Edward Kamau Brathwaite
Luis Rafael Sfinchez
Mary Beth Pringle on Katherine Anne Porter
Lizabeth Paravisini on Luis Rafael Sinchez and Norman Mailer
Valerie M. Babb
Gordon K. Lewis. Main Currents in Caribbean Thought
Edward Kamau Brathwaite. Third World Poems
Paule Marshall. Praisesong for the Widow
Eugene V. Mohr. The Nuyorican Experience
Volume I, Number I, 1984
Sargasso, a literary magazine published two times a year at the
University of Puerto Rico, publishes critical essays, interviews,
and some short stories and poems. Sargasso particularly welcomes
material written by the people of the Caribbean and/or about the
Sargasso strives to make current studies in literature, language,
and culture accessible to non-specialists. The prose should be
clear, lively, and understandable to those not among the initiate.
Essays and critical studies should conform to the style of the MLA
Handbook. Short stories should be no longer than 2,500 words in
length, and poems should be kept to no more than twenty to thirty
lines. All correspondence must include S.A.S.E. Mailing address:
Department of English
Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico 00931
Lowell Fiet, Editor
Janet Butler Haugaard, Co-Editor; Book Review Editor
Thomas Sullivan, Co-Editor
Jean Marie Nieves
The editors wish to acknowledge, with gratitude, the sup-
port of Don Jorge Demaras, President of Executive Search Asso-
ciates. We also want to thank Mr. Angel Rivera for his superb
efforts on our behalf.
Copyright ( 1984 by Sargasso
This is the first issue of Sargasso, a journal of litera-
ture, language, and culture edited by graduate students and faculty
members of the English Department, College of Humanities, University
of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico. Sargasso's purposes are
several. First, the editors are very interested in~Intellectual
interchange in the Caribbean, and especially in breaking through
barriers which tend to separate the Spanish, English, Dutch, and
French-speaking island cultures of the region. For that reason,
Sargasso particularly welcomes materials written by the people
of the Caribbean and/or about the Caribbean.
However, because we are located in Puerto Rico, there is
the additional interest in introducing already established Puerto
Rican writers to an English-reading public perhaps not familiar
with their work. To accomplish that, the interview format proves
especially useful,and we anticipate the inclusion of a conversation
with a different writer in every issue. The current issue features
an interview with Luis Rafael Sanchez, undoubtedly the most notable
figure of contemporary Puerto Rican literature and author of Macho
Camacho's Beat. A critical essay comparing that novel with Norman
Mailer's Why Are We in Vietnam? is included as well to provide a
different perspective on SinchezIs work.
Another aspect of interchange between the different Carib-
beans is represented through the poems of Edward Kamau &rathwaite.
Brathwaite is one of the outstanding literary figures )f the English-
speaking Caribbean, and we are proud that he has graciously permitted
us to print several new poems. The work of another Barbadian poet
--Kevyn Arthur--further strengthens this first issue.
Although our focus will undoubtedly always be Caribbean, a
second purpose is more general. Sargasso strives to make current
critical studies accessible to non-specialists, and that really
means that we are interested in good, clear writing and thinking
about nearly any aspect of literature, language, and culture.
Mary Beth Pringle's essay on Katherine Anne Porter's story "Holiday"
touches no Caribbean theme, yet this examination of another kind
of immigrant subculture is written with striking clarity and
critical sensitivity and explores the nature of cross-cultural
Still another purpose is to establish a forum for creative
writers and, although not exclusively, to encourage the work of
new writers. We welcome all contributions of verse and prose and
ask only that stories be kept below a rough maximum of 2,500 words
and that poems be no longer than twenty to thirty lines. The
current issue presents Valerie M. Babb's "Panama Story" and poems
by Milton Medina and Carole Fragoza, all new writers.
Sargasso, although not then so named, grew out of the
desire of M.A. students in English at the University of Puerto
Rico to publish their own poems, stories, and essays. An edi-
torial committee formed and began to work on a format. However,
before going too far, it became evident that a journal edited by
graduate students with a broader intellectual and cultural frame
would serve a greater number of educational objectives. Yet the
idea of student contributions to Sargasso remains alive, and we
actively encourage creative and critical submissions from Univer-
sity of Puerto Rico students as well as from students of other
universities both inside and outside the Caribbean. We particular-
ly look forward to book reviews written by graduate students, and
inquiries about such reviews can be made directly to the book
review editor. The review section of this issue contains only one
student contribution, but future issues should record increased
Why "Sargasso"? The name was suggested by Janet Butler
Haugaard and reflects her steadfast academic interest in West Indian
literature and perhaps more specifically her appreciation of Jean
Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea. The name took hold immediately: the
sound and rhythm of the word seemed to unite disparate elements
and to smooth out at least some of the possible contradictions of
producing an English-language journal in a predominantly Spanish-
speaking society. All of that is very positive. However, as
was quickly pointed out, "Sargasso" also carries with it negative
connotations: a free-floating mass of brownish seaweed sargassumm)
where strange creatures lurk and in which unfortunate vessels are
trapped and held prisoner. Thus we see the mythic overtones of the
magnetic power of the region and the lost ghost ships which haunt
it. In Puerto Rico, "sargasso" also has another meaning: it is
used generically to identify virtually all seaweed. Walking by a
group of fishermen, it might be possible to watch one pull his line
from the water, as I did recently, and hear him exclaim that he had
caught no more than tres sargasos, even though the weeds he pulled
up were not sargassum.
But there seems to be no danger in calling our journal
Sargasso: tLh Sargasso Sea has been demystified by modern science,
and it seems to present none of the imagined qualities. Perhaps,
in some small way, Sargasso also represents an act of demystification:
it wants to lay bare a more authentic Caribbean than is available
in the fantasized versions perpetuated by travel brochures and, in
so doing, facilitate an exchange of ideas and literatures between
the different Caribbeans and the outsiders who observe them. Sargasso..
Ihis first issue is dedicated to
PROFESSOR EUGENE V. MOHR
who is retiring from the University of Puerto Rico in August 1984.
Gene has been a pioneer in Caribbean studies in the English Depart-
ment and in the College of Humanities. We are honored to be able
to list him not only as a friend, teacher, and colleague but also
as a contributor to Sargasso.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Edward Kamau Brathwaite: Jazz Music . . . .
Susan Homar: Luis Rafael Sanchez: Interview . .
Lizabeth Paravisini: Luis Rafael Sanchez and
Norman Mailer: Puerto Rico
and the United States as
Heard on Radio . . . .
Kevyn Arthur: Poems . . . . . . . .
Mary Beth Pringle: A Lesson in Tradition:
Katherine Anne Porter's
"Holiday" . . . . .
Carole Fragoza: Poem . . . . . . . .
Valerie M. Babb: Panama Story . . . . . .
Milton Medina: Poem . . . . . . . .
Eugene V. Mohr: Main Currents in Caribbean
Thought: The Historical
Evolution of Caribbean
Society in Its Ideological
Aspects, 1492-1900 . . .
Third World Poems . . . . . . . . .
Stella L6pez Divila: Praisesong for the Widow . .
Thomas Sullivan: The Nuyorican Experience: The
Literature of the Puerto Rican
Minority . . . . ..
NOTES ON CONTRIBUTORS . . . . . . . .
. . . 20
. . . 30
. . . 36
. . . 46
. . . 47
. . 57
. . . 58
. . . 62
. . . 67
. . . 70
. . . 74
The ear receives its sip
of water drink
ripples of silver cicada
and the skin stretches tight to my fingertips
and the dewdrops form bells
and the silver shatters like glass
as you begin your whisper
first like soft shak-shak
then jumbie-bead rattle
then snakes in the garden of eden
all evening all evening of glitter
and the stamp on the foot of the ground
and the shaker: rasp
of the calabash seed in it belly a hampa:
ta ti ta ta and a pan-
ther of breath in the forest of sound
and a dancer
it is the ripple of the song from blue
it is the gurgle pigeon green the woo dove coo
it is your breathing listening the splendour
it is your breathing waking up the world
The drummer is thin and has been
a failure at every trade but this
but here he is the king of the
cats it is he who kills them
. sick sad and subtle .
from his throne of skin and symbol
he controls the jumping rumble
using simple skock and cymbal
a trick or two that leaves you
ing and reveals that perfect quattrocento patt.
er.ning. gi.otto. ghir.landai.o chan.o po.zo. klook
(for Melba Liston)
Music will never fly out of your green horn in squares
nor out of your harps nor out of your thumb pianos
because it does not grow on cotton wool plantations
it is not manufactured good nor made of metal neither
it can never go straight up to heaven
clambering up its notes from a ladder in the sky
for it curls like your hair around its alabama root, circles
like fishwater around your children's sticks
has deep watery eyes like a sea lion has clear fiery eyes like the hawk
it sees through stone and dynamites itself in quarries
of deep bone bringing our riddim home
it is the blue lagoon inside your slide trombone
it is the echo not the rock that does
it is the reggae reggae riddim dat explodes the prison burns the clock
(for Marjorie Whylie)
It is strange how your hands your fingers
your thumbprints and the palms of your hands
have become a flight of twitters
the left hand of violin sparrows
the pianist hopping like blackbirds
the drummer & dragon gunpowder fists in its power
when the tambourine rustles from grasses of silence
how high is the high that that butterfly can fly
when the picolo speaks why the fire
but the crab cracked hands of the gabriel trumpeter
golden & talon
burning his wheels at the height of his talent
And miles & miles & miles &
He grows dizzy
the sun blares
only the brass
of him own mood
if he could fly
he would be
he would see
how the land
how the fields
how the houses fit into the valleys
he would see cloud
lying on water
moving like the hulls
of great ships over the land
but he is only a
he reaches to the sky
with his eyes
closed his neck
imagination topples through the sunlight like a shining stone
Edward Kamau Brathwaite
University of the West Indies
Mona, St. Andrew, Jamaica
LUIS RAFAEL SANCHEZ: Counterpoints
(Luis Rafael Sanchez is a Puerto Rican writer
known for his varied production in a number of gen-
res. He first gained recognition in the 1960s as a
playwright, and his collection of short stories, En
cuerpo de camisa (In Shirtsleeves),1 appeared at that
time as well. Sanchez has written numerous essays
on the Puerto Rican cultural scene, and he achieved
international attention when his novel, La guaracha
del Macho Camacho (Macho Camacho's Beat), appeared in
1976. The novel has since been translated into
English and Portuguese. Sanchez's essay "La guagua
aerea" ("The Airbus") was recently published in The
Village Voice in a translation by Diana V61lez, who
is also working on a collection of Sanchez stories
in translation to be published by Bilingual Press.
Luis Rafael Sanchez bridges the gap between the
fundamentally realistic Puerto Rican writers of the
1930s, 40s, and 50s such as Tombs Blanco, Emilio S.
Belaval, Jos6 Luis Gonzalez, Ren6 Marques, and Pedro
Juan Soto and a younger generation of writers includ-
ing, among others, Rosario Ferr6, Ana Lydia Vega,
and Manuel Ramos Otero, who view Sanchez as their
most immediate predecessor. He teaches in the
Department of Hispanic Studies at the University of
Puerto Rico and is, without doubt, Puerto Rico's
best Known and most celebrated contemporary writer.)
Susan Homar: Let's start out by talking about your
projects, projects you've mentioned before and that are
soon to be published. When is La importancia de llaniarse
Daniel Santos [The Importance of Being Called Daniel San-
tos] coming out? What's happened to Kindergarten? What's
going to become of Hacia una poetica de lo soez TTowards
a Poetics of the Debased] ?
Luis Rafael Sanchez: The first thing I want to say is
that Hemmingway rightly stated that no writer should
teach at a university. I agree with him. Academe, the
university, is the place that gives prestige to the exact,
the correct. And I believe that literature is exactly
the opposite. I've always felt a conflict between correct--
ing and teaching and preparing myself for those classes
where there has to be an order, a presentation of the
ideas of an author by the professor, et cetera. The
professor is almost naturally the defender of the author.
In the university classroom, a debate takes place where
someone has to assume the voice of the author, and that
is the professor. In a way, one becomes a defender in
every class, the author's counsel, and the students are
the dissenting witnesses.
Academe and the classroom propose the idea of correct-
ness, of the verifiable, of immaculate expression, while
literature is the vulnerability of correctness, the break-
ing of the norm, the defense of that which is preposterous
SH: How do you work? On many things at the same time?
To be able to write a novel, do you need a sabbatical or
can you dedicate yourself to big projects during the
LRS: How to organize Lime? While I teach, even with the
very special schedule I have, it's difficult to plan time
for writing. So the works are short, sketches or ideas.
The greater bulk of the xork is left for the large blocks
of time that almost never come.
What do I do? Work on small pieces, fragments maybe,
in a piece-meal fashion: an article here, a lecture
there--things you can do with talent and without the
commitment--that great devouring passion to which you
must give in--that a novel demands.
I have discovered that plays are easier to write
than novels if the writer has a certain verbal facility,
a certain capacity for the colloquial, an ear for the
secret cadences of the spoken word. A play can be written
with more ease than the novel. Because of all this, my
projects in the last few years, since the publication of
Macho Camacho's Beat [197A], have become more sporadic
SH: What happens to a writer after he has a major success
such as Macho Camacho's Beat?
LRS: In the first place, in a context as limited as ours,
success extracts a terrible price. But I have been
preparing two long projects. The one on Daniel Santos
is a project I finished some time ago, an attempt to
write an invented biography of the popular singer.
SH: Have you met him?
LRS: I haven't wanted to meet him. I've reinvented him
based on what I've heard about him or what people think
he's like; I've written to many friends in Venezuela,
Panama, Colombia; I've visited dives and pleasure palaces
in Caracas, in Cali, in Bogota, in Quito, where some of
the action takes place.
It's not no' 1, it's an essay with narration--what
I call a counterpoint of essay and narrative. I ponder
machismo, the bohemian world, disorderliness, the lavish
expenditure of our own lives, the waste of time in our
underdeveloped societies, the useless rhetoric. The book
will be out on the streets shortly.
Kindergarten is a theatre piece of an experimental
nature dedicated to Pavarotti, Marilyn Horne,and Joan
Sutherland, who indirectly suggested its theme and plot.
I watched a TV program of a concert sung by the three
sometime in 1982. I was surprised by the power and
force that some arias retain even when they are separated
from their original context. I decided to use that form
and write a piece based on arias. The work is a little
bit hysterical--there's nothing realistic about it, it's
insane--and I've had a wonderful time writing it.
And that's what I'm doing. You asked me about Hacia
una po6tica de lo soez. The text is ready, but it's only
45 pages long, and it doesn't fit anywhere. It should go
with two other essays. I have recently thought about a
short work on Iris Chac6n [a Puerto Rican vedette and sex
symbol] called "La Chac6n, oferta de una er6tica nacio-
nal" [La Chac6n, Offering of a National Eroticism] which
I wrote about five years ago. I thought that perhaps
Hacia una LpCtica de lo soez, "La ChacC- A. "other
thirty or forty-page-long text could comprise a book.
SH: What about Nuevas canciones festival para ser llo-
radas [New Festive Songs for Crying]?
LRS: The Nuevas Canciones is the outcome of a series of
essays published in Claridad [a weekly political news-
papeil and of some lectures given at American and European
universities, and it's about to be printed.
