- "Rituals of Survival":A Critical Reassessment of the Fiction of Nicholasa Mohr
Back in 1972, I was asked to write a novel based on short series of vignettes I had completed. It was then that I decided that if I as a woman and my ethnic community did not exist in North American letters, then we would now.Nicholasa Mohr, "The Journey toward a Common Ground"1
The first Puerto Rican woman writer to have her fiction published by a major publishing house in the United States and the author of a dozen books for adults and young people, Nicholasa Mohr has been called "the most productive and recognized Nuyorican novelist" writing in the United States.2 Her fiction, which has received numerous awards (including the New York Times Outstanding Book of the Year, the National Book Award, and the American Book Award of the Before Columbus Foundation), has been praised for "its delicate insight combined with . . . deliberate detail" and for what it has avoided: trendiness, stereotypical representations, and trite endings.3 In spite of Mohr's substantial literary production during the last thirty years, there is currently no critical biography or volume of criticism devoted solely to her work. Until just recently, not even the date of her birth (1938) has been correctly reported in many of the popular reference guides.4 Although in recent years there has been some scholarly analysis of Mohr's fiction in terms of the categories of "novels of development," bildungsroman, ethnobiography, or the fiction of immigrants, most of the critical appraisals and published reviews of her work during the last twenty years have classified it almost exclusively as "children's literature"—a label that the author herself has rejected.5
The critical neglect of Mohr's work is part of a larger problem: although Puerto Rican writers living on the U.S. mainland have published a substantial body of literature in the last century, this output has been greeted by a nearly total critical silence—or what one reviewer has called a "paucity of criticism."6 [End Page 160] An important impetus for my research on Mohr has been to prompt a serious reconsideration of her work, to expand its audience, and to show how her writing has a distinctive role within the canons of Latina/o literature, the literature of feminism, and the expanding canon of American culture.
After demonstrating the ways in which earlier critical categories have not done justice to the richness of Mohr's fiction—and have caused many to treat it in a dismissive manner—this essay will identify three features that make Mohr's fiction especially distinctive for its time and influential for later writers: 1) its representation of a community in exile; 2) its construction of female agency within that community; and 3) more specifically, its exploration of the emergence and development of the female artist within a colonized space.
Critical Expectations and Summary Judgments
Nicholasa Mohr's first novel, Nilda, published in 1973, earned significant critical praise, garnering the New York Times Outstanding Book and Jane Addams Book awards. Moreover, critic Marilyn Sachs, writing in the New York Times Book Review on two occasions, has notably praised Mohr's fiction more generally as being "more focused on people than on a message" and "for producing writing that will appeal to adults as well as young people."7 These comments notwithstanding, an assessment of the reviews of Mohr's work published in mainstream and educational media over the last thirty years suggests an overreliance by critics on fixed and very narrow reader expectations for two literary categories: "ethnic literature" and "literature for children." Let me list a few examples. Whereas some reviewers have praised her work as a representation of a particular underrepresented community—"a vivid tapestry of community life," and "one of the finest books about Puerto Rican life"8 —other reviewers treat the work dismissively or find Mohr's writing either too political ("realism with an ethnic garnish") or not political enough, representing, for example, "oppressed people [who] do not necessarily understand the mechanisms of their own oppression."9 Even though Mohr has pointed to nineteenth- and twentieth-century realists...