two pages.

This man contemplates the world around him. The narrator goes through a list of traditional motivators to action or interaction in life. He tried falling in love, but ended up suffering. People in general, he believes, go through life fooling themselves as far as to their motivations and actions. In contemplating the nature of action, he comes to a moment that displays Bakhtin’s claim of Dostoevsky’s ability to display gradation of thought and consciousness where others may not see any gradation at all.

“…You know the direct, legitimate fruit of consciousness is inertia, that is, conscious sitting-with-the-hands-folded. I repeat, I repeat with emphasis: all “direct” persons and men of action are active just because they are stupid and limited. How explain that? I will tell you: in consequence of their limitation they take immediate and secondary causes for primary ones, and in that way persuade themselves more quickly and easily than other people do that they have found an infallible foundation for their activity, and their minds are at ease and you know that is the chief thing. To begin to act, you know, you must first have your mind completely at ease and no trace of doubt left in it. Why, how am I, for example to set my mind at rest?…”[vi]

The answer, in this case, is that trying to set one’s mind at rest is nothing but a foolish endeavor. Free will is a hard concept to accept when seemingly physical and rational laws, such as the mathematical law the two times two makes four, rule the world – “without my will.”

Those who decide to assert their free will end up suffering in Dostoevsky’s world.  Dostoevsky’s narrators peel away layer after layer of motivation for each and every character in his books – from his frustrated male heroes to his virtuous female heroines. He makes passing references (or as my students would say, he pays homage) to major figures in nineteenth century Russian literature. Notes from the Underground intentionally echoes Gogol’s Diary of a Madman, as well as reference Turgenev’s hero, Bazarov, from Fathers and Sons. He also creates a hero that directly opposes Nikolai Chernychevsky’s Rakhmetov, from What Is to be Done? All of these heroes try to manifest their intellectual, personal and political agency, and all of them fail in one way or the other. The richness of the narrator’s discourse, as well as the discourse it carries on with the different type of literary heroes that have populated nineteenth century Russian literature, is one of the ways that Dostoevsky manages to change the author’s point of view to the character’s point of view.

Why do we find it so hard to understand Dostoevsky’s Underground Man? In part it derives from a certain sense of philosophy that strikes us as fatalistic. You English language reader came into the tradition of Russian literature fairly late in the nineteenth century, thanks to Constance Garnett’s herculean translation work. At the same time, English language readers read more popular magazine serials such as Charles Dicken’s novels, which somehow always managed to provide his main hero with a relatively positive ending, or with Jane Austen, whose heroines managed to find their mate in spite of whatever prejudice they bore at the beginning of their work. A novel that so explicitly focused on the ideas of free will and the consequences of intellectual and political agency differed in the way it approached the topics of political and philosophical discourse. Russian literature does not provide any easy options for social change, while one could surmise from a work by Dickens that if society came together as an organic whole it could at least seriously ameliorate the effects of the tenements and slums that had emerged as a result of the early industrial revolution. The thought that one would end underground because of the inability to exert free will in a politically or economically significant way went against the grain of the more positive, rational legal trend inherited from nineteenth century English language literature. If one accepts the existence of Horatio Alger, then the Underground Man is the result of lack of will, rather than lack of existential possibility for action.


[i] Michele Salcedo. “Inauguration Music – Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma – Wasn’t Live But Recorded.”

[ii] Mikhail Aristov, “Benefit, Honor, Glory”, Voice of America, May 6, 2012 See also  Svetlana Kalmykova, “Putin: I’ll do my best to measure up to people’s expectations,” Voice of America, May 7, 2012,

[iii] Lynn Berry “Vladimir Putin Sworn In For Third Term As Russia’s President.”

[iv] М. М. Бахтин «Бахтин под маской: Маска четвёртая: Проблемы творчества Достоевского.» Алконост: 1994, 40-41 Translation my own.

[v] Once again, Wikipedia is not my favorite source in general, but for this general type of information it more than first the bill.

[vi] For more commentary regarding the critical reception of the book you can go to:

Bakhtin and Dostoevsky…

Just listen to the name: Bakhtin. The –kh-, by the way, sounds like the “h” sound that Ernie the Muppet from Sesame Street makes when he laughs. If you are going to write what amounts to a nerdy fan letter to an author who has been dead since 1975, it helps that said author has the kind of name that belies the gravitas of his oeuvre.

Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin (Михаи́л Миха́йлович Бахти́н) wrote the kind of serious literary criticism that makes you know that you are engaging in no holds barred, honest to goodness, heavy duty intellectual pursuit. I remember when I first heard about Bakhtin in graduate school. We were introduced to two of his main concepts – chronotope, the intersectin of time and art, and the picaresque hero. The term “picaresque” comes from the sixteenth century Spanish narrative El lazarillo de Tormes. Bakhtin took the image of the underclass rascal who uses his wits to gain upward social mobility and applies it to novels at large. I always found his preference for French Renaissance, rather than Spanish narratives, when discussing this term rather disconcerting. His development of the concept, however, proved very useful.  There is, simply told, an intellectual world before Bakhtin and an intellectual world after Bakhtin. He wrote about ideas in a way that illuminated the relations between the real world and the world of creative prose. Never mind that he packed it in the form of linguistically scintillating neologisms, such as dialogic, heteroglossia, and chronotope, among others.

Bakhtin also gained the academic equivalent of “street credibility” through the extremes he endured to write his theory. Bakhtin’s works “came of age” during the Khrushchev and Brezhnev era. He lived a challenging professional life, and taught in a wide range of institutions. [i] His works were hard to come by, since he found himself teaching far away from the intellectual centers of (then) Leningrad and Moscow, and since his works were considered controversial during his time. This only added to the cache of clandestine Soviet writing that made Russian literature such a heady affair during the Soviet period.

Bakhtin took the time to explain the origins of literary forms – both as descendants from earlier forms and as originators of new forms. Which brings me – finally! – to the reading for the week. I have been skimming – for skimming is all one can do when closing the books on a four course load teaching semester – Bakhtin’s writings on Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky, by himself, is another one of those Russian writers whose every piece of writing tries to challenge a reader’s conception of the world. His Grand Inquisitor, for instance, is still one of the most exhilarating treatments of free will.

Bakhtin saw Dostoevsky as what best be described as a “founding innovator.” The way that he took previously existing structures and metaphors and integrated them with specific philosophical content turned the novel into what Bakhtin considerd the most advanced literary form.

“Dostoevsky is the creator of the polyphonic novel. He created an essentially new novelistic genre. Therefore , his work cannot be fit into any kind of frame, does not obey any of the hiistorico-literary schemes, which we have become accustomed to attribute to the European form of the novel. In his works, a hero appears whose voice is constructed like the voice of the very author in a novel of the normal type, and not like the voice of his hero. The hero’s voice regarding himself or his world carries as much weight as the normal authorial word…” [ii]

One of the Dostoevskian heroes that Bakhtin analyzes is the one derived from Gogol’s works. One only need to compare Gogol’s Diary of a Madman to Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground to see both Gogol’s influence on Dostoevsky, and how Dostoevsky could take what had by his lifetime become a classic literary figure and innovate the figure into a new generation, if that is not too egregious a rhetorical sin to express. Dostoevsky adapted Gogol’s grotesque characters and gave them a greater level of philosophical and moral depth, leading to his take on the Nietzschean superman in Crime and Punishment in the form of Raskolnikov.

Granted, Dostoevsky’s literature does not easily merit the adjective of “pretty.” If you want seductively pretty prose, look to Nabokov, who is constantly trying to show how rhetorical beauty and rot a moral soul from within. Dostoevsky’s universe leaves you unnerved as you wonder if there is any real beauty left in the world. His endings always prove reassuring in that they point to the face that morality can reappear even in the most unlikely souls. It does leave you wondering how out of place society can be if it can morally disorient people with such ease. All of this and more is reflected in Bakhtin’s discussion of Dostoevsky’s contribution to world literature, and why he sees him as the novelistic author above all other novelistic author.


[i] I usually try to avoid Wikipedia as a reference, but in this case the information is so general, and truth is stranger than fiction in Bakhtin’s case.

[ii] М. М. Бахтин «Бахтин под маской: Маска четвёртая: Проблемы творчества Достоевского.» Алконост: 1994 p. 7 Translation my own.



One of the things literary critics get to do is to write commentary on literature about literature, where we ponder the nature of the writing craft. Writing differs according to its form and function. Some forms of writing have gained a place in our culture as intrinsically challenging, like poetry, drama, and “serious” belletristic literature – think Ulysses and James Joyce.

