On the Perilous Potential of Feminist Silence
Clarice Lispector, Alejandra Pizarnik, and Poetic Voice(lessness)
Me gustas cuando callas, porque estás como ausente…
–Pablo Neruda, “Poema 15”
Perhaps Neruda should be forgiven for the notorious banality of this youthful love poem, which I always find difficult to translate only because I must restrain myself from paraphrasing the first line as “shut up and play dead.” Quiet little gone girl, skin with a tinge of lilac. Our mortuary suspicions are confirmed by the end of the poem, in W.S. Merwin’s 1969 translation: “I like for you to be still: it is as though you were absent, / distant and full of sorrow as though you had died. / One word then, one smile is enough. / And I am happy, happy it’s not true.” Neruda can repent, can turn his dream on a dime in the last line, but the gone girl is the figure that repeats in the poem and the figure that lingers in our imagination. The seductions of her cosmic silence (ok, plus her “white hills, white thighs”) are what give Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair pride of place on the Valentine’s Day gift buffet at Barnes & Noble, stacked between Fifty Shades of Grey and bars of European chocolate. When I was 18 I bought the book for my first boyfriend, neither blind nor immune to its subjections. But why? In Ben Lerner’s recent novel 10:04 there is an exchange between the narrator and his friend Sharon in which they discuss his new lover:
“The breath play thing,” I said with the help of my second cocktail, “makes me nervous.”
“What if you stopped worrying about protecting women from their desires?”
Now we were walking down Delancey, a gas I hoped was only steam rising from the street vent. “Maybe it’s how she grapples with and overcomes a fear of death.”
“Maybe it’s how she grapples with the threat of voicelessness.”
A passing ambulance threw red lights against us. “Or takes pleasure in making you confront the pleasure you take in those threats.”
As in the Neruda poem, there is the representation of a silence that resembles or exists on a continuum with death. But here Lerner and his characters begin to consider what this representation might feel like from the perspective of the silenced one, who is in this case a collaborator in the scene, starring as her own Desdemona. The narrator suggests that his lover’s desire to be almost-choked might be a way of coping with mortality, a gender-neutral suggestion that his female friend quickly counters and corrects with the suggestion that what women fear is not so much the powerlessness of death—universal snooze—but the powerlessness of death-in-life. The pleasure for her is not only in the “flood of oxygen upon release” but in the naked revelation of a patriarchal fantasy that she brings triumphantly to life. It sounds like a trick, and the narrator is understandably “nervous.” But to cite some popular wisdom from hip hop, “it ain’t trickin if you got it.” The narrator’s lover—a successful conceptual artist—has a voice, has more voice where that came from. She can afford the fantasy. Then again, it is staged within a broader economy of scarcity in which women are still fighting for a voice. Her performance figures a narrow escape, and mourns as much as celebrates the privilege of her exception.
Both [Neruda and Lerner] speak a language in which a woman’s silence serves as the occasion for a man’s literary utterance.
Lerner’s narrator might be “nervous,” Neruda’s might be relieved at his woman’s smile or word. But both speak a language in which a woman’s silence serves as the occasion for a man’s literary utterance. In Neruda it’s explicit: “And let me talk to you with your silence / that is bright as a lamp, simple as a ring.” Her silence becomes his metaphor—his lamp, his ring—and he wants her to “let” him use it that way, taken from and then directed toward her as a description of what she is. In Lerner the silence of the lover generates character-building speculations about what it contains. We don’t hear her silence directly; we hear the speech it produces. It is not so much silence itself that summons this poem or that novel, but someone else’s silence. It is a person’s silence—not the silence of snow on a field, the silence of the city on Thanksgiving Day—that is easy to experience as a space to be filled or a riddle to be solved.
In the scenarios under discussion, silence has a relational economy. It is productive for the poet insofar as it is already “pregnant”—to use a feminized metaphor—with the possibility of speech. An ambiguity arises in the act of articulating someone else’s silence: was it heard or made? Does the poem itself enforce the silence of the space it steps into, singing? Neruda and Lerner make this relational economy explicit by making it sexy, but similar structures are very much present in other famous works we might regard as chaste, as in Wordsworth’s “Lucy” poems. Still, the specter of sexual difference lingers. What would it mean for this give and take, this voice taken at the expense of another, this circuit of threat and relief, pain and pleasure, to take place within a “single” consciousness? And for that consciousness to be a woman writer’s?