SH: As a Caribbean writer, of necessity you exist on the
Order or margin between the first and third worlds.
Given these parameters, how do you define yourself and
your work in ideological terms? I would also like you
to talk about problems which are pervasive for Caribbean
writers working in English or French: the problems of
an audience, of publication, of editors, of translations.
LRS: Our problems are not so dramatic as those of the
Haitian novelist, for example: not knowing where to
publish, who is the audience, or what is the real scope
of an artistic project.
We do not have a problem with the lack of a reading
public, though I think we over-estimate the number of
Puerto Rican readers, which is really very small; to
the point that in Puerto Rico, a text, a novel, that
sells a thousand copies is a great success, a national
The problem is the way in which our texts reach our
neighbors in the Caribbean. I think there hasn't been
a way of resolving it up to now; we don't have many
readers in the English-speaking Caribbean and even fewer
in the French.
Pursuing that theme a little further, every day I'm
more convinced that if oie is firmly planted in his
own world, the work necessarily appeals to a greater
number of people. In that sense, I want to profit from
my Caribbean self and incorporateit into my literature,
hoping to give testimony to who and what I am. I
want to speak of our contradictions, our character--a
bit anarchic, but valuable--of our somewhat different
sense of responsibility, of our sensuality--things
that in many ways separate us from those countries in
which the Judeo-Christian tradition is sovereign.
Our lack of communication is not limited to the
French or English-speaking Caribbean. Our ignorance
about the Dominican Republic's literature is astonishing,
unless the text comes via a Spanish publisher, as is
the case of the novelist Pedro Verg6s.
In the Caribbean, we are willingly colonized--and
fatally fragmented--by the cultural points of view of
our 'arious metropolises. We have even accepted as
11.Frico ,hat has already been dubbed sacred in Mexico
or Madrid or B 'enos Aires. We haven't been able to
understand wl:at is extraordinary in Dominican literature
because of that. In this sense, I think that a Puerto
Rican writer is more familiar with the depth and breadth
of Mexican literature than with the Dominican, even though
we're closer to the Dominican Republic. I believe that
within the realm of Spanish-speaking America there are
established centers of prestige that have also turned
into colonizers of our culture, taste, and sensibility.
SH: What writers do you most enjoy reading and what
other writer or writers do you see as most important
to youi iterary development t?
LRS: In every period of vour life there's a different
favorite writer or group or writers, and in most cases,
they get left behind with time. By the end of the
fifties, the works of Jean Pa._ rtre arrived in Puerto
Rico via Editorial Losada of Argentina. Besides [Fede-
rico]Garcia Lorca, wh. was sort of an obligation because
of his myth, because he was a victim of the Spanish
Civil War, and because his death definitively made him
a huge writer, Sartre was the first writer who really
moved me. In his book What is Literature? he proposed
some things I hadn't understood yet.
The positi n of the Puerto Rican writer always
seemed to me to be one of conflict, especially in the
years -en Rene Marqu6s represented an oppressive para-
digm, an^ we %ought the only alternative available to
any Puerto Rican writer was to talk about nationalism,
work with nationalism, and propose a type of epic
literature where nationalism or the nationalist idea
appeared like the great idea, the necessary idea for
In those years I discovered Sartre, and his famous
essay What is Literature? influenced some of my early
nal itives--pieces that I now despise. They were
wricten based on th- idea of the committed writer, a
commitment I now feel was a little bit artificial and
perhaps improvised. It wasn't even a matter of
restating the relationship between the artist and his
society, or the need to sustain, defend, and endorse
Puerto Rican culture at all costs. At least, that's how
I feel now.
In those years, I also discovered James Baldwin
through his enlightening essay The Fire Next Time,
which I transposed to apply to our situation. It consists
of two letters, one on the centennial of the Abolition
of Slavery and the second, "Letter From a Region of My
Mind,"written to his nephew. After that, Baldwin turned
into an obsession and I started reading Another Country,
Go Tell It on the Mountain, and his plays The Amen Corner
and Blues for Mr. Charlie.
I found in them a very strong correspondence between
the situation of Blacks in North American society and
the situation of Puerto Ricans in Puerto Rico; in other
words, a certain permanent humiliation, a certain
offensive treatment of Puerto Ricans in their own native
land--the position of the pariah, the stranger at home.
In those years, I also read a lot of American thea-
tre translated into Spanish, which also came via Argen-
tina--Tennessee Williams, for example. I think that
in these first moments of my creative work, Williams'
influence is so strong because some of his works fit
the Puerto Rican sensibility very well. All these
plays about Southern belles such as Alma in Summer and
Smoke or Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire--
those partially defeated yet beautiful heroines, laden
with poetry--appealed to our taste, enthusiastic about
flowery, metaphorical, and exasperatingly lyrical lan-
guage as we Latin American writers were.
In Spanish literature, I can perhaps think of Camilo
Jos6 Cela, who had achieved great success with The Family
of Pascual Duarte. And everything he published--La
Catira, Lazarillo de ciegos caminantes, his travel Fooks
--Iread enthusiastically, even though I recognized that
his rich and incisive language eluded me at times
because it was so rigorously regional. I even thought,
paraphrasing George Bernard Shaw, that Spain and Latin
America are two spaces separated by the same language.
It's a linguistic phenomenon in which a language,
although shared, can also separate. Nevertheless, it's
a risk writers take, and one whicn I myself have taken
in my later pieces where I have wanted .to work out,
along with the standard Spanish language, a language
that is our own, our Puerto Rican language.
SH: Are there other writers?
LRS: There is always the permanent model of [Ram6n dej
Valle-InclAn, who is a writer I started reading very
early in my life. When I was seventeen or eighteen I
had a theater group called Teatro Experimental Acosta,
and I looked everywhere for one-act plays. T remember
that some of the first we looked at were those
included in his book Retablo de la avaricia, la lujuria
y la muerte. I then started to get acquainted with all
of Valle-Inclin's one-act pieces: "La cabeza del Bautis-
ta," "La rosa de papel," "Ligaz6n." Looking for one-act
plays I found in Valle-Incldn a writer who wbuld remain
one of my favorites.
SH: And that isn't the case with Sartre?
LRS: What happened with Sartre was that after reading
What is Literature?, Nausea, and the stories of The Age
of Reason, I read the series of novels originally called
Les chemins de la liberty. These were terribly weak and
boring, I was disillusioned with Sartre. Much later, in
the mid-1970s, I read and admired his unforgettable work
It's curious that while I talK to you about these
writers, I haven't pointed out--aside from Baldwin and
Tennessee Williams-- any other North American writers.
I think that the relation of Puerto Ricans to American
literature is very special and different from that of
other Latin American writers who enthusiastically talk
about Hemmingway or Faulkner. Here in Puerto Rico there
was always a resistance to reading in English, a discom-
fort. To the point that when Nilita Vient6s Gaston ran
influential journal editor and cultural figure] published
her book on Henry James, it seemed baffling. Why talk
about an Anglo-Saxon writer? In fact, my relationship
with the North American writers that I liked was that of
a secret and enjoyable infidelity. For example, my
passion for reading Carson McCullers, whose book The
Heart is a Lonely Hunter was a moving experience, or
another writer not well knoin here, Flannery O'Connor,
author of A Good Man is Hard co Find, a book that strikes
like a slap in the face.
Looking back, I suspect that the writers I liked
were those like O'Connor or Cela whose texts are sustain-
ed by the infusion of colloquial language, of the con-
tinuous and musical dialogue of characters' voices. But
why the resistance to literature in English?
The resistance to English, tne fear of English, has
made us bad readers of English literature because of our
fear of contaminating the Spanish language, of losing
it in the avalanche of North American influence.
Later, in the seventies, I started reading literature
in English that excited my curiosity and imagination. I
like a writer such as Truman Capote who is not exactly
first class, but who is willing to take risks--not the
Capote of Breakfast at Tiffany's but the one of In Cold
I also like Norman Mailer; I like his capacity for
creating all kinds of literature. I like his idea that
literature is written for now because that represents
animmediate commitment: that cf a .lyzing something
at the risk of producing a hasty, i -ejudicial account
that may no longer be interesting five years from now.
There are things that have to be done right now.
Mailer will comment on the Muhammad Ali fight in
Zaire, on Puerto Rican graffiti on the subway walls in
New York, or he can write a beautiful book on Marilyn
Monroe--a kind of invented biography He is, perhaps,
the most lively and alert contemporary American writer.
Of course, that liveliness, that force, that enthusiasm
for reflecting upon everything while it's going on,
could affect the so-called permanence of his works.
But, as Sartre states so well in What is Literature?,
one writes to express an opinion about the present, to
fight the suffering of the present, to cast a bit of
light upon the life we've been given, our only oppor-
tunity on earth, as the Buendias [in Gabriel Garcia
Mgrquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude] discover too
Every success paradoxically contains the seed of
its failure or destruction, and Mailer--a successful,
recognized, respected, and very well-paid writer--cannot
escape this punishment. In a society like North America,
success becomes another pressure, perhaps the greatest
pressure, and leads to William Inge's suicide or the
galloping neuroses of Marilyn Monroe and J. D. Salinger.
In our consumer societies where literature has
become an industry and has lost the quality of being
a noble, honest, and sincere artistic expression, that
is the price, and the price is terrible. I suspect
that this price has haunted some contemporary Latin
American writers as well: such are the cases of Garcia
Marquez, [Mario] Vargas Llosa, and Carlos Fuentes. Fame
and prestige place greater demands on the writer than
SH: What Latin American writers interest you?
LRS: I've always had an extraordinary affinity with
Vargas Llosa. It may be because he's my own age, and
because he represents an extraordinary literary case
study. As he recently said, he lives in a faithful
married relationship with literature. Nearly all
writers relate to literature as if it were a mistress
one sees from time to time. His faithfulness to and
enthusiasm for literature have always fascinated me.
The first writer I encountered of that great group
of Latin American ["boom"] writers was not Mario Vargas
Llosa. It was before the "boom" was known international
ly--around 1967, the year Garcia Marquez published One-
Hundred Years of Solitude and tne year I would say the
"boom" really began to crystallize. (Also, I think the
"boom" as such came to an end with the publication of
The Autumn of the Patriarch in 1975.)
ITnat tirst encounter] was with Gabriel Garcia
Marquez. In 1962, I took a course at Columbia Univer-
sity called Contemporary Latin American Narrative
with Professor Hugo Rodriguez Alcala. It is fascinating
that back in 1962 it was Alejo Carpentier and El acoso,
Silvina Bullrich and Un moment muy largo, and Eduardo
Mallea and Fiesta en Noviembre who stood out in Latin
American literature. There was another writer about whom
the professor said, "This is the surprise. I want you
to read this writer, he's a new writer. It's an extra-
ordinary, strange book. I want you to read it." We
read No One Writes to the Colonel. I remember that the
text impressed me extraordinarily.
I read Garcia Mirquez again in Madrid in 1964.
I was buying books in a bookstore on 14 Fernando Fe in
Puerta del Sol. Isabel Yetano said to me, "There's a
booK everyone's talking about, you have to buy it."
That was a real discovery for me, a discovery of
quality and unbounded imagination.
SH: What struck you as so special?
LRS: Remember that Puerto Rican literature always
experienced a kind of shortcoming because there was a
moral obligation to write realistically, to dramatize
our struggle for independence--our colonial drama. If
this was ignored, it became a faulty literature .which
should be punished with oblivion. Imaginative literature
was practically disqualified. For example, when Emilio
S. Belaval published his Cuentos de la plaza fuerte,
which is a delirious book, it went unnoticed, it only had
one very short review, a very enthusiastic one I did for
the magazine Asomante. That book didn't fit into the
celebrated tradition of Puerto Rican literature since it
didn't deal with the prestigious, the so-called "solvent"
themes of the moral order.
When 1 read those writers who had solved the political
dilemma by making a day-to-day commitment to the
destiny of our continent while leaving the literary space
open for the free play of their imaginations, I realized
that that was the responsible solution.
This is especially Garcia Mdrquez's case, for whom
politics has definitively always been part of his
literature, though integrated into the world of unbounded
imagination. Specifically I'm referring to The Autumn of
the Patriarch, which I think is one of the most amazing
denunciations of the survival of dictatorships and their
brazen support by Washington.
I always appreciated [Jorge Luis] Borges because he
seems to be a word magician, a man who has parodied all
the great falsehoods, the apocryphal in literature.
In [Julio] Cortazar's case, I like his stories. The
best Cortazar is the story writer. His novels, I believe,
are uneven works, with the honorable exception of Hop-
scutch. In his short stories he has the ability of
combining everyday life with the fantastic, of having the
fantastic spring from daily life.
I think that gives you more or less a general idea,
of my likes and dislikes, but then again you didn't
exactly ask me for a shopping list. I don't know whether
you are aware of the fact that I haven't mentioned many
Spanish writers. After we became aware of the splendor
of Latin American literature, the Spanish writers di-
minished to the production of a minor literature, a
tired, localist literature, as Ruben Dario would say.
But I like Juan Marse very much, especially his last
novels Tardes con Teresa and Si te dicen que cal. I
like some of [Juan] Goytisolo's experiments such as
Reinvidicaci6n del Conde don Julian.
What other writers do I like? Yokio Mishima, Robert
Musil, [V. S. ] Naipaul, [Alberto] Moravia.
What writers don't I like any more?--that's another
thing I didn't say. Garcia Lorca, who I really liked
at the end of the 1950s and who I considered the highest
possible literary expression, I read him now and find
him very puerile, unacceptable. I dislike the phony union
of verse and prose and the brilliant metaphor that
paralyzes theatrical action. I dislike such drunkenness
I enjoy going back to writers of the past like
Balzac, P&rez Gald6s, and Cervantes more everyday.
Maybe that's because I believe that their novels offer
such complex plots.
I also like the fact that none of them tried to be
a great writer; they became great writers in spite of
themselves. Those writers, who apparently have been
passed over by all the new techniques, the levels of
reading interpretation and the gobbledygook of semiotics,
are healthy for any writer who still feels the need to
tell a story.
University of Puerto Rico
Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico
Translation by AileeneAlvarez
1. Translations for Sanchez's works, whether published
in English-language translations or not, are provided
in the text. When titles mentioned in the interview
have been published in readily-accessible English-
language editions, reference is made only to the
English-language titles. Other references remain
Luis Rafael Sanchez and Norman Mailer:
Puerto Rico and the United States as Heard on the Radio
With the development of television in the late 1940s and early
1950s, radio narratives lost the dominance over radio programming
that they had enjoyed during the previous decades. Radio then
turned to music broadcasting as the focus of its entertainment
offerings. The emerging broadcast format, although not a narra-
tive structure, offers an. organizational structure that has had
considerable impact on.recent literary production. The.'music
format of radio broadcasting that has predominated since the late
fifties is one structured around the disc jockey, an anchor figure
who provides light chatter and information between mi sical selec-
tions. D. j.s, as they are known, have often benr described as
"the ones who tie it all together," their function oeing that of
providing a linking text. This text is characterized by the fast-
paced and aggressive use of a language that -expresses the energy
and movement embodied .in"modern popular music and in \he.young
audiences for whom these broadcasts are intended. This language
has a quality of assault that conveys force and personality
through mocking and irreverent monologues.