All good writing, however, contains some basic traits. Lidiia Korneevna Chukovskaia, in her book «В лаборатории редактора,»[i]  In the Editor’s Workshop, spends a lot of time discussing what makes good writing, and what makes a good reader of literature. In this case, she contemplates the kind of reading skills that make a skilled editor.

«Интерес к языку, постоянные попытки осознать, осмыслить перемeны, происходящие в нём, тонкий слух к индивидуальным особенностям, присущим языку и стилю того или другого писателя, -вот что характеризует мастера редакционной работы…»

“Interest in language, the constant attempts to understand, to comprehend the changes that occur in it, the delicate sound of individual features inherent to the language and style of one or the other writer, that is what distinguishes a master of the editorial labor…”[ii]

Chukovskaia points out that truly gifted writing can come from a great range of sources, but what it needs is a respect for the words themselves. The style of a work, its form, reflects the totality of the writer, down to the writer’s sincerity or insincerity. What matters most is for a writer to be truly committed to the depth of the words s/he writes, their meaning, and the way they function stylistically to reflect the segment of life from which they derive. The words should serve as the eyes of the world that the writer sees. Total honesty and total mastery of the grammar of the world s/he is trying to depict.

«Искусство – орудие изучения жизни, орудие воздействие на жизнь не в меньшей степени, чем наука. А без ясности – какое же изучение и какое воздействие?»[iii]

“Art is a tool for the study of life, a tool that impacts life no less than science. And without clarity  — what kind of learning or impact can there be?”

The key to this learning, to this impact, lies in the word «естественность» — which the dictionary defines as “natural,” but which means so much more.  In Chukovskaia’s parlance,  “natural” involves not only a sensitivity to language style that reflects the elements of nature it portrays, but also moral and artistic sincerity and integrity in its utterance.

The emphasis on sincerity and sensitivity should come as no surprise to those who Chuckovskaia as The Memory of Soviet literature. Not only did she serve as guardian of her father’s work – his insistence on sincerity and sensitivity in his literary criticism earned a “demotion” to the children’s literature division, where he and other talented writers created some of the most memorable children’s literature in the world – but also of Anna Akhmatova’s works. Her efforts to keep Akhmatova’s literary memory alive ensured that some of the most riveting poetry of the Stalinist period made it to the era of perestroika and to this day.

At the same time, in true Soviet style, Chukovskaia never utters the words sincerity or sensitivity explicitly. What she does is to create the rhetorical equivalent of a picture of the negative space around these words, forcing the reader to fill in the positive space to obtain its meaning. Rather than speak directly of the need for sincerity and clarity in Soviet literature, she speaks about the problems of Soviet literature and its intrinsic “didactic” tone, the imprint of the Soviet bureaucratic way of thinking, чиновничье мышление. The only antidote to that was a scientific approach to language that maintained its reflection of life. “Clarity, clarity, and clarity again is the demand of the editor in the name of the reader on the style and language of scientific language…” Left unsaid, of course, is that this bureaucratic language lacked a lot in the area of clarity. At the same time, Chukovskaia warned of the dangers of assuming too reductionist a stance when it came to grammar. “Editing an artistic text from the narrow position of elementary school grammar means to destroy it.”[iv]

What Chukovskaia tries to encourage is a critical stance that avoids selfish ideological reductionism and encourages sensitivity to the nature of language. The goal is to create a text that will transcend the limitations Socialist Realism placed on Soviet literary production, and which would make it possible to record the reality of life following the Stalinist regime. Thus, true art could emerge from any form of art – novels, poems, children’s literature – as long as the editor and the writer worked together as a dynamic duo and presented a language that clean and true and pure.


[i] Лидия Корнеевна Чуковская, «В лаборатории редактора.» Арханьгелск: АОА «ИПП» «Правда севера», 2005

[ii] Чуковская, 89

[iii] Чуковская, 89

[iv] Чуковская, 92.

Se robaron mi qiunceañera: Female Performativity and Coming of Age in Latina Narratives

A lot has been going these last two weeks. Putin swept into office, as everybody expected. Demonstrations have continued in Moscow. Our favorite aggregator of Russian news, Johnson’s Russia list,, has a few articles to help bring us all up to date. It also seems like the Putin administration will be turning control of the media to the Ministry of Culture, in a move that sounds suspiciously Orwellian…

This week, however, I am mostly focusing on a presentation I will give at the Mid-Atlantic Council of Latin American Studies, MACLAS, conference this weekend. I will be focusing on structural aspects of Esmeralda Santiago’s When I Was Puerto Rican and Almost a Woman, and Julia Álvarez’s How the García Girls Lost Their Accent. I want to focus on a structural aspect of both authors’ works: the importance of the transition from girl to woman, the moment marked traditionally by a quinceañera, but which both are deprived by circumstance.

