Author Elizabeth Huergo on Feminism, Writing, and the Experience of Exile – Part 2

(photo credit: National Geographic Magazine Photo of the Day, May 18, 2010)

We continue our conversation with Cuban-American professor and author Elizabeth Huergo. If you missed the first half of the interview, be sure to read it here. A professor of English at Montgomery College and an adjunct professor in Women’s Studies at George Mason University, Elizabeth Huergo recently published her first novel The Death of Fidel Pérez (Unbridled Books 2013), and is a published poet, essayist, and short story writer.

Interview, Part 2

Sheryl:  How you feel you subvert, celebrate, or complicate identity and gender roles or power structures in your work?

Elizabeth: Woolf talks about how “mirrors are essential to all violent and heroic action,” and how both Napoleon and Mussolini are obsessed about the inferiority of women because without that inferiority they would no longer inflate the image of men. Once women refuse to be mirrors, we will create a community defined by constructive dissent, an integral though often overlooked and denigrated aspect of democratic governance. We will tacitly stand in opposition to fascism and engage in a community of shared democratic values.

There is a great and greatly sarcastic line in Woolf’s essay. “One of the great advantages of being a woman,” she says, is the ability to “pass even a very fine Negress without wishing to make an Englishwoman of her.” The Beadle and Professor von X, Napoleon and Mussolini–for Woolf they all share an assumption of superiority that leads to the belief that other people (women, racial and ethnic minorities) need to be dominated, divided against themselves.  Compare Woolf’s observations here to Fanon’s and Memmi’s observations on the psychology of the colonized.

The political ideas Woolf traces resonate for me on a personal level: that the space of oppression becomes the space of metamorphosis and grace; that women’s invisibility is a form of exile that shapes their identity; and that our sense of belonging develops from the insistence on making the historical narrative that lets us “think through our mothers” visible, palpable. I am very much interested in hearing the subaltern speak and in telling a historical narrative from a perspective all too often left unconsidered, untold by the official historians of empire.

The idea that there are people who need to be dominated, their very consciousness split open, divided against itself for their own good, for the good of one or another’s economic self- interest, still has the upper hand, even in this new century, even after the bloodiest century in recorded human history. I write from the ground of the terrible dislocation that is exile.  My writing gives testimony to the human cost of residing between cultures, between languages.

Sheryl:  Can you tell us about your educational path and how you found your way to Women’s Studies?

Elizabeth: In this country, after arriving quite literally with the clothes on their backs, my parents struggled to be part of the middle class. It’s shocking to think that their economic struggle was actually easier then, in the 1960s and 1970s, than it is today for families across this country. I attended public schools—really solid public schools in neighborhoods that were not affluent, at a time when the local and federal governments weren’t actively trying to dismantle public education.

Reading was my solace during some very difficult years. It offered me a retreat, a space I could enter that gave me access to a world much, much larger than what I was experiencing at the time. Reading was a very productive distraction that helped me manage a good deal of the sorrow that I felt at being separated from my extended family, as well as the fear that I experienced vicariously as I watched my parents struggle to understand and negotiate a completely alien culture and language.

Strong reading skills became the foundation of other academic skills, so I generally did well in school. I applied to college because it seemed to be what my peers were doing, and I was accepted at Stetson University. I had never attended a private institution. It was really an extraordinary experience and privilege, though I wasn’t fully conscious of it at the time. My professors were from the very best universities in the world. Classes were small—15 or 20 students—and taught directly by these professors. And I received a very well rounded education in the humanities.

From Stetson, I went to Brown, where I completed my M.A. and then my Ph.D. in English; specifically, 19th-century American prose and British Romanticism. I met a few wonderful teachers there: William Keach, Ellen Rooney, Michael Harper, C.D. Wright, Mark Spilka. I was at Brown at the time the Pembroke Center was being developed, and the discipline of English was engaging feminist theory and writing by women. That theory and the work of Mary Shelley became my focus.

What I always wanted, though, was to be a writer. I could only admit it to myself in increments over the course of my life. I had sensed this desire within myself from the age of 8 or so, but I pushed it away in fear. It was easier somehow to keep that desire inchoate and to lose myself, to find my distraction, in the writings of others.

Sheryl:  “The Death of Fidel Pérez” is your first novel. I read that it took you eight years to write it and that in doing so, you learned how to write a novel. Do you feel the novel writing process can be a feminine process? How does intuition and acceptance play into writing?

Elizabeth: No, I wouldn’t say a “feminine” or even a “female” process, but rather a process grounded in self-recognition. There is no “feminine” or “masculine” writing. Specific social and cultural conditions shape our experiences. So when we start to write down those experiences, they reflect the conditions that shaped that consciousness. One of the conditions we often find imposed on people is gender—imposed to the point that gender seems “natural” as opposed to contingent on a set of chosen practices.

The Death of Fidel Pérez took me a long time to write because I was learning something about myself and learning something about writing. I was, to quote José Martí, writing from “the belly of the monster”—the belly of empire, and telling a story that is all too often erased and replaced with the fairy tale of American exceptionalism.

For those of us who have experienced empire, not as an abstraction, but as a traumatic separation from family and homeland, the usual platitudes about “melting pots” and “the land of the free and the brave” ring as false as they did to Mark Twain when he railed against the invasion of Cuba and the Philippines. They are barely varnished propaganda, and yet you wonder at their effectiveness as an anodyne for those whose experience of immigration lies too many generations back to remember. The lived experience of empire stands in deep contrast to the rhetoric of empire.

Can you accept what has happened to you and your family? Can you accept what happens every day to others, just like you, and their families? Where do you stand, what point of view do you take on in order to tell that story? Why will you tell that story? Those are all difficult questions—at least for me they are because the solution isn’t to take a side, that only perpetuates the problem. The solution is to struggle for some sort of balance within yourself as you tell the story.

Sheryl: This month we’re celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month on the So to Speak blog. In what way do you feel feminism matters most in the Latino community?

Elizabeth: There is a brutality that lies at the core of this society and which, like so much brutality, is founded on a willful forgetting, a studied amnesia that conveniently overlooks that the great majority of us here are either immigrants or the descendants of immigrants. The narrative of Latino immigration is as silent and invisible to us now as the narrative of women’s writing was to Woolf; as the narrative of those Native Americans who were raped and slaughtered, and whose lands and livelihood were stolen by violence and the empty rhetoric of “Manifest Destiny.”

The diversity and complexity of our Hispanic heritage cannot be contained within the structure of a month-long celebration. At the same time, however, that celebration tells the story of how some of us came to be here, of our presence in the continental United States for centuries. This, too, is “Our America,” to quote Martí.

If feminism delivers us to the practice of social justice and peace, then it is not only about women; it is about any group that is excluded and defined in a derogatory manner.  That practice helps us shape a collective story about our common humanity.

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Elizabeth Huergo was born in Havana and immigrated to the United States at an early age as a political refugee.  She is the editor of Self-Reliance: A Blog about Writing. A published poet and story writer, she lives in Virginia.  The Death of Fidel Perez is her first novel.

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