The literary possibilities of the d.j. as 'a media figure
capable of creating a text which links different realities have
been explored in two recent novels: Norman Mai -r's Ihy Are We
in Vietnam? (1967) and .Luis Rafael Sanchez's La guaracha- el
Macho Camacho (1976; Macho Camacho's Beat).1 works that parody the
music format of radio-broadcasting in order to analyze the dia-
lectical tensions existing between various interacting social
elements. In Mailer's work, the analytical process is-aided by
the anti-establishment, anti-war message of d.j.s and the music
of the 1960s. Sanchez, in turn, uses his perception of Puerto
Rican society as one totally absorbed by the media as thee means
of creating a text which forces the reader to confront this media-
dependency and its impact.
Why Are We in Vietnam? is structured like a program put out
by a self-styled disc jockey. The "Intro-Beep" chapters,
narrated by a Harlem hippie named D. J., are used ,tointroduce
and comment on the narrative chapters with which they alternate.
These chapters tell the'story of a hunting trip undertaken by-a
Texas teenager (also named D. J.), his friend Tex, his father
Rusty, and some of the latter's business associates. La guaracho
del Macho Camacho follows an almost identical structure. As in
Mailer's work, the voice of the d. j. serves as a link between
chapters. The long-winded introduction to Camacho's song alter-
nates with the voices of characters caught in a traffic jam. The
structural and thematic link between these characters is the voice
of the d. j. Not only are the structures of both works similar,
but the conceptual frameworks of both novels (the hunting trip in
Mailer, the traffic jam in Sanchez) are meant to work as symbols
of the ills that plague their respective societies.
In Why Are We in Vietnam? the hunting trip and the observations
of animal relations that it prompts can very well be seen as a
parallel to the war in Vietnam. The hunt itself, being firmly
based on the technological superiority of the hunters, offers
opportunities for such a comparison. The effect of this technol-
ogy on the animals (their conduct no longer in keeping with
natural laws) creates a climate of guerrilla warfare similar to
the one encountered by American forces in Vietnam. The predatory
cruelty of the eagle and the bear, national symbols of the United
States and the Soviet Union, could also point to this connection.
But, however valid, the drawing of these parallels mechanizes
rather than enlightens the view of America offered by Mailer, and
the hunt remains the more effective metaphor of the moral illness
that led to Vietnam. The author implies that the same forces which
motivate these hunters to kill are responsible for the country's
aggressiveness overseas. It is in this context that the hunt as
a means of advancing within the corporate structure (as it is for
Rusty and his associates) becomes relevant. It serves to
question both the source and nature of power in America. Rusty
and company emerge as travesties of creative energy. Caught as
they are in the world of corporate competitiveness, they have no
outlet for their aggressiveness other than murder. Thus it becomes
essential for Rusty to kill a bear because failure could spell
disaster for his corporate status,
As the hunt in Mailer becomes emblematic of military aggresr
siveness, so the traffic jam in Sanchez's novel becomes a metaphor
for the effects of colonialism on Puerto Rican society. As the
oft-quoted passages state,
aqui en Puerto Rico, colonia sucesiva de
dos imperios e isla del archipi6lago.de las
Antillas  . miercoles hoy, tarde de
mi-rcoles hoy, cinco pasado meridiano de mi6r-
coles hoy . el senador Vicente Reinosa 
. esti atrapado, apresado, agarrado por un
tap6n fenomenal como la vida made in Puerto Rico,
muestra agil el tap6n de la capacidad criolla
para el atolladero  . .
(here in Puerto Rico, the successive colony
of two empires and an island in the archi-
pelago of the Antilles 15] . today
Wednesday five post meridian . . Senator
Vicente Reinosa  . is tied up, held up,
caught up in a traffic jam as phenomenal as
life, Made in Puerto Rico, the tie-up is an
active sample of the Latin American capacity
for obstruction 117] . .)
The entrapment Sanchez suggests is emphasized by the entrapment in
time of the characters of the novel. If it is true that they are
trapped in a traffic jam, it is also true that they are trapped
within the d.j.'s monologue --caught in the minutes that elapse
between the d.j.'s announcement of the guaracha and its playing
time. The paralysis im lied by the traffic jam is reinforced by
the paralysis in time, by the characters'and the plot's inability
to move beyond five o'clock on a Wednesday afternoon.
The effectiveness of the conceptual metaphor rests on the
voice of the narrator. In Mailerls work, this voice can conjure
all the,available speech levels of America, from the voices of
the Deep South to the pedantic language of intellectuals to the
obscenities and characteristic syntax of Harlem slang. John W.
Aldridge has identified some of the voices as belonging to a
HellIs Angel, a Harlem hippie,,a small-town southern deputy
sheriff, a drunken revivalist preacher, and a filthy-minded top
sergeant in the Army.L Their combined voices create a voice of
assault, aggressive and mocking, with a hidden, unknowable
identity behind it--a voice which arbitrarily identifies itself
as that of D. J., a rich White Texan adolescent, or D. J., a
crippled Harlem Black dreaming that he is a rich Texan. Its
identifying characteristic is indeed its not being identifiable.
The narrator is no one and everyone because, although he lacks
an identity of his own, he has internalized the hidden compulsions
and power obsessions of American society. On hearing D. J.'s
narrative "one has the disturbing sensation of tuning into many
wavelengths at once,"3
Similarly, in La guaracha del Macho Camacho we have a re-crea-
tion of Puerto Rico!'s social reality through its multiplicity of
languages. Sanchez offers a wide range of characterizations
through the interweaving of the narrators urbane and literate
voice with the linguistic peculiarities of different social
classes. He offers the language of the d. j., upbeat and non-
sensical, the language of advertisements, the language of the
media-besieged slum dwellers, the language of radio, television,
film, andcomic strips, the language of conspicuous consumerism,
the language of popular magazines, the language of the Americanized
bourgeoisie, and the language of political groups. The resulting
linguistic melange is a force which appears to negate the paralysis
implicit in the traffic jam that frames the novel. This paralysis
is counterbalanced by a language that is seemingly vibrant, a
language as upbeat as the rhetoric of the d. j. and the lyrics of
Camacho's song: "La vida es una cosa fenomenal" (Life Is a Phenom-
enal Thing). It is a language full of rhythm, whose pulsating
qualities match the beat of the guaracha:
Lo dijo un hombre hecho y derecho: el pals
no funciona, el pais no funciona, el pais no
funciona; repetido hasta la provocaci6n, repe-
tido como z6jel de guaracha; frente a una luz
roja que era negra porque el semdforo no funcio-
naba, indignado el hombre hecho y derecho, el
est6mago contraido por la indignaci6n, las man-
dibulas rigidas: el pais no funciona. Los
pasajeros inscribieron dos partidos contendien-
tes: uno minoritario de asintientes timidos y
otro vociferante que procedi6 a entonar, con
brio reservado a los himnos nacionales, la
irreprimible guaracha de Macho Camacho, "la
vida es una cosa fenomenal" . . (21)
(It was said by a proper man: the country
doesn't work, the country doesn't work, the
country doesn't work: repeated to the point
of provocation, repeated like the zejel at the
end of a guaracha: facing a red light that was
black because the traffic signal wasn't working,
the proper man indignant, his stomach contracted
with indignation, his mandibles rigid: the
country doesn't work. The passengers signed up
in two opposing parties: one a minority of
timid people in agreement and the other a
vociferous majority who proceed to intone
with a verve reserved for national anthems
Macho Camacho's irrepressible guaracha Life
Is a Phenomenal Thing . ) (11)
Yet the vibrating quality comes not from the language of the
characters but from the narrator's display of linguistic versatility.
The language of the characters, the object of the narrator's ironic
text, is as empty and alienating as the models it copies. It is a
language full of cliches, molded on the rhythmic but repetitious
messages of commercial jingles, popular songs, and magazines--a
language in the process of losing its ability to communicate
"truth" because of its alienation from reality. The empty energy
of this language attempts to mask the weak foundations on which
it rests in the same way as the culture it represents rests on
unsound values taken from a media which offers t.v.'s sex symbol
Iris Chac6n as a social model. Rhythm replaces meaning in the
novel, functioning as a drug which obliterates reality. "La vida
es una cosa fenomenal" (Life Is a Phenomenal Thing) becomes the
national anthem of a population incapable of coming to grips with
the fact that "the country doesn't work."
In Why Are We in Vietnam? we have a similar use of language
as a weapon against paralysis. It is against the impulse towards
stasis that D. J.'s outrageous rhetoric becomes a weapon. The
voice of the Northern Ice, which D. J. and Tex "hear" when they
go to the edge of the mountain, is a voice which negates life and
seems to work through the higher orders of the animal kingdom to
promote the principle of entropy by instilling in them destructive
impulses. As in Sanch6z's work, language becomes the energetic
force in a world moving towards stasis, its energy coming forth
as a barrage of obscenities. Here the linguistic assault is a way
of getting rid of the waste in the American consciousness, "a way 4
of getting rid of blocked aggressions and spiritual constipations": *
Your body, D. J., will inform you, send out a
call to all cell waters; gather here, kiss this
crystal, dissolve its form. Unloose my stasis.
Crystal washes down to glub, glub, glub. Urine
is a pipe running the dissolution of all unheard
messages. That's why people piss like horses
at good parties and bad--they are getting uncouth
oceanic messages from all over the room: come
here I want to fuck you; go there I want to kill
you. Whoo-ee! That bladder gets full of piss.
Therefore, D. J. seeks to avoid all frustration
of impulse in order to test his hypotheses. For
figure thee, Henry, if D. J. makes it through a
day without a single impulse held back, he
should not need to piss a drop. That's
science, dear clients. (153)
D. J.'s compulsive obscenity his obsession with feces and disem-
bowelment, the "lingual bow
subjected, is projected onto America itself. The message appears
to be that "America is powerful, fertile, and thriving, but only
as a weed (or a cancer) is powerful, growing on waste, both
product and procesE; diabolical,"5 The war in Vietnam is seen by
Mailer as an extension of this waste.
Mailer finds the forces that led the country into the Vietnam
War in the world of corporate America, where aggressive competition
goes out of control. D. J.'s satiric monologues in the "Intro-
Beep" chapters reveal the other side of the Vietnam issue--the
opposition to the war found outside corporate structures. This
opposition comes, according to Mailer,.from the perception of the
wagers of the war as anti-Black, anti-poor, anti-women,and anti-
Jew. Attitudes about the war are polarized according to class,
sex, race, and religion with the White male, symbol of corporate
America, as the villain.
It is not surprising, then, that Mailer turns D. J. (the Texas
adolescent) into an agent of death. The novel ends, ironically,
1,!ith a celebration of the imminent departure of Tex and D. J. for
Vietnam (this being the only direct reference to the war in the
novel). D. J., the rich White Texan, becomes part of the war
which D. J., the Harlem nippie, repudiates.
Vietnam is only a marginal issue in Sanchez's work, although
not an unimportant one in a novel that attempts a portrait of the
political, class, and social contradictions existing between the
Americanized upper classes and the mediabombarded lower classes.
The class polari-ation in the novel reflects the irreconcilable
forces which operate in a society where political colonization
has led to cultural colonization. Support for the Vietnam war,
in this context, becomes a symbol of collusion with the colonial
The class polarization is matched in the novel by linguistic
polarization: we are shown two social classes with their corres-
ponding languages. The language of the guaracha, that of the
have-nots, of whom the Senatorls lover is representative, is
modeled on the offerings of the iass media, These media also mold
zAprendi6 el dulce encanto del fingimiento
de los manerismos repercutidos del gran-
dioso teleculebron "El hijo de Angela Maria"
que convirti6 en melaza el coraz6n isleflo?
. 1Aprendi6 que la vida es una cosa fe-
nomenal de la mismisima guaracha de Macho
Camacho? arrasadora consigna, incitadora al
permanent fiesteo, evang6lica oda al conten-
to y al contentamiento . .. (23)
(Did she learn the sweet charm of pretense
from the mannerisms that reverberate out of
the magnificent snake-long soap opera The
Son of Angela Maria that had turned the
island's heart to honey? . Did she
indeed learn that life is a phenomenal thing
from Macho Camacho's guaracha?, a slogan
that sweeps everything along, inciting to
permanent partying, an evangelical ode to
happy happenstance . .) (13)
The upper classes reject the guaracha, thereby rejecting
contact with a language (and its people). The Senator feels the
guaracha on him like a taint:
La guaracha del Macho Camacho, su furor
vulgar, lo ha maculado, contaminado, aso-
lado: altito o bajito, poquito o muchito,
la guaracha: tiara de la ordinarez, pei-
neta de la broza, estandarte de la tuza,
se ha posado en sus labios. (151)
(Macho Camacho's guaracha, its vulgar furor
has tainted him, contaminated him, laid him
waste: high o loi, a little or a lot, the
guaracha: a tiara of vulgarity, a headdress
of trash, a banner of tie rabble, has
alighted on his lips.) (122)
This rejection is already evident in their language, which eschews
vulgarity, strives to be exquisite, and reflects an elegant reality
bought on credit. It is also a language full of anglicisms and
modeled on a foreign society. Vicente's language reflects his
colonized mentality and attitudes. His frequent slips into English
and his sexual exploitation of lower-class women go hand in hand
with his support of the Vietnam War and his pro-American stand
(he calls Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson "los padres de la
patria"). The lower classes, as Sanchez points out, suffer the
effects of this political sta.d.
It is not surprising, then, that this political attitude
among the upper classes prompts a predilection for foreign
literature and a rejection of any literature that reflects the
reality of the Puerto Rican working classes:
. hace tiempo que quiere meterle el
diente a algo de Enrique Laguerre o algo
de Ren6 Marques: tambien los del patio
son hijos de Dios; objetiva, democratic,
bien maquillada: si los del patio no fue-
ran pesimistas y dramosos: dale con el
arrabal, dale con la independencia de
Puerto Rico, dale con los personajes que
sudan; todo lo que se describe debe ser fino
y elevado, la literature debe ser fina y
elevada . .. (109)
(. . for some time she's wanted to sink
her teeth into something by Enrique
Laguerre or Ren6 Marqu6s: people in our own
backyard are God's children too: objective,
democratic, well put together: if the
backyard people weren't so pessimistic and
tragical: forget slums, forget Puerto Rican
independence, forget characters who sweat:
everything that's written should be refined
and elevated, literature should be refined
and elevated.) (86)
Passages such as this are aimed at showing the polarized
forces in Puerto Rican society. The linguistic polarization
emphasizes the economic and social polarization. It reflects
patterns of exploitation that in the novel are linked to sexual-
ity. The Catholic, middle-class morality perceived by Manuel
Puig in Boquitas pintadas (Painted Lips) as a social evil is
satirized here in the asexual, puritanical attitudes of Graciela
Alcdntara de Montefrio. For the lower classes, however, sexuality
has become a marketable commodity on which they must rely (how-
ever exploitative) in order to satisfy the desires created by the
media and the proliferation of life on credit. The Senator's
lover sees her sexual services as a means to an end: the dinette
set advertised by a local furniture store and the vedette costume
she will need to emulate Iris Chac6n. The resulting sexual and
economic exploitation is another example of the bottled-up
society Sanchez is portraying.
It does not come as a surprise, then, that Sanchez's upper-
class teenager--Benny--will, like D. J. and Tex in Mailer's novel,
become an agent of death. Benny's efforts to extricate himself
and his Ferrari from the colonial traffic jam results in the death
of China's son, one final indictment of the upper classes' literal
and metaphorical "squashing" of the lower classes.