* * * *
Those who know me in my life beyond the page are likely amused to read me expounding with such reverence on the subject of silence, since I avoid it strenuously. Or is it as Kafka wrote to his lover Felice in 1916: does “silence avoid me, as water on the beach avoids stranded fish”? There is something involuntary in my speaking, the flapping and flailing of my desperate tongue. Silence is generally associated with passivity and expression with action, but for me silence requires the greater effort. My mind turns again to drowning: the poet Seamus Heaney spent his childhood on a small farm in Ireland where each spring his family forced the overflow of newborn puppies below the surface of a barrel of water. Their sputter, their squirm, then their stillness: this is how it feels to hold words back. “The strain,” Kafka writes elsewhere, “of keeping down living forces.” Silence is the water that fish breathe, but for puppies it’s what kills them. What kind of creature am I?
I’ve always comforted myself that I am an acculturated creature—that my keen want for the last word comes, in part, from an inherited fear that my voice won’t carry. My Puerto Rican mother and grandmother—and ok, my Jewish American father, my two ex-stepmothers—are all joyfully voluble, but for the women in my family this intensity also serves another function. Working at a factory when she arrived in New York, my grandmother learned her first English sentence in rebellion against her abusive boss: “What do you think, I’m a DOLL?!” My single mother has been in the hospital twice in the past five years in the wake of frightening accidents, and both times doctors and friends turned to me, reeling slightly: “Your mother really knows how to advocate for herself.” But who else will advocate for her? She has always encouraged me to “speak up”—warned me that the world might not want to hear from a woman—but the truth is I didn’t really need the encouragement. In first grade my teacher pulled my mother aside to let her know that though I was friendly and bright, I hardly ever raised my hand before I spoke and often interrupted my classmates. My mother explained that I had hearing problems and had recently had tubes put in my ears, which was true, but I knew (ashamed) that this biological detail was unrelated to my refusal to shut up.
In his essay “Feeling Brown,” the late scholar José Muñoz considers the “‘failure’ of Latino/a affect in relation to the hegemonic protocols of North American” expressive restraint. He shows us how Latinas are only loud, passionate, or “too much” from the point of view of “whiteness,” which he describes as “minimalist to the point of emotional impoverishment.” The expressivity stereotypically associated with Latinas may have its own provenance—in Puerto Rico this summer, my voice melted into the melodic din—but its edge sharpens against the performance of white silence. Which is not, in fact, silent: it’s a careful repertoire of subdued gestures, coded words, and background expectations about who should speak, when, how, and how much. The unconscious expectation is that words coming from white people—especially white men—are not an interruption, but part of the “white noise” of our social world. The background track. Latina expressivity is not just a value-neutral cultural norm that appears exaggerated in relation to the different cultural norm of white restraint. It shows up as a form of resistance to the fact that the white valorization of silence—or, at the very least, “appropriate” affect—always seems strictest when it comes to us. Let’s Get Loud. But this noisy affect—the energetic interjection, the volume of a phone call on the train platform—is often the last stubborn trace of Latinidad to get assimilated away in an “upwardly mobile” trajectory. There’s still a siren in my voice. But what emergency does it announce?
The unconscious expectation is that words coming from white people—especially white men—are not an interruption, but part of the “white noise” of our social world.
It’s clear that I’ve been (home-)schooled in the tradition of Audre Lorde’s warning: Your silence will not protect you. Her complex essay “The Transformation of Silence Into Language and Action” is often quoted as a way to encourage both victims and witnesses of injustice to speak out, with the implication that speaking out will result in a change in conditions. It can, and sometimes does. But this is not what Audre Lorde promises. She does not say that speaking out will protect you or anyone else from violence—she emphasizes instead a kind of double vulnerability. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t: “I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood. That the speaking profits me, beyond any other effect.” Here, even if speaking fails to redress injury, it has a liberating value for the speaker herself.
