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Debra A. Castillo has written an important new book that considers the room for maneuvering available to women as characters, as writers, and as readers of recent Mexican fiction. Very little room is one insistent answer in a country where de padre is an accolade and de madre a disaster. But the narrowness of the Mexican female sphere, as Foucault would have guessed, is its own incitement to rebellion, the kind of rebellion that reinscribes constraints. Desire for freedom is felt on the backdrop of repression; without repression desire fades. This is one of the organizing themes of Castillo’s study. It is framed by a reading [End Page 1019] of Federico Gamboa’s Santa, a turn-of-the-century, best-selling novel still in print, in both cheap and luxury editions. Santa—the naive country girl who is seduced, disowned by her family, and then dedicated to big-city prostitution, which finally kills her—is the patron Saint (or Harpy) for generations of writings by and about women. These include antifoundational narratives by justly canonized authors such as Juan Rulfo and Elena Garro, border-crossing adventures by Ana Castillo and Federico Campbell, ironic excesses by Sara Sefchovich, and versions of “signifyin’” in “authentic” and fictionalized testimonios by Antonia Mora, María Luisa Mendoza, Irma Serrano, and Eduardo Muñuzuri.
The general, overarching, obsessive, and apparently insoluble problem in Mexican fiction is that women have no legitimate relationship to creativity. It makes their creative adventures (including literature) tantalizing, but also prurient, excessive by definition, dangerous and to that degree attractive. Decent women aren’t interesting. Interesting women are whores. Even boring women, forced from their homes in Mexico’s long revolutionary struggles, or in economic need, are whores. Real woman is the absence of agency, as Castillo reads the masculinist ideal, and links it to Judith Butler’s critique of Lacanian theory (indirectly to Luce Irigaray, too): women are had, they don’t have. But when this difference is exaggerated by art, when the female figure is ideally emptied of desire, pushed to the extreme of passivity, compliance, vacuity, as she is in the heroine of Elena Garro’s Los recuerdos del porvenir [Memories of Things to Come] (1963), she suffers beatings and rancor from the man-client who needs to possess her entirely, body and soul. An inflexibly gendered imagination engenders repression, which engenders danger and titillation, which engenders violence, which engenders repression. I find myself paraphrasing Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s quip about the novels of Corín Tellado, as quoted in Castillo’s Easy Women: the Spanish novelist saturated her primarily female readers with fantasies of their own illicit sensuality and of their own masochistic demand for punishment.
Borders and markets, however, play loose with traditional structures. And loose women, those who write, who read, and who exchange money for services outside of marriage, find more room to maneuver in the expanding cracks of tradition. It is middle-class women, after all, who tend to buy romance novels that give shape to their own fantasies. They are now producers and consumers of books [End Page 1020] that can use men for conversations between women. In her last chapter on testimonios, the slippage between illicit fantasies and illicit lives produces a kind of network in which women readers may feel caught, or supported, or both. And in the penultimate chapter on Sefchovich, Castillo suggests an even more astounding possibility: that female excess (naughtiness, even debauchery) is the surest vehicle to love of family and country. Too much love, the title of Sefchovich’s 1990 novel, is the protagonist’s legacy to her absentee niece. Aunt Beatriz is the whore, and the writer, and the lover, who bequeaths her papers to the child whom her sister had removed from Mexico (just as Mamá Blanca bequeaths her life to the young editor Teresa de la Parra in the 1929 Venezuelan novel):
I am sending you a notebook with my memoirs, those of the beloved man and those of the beloved country. The love for...