One last point of affinity between these two works should be
mentioned. Both novels underscore their assessment of their
respective societies through the systematic use of humor. Sanchez's
humor stems from a rupture in the system of rational links provided
by language. The juxtaposition of the narrator's sophisticated,
debonair language and the linguistic idiosyncracies of his charac-
ters creates an incongruous text where styles and realities are
mixed with comic results. Mailer's humor is predominantly perverse
humor (often called black humor), relying on scatological and
sexual jokes, and on gruesome portraits of destruction. The novel
displays Mailer's gift (which is also Sanchez's gift) for extravagant
off-color rhetoric, which comes forth in a "swift flow of puns,
verbal play, insinuation, and obscure allusion to the artifacts
of contemporary life."6
If we are to judge by the works discussed above, the use of
the music format of radio leads to works whose primary goal is the
depiction of society through its languages. This may be explained
by the fact that the d.j., the central anchor figure used by both
Mailer and Sanchez, is a media presence whose reality for the
audience is purely linguistic. It is also a figure that ties
realities together, serving as a link between voices that show the
linguistic spectrum of society. It is undeniable that the d.j.'s
ability to link or connect is his primary function in these works:
he becomes the voice that ties the narrative together in Mailer
and offers the unifying element in Sanchez.
Herbert H. Lehman College
City University of New York
1. Norman Mailer, Why Are We in Vietnam? (New York: G. P.
Putnam, 1967); Luis Rafael Sanchez, La guaracha del Macho
Camacho (Buenos Aires: Ediciones de la Flor, 1976); also
see Macho Camacho's Beat, trans. by Gregory Rabassa (New
York: Random House, 1980). All subsequent references
are made to these editions and appear in the text.
2. "From Vietnam to Obscenity" in Norman Mailer: The Man and
His Work, ed. Robert Lucid (Boston: Little, Brown and Co.,
1971) p. 184.
3. Tony Tanner, "On the Parapet," Critical Quarterly 12,
(1970) p. 175.
4. "From Vietnam to Obscenity," p. 191.
5. Andrew Gordon, "Why Are We in Vietnam?: Deep in the Bowels
of Texas," Literature and Psychology 24 (1976) p. 62.
6. Allen Guttman, "Jewish Humor," in The Comic Imagination
in America, ed. Louis D. Rubin (New Brunswick, New Jersey:
Rutgers University Press, 1973) p. 337.
Sunset At Hastings, Barbados
Suppose that there was splendor, or bliss,
suppose that there was glory,
and that we could really know
what any of it was;
then perhaps the glory
--or the splendor, or the bliss --
of what's happening in Mr. Marshall's head
as he sits on his balcony there
watching the sunset
and reading the sunday paper,
and in my head
as I sit on my balcony here
drinking in all this,
is that we each know
as much as we each know
about what we are doing.
And if there were no glory,
or no splendor or no bliss,
then this old wrinkly woman
randomly draped in her rags,
le'wning on a stick
and herding her three goats
along the beach
is going to her shelter
and her food,
and this white lily
in the vase by the window
will rot in a few more days,
and the left side
of that bikiniec female
is softer, not as chewy
as the right,
and when Mrs. Green in the grocery
refuses Alfonzo a bottle of rum on credit,
'Fonzo will find that
the vision of the world that he sees
when he goes to work sober
and the vision of the world that he sees
when he goes to work drunk
are both exactly, mundanely, the same,
- although there may most certainly be more
to all of this than we can ever know.
But in any case
I especially like it in the afternoons here
when the sun smolders slowly in the sky
above these balconies,
purple and pale gold and streaks of scarlet,
and the weak sunlight falls wanly on
the whole scene with me and Mr. Marshall here
For then the sea seems to burn
with this benign divine fire
something soothing in it all
moves me to song.
Excerpt from: "The Whole Caboodle'
This business of being black
is strictly for the birds.
This isn't meant to nullify
the embarrassing savagery of how we snatched
my old ancestor Cudjoe from a plain in Africa
and stuffed him and all the others in a hold
stinking with horror
and the sweet release of death and dragged his butt
off to America to be bought and sold like cattle.
You know the rest: how for all those
hundreds and hundreds of years,
and long after they abolished slavery,
he served Massa while they kept him bottled up
in Harlem or Barbados or Belmont
with a little bit of money
and a great big tot of rum
and a whole lot of Sweet Jesus and sweet talk
about crossing Jordan to the Promised Land.
But in one sense
none of that is nowhere half as bad
as what these brutish Caribs did
to my Arawak ancestor Anacoa
when they raided her village,
came shrieking in a frenzy through the huts:
they murdered her mother and her father
and all her older brothers who could fight
and all the ugly women whom they didn't want,
but kept Ana and the others for their lust.
Then they lopped off her little brothers' nuts
and kept the boys in pens and fattened them up
so that on happy tropic evenings
they could trot one out and butcher him
and gather round the fire and enjoy
stewed or barbecued Arawak boy.
(In fact, when Columbus came ashore in Guadeloupe
he found hot pots still simmnnering Arawak.)
Then, after dinner, they could belch and fart
and chant their drunken chants, smoke magic weed,
then hop in their hammock
and climb on top their Arawak chick and rut.
At least in the case of the Caribs you could claim
that that was just the way it had always been:
to be a stone-age Carib had always meant
that you could go catch and butcher Arawaks
when you were running out of meat,
or wanted women, while the white man's thing
was business pure and simple; rational, multi-national
enterprise performed for gain, expensive women, property.
But people have always enslaved their own people
for one innocuous reason or another;
blacks have had white slaves, and black,
and whites have had white slaves, and black
--it just never had been done
on such a massive, monied, international scale before
that exposed both the savagery of the thing
and the more pragmatic fact, perhaps,
that slavery was bad business:
it simply wasn't making any money.
But, in any case,
all of all of that is secondary
to the calm and profound peace,
or the intense anguished feeling,
master or slave can get from waking up one day
and staring at the ceiling.
You don't have to be a slave
to open up your eyes and feel like Sysiphus,
or to understand Ibbieta's raucous laughter
at the murderous indifference of it all,
or to suffer angst like Dylan's fear of death.
But you don't have to be a Jesus, either,
to understand the Lily-of-the-Valley
or find infinity in a grain of mustard-seed.
The thing is, we begin by being alive
and all the other stuff gets added on;
the black, the white, the pleasure and the pain,
are mainly adjectival. Besides,
we've got good clues that pain is fake:
gurus walk on burning coal, or sleep on spikes,
and my buddy Clemmie used to make his living
dancing in the Caribee Hotel
on burning broken glass without getting cut.
(Don't ask me how he did it. I don't know.
But playing barefoot soccer in the grass next day
he'd gash his foot on broken glass and bleed.)
The pain is only nervous, in the brain,
a vivid warning we can ignore, manipulate
--I mean, ain't it fun
how I can sit down here and cogitate?
For the Spirit can only be enslaved
when it allows itself to be:
every bondman has the power
to cancel his captivity.
Aesop and Epictetus and Terence
and Phillis Wheatley, any slave
who understood the freedom of the Spirit,
knew that you didn't have to bow
because some moron thought he owned your bod.
They knew that they were free
in the same sense that they knew
that Massa didn't know he was a slave
to something else; he thought that he was free.
The thing with being black, or being white,
is that, incredibly, the paint, the skin-
tone takes the blame, or gets the.credit,
often serves to entify the thing
--like calling it a "blackbird," which it ain't,
'cause obviously it goes much deeper than all that.
Only the ens is real: the rest is adjectival.
I feel, I think, I am. It doesn't have
a thing to do with being Blacks or being Kikes
or being Wops: it never was a case of
Cogito, ergo sum Aethiops.
Kevyn Alan Arthur
University of Bridgeport
A Lesson in Tradition; Katherine Ame Porter's '"Holiday"
The narrator of "Holiday," Katherine Afe Porter admits, is
herself, the story "one of my prolonged struggles, not with ques-
tions of form or style, but with my own moral and emotional colli-
sion with a human situation I was too young to cope with at the
time it occurred."1 The narrator, however, reflects more than
Katherine AnnePorter's views: she is Porter's Miranda from her other
short works--a bit. older, wiser,, disillusioned--fleeing from "the troubles
I was having."2 In the story, a young southern woman makes a month
long visit to a southeast Texas swampland farm where a family of
German peasant landowners, the Mullers, hosts her stay. While at the
farm, the girl learns to distrust her traditional, southern ways of
looking at the world. What is family love, what is loyalty, she asks
herself. The Muller family provides her with answers to her questions
but, because of the influence of her past, she is unable to accept
what they say and do. Two worlds, two sets of values, meet and clash,
becoming twisted in the narrator's mind. As for the problems she was
It no longer can matter what kind of troubles they
were, or what finally became of them. It seemed to
me then there was nothing to do but run away from them,
though all my tradition, background, and training had
taught me unanswerably that no one except a coward
ever runs away from anything. What nonsense! They
should have taught me the difference between courage
and foolhardiness, instead of leaving me to find
it out for myself. (CS, p. 407)
Her problems force her away from, "my south, my loved and never-for-
gotten country" (CS, p. 414), and, no matter what they were, she
suggests by thl vehement way in which she dismisses them that they
involve people who have helped her develop a sense of tradition: her
family. Her background and training, one senses, is narrow and
unyielding. It teaches "unanswerably." Try as she might, the narrator
cannot lay aside her southern heritage.
The peaceful atmosphere at the Muller farm calms her. She
likes the voices of the Muller family because she cannot understand
what they are saying. In turn, realizing that she cannot speak their
idiomatic German dialect, the Mullers do not expect her to respond
to what they say:
I loved that silence which means freedom from the
constant pressure of other minds and other opinions
and feelings, that freedom to fold up in quiet and
go back to my own center, to find out again, for it
is always a rediscovery, what kind of a creature it
is that rules me finally, makes all the decisions no
matter who thinks they make them, even I; who little
by little takes everything away except the one thing
I cannot live without and who will one day say 'now
I am all you have left--take me," (CS, p, 413)
Unlike Frankie Adams in Carson McCullers' The Member of the
Wedding, who is looking for the "we of me," this narrator, like
all of Porterls girl and young women characters, is looking for the
"I" of herself. Fatigued by the demands made on them by their fami-
lies to join forces, to cooperate for some connon good or in the
name of some common memory, which may not even be reliable memory,
they seek out opportunities to isolate themselves from others, to
find, for once, the solitary cores of themselves which are 'separate
from their family identities. The narrator's statement about her
freedom in this quotation is a brave one. She denies that anyone
but she makes her decisions, "no matter who thinks they make them."
She demands the right to rule herself and she accepts the respon-
sibility for her self rule.
Despite herself, however, the narrator has incorporated into
her personality the southerner's love of ritual and romance. She
is similar to two other Porter characters, Miranda's Uncle Gabriel
and father Harry in "Old Mortality." These men and the narrator of
"Holiday" both yearn toward a dramatic, and often untrue, interpre-
tation of events. Even her limited knowledge of the German language
is corrupted by romanticism:
All the German I understood then was contained in five
small deadly sentimental songs of Heine's learned by
heart; and this was a very different tongue, Low
German corrupted by three generations in a foreign
country. (p. 413)
That the Low German spoken by the Mullers has been corrupted by
"three generations in a foreign country" is not the only reason
for the narrator's inability to communicate with her hosts. The
"deadly" sentimentality of the German words corresponds with
everything else her southern environment has taught her. Such sen-
timent, this story shows up, prevents her from communicating with
the Mullers far more than does her inability to speak their language.
The narrator's friend, Louise, who arranges her visit to the
Muller farm, is a southern romantic much like the narrator. Porter
describes a version of her in "Old Mortality":
Their hearts and imaginations were captivated by their
past, a past in which worldly considerations played
a very minor role. Their stories were mostly love
stories against a bright blank heavenly blue sky. (CS,
When the narrator arrives at the Mullers, she does not see cuddly
puppies, geese swimming in ponds watennelon patches, and peaches
ripening, things that Louise had led her to expect. Louise has
"something near to genius for making improbable persons, places,
and situations sound attractive" (pp, 407,408), the narrator notes.
The stories that Louise tells "did not turn grim on you until a
little while later" (p. 409). The narrator senses though that more
than Louise's pleasant but false description of the Muller farm
has turned grim on her. Many of the idealistic attitudes that her
southern background has instilled in her have also turned grim.
She is accustomed, however, to southern romantic tradition and she
finds it difficult to accept the Muller family's different approach
One difference between the Mullers' and southern attitudes
concerns family. The Mullers are, as Louise describes them, "a house-
hold in real patriarchal style--the kind of thing you'd hate to
live with but is very nice to visit" (p. 408). This is not like
the families most of Porter's characters have grown up with in the
South. Southern families, as they know them, more often profess to
be centered around a female moral head--an abstract ideal concept
of a pure paragon of strength--that some men enjoy visualizing,
but which, Miranda observes, no woman can quite emulate. In truth,
the myth itself is the core authority in the home, and the men who
construct the myth and who spend their time elaborating on it,
protecting the ideals which the myth represents, become the true
focus of family life.2
The Mullers are different. Sturdy folk, they are red and ruddy
with "taffy-colored hair." They do not resemble the long, lean,
chisel-featured, dark-haired, dark-eyed members of Miranda's
family. The Muller women do not pretend to maintain eighteen-inch
waists. They carry babies on their backs and yokes across their
shoulders on the two ends of which they haul buckets of water. They
appear to the narrator different from herself but united, as if they
"might all be brothers and sisters" (CS, p. 412). Their most impor-
tant possession is not myth but land.
These were solid, practical, hard-bitten, land
holding German peasants, who struck mattocks into
the earth deep and held fast wherever they were,
because to them life and the land were one indi-
visible thing. (CS, p. 413)
The land is in no way romanticized. For the Mullers, it is a place
in which to grow food in order to survive. Even the narrator, who
at first describes the farm as looking "staring and naked," is quick
to adopt the Mullers' attitude toward it. After she has been at the
farm for two or three days, she notices that trees there are budding
and that the orchard is beginning to bloom. She calms down; she is
not so aware of time, of the troubles that have driven her away
from home. As she notes,
I forgot to count the days, they were one like the
other except as the colors of the air changed, deepening
and warming to keep step with the advancing
season, and the earth grew firmer under foot with
the swelling tangle of crowded roots. (CS, p. 418)
She makes both a literal and symbolic return to Ter source, to the
earth, and the secure feeling of firm ground under her feet renews
Members of the Muller family seem never to have lacked this
feeling of security. So deep is their connection to the land and
their family roots, they can even treat their Lutheran faith some-
what casually. Father Muller sees little need to ask--or worse,
pay--for outside heavenly advice:
"What I say iss, it iss all craziness to go to church
and pay a preacher goot money to talk his nonsense.
Say rather that he pay me to come and lissen, then
I vill go!" His eyes glared with sudden fierceness
above his square speckled grey and yellow beard that
sprouted out directly from high cheekbones. "He
thinks, so, that my time maybe costs nothing? That
iss goot! Let him pay me!" (CS, p. 417)
Hard and realistic, Father Muller needs no ritual to fortify himself.