But the word “profits” makes me nervous in my own case: like the literary men I discussed earlier, do I profit from speaking at someone else’s expense? I’m hyper-educated and white-passing; what do I have to resist? Is “what is most important to me” important to others? I hear how the torrent of my talk can cut others off at the pass and scatter the fragile questions flocking in the air. Maybe my preemptive resistance to being silenced has become its own kind of violence. In The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson notes how “words change depending on who speaks them”; so too with silence. Since silence is relational, it registers differently in different rooms. The two places I feel freest to let my voice run wild in its “natural range” are at play with Caribbean women and at work with white men. In both cases I feel sure I’m not drowning anyone out; I better scream not to drown my damn self. But it’s another matter in more “integrated” environments—the seminar on colonialism, the cocktail party for the magazine’s special issue on African fiction—where I can’t help but hear the faultlines creak in polite tones, my ear tuned tight to every note of condescension, defense, correction. I try to listen: for the various volumes at which we’ve been pitched by our individual and collective histories, for what my brown voice in its white body will do here. What will it amplify. Who will it echo. How will it be quoted. In whose name. On behalf of what. Yet still I struggle to stem the anxious, desiring torrent of constant comment that rises in me. In striving for a Zen perspective, Lydia Davis wonders: “how does a person learn to see herself as nothing when she has already had so much trouble learning to see herself as something in the first place?”
This is not the only tender spot in my lack-of-silence. It would be a lie by omission, a silent lie, to say that I always find the aggressive expressivity of my Puerto Rican family a source of pride and joy. I know all too well the defensive function of words-gone-wild, the fear that silence will let us sink into our solitudes and dissolve our fragile solidarity. Sometimes my mother says I’m low-key, tranquila. But sometimes she says I never tell her anything. I’m tight-lipped. I’ve copped that proprietary attitude white kids have about their own lives. My silence is a door closing on everything that made me. Sometimes I’m sitting on the couch back home, reading. It’s not about her. Is that ok? Sometimes my boyfriend’s pauses are so long that my breath panics and my heart hurts. Is that ok? The soundtrack swells and it’s Bonnie Raitt raging through “Angel From Montgomery”: how the hell can a person / go to work in the morning / come home in the evening / and have nothing to say?
I’ve been lingering recently with the background assumption that Audre Lorde writes against: that silence is a temptation and a promise, that it might offer not only protection, but refuge. After all, silence sometimes can protect you. It’s easy to think of the one who “saves herself,” who hides in the closet while the rest of the family is raped and killed by men in uniform. But silence can also protect others: when you face down demands to confess or condemn, when you refuse to sing for the master, when you speak not at all rather than speak the words they’ve scripted for you. Go ahead, claim your right to remain silent. Of course, the protection of silence is not absolute—it’s just a tool in the toolkit. But it is also, potentially, a source of spiritual solace. Luce Irigary must mean both when she imagines an écriture feminine that emerges from a “fling with the philosopher’s discourse” to embrace “the deployment of other languages, even silence.” Sometimes I catch myself envying the silence of others. Though speaking out is the only possible choice for Lorde, she anticipates “bruises” (sometimes literal) and “misunderstanding” (sometimes deadly). Speaking out is hard, speaking out can hurt. And it often requires the strength and circumspection forged from silence.
From this exhausted perspective, silence can look like a luxury most available to those who are secure in their expectation that they’ll be heard once they have something to say. I’m not sure it’s a luxury I can afford to give myself. “I am so pulled hither and thither by circumstances. The calm, the coolness, the silent grass-growing mood in which a man ought always to compose—that, I fear, can seldom be mine”: Melville, writing to Hawthorne, writing, it seems, to me. But it is more than seldom that I’ve cleared space for silence. I have spent days indoors speaking only to the mailman, I have made my bed in lilac sheets. I’ve tried to deep-breathe through the demons that burn my throat. I’ve read thousands of pages of poetry and paused long between lines: “Everything makes love to the silence. / They had promised me a silence like fire—a house of silence. / Suddenly, the temple is a circus and the light is a drum” (“Signos,” Alejandra Pizarnik). Women writers wrap me in a storm of whispers. They promise me a silence.
* * * *
This conflicted curiosity about the feminist potential of silence might explain my attraction to the Brazilian fiction writer Clarice Lispector and the Argentine poet Alejandra Pizarnik. After all, it should go without saying that not all Latinas are loud like me. Not all Latin Americans—and perhaps especially not recent arrivals. The Lispectors fled the anti-Semitic pogroms of 1920s Ukraine and landed in Brazil when Clarice (then Chaya) was still an infant; the Pizarniks, also Jewish, left behind similar traumas in Russia around ten years later for Argentina, where Alejandra was born. She would always speak Spanish with a Yiddish accent. Both writers went on to become heroes of modernism in their respective countries, often the only women writers included in canonical accounts of their generations. And both ultimately died young: Pizarnik of a suicide by sedatives at the age of 36, and Lispector of ovarian cancer at the age of 56. Their ethnic background—so different from and yet so evocative of my own—functions as a temptation to identify, but they are cool lovers. As Heather Love writes of the desire to connect with “lost figures” from the past in her book Feeling Backward, “turning back toward them seems essential, but it also demands something that is, in the end, more difficult: allowing them to turn their backs on us.”