I would like to focus on a moment that becomes a shared moment of insight by both authors: the moment of liminality when a young woman transitions into a young woman, and the challenges posed by the simultaneous rupture and knitting together that occurs at that time. In this case, I use the term liminal as used by anthropologist Victor Turner:

” Liminal rites. Liminality is the term used by the Belgian folklorist van Gennep to denominate the second of three stages in what he called a “rite of passage.” Such rites are found in all cultures, and are seen as both indicators and vehicles of transition from one sociocultural state and status to another — childhood to maturity, virginity to marriage, childlessness to parenthood, ghosthood to ancestorhood, sickness to health, peace to war and vice versa, scarcity to plenty, winter to spring, and so on. He did, however, distinguish between those rites performed at life-crises, such as birth, puberty, marriage, death, and those performed at crucial points in the turning year, or on occasions of collective crisis when a whole society faces a major change, peace to war, health to epidemic, and so forth. The first set were mainly performed for individuals in secret or hidden places and related to upward mobility. The latter were performed for collectivities, were public in character, and often portrayed reversals or inversions of status or confusion of ordinary everyday categories. Van Gennep distinguished the three stages as (1) separation (from ordinary social life); (2) margin or  limen  (meaning threshold), when the subjects of ritual fall into a limbo between their past and present modes of daily existence; and (3) re-aggregation, when they are ritually returned to secular or mundane life — either at a higher status level or in an altered state of consciousness or social being.”

Victor Turner: “Frame, Flow  and Reflection: Ritual and Drama  as  Public Liminality.” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 6/4 December 1979 466-467

In the case Santiago and Álvarez, they focus on the trauma that results from trauma derived from their radical displacement to American culture at the time when they were emerging to the liminal age of fifteen, the age of the quinceañera. Fifteen is an age heavy with symbolic weight in literature. Even the short story recognized as the first surviving short story in Russia features a female protagonist whose life has become traumatized when her father dies at the age of – you guessed it – fifteen. Even Álvarez observes the seeming cross-cultural consensus of fifteen as the age when a girl becomes a young woman, available for presentation to society, in her non-fiction  Once Upon a Quinceañera: Coming of Age in the U. S. A. Both highlight the ritualized aspect of growing up tweener, adolescent and Latina. They focus on the level of sometimes stifling overprotection provided by the entire family unit – the battle for individual agency in a culture that stresses chaperones and escorts until marriage, the comfort provided by the familiar cocoon of abuelos and abuelas, tíos y tías, primos y primas. Both cases also highlight the tension between the comfort of this familial environment, the pride of mastering that cultural set of gender expectations, and the equal thrill and appeal of mastering the English language culture that surrounds them outside their house. Rupture is severe and significant. Geography, language, clothing, and eventually self, are replaced by a new individual that combines both cultures, the hybrid being.

While they point to Caribbean elements of their upbringing, what fascinates me is the commonality they share with other coming of age narratives.  In this case, I want to call up Vladimir Nabokov, who in Speak Memory  made the following observation about forced dislocation at a young age:

“I would moreover submit that, in regard to the power of hoarding up impressions, Russian children of my generation passed through a period of genius, as if destiny were loyally trying what it could for them giving them more than their share, in view of the cataclysm that was to remove completely the world they had known. Genius disappeared when everything had been stored, just as it does with those other, more specialized child prodigies – pretty, curly-headed youngsters waving batons or taming enormous pianos, who eventually turn into second-rate musicians with sad eyes and obscure ailments and something vaguely misshapen about their eunuchoid hindquarters. But even so, the individual mystery remains to tantalize the memoirist… [i]

What Nabokov would attribute to the power of the Russian Revolution to displace a whole generation of young people – the ability to hoard up impressions – is actually reflected time and time again in the autobiographical narratives of émigrés.  I have been looking at autobiographies mostly from Slavic and Latino immigrants into the United States. They provide an interesting point of contrast due to what I call the “permeability factor.” By permeability, I mean the ability of the person to hope for an opportunity to return, or at the minimum visit, their homeland. Most Slavic immigrants were denied this opportunity, due to the laws government immigration during the Soviet period – the result of the “cataclysmic” take over by the Soviets in 1917, which led to Nabokov’s exile, and their expansion throughout Eastern Europe, which led to the exile of many others. Once exiled, these immigrants into the United States had no hope to return to their homelands.