Instead, he concerns himself with the day-to-day problems on his
farm: the planting, the new animals, the harvest. Mother Muller
scoffs softly at her husband because their eldest daughter, Annetje,
wishes to have her fifth child baptized by the church. No one,
however, challenges what he says and Father Muller allows that the
fifth child will be baptized. "You give goot money, he will chrissen...,
You vait and see!" (CS, p. 417)
Father Muller -s just as adamant about his political opinions,
and politics are as close to myth as the Mulleis ever come. At night
he settles into his rocking chair to read Das Kapital. The appearance
of the book suggests that it is read often. The pages are stained, and
even though the cover is made of leather, it is frayed. The pages
are falling apart and many passages of the text have been marked.
Father Muller's faith in Marx is ironic since, as the landowner who
leases out portions of his property to other German peasants set-
tling in the territory, he does not abide by the book's precepts.
The narrator thinks back to her girlhood tradition and recalls that,
"It was not a book one had to read in order to reject it" (CS, p.422).
She remembers vaguely the message of the book: no one shoul~-own
property. Everyone should work for the good of everyone else. Why,
she asks herself, would Father Muller be reading a book like this?
Here was this respectable old farmer whQ accepted
its dogma as a religion--that is to say,. its legendary
inapplicable precepts were just, right, proper, one
must believe in them, of course, but life, everyday
living, -was another and unrelated thing. (CS, p. 422)
This ability of Father Muller's to separate the ideal from the real,
the mythic from the actual, the what-would-be-nice from the this-
has-to-be-done, so alien to her southern tradition, is one which
the narrator cannot understand. Awestruck and frightened by this
quality in Father Muller, the narrator never dares question him
about his politics.
With luck, the narrator might have passed her month in the
Muller home without incident. She is wise enough not to question
either their religious or political beliefs. If she had not become
involved with Otillie, she might have left the farm no different
from the way she came. She might have learned nothing about herself
and the tradition she has grown up in. The narrator first sees
Otillie when she shares an evening's meal with the Mullers shortly
after her arrival at -the farm. As she sits down to the table she notices
A crippled and badly deformed servant girl was
setting down pitches of milk. Her face was so
bowed over it was almost hidden, and her whole
body was maimed in some painful, mysterious way,
probably congenital, I supposed, though she seemed
wiry and tough. Her.knotted hands shook continually,
her wagging head kept pace with her restless elbows.
She ran unsteadily around the table scattering
plates, dodging whoever stood in her way; no one
moved aside for her, or spoke to her, or even
glanced after her when she vanished into the
kitchen. (CS, p. 415)
The narrator wonders vaguely who this pitiful creature is and where
she has come from, but shy from her arrival, she does not question
anyone. What is so pitiful, she decides before the end of the meal,
is that the girl, Otillie--her name, itself, a gasp--seems to belong
Otillie strikes a humanitarian chord in the narrator. She
tries to treat the servant girl as if she were a normal human being,
though the attempts she makes are tentative ones. Once, when Otillie
sets down a dish of lentils, sausage, and chopped cabbage before her
at- dinner time, she turns to her and says, "Thank you." A voice from
behind the table responds matter of factly, "She can't talk." As if
some-explanation were necessary, Hatsy, the youngest Miller daughter,
"That is Otillie. She is not sick now. She is only
like that since she was sick when she was a baby.
But she can work so well as I can. She cooks, But
she cannot talk so you will understand." (CS, p. 420)
Hatsy speaks gently but without pity or compassion in her voice.
When the narrator. looks again at Otillie she sees "water-dashed
blue eyes, the pupils very large and strained with the anxiety of
one peering into a darkness full of danger" (CS, p. 420). The eyes
seem familiar to her, but she cannot remember where she has seen
them before. Perhaps, she thinks, it is only the look of fear which
seems familiar. When the family visits the Turnverian, a recreation
center, Otillie stays at home. When the family talks together, Otillie,
remaining in the background, serves them food in hulking proportions.
When Hatsy marries, Otillie, wearing a "fresh blue apron" (p. 424),
passes food around. When Gretchen's first baby is born, Otillie
The narrator watches all this, convinced of Otillie's sensi-
bility, pained that the girl, according to her way of thinking, should
be treated harshly, ignored by a gentle family. She compares Otillie's
treatment with the way her own family would treat a servant in a
similar situation with lavish but superficial concern. Even Annetje,
the gentlest Muller daughter, who, during a storm, saves the life of
a drowning lamb by rubbing it with rags and pressing water from its
little stomach, treats Otillie with no more kindness than the rest
of the family.
One morning when the men are in the fields and the women are
busy elsewhere in the house, the narrator sees Otillie sitting on
the back steps peeling potatoes. When Otillie catches sight of her,
she moves toward her and by wagging her head and clutching at the
narrator's sleeve, she leads her into a rank-smelling little cubicle
with a bed in it which is apparently hers. From the top drawer of
her dresser, Otillie slips out a picture and hands it to the narrator.
Everything about Otillie's past becomes clear. The picture is of a
bright and smiling little girl with blonde curls wearing a "frilled
frock." The picture is old, dirty, yellowed, and clipped to a piece
of cardboard. Otillie, she suddenly realizes, is the eldest daughter
of Father and Mother Muller. Otillie'makes horrid wagging and slob-
bering motions to indicate that what the narrator is thinking is
true. She pats her own cheek and points at the little girl in the
picture. The narrator, aghast, cannot comprehend how a family could
treat one of its own so indifferently. Her mind reels with the
impact of the information: she feels at once repulsed by Otillie's
life and linked to her through some notion of common suffering.
The bit of cardboard connected her at once somehow
to the world of human beings I knew; for an instant
some filament lighter than cobweb spun itself out
between that living center in her and in me, a
filament from some center that held us all bound
to our inescapable common source, so that her life
and mine were kin, even a part of each other, and
the painfulness and strangeness of her vanished.
(CS, p. 426)
The narrator, humanitarian that she is, is quick to sense her re-
sponsibility for and oneness with Otillie. She cannot, however,
accept what she considers to be the Mullers' ill treatment of the
girl, although she tries to understand their reasoning.
The M4llers, what else could they have done with
Otillie? By a physical accident in her childhood
she had been stripped of everything but her mere
existence. It was not a society or class that
pampered its invalids and the unfit. So long as
one lived, one did one's share. This was her
place, in this family she had been born and must
die; did she suffer? No one asked, no one looked
to see. Suffering went with life, suffering and
labor. While one lived one worked, that was all,
and without complaints, for no one had time to
listen, and everyone had his own troubles. So,
what else could they have done with Otillie? As
for me, I could do nothing but promise myself that
I would forget her, too; and to remember for the
rest of my life. (CS, p. 427)
Here, the narrator's southern background shows itself: the tenden-
cy to overdramatize a situation, her shock at seeing a family seem-
ingly mistreat one of its members. The narrator's promise both to
remember and forget Otillie reminds one of a none too promising
line of dialogue extracted from a television soap opera. Her con-
cern is real, her attempt to understand the Millers' point of view
is sincere. Her judgement is tainted, however, by a southern cultu-
ral influence. A member of one's family, that same family's maid
servant? Never, the tradition teaches unalterably,
When Mother Muller dies, the family and several of the
neighbors, crying aloud, move off down the road to bury her in a
coffin made by her sons. The narrator, lying on her bed in the
attic loft, overhears a cry like "the howling of a dog' (p. 433).
After climbing down the ladder from her bedroom she discovers that
Otillie has been left at home. She cannot even attend her mother's
At the sight of me she got up and came over to me
and laid her head on my breast, and her hands dangled
forward a moment. Shuddering, she babbled and howled
and waved her arms in a frenzy through the open
window over wherethe procession had straightened
out into a formal order, I took hold .of her arms
where the unnaturally corded muscles clenched and
strained under her coarse sleeves. . .(CS, p. 433)
Her rage at the injustice which has been committed against Otillie
drives her to action. She harnesses the pony which earlier has pulled
her to the farm and loads Otillie into a wagon behind it. Narrator,
pony, and Otillie speed down the road trying to overtake the fune-
ral procession. The narrator is caught up in the drama of the moment.
My sense of her realness, her humanity, this
shattered being that was a woman, was so shock-
ing to me that a howl as dog-like and despairing
as her own rose in me unuttered and died again,
to be a perpetual ghost. (CS, p. 434)
A rpetual ghost is elusive. The narrator is unaware how ironically
true her assessment of Otillie is. Trying to reach the spiritual
core of Otillie, trying to establish communication with the deformed
girl, the narrator fails. Just as she reaches her height of indig-
nation and just as she. reaches out to bring Otillie up to the
identical attitude, Otillie's spirit deserts her.
The knotted wrinkles of her face were grotesquely
changed, she gave a choked little whimper, and
suddenly she laughed out, a kind of yelp but unmis-
takably laughter, and clapped her hands for joy, the
grinning mouth and suffering eyes turned to the
sky. Her head nodded and wagged with the clownish
humor of our trundling lurching progress. The feel
of the hot sun on her back, the bright air, the jolly
senseless staggering of the wheels, the peacock
green of heavens: something of these had
reached her. She was happy and gay, and she
gurgled and rocked in her seat, leaning upon me and
waving loosely around her as if to show me what
wonders she saw. (CS, p. 434)
She no longer remembers the-3eath of her mother, if ever she was
aware of it. The narrator sits mystified in the little pony wagon.
She has assigned to Otillie her own sensibilities, her own values.
Similarly, she has imposed on Otillie's family what she would
expect from her own. She has accepted the responsibility and guilt
for what long ago has happened to Otillie, and she has tried to
assuage her own feelings of guilt by drawing herself close to the
What she discovers is that Otillie is not responsible,
something the Muller family learned long ago. Not only have
they learned Otillie's limitations, but they have established
as they do in all matters, a way of living with actuality, with
Otillie's mental and physical deformation. The Muller family is
prepared to find a place for Otillie in spite of her handicaps;
the narrator wishes to ignore, as best she can, the deformities
and discovers she cannot. Rather, she insists on applying her
stereotyped notions of how one member of a family should treat
another. She prefers to pity the Millers' maid servant, not help
her. After the funeral incident, the narrator sees that
it was only Otillie, after all, in the bosem of
her family, and one of its most useful members;
and they with a deep right instinct had learned.
to live with the disaster on its own terms and
hers; they had accepted and then made use of what
was for them only one more painful event in a
world full of troubles .. . (CS, p. 428)
Porter portrays the whole gamut of Muller family activities:
a birth, a marriage, and a death. In each activity the family
adjusts to the needs of the moment, using each person to best
assist the family's needs. If only the narrator could learn to
live this-way herself. But she can't, she thinks. She can intellec-
tually understand each event, but she cannot help striving for
an ideal situation that never will materialize. So accustomed is
she to relying on standard responses to occasions--romantic, unre-
alistic responses--that, no matter how great her sensitivity to and
understanding of the event, she cannot help but apply them. What
is family love and loyalty in her beloved South? It consists of
adoring your parents, having your brothers protect you from all
sorts of dangers, of remembering good things about departed relatives.
Family love could never consist of allowing your sister to wait on
you. Sick people, you put away. In this particular instance, the
narrator learns her lesson. How deeply the lesson embeds itself in
her consciousness, we never know. This time she responds to Otillie's
desires. She flaps the reins against the pony's neck. She would
give Otillie her outing down the lane of mulberries and have her
back in time to fix a funeral supper for the Mullers. "ley need noteven
know she had been gone,"(p. 435)
Mlary Beth Pringle
Wright State University
1. "Introduction," Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter
(New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1965), p.v.
2. Katherine Anne
1965), p. 407.
Porter, "Holiday," in The Collected Stories of
Porter (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World,
All subsequent 'eferences will be given within
Yes, I know you well
for we have met
Countless times before,
and I recognize
The fear you scatter
Like grains of rice
after a ceremony.
I remember how your first
touch is delicate
Ice that sears through the tiny
byways of my spine,
And with your appetite whetted now
You scoop me up with your
For your pleasure, and through
Acid tears I see the steel-like
glint of glittering
Glee in your eyes, as one by one
At the moment of their birth,
my protesting cries'
Long Island, New York
Another sunset. Many have come and gone, and I haven't. I
sit; watching, waiting. The government has given its scholarships,
but my name was three points too low to rank; college stateside is
another sunset. I've seen them in Cristobal, holding hands like
all lovers do; and me with my big belly just sit and watch the sun
set. He never told me it would be like this. My father used to
s:e us together when we thought we were hiding, but even he never
told me it would be like this. But my mother knew; she knew more
than I thought she did. She watched and waited. And then it hap-
pened. It must have hurt her more than it did me.
At sixteen my mother came to Panama because Jamaica didn't
have Panama Gold. She married, and she believed. She hocked
her gold wedding band to send her eldest to the best private
school the West Indians in Panama could go to, but now he's in the
States wearing zoot suits. He should have brought it back and
passed it on, but he needed a hat and shoes to match. Her female
eldest--Rose--studied secretarial skills and was doing pretty well
stateside, but she did not like to look back; her baby twins were
lost to the dream of the American army; and then there was me, the
one who watched sunsets with her big belly.
He said abort (she was wh he really wanted and she just wouldn't
understand). My mother said marry, but his father, with filial
dreams of stateside,would not hear of it. Colon was getting small-
er every day. Things didn't seem so bad when we lived in the
Canal Zone. The house was much bigger; there was a front lawn and
a back yard with an avocado tree that bore so many fruit people
would steal what we couldn't pick. Mother had started a garden
with violets and roses that all the women would come roun' to see
on Sunday after church. But now that my father was retired (not
of his own will; he would've gone forever if you let him, but the
gringos told him that at fifty he was too old to work), we had to
leave the Zone and go back to an apartment in small, tiny Colon.
Soon I would have to quit the commissary; the other girls had
already begun to whisper and giggle; you have to have something to
make the boredom in Colon go by. I understood; I was bored too.
The mother of one of my best friends warned her not to associate
with that "bad girl" any more; another friend told me to forget
him, but she soon forgot me when she heard he was going to college
stateside; so I was left alone, just me and the setting sun.
"Girl, you can't just sit on the beach."
"What else is there to do?"
"You can go to the States."
"And do what?"
"Get a job and make something of yourself."
"What can I do? I missed scholarship by three points."
"So you just going to throw it all away--what about the baby?"
"What about it?"
"It's not always going to be something that you just carry
around with you; someday it's going to be a person--maybe even a
friend--and he'll come begging to be its father. Now you have to
start thinking about a future for it."
My brother was sweet, but I wished he'd shut up.
"I'm going to wire Rose and tell her you're coming."
"Big Sis never cared before, why now?"
"Because she's your sister, and family is above all else."
Family. Me, my baby, family.
My brother foot the bill to the States; otherwise I would
still be in Colon. He even made arrangements through some army
friend to get me a green card. There was no one to meet me at the
airport in New York--not that I would have found.them--so I just
walked slowly, lost, lonely, trying as best I could to follow my
sister's directions. Although it was summer, it felt cold to me
"No Standing--bus stop." Then where do you stand to get the
bus? Maybe against the wall where those old ladies with the shop-
ping bags are standing? Why do they have so many bags? Two bus-
ses have gone by now and all the other people--except me and the
old ladies--seem to be standing where it says "No Standing."
They're getting on--guess I will--hope I don't get arrested;
they'll probably send me back to Colon.