Here I have to be careful not to confuse silence as a trope within their writing for silence as the absence of expression. Just because Lispector and Pizarnik write about silence in mystical tones does not mean that they themselves are silent. Susan Sontag reminds us that “as a property of the work of art itself, silence can exist only in a…nonliteral sense”; even the work of art that strains towards silence is a “form of speech (in many instances, of complaint or indictment) and an element in a dialogue.” Lispector and Pizarnik of course communicate through their writing, but they also withhold. Lispector famously resisted extensive dialogue with the literary public. When the rare interviewer asked her about “the role of the Brazilian writer today,” she responded: “to speak as little as possible.” And neither woman wrote explicitly—which is to say, in a realist mode—about their personal lives. Pizarnik kept notebooks that were published posthumously, but as her editor Ana Becciu notes in their Spanish edition, “the idea of writing a diary as a record of life is almost totally absent for her.”
It’s a forbidding pose. I first read a little Pizarnik in Spanish when I studied abroad in Buenos Aires, but she frightened me away: “only thirst / silence / no encounter // beware of me, my love” (Poem 3 in Diana’s Tree). I tried to forget about her troubling seductions. Perhaps it is because Clarice Lispector came to me more recently that I was able to receive her more warmly. I was encouraged, no doubt, by the note of invitation in the first line of her last novella, The Hour of the Star: “all the world began with a yes.” But The Hour of the Star remains, as Helene Cixous describes it, “a text of great pity: one should really have paid for the right to write such a text.” Far from being an ecstatically “open book,” it exacerbates ethical anxieties about who writes and who gets written about—and the power at work between these two inseparable positions.
I’ve asked what it would mean for a woman writer to concern herself with the problem of the poetic voice taken at the expense of another. One answer is that the mind of the woman writing on silence often remains rhetorically split along gendered lines. Among the many formal complications of The Hour of the Star is the tension between the breathless philosophizing of the male narrator—“I, Rodrigo S.M.”—and the silence of his imagined subject, the homely Macabéa, whose “poor, thin life” as a rural girl working as a typist in Rio achieves significance only in her violent death. Lispector represents, in her fictional world, exactly the kind of economy I’ve described, wherein the silence of Macabéa—inspired by the look “of perdition on the face of a northeastern girl”—makes way for the writerly destiny of the narrator. At last he has found a subject that will allow him to unleash his powers; “suddenly the idea of surpassing [his] own limits fascinated [him]” as he imagines transfiguring Macabéa’s “ugliness and total anonymity…her weak lungs, the scraggly girl” into a luminous symbol of “inner freedom.” When he finally writes her into a fatal collision with a car—“can’t turn back now”—the event provides a useful alibi for why Macabéa does not speak for herself, for why the narrator must speak on her behalf.
We do read the narrator struggling with the ethics of his imaginative appropriation: “I swear I can’t do anything for her. I promise that if I could I would make things better…” Rodrigo S.M. is consumed alternately by a sense of “obligation to tell about this one girl out of the thousands like her” and by an urge to “defend” and even “avenge” himself against her “accusing” him—of what, he won’t say. Rodrigo insists that Macabéa is “too dim-witted” to give an account of herself, and “should have stayed in the backlands of Alagoas in a cotton dress without any typewriter, since she wrote so badly,” but instead we find her working as a typist all day, and, in her rare moments alone, dancing with “the radio as loud as it would go.” She may be “practically illiterate,” but she knows the labor of writing, and the means of production are at her fingertips. “She was quiet (not having anything to say) but she liked noises. They were life. Whereas the silence of the night was scary: as if it were about to say a fatal word.” What of the silence of Macabéa? Is it “scary” for Rodrigo? The word Macabéa always seems “about to say” would be “fatal” to his project as narrator; she threatens to displace him.