One particularly interesting memoir from the Soviet period is Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation.[ii] Eva Hoffman is a Polish born writer who immigrated to Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, in 1959, at the age of fourteen. She later came to the United States to study in college in Houston, and she then continued graduate studies at Harvard University. She basically matches Nabokov in the area of demonstrable erudition, down to her studies in music in Cracow before she was forced to flee Poland. In her memoir, she contemplates the effects of the adjustment to her new language, English, on her view of the world around her.

“I am becoming a living avatar of structuralist wisdom; I cannot help knowing that words are just themselves. But it’s a terrible knowledge, without any of the consolations that wisdom usually brings. It does not mean that I’m free to play with words at my wont; anyways, words in their naked state are surely among the least satisfactory play objects. No, this radical disjoining between word and thing is a desiccating alchemy, draining the world not only of significance but of its colors, striations, nuances – its very existence. It is the loss of a living connection.”

Eva Hoffman, Lost in Translation. 107

Both writers depict a double language, code switching world,  where in some ways the young adolescent females – right at the point of liminality into adult Caribbean state of womanhood – get thrust into a much more different process of transition, where they need to master the new codes of language, morality and behavior not only for themselves, but also for their parents, whom they often surpass when it comes to language mastery. They are these walking avatars, playing with their new English words as they play with their dolls, but lacking the living connection to the rich traditions and family history that the Spanish discourse carries within itself. The immature narrators become the mediators for themselves as for their families, as their school educations become a means through which their own parents – particularly their mothers – come to master their new roles in a new language.

One of the greatest challenges facing the writers, then, is how to represent these marked moments of drastic cultural transition. Structurally, their management of narrative time becomes one of the main ways in which they highlight the depth of their transition.

Julia Álvarez approaches the presentation of liminal reconciliation, How the García Girls Lost Their Accent, by dividing chapters into discrete chronological blocks that reflect the voices of her multiple protagonists. The book evolves in reverse chronological order, as if trying to lull the reader into a sense of comfort, gradually stripping away the levels of American familiarity and increasing the levels of dvoekul’turnost’, dual culturality, which reflects the depth of the narrators’ cultural dvoeverie – the dual belief system that emerges from the merging of both Spanish and United States cultural orders. Internalized, naturalized dual code-switching emerges as the state of being.

The García Girl follows the stories of the four García sisters, Carla, Yolanda, Sandra and Sofía, and the challenges of adapting to the at times contradictory social expectations of the Dominican and United States cultures. The novel progresses in reverse chronological order. This chronological arrangement allows the author to focus on a different configuration, a different cultural moment, in the life of the family. The last chapter shows the family at the point of emigration from the Dominican Republic. The narrative voice suddenly gets shifted to Chucha, one of the family’s servants on the island, as she reflects on the departure of the family.

“I have said prayers to all the santos, to the loa, and to the Gran Poder de Dios, visiting each room, swinging the can of cleaning smoke, driving away the bad spirits that filled the house this day, and fixing in my head the different objects and where they belong so that if any workman sneaks in and steals something I will know what is gone. In the girls’ rooms I remember each one as a certain heaviness, now in my heart, now in my shoulders, now in my head or feet, I feel their losses pile up like dirt thrown on a box after it has been lowered into the earth. I see their future, the troublesome life ahead. They will be haunted by what they do and don’t remember. But they have spirit in them. They will invent what they need to survive. [iii]”

How the García Girls Lost Their Accent, 223

It is very interesting that it is left to Chucha, the voodoo trained servant, to put an intellectual spin to the existence that the girls’ merely experience: “They will invent what they need to survive.” The girls constantly struggle to interpret the new codes and symbols around, particularly when it comes to gender relations. The most explicitly analytical of this process is Yolanda, the daughter who becomes a teacher. When Yolanda speaks about her boarding school days, she says:

“Back in those days I had what one teacher called ‘a vivacious personality.’ I had to look up the word in the dictionary and was relieved to find out it didn’t mean I had problems. English was then still a party favor for me – crack open the dictionary, find out if I’d just been insulted, praised, admonished, criticized…”

How the García Girls Lost Their Accent, 87

Outside of “cracking the code” of conversational English language,  they also must master the code surrounding relationships outside of the understood parameters of Dominican society. Hoffman describes the cognitive challenge of cracking this code in the following manner:

“Dating is an unknown ritual to me, unknown among my Cracow peers, who aside from lacking certain of its requisite accessories – cars, private rooms, a bit of money – ran around in boy-girl packs and didn’t have a ceremonial set of rules for how to act toward the other set. A date, by contrast, seems to be an occasion whose semiotics are highly standardized and in which every step has a highly determinate meaning and therefore has to be carefully calibrated…”

Eva Hoffman, Lost in Translation.  149

“How do you talk to an alien? Very carefully. When I fall in love with my first American, I also fall in love with otherness, with the far spaces between us and the distances we have to travel to meet at the source of our attraction…”

Eva Hoffman, Lost in Translation, 187

By the time Yolanda manages to crack the basic codes for dating, she realizes that there are some American norms she does not wish to adopt, particularly when it comes to sexual promiscuity.

“Why I couldn’t keep them interested was pretty simple: I wouldn’t sleep with them. By the time I went to college, it was the late sixties, and everyone was sleeping as a matter of principle. By then, I was a lapsed Catholic; my sisters and I had been pretty well Americanized since our arrival in this country a decade before, so really, I didn’t have a good excuse…”

How the García Girls Lost Their Accent, 87

Esmeralda Santiago literally breaks her narrative in half by dividing the narrative of her coming of age into two volumes, When I Was Puerto Rican and Almost a Woman. The books break apart at the line between thirteen and fourteen years of age, when Esmeralda moves from the poor neighborhood of Macún to New York City.

Almost a Woman focuses on Esmeralda’s coming of age as a student at a high school for the performing arts in New York. While Álvarez does express the difference in socio-economic status when they moved, Santiago experiences it in a much more physical manner as she becomes her mother’s interpreter at the welfare office.

“I was grateful for Mami’s faith in me but couldn’t relax until we heard from the welfare office. A few days later, our application was approved. By the I’d decided that even when it seemed like my head couldn’t hold that many new words inside it, I had to learn English well enough never again to be caught between languages.”[iv]

Almost a Woman. 20-21

Being caught between languages, and its real implications for daily survival, is a theme repeated again and again in numerous immigrant narratives. Santiago’s narrative stands out for the way that it explicitly breaks out the challenges specific to life in the late twentieth century for a working class family, unlike Álvarez, whose professional father manages to retool his skills and provide them with a more protected middle class life. Santiago’s work as family interpreter, as the mediator between her family and the public welfare system in New York makes her ponder much more explicitly the sharpness of the cultural division.

“It was good to be healthy, big and strong like Dick, Jane, and Sally. It was good to learn English and to know how to act among Americans, but it was not good to behave like them. Mami made it clear that although we lived in the United States, we were to remain 100 percent Puerto Rican. The problem was that it was hard to tell where Puerto Rican ended and Americanized began. Was I Americanized if I preferred pizza to pastelillos? Was I Puerto  Rican if my skirts covered my knees? If I cut out a picture of Paul Anka from a magazine and tacked it to the wall, was I less Puerto Rican than when I cut out pictures of Gilberto Monroig? Who could tell me?”

Almost a Woman 25

You can feel the personal, moral and psychological weight placed in Santiago, as the eldest and the first in her family to master the American educational system, to play the mediator for her family. The term interpreter, in this case, really understates how active her role becomes within her family, a role that her mother cannot fulfill because she finds mastering the language a much larger challenge due to her age and the need for her to work to support her family.  The fact that Santiago ends up attending a fine arts high school almost works as an ironic undertone to her struggles in performing her role as an emerging English language wielding individual.

[i] Vladimir Nabokov. Speak Memory: An Autobiography Revisited. (New York: Vintage Books, 1989) 25.

[ii] Eva Hoffman. Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language. (New York: Penguin Books, 1989).

[iii] Julia Alvarez. How the  García Girls Lost Their Accent. (New York, Plume, 1991)

[iv] Esmeralda Santiago. Almost a Woman. (New York: Vintage, 1999)