The bus rolled along a tar covered valley floor with mountains
of concrete on either side, and everywhere, people going. The
mountains began to get smaller as the bus pushed on, and more trees
began to appear. People in this part of town moved a little slower.
Craning my neck, I see a sign, Sixty-fourth Street, Central Park
West. Doormen lounge in front of large oak and glass doors, and
I think, "This must be where the doormen at the Washington Hotel
in Colon learn how to do it." Gringos everywhere seem to have doors
opened for them.
Things change when the bus no longer runs alongside the Park;
no more doormen, and smaller apartment buildings seem to replace
the grand ones. Soon old ladies sitting and talking on stoops,
little girls with natty braids and faded cotton dresses, and little
boys with runny noses and dirty spots in the knees of their pants
begin to replace the well-dressed women, men, and even children of
Central Park West. Finally, there are no more gringos. So this
is where Big Sis has ended up.
The foyer of her building has a din light bulb burning, but
it is still difficult to make out the names on the mail boxes.
Walking up to her apartment takes me through four floors and four
darkly lit hallways. When she opens the door and I see her, I
know this is not how you should feel when you first see your older
sister after four years. I smile, trying to get up some warmth,
but none is there. She seems put upon, as if I had come at a bad
time. "Is someone here with you?"
"No." Short, not sweet.
I bring my bag in, and she leaves me standing in the middle
of the living room. Her head pops out from another room in a
moment, and she signals me to follow. The house is like one long,
wide hall; later I learn they call them railroad apartments.
Taking me through the kitchen, past the bathroom, and into a small
dark room in the back of the apartment, she stops and says, "You
can stay here." So, my baby must grow up without seeing the sun.
She left and I began to take the few clothes I had brought--the
few that could still fit--out of my grip. In that small, dark
stateside room, I sit on the edge of the small twin bed and begin
"You know, you have to go out and look for work. You can't
expect me to take care of both--all three of us."
"No I don't, and I will go look for work; just tell me where
"Hmph. I don't know how you got into this mess in the first
place. I would never let a man on top of me unless I had a ring."
I had heard all this before, and now, looking at Big Sis, I
found it impossible to imagine her with a man under any circum-
stances. She dashes a newspaper at me and points to the want ads
saying, "Although with your going for a bachelor's degree instead
of all commercial I don't know what you can find. But you must
The sun and fresh air were welcomed, but a still coolness
lingered in the summer air. Again I was on the bus moving along
the parkside till I got to the haze of downtown, Sis had circled
the names of a few agencies I might try, but everywhere, it was
the same thing. One look at my belly and "No, sorry we're not
hiring." An older Black gringo woman in the last agency I tried
took pity on me and told me the truth. "Honey, you'll never be
hired. For one thing you the wrong color, and if that wasn't
enough your stomach don't make for 'front desk' appearance. Your
best bet would be to go to the big hospital uptown. They always
need people, and you'll find a lot of others like you there."
Others like me?
The lady in the hospital office gave me a quick glance as if
she did see a hundred like me each day. She handed me the neces-
sary papers and pointed to a desk, all without looking up from her
work. "When is the baby due?" she asked.
"Sometime in October."
"That doesn't give you much time."
"But I'm willing to work up to the last."
"Will you come back afterwards?"
My last comment made her gaze briefly at me. She finished
placing her mark on all my papers and pointed me to another door.
"Does this mean I have the job?"
"You start tomorrow."
I was happy, happier than I can remember being for quite a
while, but then I realized I didn't know what I'd be doing. Pay
didn't really matter; anything would be better than the fifteen
cents an hour the U.S. commissary paid Panama workers.
"Here is your uniform," the lady in the second office said.
She too never looked at me as she spoke. "We have none for women
in your condition, so I'll just have to give you the largest size
we have. Your supervisor, Miss Manning, will tell you what to do.
Basically you'll be helping the nurses keep the wards clean. Come
in at seven A.M. sharp tomorrow."
The ride back to Big Sis's apartment seemed too short. I
knew she would not approve of my working at the hospital; then
again, she never approved of anything I did. I was right; she
reacted with her usual "hmph" and stared at my stomach. As I sat
in the dark room, I thought. Soon this would be over. I had a
degree from Abel Bravo and that must be worth something, somewhere.
I would find something better than cleaning wards, and then me and
my baby would be okay. We would have a room with light and maybe
I could try to grow some violets.
Miss Manning was a tall redhead with a stern face. Although
she was a gringo, she somehow reminded me of Big Sis, She never
looked at me as she spoke--I was beginning to think this was an
American custom--and her tone remained the same whether she was
speaking of cleaning bedpans or turning patients. All her words
went by in a whirr, and finally she said, "Report to Nurse Headley
I entered the ward, and a fat American nurse hollered, "Get
a bedpan!" I was the only aide there so I assumed she was talking
to me. It soon dawned on me that I didn't really know what a
bedpan looked like. I brought what turned out to be a wash basin,
and a cackle of laughter came from a clique of nurses in the back-
ground. "You foreigners are all alike," the fat one ranted on,
"Don't speak English, don't understand English"--'but her tirade was
cut off when a young girl was rushed in on a table.
"Near-drowning," a doctor said matter-of-factly. I'Y never
seen anyone close to death before. I asked another nurse what would
"Oh, she'll probably die."
There weren't even any sunsets to watch now, just little rays
of light coming and going from the small window of my sister's back
room. Stateside fall had set in, bringing with it a cold my body
had never known. I wonder if the baby is warm. The old ladies of
Colon had told stories of what a mother saw and thought affecting
her baby, and I began to wonder if mine would ever have a fighting
chance. I suppose I could go to the front of the apartment where
the rooms were lighter and warmer, but Big Sis spent most of her
time there, and I couldn't stand her speeches at this point. So
most of the days came and went with me either in the wards of a
hospital or the walls of a tiny, dark room.
Daylight grew shorter; I grew bigger; and soon I could no
longer work. All I had time to do was think. They must be married
now, in a warm, light house; not even the Colon grapevine could
reach me in this little room. Her dress was white, no doubt, with
a wide lacy bodice; her hair done up with ribbons and sprinkles of
baby's breath. Her mother must have been proud and beaming, having
every maternal wish fulfilled and me safely out of the way.
I began to take trips to the library; I soon started to
recognize the faces of all the old people who also filled their empty
hours there. One man's favorite spot was the travel section--Tibet,
Nepal, and other places he'd probably never see. But most of the
people there didn't really read the books at all, just absently
turned the pages. I thought I better begin looking at baby books--
names, care. Care. A few weeks to go if that long; it all began to
close in on me. What did I know about having a baby? About being a
mother? When he took me to Gatun Lake that day, I had no idea this
would follow. It should all have been so different.
It was a baby girl because I wanted a boy. Poor little girl;
I know what's ahead for you. No. It won't be the same. It can't.
Somehow I'll make sure it isn't. I'll have to switch to night shifts
now so I can be home for her.
"Portia!" Too late; she had fallen. "What were you trying
to climb up on the table for anyway?" I looked at her little nose
and it looked out of joint. I would probably have to get that fixed
someday. Where was the money for that and all the other things I
wanted for her going to come from? Longer nights at the hospital
just seemed to go into Big Sis's hand. Maybe a cheaper place of
my own; maybe another job?
"There's an apartment opening up in my sister's building," an-
other aide was telling me. "It ain't much, but if it's just you
and the baby, it should do."
It wasn't much, five flights up; a large "living" room as some
called it, and a smaller room off to the side. But the super as-
sured me it was a real "deal"--I was starting to get the hang of
the slang up here. As he said, "The tub ain't in the kitchen,
and you don't have to cook on a hot plate." And he was right. I
was grateful. If nothing else, sunlight flooded the apartment, and
Portia would no longer have to play in darkness. I was grateful,
too, because of my neighbor Mrs. Gaines. I could hear her piano
when she played it on Sundays. She seemed to love Portia, although
Portia didn't return the feeling. She never did; she didn't seem
to love anybody, I would stare at her, sometimes through tears I
never let fall, and wish she would at least love me a little more.
Big Sis never forgave me for striking out on my own. But to
give the devil her due, she seemed to take a liking to Portia,
saying the child had more of her in it than me, Sis was beginning
to do all right. Need for secretarial skills came in no colors.
She even managed to get into an older Washington Heights apartment
building--she liked the idea of living where the Jews did. It was
from speaking to one of her friendlier neighbors--about how similar
the plights of West Indians (Sis always made it clear that she wasn't
really Black) and Jews were--that she got the idea.
Portia was ready to go to school, and as Big Sis said, "Send
her to school where you live and she'll be just like those children
you see playing in the streets--wild, dirty, and soon to be pregnant."
She hit me where it hurt, and so we lied. We used Sis's address,
and every morning I would take Portia on the train and sneak her into
Sis's building through the back entrance. Then Sis would take her
"newly arrived" niece to the school bus stop and send her along
with all the other "nice" Jewish children. As I watched them from
Sis's window, I was glad I worked the extra hours to put those
"nice" black and white oxfords on Portia's feet and that "nice"
starched plaid dress on her back.
If Portia didn't show any affection for me, she at least
showed a lot of interest in her studies. Never had to force her
to do homework; never had to push her off to school; and never had
to scold her for a bad report card. I began to wonder if the child
was normal. Each day she would make the long trek from "uptown,"
as the folks around here called it, to home. Each day she would say
her usual short'hdl1' and then she would go off to Mrs. Gaines' house
to practice the piano. When she returned it was another short
"hello" and she would go off to do her homework. We never talked
actually. All those things a mother and daughter should do together
we never did. When she went shopping, she went with Big Sis; when
she had to be taken to a party at her little friends' houses, Big
Sis took her (the address thing Sis said). Even when the school
had Parent/Teacher Week, it was Big Sis who went and not me. Portia
had started to play the violin in the school orchestra and was
coming along very well, or Big Sis told me cause Portia never did.
At times I would wonder whose daughter she was, but then I
realized Big Sis could give her all those things that every "nice"
girl needs, and I couldn't. So it was that that made me go back
to working days at the hospital and enroll in City College at nights.
I wanted to talk to Portia; I wanted to be the one she brought all
her "girly-girly" talk to. Big Sis never even finished at Abel
Bravo and certainly didn't come within three points of a college
scholarship, but she knew stateside ways, and Portia seemed to love
her for it. I would learn to.
The courses were the usual ones, but there was also a course
in Spanish literature. Being in it reminded me of the days before
my belly swelled; even the professor reminded me of Profesora Li-
m6n who said she looked forward to my papers because they taught
her something. Reading the books made me think of those lazy after-
noons under my mother's avocado tree where I would readand occasional-
ly look up to see the smirk of a neighbor who felt a little admira-
tion for the "little bookworm under the tree." Coming out of this
course I always felt as I did before those last months in Colon,
and I wanted to share this with Portia, my daughter, my friend--
that was what my brother had said wasn't it? That "it" would be
a friend and he would come begging to be its father? Well, he never
came begging, and Portia seemed not to care about my being in col-
My next course was Spanish in Translation. My being a native
speaker made it more of a pleasure than a course (the Latinos in
Panama never did think that West Indians could be native speakers,
even if you were born there; "Hamaicanos"--as they called us--could
never master "their" language). The professor even put in a good
word for me, and I began to get some work on the side so my hours
at the hospital became less and less. The professor thought I had
a "knack" for translation,.and it shouldn't be long before I was
out of college and working at something I liked. Maybe then Portia
would come to me. But for now it was still Big Sis.
I continued to find escape and hope in school, and I continued
to reach out for Portia. The hope came. My grades in college were
even better than those at Abel Bravo; I ventured to join the Spanish
Club and even associate with students who were younger than me but
who seemed to value my experience. When the Canal started to be a
problem for the U.S., they all wanted my social and political opinions
--something Portia never asked for. Slowly, I began to enjoy being
with people again and began to hope that whatever they saw Portia
would soon see. But no. It was still her and Big Sis. Sometimes
I wondered if Sis wasn't building a wall--but you can't really build
a wall between a mother and a child.
When Portia started to go to a specialized high school for
music and art, I was proud. Apparently so was she. I had begun to
wonder why--since we no longer had to lie about our address--I never
saw any of Portia's friends. This should have been the age of over-
night parties and endless talks about boys; but soon Big Sis, of
course, filled me in: "You can't expect a girl like that with the
kinds of friends she has to bring them to a hovel like this?" The
kind of friends she had? Another thing I didn't know about Portia.
I suppose the apartment wasn't in keeping with her; she was growing
so sophisticated so fast. Maybe it was time to move. Uptown was
starting to open up to Blacks, and with the extra money I was making
translating, I could probably just swing it. Maybe this would do
it for Portia and me.
She met the news of our moving with the same indifference she
showed for everything I did. Even the prospect of her own large
sunny room--I would take the smaller room--didn't seem to touch her.
The Priscilla curtains I bought for "my little girl's room" caught
all the rays of the afternoon sun; none seemed to fall on Portia.
The piano I rented with an option to buy was never played. "Could
I afford to buy one I would," I told Portia when she seemed to re-
sent the piano because it was rented. Portia said she never had time
to play; instead she used the ones at school (as Big Sis later told
me); probably another excuse to spend as little time at home as pos-
Portia loomed on the horizon, just out of my reach. Each time
I came closer--or thought I did--to reaching her, the tide seemed
to go out that much further. But it brought in other things, One
was actually a job, a translator for a publishing firm. I was to
start as a temporary,then as soon as I was through with school I
would be full-time permanent. I only had a year more of college.
Sometimes I smiled as I thought of myself sixteen years ago, an im-
migrant in a city I now called home. The baby I worried for was
growing to be a young woman, what kind I really didn't know; I could
look at her and tell she was beautiful; I saw men and boys giving.
her sidelong looks, and from the reports I got from Big Sis, I sup-
posed she was happy as long as her contact with me was kept to a
The piano, the apartment, the clothes, the little money I gave
changed nothing between Portia and me. For a while I had been
looking forward to the talks we would have about boys--it was those
dreams that got me through the early days--I wanted to warn her,
to tell her of the pit I fell into, but she never came to me. I
guessed she saw I was the least likely to know about love and men--
except how to trust and open my legs too easily. I never even knew
what she thought of my having her--I suppose I was too afraid to
ask, but I'm sure Big Sis told her what to feel. When she never
came tome because someone had broken her heart and she felt she
could no longer live, I assumed Big Sis had taken over that area of
Portia's life too; which was why I was surprised when I came home
one evening and found Portia in tears on the couch saying she had
to talk to me. Lightning does strike twice.
"Are you sure?"
"That's a stupid question; of course I'm sure!"
"Have you told the father?"
"No. He wouldn't care. I don't even care. All I want to
do is get rid of it."
I couldn't help the look on my face. I guess it asked if all
the years of pain had taught Portia nothing, had meant nothing to
her. But I realized they did mean a lot to her when she said, "Aunt
Rose told me I was just like you after all! But I'm not going to
make the same mistake."
Yes, she hated me, but she couldn't hate her own child. Mistake.
She was the belly that kept me company; she was my little baby; she
was even the daughter who preferred my sister to me, but she was
never my mistake.
"You're hurt and scared now, but you shouldn't rush and do some-
thing you will regret later."