Of course, the writing of the book is the work of a woman writer representing the narrator, as well as Macabéa, as a character. This is a rather literal—which is not to say unbrilliant—joke at the expense of this predatory dynamic; Lispector shows herself the master of the trope by writing both parts. She treats us to playful moments, as when the narrator boasts that only a “male writer” could represent Macabéa’s mute abjection with spiritual seriousness “because a woman writer would make it all weepy and maudlin.” She disrupts the literary illusion of the narrator even more explicitly with her “Dedication by the Author (actually Clarice Lispector).” That apparently redundant parenthetical infiltrates the narrator’s voice that follows and raises the question of how it relates to the author’s “actual” identity as Clarice Lispector. Her voice in the dedication—ecstatically cryptic—is continuous with the voice of the narrator in the body of the novella, but certain details make reference to her life beyond writing, as when she promises the book “to the memory of [her] former poverty.”
What is ecstatic in Macabéa’s silence is the marrow she sucks from solitude, before the urge—and opportunity—to communicate makes her life available for the consumption of others.
Like Macabéa, Lispector grew up very poor in the northeast of Brazil, and in the interview already mentioned it is Lispector herself who catches the urge to write from the look on the face of a recent migrant at a regional market in Rio. In this moment her gaze is the gaze of the narrator, alchemizing the silence of an out-of-place stranger into a literary event: “I see the northeastern girl looking in the mirror and—ruffle of the drum—in the mirror appears my weary and unshaven face. We’re that interchangeable.” It is not just Rodrigo who dreams of switching places with Macabéa, but the author as “northeastern girl” who dreams of becoming our male narrator and so must share his troubled hunger for Macabéa’s poverty. “She lived off herself as if eating her own entrails”: an impossible diet. But for Lispector, her life before she began publishing—almost exactly coterminous with her “former poverty”—contains a paradoxical nourishment.
What is ecstatic in Macabéa’s silence is the marrow she sucks from solitude, before the urge—and opportunity—to communicate makes her life available for the consumption of others. Here, it is not so much expression that affords freedom, since expression inevitably involves making clumsy calculations in relation to the expectations of others. (Macabéa has a brief romance, and “afraid that the silence might already mean separation, says —I just love bolts and nails, what about you, sir?”). A feeling of freedom wells up in Macabéa when she has a “room all to herself” where “not a word was heard.” Perhaps a word was uttered, perhaps not. But in solitude, Macabéa is not heard and so she is not available to be criticized for either her exclamations (“you sound like a mute trying to sing”) or her silence (“you never open your trap and don’t have anything to say!”). In fact, the socially significant distinction between expression and silence seems to blur in “the imminence of those bells that almost-almost ring,” in the chapel of her abandonment by the world at large. There is, of course, something funereal in the declaration that “Macabéa seemed to have in herself her own end”—no future—but there is also the promise of radical self-satisfaction. In the interview where she reveals herself as the northeastern girl, she almost-almost smiles: “I understand me, so I’m not hermetic from myself.”
* * * *
Clarice Lispector is not the only one who imagines eating her own entrails. Alejandra Pizarnik does too, as in “Poem 14” from Diana’s Tree—
The poem I don’t say,
The one I don’t deserve.
The fear of being two
The way a mirror is:
Someone asleep in me
Eats and drinks from me.
—but she doesn’t do so with relish. She’s come to a “place of contagion” where “a woman slowly eats / while sleeping / her midnight heart.” This is not a self-conscious strategy of survival, but a blind theft that occurs under the cover of night. “Someone asleep in me” is the thief, and since that someone is not awake to her own activities, her motives can’t be questioned. The notion of “someone asleep in me” reminds me of Freud’s superego, the world’s injunctions invited inside as the secret script for the performance of the sovereign self—at least now I’m my own master, my own thief. Pizarnik is wary of self-sufficiency, skeptical of the pleasures it seems to proffer: “the beautiful wind-up doll sings to herself, charms / herself, tells herself stuff and stories.” When “I dance and lament myself / at my countless funerals,” who winds me up and what song did they stick in me? Is what charms me in my solitude the same as what charms men in the marketplace, literary and otherwise? Have I become my own doll?
