outrageously erased

Today in the library I meant to write up a formal description of my anthology project, but instead skimmed through biographical dictionaries.

I checked out several huge fat multi-volume dictionaries of Latin American authors, and some other Spanish-language Encyclopedias of Famous Women. It was interesting to see patterns emerge. Some encyclopedists knew a fair amount of Cuban women writers, but missed all the Chileans. Others got the Argentinians and Uruguayans, or knew about certain of my own favorites like the Venezuelan poet Enriqueta Arvelo Larriva, or massively famous feminists like Adela Zamudio, but missed the Cubans entirely except for Gomez de Avellaneda. *Everyone* was blind to the very strong groups of Guatemalan women writers. Some of the encyclopedias who knew the Matamoros-Borrero-Xenes circle still missed Emilia Bernal, or perhaps left her out on purpose for being too scandalous – I have no idea.

Sainz de Robles’ Diccionario de Mujeres Celebres, 1959, was strong on international and historical references. I’d enjoy reading all of it someday. If I found similar books from 1900 or so, and simply read them through, I’d understand these women’s poetry better. I’d see their references, just as reading a historical review of Sappho-myths helped me understand the poetry of Mercedes Matamoros and Nydia Lamarque. And just as my somewhat random knowledge of Norse mythology clued me into understanding Juana Borrero’s poem about Ran’s daughters.

Anyway, I studied patterns, took notes, xeroxed some things, and added considerably to the short biographies of many of the poets.

I enjoyed skipping around in Cesar Aira’s dictionary of authors. The appendices, which listed writers by country and then by birthdate, looked extremely useful. Though he missed quite a lot of the women I think are interesting. I like to think that he just didn’t know about them – rather than that he knew them but rejected their work as inferior.

Then I got into a terrible history-of-literature book, Literatura Hispanoamericana, volume 5 of an enormous and authoritative-looking reference series, Historia de la literatura española. It’s from 1969, and its author, Professor A. Valbuena Briones, included only one woman in his 600-page review of five centuries of Spanish-American literature, and it was… wait for it…. who do you think? There are only two possibilities and it is unimaginable to leave one of them out. It was Gabriela Mistral! He left out Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz. Fucking incredible… of all the people you’d think it would be impossible to erase. I kept looking through the index in dismay and finally flipped through the books’ opening chapters. Nope! No Sor Juana! I still hope I’m wrong. It keeps my faith in human nature going. The Valbuena B, he’s an amazing guy. I started having flashbacks to my classes 20 years ago in the Spanish department at University of Texas… maybe those old fossils had learned off that very book. Since The Valbuena had huge bibliographies that made it clear he had at least opened the flyleaf of many fine books that had women in them, we have to think that perhaps he is the distillation of many filtering layers of sexist anthologizing and critical reviewing, so that all the times that women writers were shunted off into the last paragraph of the last chapter of the book finally came to a head, like an enormous, gross zit, and popped, leaving nothing for Valbuena Briones to work with. He didn’t even have the obligatory section of “mention a couple of women while putting them down and lamenting that they aren’t better and there aren’t more of them” which I notice in so many literary doorstops of the 20th century.

5 thoughts on “outrageously erased

  1. Ay. Dios. Mio. …

    You really have GOT to wonder.

    Just for kicks, I pulled out my Literatura Hispanoamericana (Anderson Imbert y Florit), the anthology. Roll call:

    Sor Juana–presente
    La Madre Castillo–presente
    Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda–presente
    Gabriela Mistral–presente
    Delmira Agustini–presente
    Juana de Ibarbouro–presente
    Ventura García Calderón–presente
    Carmen Lyra–presente
    Claudia Lars–presente…

    and, uh…. that was it.

    Holt, Rinehart & Winston, Inc. NY 1960.

    Found this, BTW–apologies if you’re light-years ahead of me on this stuff:


    Thank you for doing the work that you are doing… you know how crucial it is.


  2. Thanks Robin! I have the Anderson Imbert too and it’s one of the better ones. He mentions many more women in there, often only by name and birthdate, but he’s the most inclusive of the general literary historians. I also really dig his sometimes funny and chatty informal style — it makes his book a ramble rather than an encyclopedia.

    And I had no awareness of Ventura Garcia Calderon, so thanks for pointing her out! I have not delved into Peru other than a couple of peruvian anthologies that didn’t have any women at all or maybe only had Blanca Varela (and I love her, but she didn’t start publishing till after 1930 which is my cut-off date.) I’ll take a look at Ventura!

    I’m so excited! This is exactly how this blog is supposed to work to make connections.

  3. It did, indeed. I need to show it to Raysa. Have you gotten a load of Bemsha Swing lately? He’s been whaling on bad poetry translation and we luuuuuv it!

  4. Great post, Liz. Surely Sor Juana’s somewhere in the ether with her fist in the air. This imbalance was something I had to struggle with for my anthology, Mexico: A Traveler’s Literary Companion. Most of the Mexican literary journals and fiction anthologies are heavy with writing by men, and scandalously light with writing by women. Once I started researching, I found plenty of excellent writing by Mexican women. Ay, the sociology of it all…

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