"Regret? I'm only sorry you didn't do it to me." Yes, she
With the help of Big Sis--who in addition to everything else
she was, was also an overly devout Catholic--we persuaded Portia
to keep the baby. To keep the whole thing quiet, Big Sis and she
went home to Panama--Portia hated it from what I could tell from
the three letters Big Sis sent. At least I saw her when she came
back to have the baby on stateside soil. I called the baby Angelique
since Portia didn't care enough to name her.
Portia's on a musical fellowship--I don't even know what kind,
exactly; neither she nor Big Sis fully explained it to me--but they're
both in Europe now (Portia didn't want to go by herself). I had to
give up my translation job during the day and go back to the hospital
at nights so I can be home for Angelique (at least there is a woman
I can leave her with at night). I suppose school will wait a little
longer. I still do some translation on the side to keep up with
the apartment and bills, and as soon as Angelique is big enough
I'll go back to it full time, I hope.
Another little girl. We can at least see the sun go down from
the window in Portia's old room, and before I go to work, I take
Angie on my lap, and we watch it together. Maybe this time it will
all be different.
Valerie M. Babb
lust for sun
incited it to accumulate
poison in its tail
and strike at
the head of night.
stalks with clawed pincers;
its scaly black back re-
flects the pearlillumination
of the moon.
Under the blanket
hid the enemy
from the gladiator,
silent as the glare
paralyzed and froze
University of Puerto Rico
Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico
Gordon K. Lewis.
Main Currents in Caribbean Thought: The Historical Evolut ion "
Caribbean Society in Its Ideological Aspects, 1492-1900.
Baltimore: John Hopkins, 1983.
In the title of his most recent and interesting book, Professor
Lewis, Director of the University of Puerto Rico's Institute of
Caribbean Studies and first recipient of the Caribbean Review
Award for his contributions to the advancement of Caribbean intel-
lectual life, makes two assumptions which have become current only
recently. The first is that within the four centuries after
Columbus there developed in the Caribbean a history, culture, and
thought system distinguishable from those of other societies and
possessing intrinsic significance quite apart from the strategies
of conquest and colonization of the European powers. The second
and more difficult assumption is that notwithstanding the divisive-
ness fostered by economic rivalries and different languages and
colonial ties, the whole region has been unified "by the same
architectonic forces of conquest, colonization, slavery, sugar
monoculture, colonialism, and racial and ethnic admixture," so
that "both in geographical and sociocultural terms the Caribbean
has possessed and still possesses its own distinctive and idio-
In support of this second assumption Professor Lewis, with
astonishing erudition, illustrates each of his topics with abundant
examples and documentation from the three major language areas,
all responding in nearly identical ways to similar challenges,
motivations, and circumstances. The basic subject of the book is,
of course, slavery, since "the Caribbean was the perfected expres-
sion of the total Atlantic slave economy, with the cotton planta-
tions of the American South being little more than a pale echo of
the sugar plantations of Jamaica, Saint Domingue, and Cuba." The
two longest chapters in the book, dealing with proslavery and anti-
slavery ideology, carefully detail the economic basis of black
slavery, its ties to European capitalism, the emergence of racism
as an apology for the continuance of slavery, the complex growth
toward emancipation, and the survival of racism, for social and
psychological reasons, after its economic raison d'etre had disap-
peared. The most original and compassionate addition that the
author makes to the literature of slavery is his remarkable effort
to reconstruct the humanity of the slave and try to understand
what must have been his human responses, in contrast to conventional
types of scholarship which "see slavery but not the slave" and tell
us "much more about the slaveholders' world than about the world
of the slaves." Faced with the scarcity of data on the daily pat-
terns of slave life in the Caribbean-'much more material of this
sort was recorded for the United States--Professor Lewis ekes out
the meager records with convincing inferences and sympathetic
imagination to present an account of Caribbean slave history which
is a small triumph of creative research.
One of Lewis's favorite literary strategies is the use of
paired concepts--slave and planter culture, industrial and planta-
tion capitalism, local and metropolitan loyalties--for purposes of
mutual reinforcement or ironic contrast. The Maroon societies of
Jamaica and the Guianas, for example, gained a recognition of their
territorial integrity and other minority prerogatives by agreeing
to return escaped slaves to the custody of the white government,
so that the freedom granted the Maroons was in part negated by the
condition under which it was offered. Another irony Lewis develops
is that the proslavery forces in the colonies, although they feared
independence as a threat to their status and safety, became political-
ly liberal in their support of colonial liberties when humanitarian
sentiment "at home" began to favor metropolitan interference on
behalf of abolition. And much of the abolitionist movement was
itself inconsistent in its attempt to harmonize social conservatism
with the eradication of slavery. The intelligence and obvious
delight with which ideas are juxtaposed, teased, and laid bare in
this book meet splendidly the classic desideratum of instructing
while they entertain.
Not that it is an easy book to read. It would be a grievous
mistake to misinterpret the "main currents'! of the title as an
invitation to simplifications or generalities. Indeed, even though
the focus is on concepts, the supporting structure is all hard
fact, creating a sense of astonished admiration that one author
should be so firmly in control of so many disciplines. Who would
expect a political scientist to know very much about literature,
for example? Yet Professor Lewis ranges far and wide in that
field, offering not only examples but quite valuable interpreta-
tions as well--and suggestions for at least a half dozen thesis
topics, He discusses at length the Antillean influence on the
European Utopians, an early' example,of how the region generated
ideas beyond its own boundaries. Slave figures 3n English
literature and the antislavery writings of the French philosophers
are summarized, key books like Robinso. Crusoe and Uncle Ton's
Cabin are evaluated, and names familiar to the more devoted
students of British belles lettres--William Beckford and 'Monk"
Lewis, for example--are fit into the Caribbean setting they once
inhabited. Most numerous, of course, are the references to the
Antillean literatures. The Puerto Rican reader will be Dleased
to find mention here of Luis Pal6s Matos, Rend Marques, Marcelino
Canino, Antonio Pedreira, Margot Arce, Zeno Gandfa, Jose Luis Gon
60 Book Reviews
zalez, Josd 3milio Gonzdlez, Concha Melendez, Iris Zavala, Manuel
Alonso, Modesto Rivera, and others, not to mention frequent
references tc -- island's anthropologists, philosophers, and
political scientists. And residents of almost any other part of
the region will fL.d the same recognition of their own artists and
scholars. Paradoxically, although the book is not written from
the specialized viewpoint of a single discipline, it is so densely
textured with information and ideas that a neophyte to Caribbean
studies would do well to approach it through a more conventional
Appreciation of the extraordinary merits of Professor Lewis's
book does not require that the reader agree with all of its emphases
or find all of its contentions equally well supported. Responses
even to the soundest scholarship may fall quite differently on the
continuum between faith and skepticism, A case in point is what
Professor Lewis likes to call the "contributions" of various groups
to Caribbean thought and culture. "Contributions" is a hard word
to pin down; it can, in this context, mean something like influences
or origins, sources of characteristics that have been passed on
through some continuous line c^ -q-nt, like the African ex.er..nts
which Professor Lewis so convincingly traces from their earliest
American appearances to their contemporarymanifestations. But
sometimes the word is used in ways which do not fit that definition
comfortably. The statement that "in the economic sector the Indian
contribution was to become the custodian of agriculture as against
industry" pre ',mably means that the East Indians were brought in to
do the field work nobody else wanted to do; this may be a contribu,
tion, and a very important one, but the connotations are different,
Referring to the American Indians of the Antilles, Lewis says that
the "leading contribution of the early native peoples to Caribbean
cultural and political unity . was to embody, in themselves, an
interisland patrimony, covering . the entire geographical area of
the islands and the terra firm of the mainland, transcending the
new and more limited political boundaries imposed by the European
conquerors," Even if one accepts the indications from Las Casas
and Oviedo that the Indians- were in fact conscious, of such an
interislandd patrimony" and believes that a similar consciousness
exists today throughout the region, it still remains very difficult
to conclude that the Indian consciousness had even an indirect ef-
fect on our own: there are too many more immediate and more demons-
trable sources for the concept of Caribbean unity. People who
think highly of N4orth American Indians have maintained unat these,
because of their great love and respect for nature, should be seen
as precursors of the modern ecology movement in the United States.
There may be some sort of mystic significance in this type of
thinking, but it is not everyone's cup of tea. This is not to sug-
gest that Professor Lewis repeats uncritically all the pious sup-
positions that have been reconstructed about nuestros indios. He
is fully aware of the potential for racist propaganda in the "myth
of the Indian" as a component of Dominican nationalism, for example,
which was "rooted in the feeling . that it was less compromising
to breathe in the spirit of the Indians rather than the odor of
the sweat of blacks working in the canefields." The use of Indio
as a nickname for persons of Afro-European origins may be a popular
reflex of the same prejudice. Lewis also exposes those Latin
American nationalists who "commemorated the early struggles in
which idealized Indian heroes fought the conquistadores [but] had
nothing to say about the oppressed Indian descendants of those
same heroes in their own day in Central and Latin America," another
example of peaceful coexistence between political liberalism and
In conclusion, Main Currents in Caribbean Thought is a work
of meticulous scholarship and impressive originality, one which
must leave the author's fellow Caribbeanists with feelings of
gratitude and humility, the latter being, in the face of this
achievement, no cause for embarrassment. The only disappointment
left by the book is the fact that it ends; even though the intelr
lectual dynamics of the modern Caribbean are remarkably mature
by 1900, so much has happened since then and so many new responses
demanded that entirely new questions have arisen and are rising.
Professor Lewis formulated these questions in his keynote address
to the Sixth Annual Meeting of the Caribbean Studies Association
in 1981, and he has dealt with some of them here. Hopefully he
will turn to the others in a near-future work of equal merit.
Eugene V. Mohr
University of Puerto Rico
Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico
oz Book Reviews
Edward Kamau Brathwaite.
Third World Poems.
London: Longman, 1983.
The publication of any new volume of Edward Kamau
Brathwaite's poetry is a welcomed event. Unlike previous
work, however, Third World Poems is a collection--some
of the poems are significantly revised but very few are
entirely new--that spans the breadth of his mature poetic
production: poems from Rights of Passage (1967), Masks
(1968), Islands (1969), Other Exiles (1975), Black and
Blues (1976), Mother Poems (1977), and Sun Poem (1982).
Thus the tributaries are impressive, and although slim,
Third World Poems permits a wholeness of perspective not
present in any other single volume of Brathwaite's work.
One of the Caribbean's outstanding poets, Brathwaite
demonstrates a remarkable histrionic sensibility that
glides through--speaks or is voiced through--highly
specific rhythms and textures to blend ritual and secular
themes in a search for sacred words (for there is the
sense here of the poet-seer: word-giver, shaman, creator
of past and present, prophet of possible futures). Yet
the spiritual quality remains firmly grounded in physical
reality, in the social conditions--poverty, racism,
colonialism, provinciality--which confront the contempo-
rary Caribbean. And there is nothing ceremonious,
conventional, orperfunctory about Brathwaite's spiritual-
ity: pulse and message are inseparable; like jazz, blues,
reggae, salsa, and spirituals, his poems represent the
complete interpenetration of social reality and the
histrionic, and at their best they approach the sacred.
Also like reggae, like jazz, like blues, Brathwaite's
poems cannot be separated from their performative instru-
ment--the poet's voice--
like a rat
like a rat
like a rat-a-tap tappin
an we burnin babylone
haile selassie hallelu/jah
haile selassie hallelu/jah
haile selassie hallelu/jah
--even when the content seems wholly social:
Dem doan mean it, yuh know,
dem cahn help it
but dem clean-face browns in
Babylon town is who I most fear
an' who fears most I. ("Wings of a Dove")
while i sitting down here wid dis fine toot' comb
trying to scratch out de lies dat a tell
cause a girl got to learn not to get too ole
not to let it look dat she belly gone cole
for these man who is here tonight
an tomorrow dem gaane . ("Manchile")
The histrionic vitality comes from lending voice to
people and events never before given such voicing. This
is a return to the naming in Genesis, the symbolic start
of human history through the power of the word (the name)
to create the future:
must be given words to shape my name
to the syllables of trees
must be given words to refashion futures
like a healer's hand
must be given words so that the bees
in my blood's buzzing brain of memory
will make flowers, will make flocks of birds
will make sky, will make heaven
Later in the same poem the voice cries, "fill me with
words/and I will blind your god." And yet the words, at
least in part, need only to be re-created: the authority
of the word existed in another place and at another time
1'1.t was stolen in the "passage." Without that authority,
I am reduced
I am reduced
I am reduced
to these black eyes
this beaten face
these bleaching lips blearing obscenities
("Kingston in the kingdom of this world")
The power to name and the authority over being it
implies also mean social transformation. The first lines
of "Springblade" tell us
But there is goin' to be a revolution
the garbage knows it
festering the silver sidewalks
providing carrion for the crows and pigs
the mountains have lost their green battle
invaded by cut stone and crooks
Yet this is to be a different kind of revolution and one
Hit is too early for guns
bombs won't explode the dew
hit it too early for guns
machetes won't cut into the sweet
glitter of you ("Guns")
And one reason "hit is too early" is that "poor never die
of hungry/in this pale blue dawn": "But there is goin'
to be a revolution" nonetheless, a revolution that insures
that "those who died: crossing/those who had had stakes
stuck into their courage" ("Fever") will have the "big
inning" ("Springblade") they have lived for centuries
The theme appears again in a somewhat different form
in "Poem for Walter Rodney"-
the shoulder nourishing the gun
the headlines screaming of the skrawl across
the wall of surbiton of sheraton hotel
POR CYAN TEK NO MOORE
--and leads to the poem's most sacred moment:
that politics should be like understanding of
the floorboards of your house
swept clean each morning: built by hands that
know the wind and tide and language
from the loops within the ridges of your foot-
prints to the rusty tinnin fences of your
The revolution moves from the inside out; it flows from
the transformed consciousness which has finally named
the objects of its reality, formed the words of authority,
recovered its history, and stands ready to create the
future. In that sense, the poet becomes the word-giver,
the shaper of consciousness, the voice of his people:
with this reed i make music
withthis pen i remember the word
with these lips i can remember the beginning
of the world
("Kingston in the kingdom of this world")
Although the poet's. "sacred" task of naming may seem to
claim overly broad powers, Brathwaite's poems are keenly
attuned to the ironies which dominate day'to-day-life:
and the bills must be paid for the food i can
for the padlock, for the roof destroyed-by the
last season's fever
an i mussn't forget that i ax the teacher to
stop in an see me tomorrow ("Fever")
The sacred and the common, the'spiritual and the real,
the ritual and the secular are never very far apart;
more usually they meld together and become inseparable,
as they do in Brathwaite's poetry.
Third World Poems is a valuable collection. I
believe it tells us what the poet finds most memorable
in his production of the past two decades. Its title
suggests a Franz Fanon-like treatise, but far from being
66 Book Reviews
misleading, Third World Poems conveys the sense of the
real physical and emotional terrain of the contemporary
Caribbean as well as a projection of its possible trans-
formation. This is a "portable" Edward Kamau Brathwaite,
and it would prove even more valuable if printed and
distributed on this side of the Atlantic.
Praisesong for the Widow.
New York: G.P. Putnam, 1983.