The shame of this possibility is crushing: “the poem I don’t say / the one I don’t deserve.” Pizarnik seems convinced that saying her poem would produce a duplicitous result; she lives in “fear of being two the way a mirror is.” She fears producing a reflection through her writing that is all surface and no depth, an image that will take on a life of its own and deface what remains unrepresented in her. She fears that the poem will become a doll-poem—subjected to the foul play of others. But is this really a danger unique to saying? Hasn’t the poem already been said, inside, silently—held like a treasure under the tongue? She admits that it is not only public expression that threatens to divide her from herself. As we’ve seen, internal expression carries a similar threat: “someone asleep in me eats and drinks from me.”
Isn’t every person’s silence noisy with internal voices, and every person’s expression evidence of the need to be heard?
According to Pizarnik, even silence is expression, and expression always involves duplicity. But the fantasy of an unbroken poem for an unbroken, deserving self survives this claustrophobic logic. “The poem I don’t say” emits a stubborn luminosity. She doesn’t believe she deserves such a poem, and yet it remains with her. The survival of the idea of such a poem despite her undeservingness gestures toward a world in which this undeservingness need not be a barrier to expression. After all, why should duplicity—wrestling with internalized enemies, “being two the way a mirror is,” concern with the judgment of a wider world—render her undeserving? Pizarnik understands this two-ness as a uniquely female flaw in herself. “Dolls gutted by my worn doll hands”: the reflection that results from her expression is now tinged with narcissism. But isn’t every person’s silence noisy with internal voices, and every person’s expression evidence of the need to be heard?
* * * *
Death has restored to silence its bewitching prestige.
— Alejandra Pizarnik, “Fragments of Dominating Silence”
As I’ve struggled with the silences of these two South Americans, I’ve also struggled with their English-language reception. Even though Clarice Lispector has been translated into English for decades, Benjamin Moser’s 2009 biography Why This World and this year’s Collected Stories (edited by Moser and translated by the wonderful Katrina Dodson) have ignited a fresh fever on the literary circuit. Alejandra Pizarnik, on the other hand, has only been translated into English here and there in magazines, anthologies, and cultish PDF’s. Yvette Siegert’s work in rendering Diana’s Tree (Ugly Duckling), A Musical Hell (New Directions), and Extracting the Stone of Madness: Poems 1962-1972 (also New Directions) calls a whole new audience into being. My first moment of true rage in response to the reviews came when I noticed that Joshua Cohen’s review at Harper’s failed to credit Yvette Siegert as the translator at all. But this inexcusable error (Benjamin Moser, I notice, is never disappeared) speaks to the broader sense in which American reviewers have tended to treat both Pizarnik and Lispector as lonely, “sphinx-like” figures. Their silence—about their personal lives, in relation to the press—has not protected them from being “bruised” and “misunderstood” by today’s criticism. I don’t imagine that writing or speaking differently would have set things straight, but I can imagine coping with a whole different discourse about their work: one that emphasizes their ardent attachments and manic mysticism rather than their refusal and restraint.
Zora Neale Huston wrote: “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” Critics have not exactly been claiming that Alejandra Pizarnik “enjoyed” her suicide, or that Clarice Lispector relished her early death. But Moser does describe Lispector as having “summoned” her illness. And Pizarnik was prescient in her attention to the “bewitching prestige” of death: especially suicides, especially the suicides of “female authors.” In 2013, VICE Magazine published a “fashion spread” called Last Words:
…featuring models reenacting the suicides of female authors who tragically ended their own lives. It is part of our 2013 Fiction Issue, one that is entirely dedicated to female writers, photographers, illustrators, painters, and other contributors. Last Words was created in this tradition and focused on the demise of a set of writers whose lives we very much wish weren’t cut tragically short, especially at their own hands. We will no longer display Last Words on our website and apologize to anyone who was hurt or offended.
It’s almost too easy to criticize and condemn such a flat project; I understand the instinct to save your voice for subtler struggles. I’ll only note, here, that it seems downright threatening to celebrate a special issue of all-female contributors with a centerfold that stages the worst possible outcome of female creativity. That frames the wish to write as a kind of death wish. Your silence will not protect you. But breaking silence, VICE seems to say, will break you.
It seems downright threatening to celebrate a special issue of all-female contributors with a centerfold that stages the worst possible outcome of female creativity.
White hills, white thighs. Distant and full of sorrow as though you had died. Neither Lispector nor Pizarnik show up in the VICE spread, but I still sense an aestheticized, eroticized connection between the huge, pearly portraits that accompany most essays about their work and the hushed, almost admiring tones in which their deaths are discussed, as though we are gathered around Snow White in her glass coffin. In The Hour of the Star, Macabéa often gazes at an image of this kind, a “picture of the young Greta Garbo…but what she really wanted to be wasn’t the haughty Greta Garbo whose tragic sensuality was on a solitary pedestal.” She wanted to be someone at once bolder and more open. How are these desires to claim the “right to scream” lost in accounts that glamourize their elegant deathlinesss? How are bitter, passionate conflicts over the status of silence within their work stilled in the figure of the sphinx? I find myself pursuing impolite questions: what if they weren’t dead? What if they weren’t white?
* * * *
— Alfonsina Storni, “Tú me quieres blanca”
Although their backgrounds as immigrant Jews are always emphasized—often at the expense of their lifetimes in Latin America—race never seems to come up. Whiteness, after all, is silent (unless it’s threatened), but that does not mean its presence has no effects. It must have been bewildering to flee an old world of racialized terror—the most deadly anti-Semitic violence of all time, besides the Holocaust—and arrive in a new world to learn your body unlatches the special unspeakable lock of white privilege. There is no doubt that their whiteness (and the prestige of their European backgrounds, however abject) smoothed their paths through the rigid racial hierarchy of midcentury Latin America. It’s hard to imagine how else Clarice Lispector, a poor girl born far from Rio, could marry a high-level diplomat and set off to travel the world at the age of 23. It’s the kind of fairy tale that tends to cast a pretty white girl in the leading role—especially in the 1940s. But sometimes it seems as though nothing has changed. It needles me to wonder how warm the embrace of the literary establishment (The New Yorker, Paris Review, Harper’s, Bookforum) would be if it couldn’t claim them for the European canon. This question can get posed in harsher terms, too, as in this comment on Rachel Kushner’s essay on Lispector for Bookforum:
…Most of those professing their admiration for Lispector are, I suspect, drawn above all to her striking looks (not really to my taste, but hey), her exotic provenance (a Ukraine-born Jew from Brazil), her gender, and the coolness (which the publishers are not hesitating to exploit) they believe reading her books confers. (I would recommend reading Machado de Assis instead, a mulatto of a provenance hardly less exotic than Lispector’s and a writer whose work, though also difficult at times, rewards one’s efforts more readily.)
— Jfpenuel January 6, 2013
The fairy tale role is often a false promise for white women—an invitation to be a prized object instead of a reviled object, but not an invitation to be a subject. Here, Lispector’s “exotic” whiteness appears unnamed in contrast to the “mulatto…provenance” of Machado de Assis. According to “Jfpenuel,” those looking for an authentically “exotic” reading experience should turn “instead” to him (as if we can’t or won’t read two Brazilian writers). Though “Jfpenuel” shares my discomfort with the way Lispector has been set up as an object of literary desire, he does not identify objectification itself as the problem. Lispector is simply the wrong object: “not to [his] taste” as a specimen of womanly beauty, and not ideally representative in racial terms. Her whiteness—especially as it is unspoken, even here—seems to prohibit access to the complexity of her own “provenance.” “Jfpenuel” can’t quite see the way her whiteness works in concert with her exotic appeal to catch her in the cross-hairs of this North American critical frenzy. Being an object of desire may seem to be a privilege—particularly when the conditions of its possibility are not made clear, when the luminosity of the white object is not dirtied by description.
But the silence of whiteness is not meant merely to protect whiteness. This silence also imprisons those who would violate its norms, confuse its terms, or betray its conditions of belonging. Those who would refuse its “instead.” By implicitly insisting on the whiteness of Lispector and Pizarnik, these recent reviews discount what was certainly a complex story of racialization for each of them. By privileging their connections to Europe, they foreclose consideration of the many connections they had to their home countries, to Latin America as a whole—and to each other. A generation earlier, another European immigrant to South America named Alfonsina Storni said it plain in a classic poem: “tú me quieres blanca.” You want me white. Or: you want me blank. Storní exploits the double meaning in the Spanish word “blanca,” suggesting that her would-be lover’s racializing gaze works as an eraser: what will he scrawl in the blank space where her words were? When the reviewers of today present these writers as icons of seemly silence, they deprive them of the resistant loquaciousness available—even as a negative resource—to those excluded from whiteness. At the end of her essay on the misrepresented, maligned, and mutilated image of black womanhood in the white imagination, Hortense Spillers famously claims to be “less interested in joining the ranks” of “proper” womanhood and more interested in “gaining the insurgent ground” of alternatives scavenged from forced labor. She would rather be a monster than a woman.