There are some black American writers who succeed in capturing
the universal human condition, their primary concern, through their
treatment of specifically black problems and experiences. These
writers handle the issues of their painful heritage--invisibility,
oppression, alienation, assimilation and endurance, especially in
their female characters--with compassion and anger. But their
criticism of modern society with its destruction of human values,
flagrant materialism, and loss of identity, and their emphasis upon
friendship, family relationships, and spiritual rebirth are far
more important elements of their work.
Paule Marshall, a fifty-fourryear old Brooklyn born and
educated daughter of West Indian immigrants, is a leading member
of this group. Although she lives and works in New York City, she
has travelled extensively throughout South America.and the Carib-
bean, where she lived for some years.
Besides Praisesong for the Widow(1983), she has written two
other novels, Brown Girl, Brownstones(1959), and The Chosen Place,
the Timeless People(1969), plus a collection of short stories,
Soul Clap Hands and Sing(1961), all of which show the influence
of both West Indian and North American cultures.
Her latest novel, Praisesong for the Widow, begins when Avey
Johnson, a black, wealthy, middle-aged widow on her yearly Carib-
bean cruise, decides on a sudden impulse,and to the chagrin of her
traveling companions, to cut short her expensive vacation. Her
decision to do so stems from a series of nightmares and hallucina-
tions connected with episodes and people from her past -a past she
had managed to leave behind. On the island of Grenada, Avey is
forced to wait for the next day's flight to New York. After a
night full of nightmares at a modern tourist hotel, she wanders
down the beach and becomes ill from the heat. She asks help from
the only person around, an old negro man who lives and works in a
nearby hut. At first Avey dislikes the old man, Joseph, but she
is gradually drawn toward him because of the sense of inner peace
and security he projects. Joseph convinces her that what she needs
to get well is to accompany him on the yearly excursion taken by
all out-islanders to the tiny island of Carriacou to celebrate the
"Beg Pardon" ritual, a public act of contrition made by the islanders
living in Grenada. This ritual also satisfies their need for a
sense of connectedness among themselves and their ancestors.
During her one-night stay at Joseph's daughter's house on Car-
riacou, Avey gradually begins to understand what has unconsciously
been troubling her almost to the point of a nervous collapse. Avey
and her husband Jay, in the turmoil of getting out of Harlem, of
climbing socially, of imitating whites, had managed to banish from
their lives everything that linked them to their race--except the
color of their skin. Now that she is a widow, she has even tried
to forget how empty their marriage had become. Worst of all, Avey
has also buried the feelings, emotions, and values she had once
shared with her husband when they were both young and poor. Avey
has been having trouble recognizing herself in a mirror, so much
has she distorted her own image. Now she doesn't even want to use
her real name, Avatara, given to her in memory of her great-aunt
Cuney's grandmother, who appears in her nightmares and is making
her remember her past. Avatara, of course, suggests "avatar," a
Slowly and painfully, Avey comes to realize what the failings
of her marriage had been, and how much had been her own fault. She
sees how she had destroyed their chance of having a fulfilling life
together, and of being part of their people, who have the same roots
whether they live in the Caribbean or in her great-aunt's house on
Tatem, an island on the South Carolina Tidewater.
Her participation in the "Beg Pardon" ritual is the first step
she takes towards stripping away the layers of false values she has
acquired throughout the years. This is a necessary step before she
-eestablishes her connection with the vast unknown lineage that has
made her existence possible and that had once given her a sense of
protection and peace. The irony is that although she has been
granted a second chance, she must now do it alone.
An unusual characteristic of Paule Marshall's writing, showing
the influence of her West Indian upbringing in the United States, is
that her negro characters, who are portrayed as oppressed, but not
victims (they are hard-working, ambitious, and often get ahead),
tend to act and think like whites, and consciously or unconsciously
cry to imitate them, It is very easy for the reader to forget that
Marshall's characters are black, which is precisely something that
she criticizes about her own people--their desire to be assimilated
into the white society and the consequent alienation from their own
heritage. Throughout the novels, Marshall uses events from the pre-
sent to trigger the characters' unwilling recollection of incidents
they had repressed. Paule Marshall's final message seems to be that
although race and class prejudice are difficult to bear, people
should neither ignore nor forget their heritage; they should be proud
Like Sila and Selina in Brown Girl, Brownstones, and Merle Kimbona
in The Chosen Place, the Timeless People, Avey is hard to forget.
Once again Paule Marshall reveals the depth of her psychological in-
sight when dealing with black women characters.
Praisesong for the Widow is an interesting novel once the reader
realizes that its purpose isn't to tell about the life of a middle-
class negro woman, but to point out how human beings can misuse the
opportunities of having fulfilling lives by forgetting their heritage.
It also shows how it is never too late to experience a spiritual
Stella I6pez DIvila
University of Puerto Rico
Rio Piedras, P.R.
70 Book Review
Eugene V. Mohr.
The Niyorican Experience: Literature of the Puerto Rican Minority,
Westport, Connecticut and London, England: Greenwood Press, 1982.
Nuyorican seems an awkward word. It is quite likely that
many literary scholars would guess, if they were to hear the word
in isolation, that it was the name of a new Japanese car, soon to
be competing with the Nissan or Mitsubishi. The term has nothing
to do with well-made cars, but a great deal to do with some well-
made literature described astutely by Eugene Mohr in The Nuyorican
Experience. Nuorican is the name proudly used by Puerto Rican
immigrants or their descendants who have made their home in New
York and who, having "struggled against difficult obstacles; from
poverty and social oppression . have refashioned themselves
into dynamic bilingual bicultural people with a cultural definition
all their own" (p. xiv).
The book treats literature about Puerto Rican immigrants
in New York, from early works written in the twenties of this
century to that done by young people only now receiving recognition
The work of the early writers such as Bernardo Vega, Jesus Col6n
and Pedro Juan Labarth reflects political and economic conflicts
still very much a part of island life. Bernardo Vega.s Memorias
de Bernardo Vega was published in 1977 but tells about the Puerto
Rican immigrant in New York from the American Civil War to 1947.
Vega had a "lifelong association with socialist and communist
movements" and a belief in "independence for Puerto Rico" (p. 3)
as his guiding principles. 3esuOs Col6n's book, A Puerto Rican in
New York and Other Sketches (1961) treats the experience of the
Puerto Rican immigrant in New York between the two World Wars.
His collection of personal essays, "much more doctrinaire" and
"predictable" (p. 14) than the work of Bernardo Vega, still "serves
to remind us that the. intellectual forces that produced modern
Cuba and modern Puerto Rico have roots that go deeper than Castro
and Mufioz Marin" (p, 14). Pedro Juan Labarth, in The Son of Tho
Nations-: The Private Lirfe of a Columbia Student 'fancied'himself
a Puerto Rican: Horatio Alger whose hard work'in'the United States
would lead to success. Unlike Bernardo Vega and Jesfs Col6n,
Pedro Juan Labarthwas rather eager for assimilation..
In spite of theiT distance--in miles and lifestyles-- from
the people they were writing about, intellectuals from the island,
writing in Spanish about immigrants to New-York after World War II,
brought to their literature a moral aid cultural frame [which]
adds to their work a philosophic glow, which illuminates' areas of.
human experience inaccessible to the probes- of naturalism" (p. 26),
Howeverr-and it may be dangerous and unjust to paraphrase discusq-
sions often quite detailed.-Enrique Laguerre-s novel, La ceiba en
el tiesto (The Ceiba Tree in the Flowerpot 1956), Rene Marqu6s'
drama, La carreta (The Oxcart, 1952), Guillermo Cotto-Thorner's
novel, Tr6pico en Manhattan (Tropical Manhttan 1967) and J. L.
Vivas Maldonado's collection of stories) A velln las esperanzas,
o Melania (A Nickle for Hopes, or Melania-, 1971) evidently tend
to see immigrants as morally lost once they have left the innocent,
bucolic land of their fathers.
But not all island intellectuals are as idealistic--and
perhaps simplistic--as they view the immigrant experience. Pedro
Juan Soto's short story collection Spiks (1956) portrays socially
marginated people whose lives could have been depicted on the
island as easily as in New York; the setting is New York, Eugene
Mohr suggests, because there was no literary tradition of natural-
ism on the island, and putting them in New York thus enabled a
Puerto Rican audience, often unwilling to see such life about
them, to realize its existence. Ardiente suelo, fria estaci6n
(Hot Land, Cold Season, 1961) also forces its audience to attend
to an unpleasant reality: it treats the experiences of a return
immigrant, and the island to which he returns is scarcely bucolic
or innocent. Amelia Agostini de del Rio, having, spent most of her
life as Professor and Director of the Spanish Department at
Barnard, would hardly seem to belong to a class termed "island"
intellectuals. The subject matter of her short story collection,
Puertorriquefios en Nueva York (1970) reflects the experience of a
minority within a minority, the comfortable, educated upper middle-
class immigrant. Unusual as that experience might have been, her
work deserves wider recognition according to Eugene Mohr. But
perhaps the "most comprehensive treatment of Puerto Rican migra-
tion to New York" (p. 38) may be found in Manuel M6ndez Ballester's
drama Encrucijada (Cross-roads, 1959) which "touches in an
organized way upon the prototypical experiences of the migrants,
the ideological backdrop to their attitudes toward the United
States, and the changes they undergo in the new land" (p. 38).
The second generation of .Puerto Rican immigrants wrote
in English about their personal often bitter struggles to survive
in a racist society. The very full attention given Piri Thomas,
(lIown These Mean Streets, 1967; Savior Savior, Hold My Hand,
1972; Seven Long Times, 1974; and Stories from El Barrio, 1978),
is perhaps the best single part of The Nuyorican Experience. The
:.nger and confusion expressed in the work of Thomas is with both
self and society, but he is "the most serious and interesting
sookesman for second generation Puerto Ricans in New York, even
for those who deplore the image he projects . "(p. 43). The
-ritical and popular success of Down These Mean Streets inspired
subgenre of Nuyorican fiction about growing up tough in New
rk. A chapter, "Barrio Lives," treats those works.
It is, then, almost a relief when the book turns to an
author, Nicholasa Mohr--no relation to Eugene Mohr--whose works
(Nilda, a 1973 novel, El Bronx Remembered, a 1975 collection of
short stories, In Nueva York, a 1977 novel, and Felita, a 1979
novel for younger readers) are given the same careful examination
accorded those of Piri Thomas, although, as Eugene Mohr puts it,
Nichdlasa Mohr's "dramatization of the belief that Puerto Ricans
can and often do find a place in the New York sun finds little
favor among those who prefer to see El Barrio as a perpetual
state of conflict and alienation?? (p, 73).
Nicholasa Mohr's work seems to lead naturally to a study
of a group of young poets who have gone beyond ideological ques-
tions of "status" and/or economic theory, poets who
born of Puerto Rican parents,-raised in New York,
fluent in English and Spanish, see themselves as
a hitherto unrecorded species filling a new niche
in the American cultural ecology. They call them-
selves Nuyoricans, members of a minority group
that, not having been satisfactorily accqmodated
in the white and monied society that is politically
dominant in the United States, constitutes a
subculture or parasociety with its own behavioral
norms, its own esthetic, even its own dialect.
Liberal samples of the work of sucn Nuyorican poets as Miguel Alga-
rin, Pedro Pietri, Jorge L6pez, Miguel Pifiero and Victor Hernmndez
Cruz support the claim made for and by them to I'a new niche in the
American cultural ecology."
The last chapter, '4Moving Out," appropriately deals with
literature which treats themes and settings not bound by the
racial and cultural relations of the barrio. Then, in an "After-
word," Eugene Mohr claims that "Puerto Rican ethnic writing is the
most complete description we have of the process of immigration
that is so conspicuous a part of American history (p. 123).
One wonders if such a claim is justified. Jewish-American, Irish-
American, Italian-American, Chicano or Mexican-American literatures
(and literary histories) exist, and they treat much the same
experience, in New York and in other geographical areas, as that
treated by Nuyorican literature. The Nuyorican Experience, how-
ever, differs from many literary histories of immigrant literature
in that it avoids being simply a reference work; it does not read
like a bibliography with few phrases linking references to
authors, titles, publishers and dates. On the contrary, the book
consists of a series of gracefully written chapters which, taken
together, tell the story of a new part of American literature.
It is a story quite easy to read for being so remarkably infor-
Perhaps The Nuyorican Experience differs most from other
literary histories in that the voice of the author seems to emanate
quiet wisdom and subtle wit. Of course, it is possible that the
voice this reviewer hears is more easily heard for being a friend
of Eugene Mohr and having taught with him at the University of
Puerto Rico. He retires this year after a short, thirty-year
career to the unheard of sybaritic lifestyle of sculptor, writer,
and conversationalist, a life that will be disgracefully free of
academic committees and the problems of teaching students to attend
to proper punctuation.
The Nuyorican Experience is a proper punctuation mark for
Eugene Mohr's retirement from the university. It does not, in any
way, excuse him from continuing to produce work, either in this
form or another, which, like this one, will serve and please his
friends as well as others.
University of Puerto Rico
Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico
NOTES ON CONTRIBUTORS
Aileene Alvarez translated the intert-. v 7'-t1 Luis Raf
She is a professional translator and the librarian of the Lewis C.
Richardson Seminar Room at the University of Puerto Rico.
Kevyn Arthur is a poet from Barbados, and two more of his poems will
appear in the next issue of Sargasso. He teaches English and Phi-
losophy at the University of Bridgeport, Connecticut.
Valerie M. Babb was born in New York City but grew up in Col6n, Pa-
nama. She is currently an Assistant Professor at Georgetown Uni-
Edward Kamau Brathwaite, a renowned Caribbean poet, teaches History
at the University of the West Indies, Mona, Kingston, Jamaica. He
is from Barbados.
Lowell Fiet chairs the English Department at the University of
Puerto Rico and is the editor of Sargasso.
Carole Fragoza was until recently a graduate student at the Uni-
versity of Puerto Rico. She now studies at the State University
of New York, Stony Brook.
Susan Homar, an Assistant Professor in the Comparative Literature
program at the University of Puerto Rico, specializes in the liter-
atures of the Caribbean.
Stella L6pez Divila is a graduate student at the University of
Puerto Rico and an associate editor of Sargasso. She is currently
at work on a thesis on the novels of Toni Morrison.
Milton Medina is a graduate student at the University of Puerto
Rico. He plans to specialize in Afro-American literature.
Eugene V. Mohr retires from teaching at the University of Puerto
Rico in August 1984. This issue of Sargasso is dedicated to him
and his distinguished career.
Lizabeth Paravisini directs Puerto Rican Studies/Bilingual Program
rat Herbert C. Lehman College of the City University of New York.
y:,,)r Beth Pringle is an Associate Professor of English at Wright
Ste University where she teaches modern/contemporary literature
SAi GASS) 75
Lu1is PRfael San'rez, a well-known Puerto Rican writer and author
of Macho Camacho's Beat, is a Professor of Hispanic Studies at
the University of Puerto Rico.
fhomnas Sullivan teaches in the english Department at the University
of P-erto Rico and is a co-editor of Sargasso.
FORTHCOMING in Sargasso
Interview with Pedro Juan Soto
Clare Goldfarb on V.S. Naipaul's The Bend in the River
Poems by Kevyn Arthur
Raymond Carr, Puerto Rico: A Political Experiment
Pedro Pietri, The Masses Are Asses
Zeno Gandia, La Charca (translation in English)
Paule Marshall, Reena and Other Stories
More Stories, Poems, and Essays