The fairy tale role is often a false promise for white women—an invitation to be a prized object instead of a reviled object, but not an invitation to be a subject.
Lispector and Pizarnik both want to work Spillers’ insurgent ground—which is the shared ground of their hemispheric history. I do not mean to discount their literary connections to Europe, or deny the fact that both spent significant time there (hardly unusual for Latin American and Caribbean writers of the period). But that’s not where they ask us to place them. Lispector famously denied her European affiliations while traveling with her diplomat husband, and grew so homesick for Brazil she required psychiatric care. And Pizarnik spent her four years in Paris (1960-1964) hanging out with other Latin Americans, translating Aimé Césaire into Spanish, and fantasizing about “sing[ing] the blues in some smoke-filled hangout.” Lispector and Pizarnik both identify with the homegrown refugees of the New World, speaking with them: “I cannot speak with my voice, so I speak with my voices” (from “Cornerstone”). When asked which of her own characters provoked her “tenderest feelings,” Lispector described “a criminal named Mineirinho, who was shot thirteen times, when one shot was enough…I transformed myself into a criminal massacred by the police…a single bullet was enough…the rest was just desire to kill, because they had the power.” I have questions about Lispector’s melodramatic “transformation” here, just as I have questions about the depth of Pizarnik’s engagement with Césaire’s decolonial politics. But these are questions that can only be posed once these writers are Latin American.
Negritude, the blues, and police brutality: these are not conventionally Eastern European concerns. They are concerns born of a melancholic involvement with American racism. They register an attraction, at once romanticizing and insistent, to the resistant strategies of blackness. The blues, especially, appear and reappear. Singing the Blues is one of the thirteen alternative titles to The Hour of the Star, and the first poem in Pizarnik’s A Musical Hell is called “Cold In Hand Blues”—in English, like that. The title is taken from the 1925 Bessie Smith song, memorably underscored by Louis Armstrong’s trumpet. She sings about a man who works hard but spends all his money on Saturday: “now I don’t want that man / because he’s done gone cold in hand.” Being cold in hand in the context of the blues means being broke. But here Pizarnik is “broke” vis-à-vis language:
and what is it you’re going to say
i’m just going to say something
and what’s this you’re going to do
i’m going to hide behind language
She isn’t sure she has something worthwhile to say, and she admits that she’s motivated toward expression by fear. But this poem (unlike “Poem 14,” discussed earlier) does not imagine being broke—poor, indebted, fractured, injured, abject, uncertain—as a reason not to “say something.” I read her invocation of Bessie Smith as a kind of confession of her debt to New World songs—perhaps even a subtle recognition of the way her own voice has been carried along as white noise. She is “cold in hand”—incapable of repaying the gift of Bessie Smith’s artistry, or the accident of her own racial privilege. As the narrator of The Hour of the Star writes of Macabéa, “I could have been born her…and it seems a cowardly avoidance that I am not.” Given their backgrounds, both Pizarnik and Lispector must be keenly aware of the could-have-beens of their own racial positions. A network of relationality emerges.
I am not interested in exposing the unspoken debts in expression—or the noisy conflicts in silence—in order to delegitimize either one. The truth is, women need to be fluent in both rhetorical modes in order to hear ourselves think, hear each other talk, and tune the dial toward the survival of our many voices. I’m not worried about the music we make. I’m worried about how it’s heard, what stations play it, and who gets paid—in social capital, if not actual dollars. Poetry in translation is not exactly a cash cow. So very few writers from any given country get global play—which is all the more reason to be careful, critical, and capacious in our listening. Think of all the unpaid hours women have labored to bring another woman’s name to our lips. Some labor is loud and proud: critiquing the canon as it stands, making claims for unknown or forgotten figures. And some labor is quiet and lonely: the long hours Yvette Siegert and Katrina Dodson spent as translators, getting lost in someone else’s language in order to bring it into ours. Let’s not turn our back on this crowd just because a lone literary pinup makes a better poster. Let’s not turn the volume down on the static just because silence seems like easy listening. It isn’t.