Author Elizabeth Huergo on Feminism, Writing, and the Experience of Exile – Part 1

Elizabeth Huergo is a professor of English at Montgomery College, and an adjunct professor in Women’s Studies at George Mason University. She recently published her first novel The Death of Fidel Pérez (Unbridled Books 2013), and is a published poet, essayist, and short story writer. I first met Elizabeth when she read from her new novel at One More Page Books, a small bookstore in Arlington, Virginia. The passage she read was rich and lyrical, layered with the musicality of her native Espanõl. Huergo was born in Havana and immigrated to the United States at a young age as a political refugee. Growing up far from her extended family, she didn’t return to Cuba until she was an adult. This trip would mark the beginning of her creative process in the writing of The Death of Fidel Pérez, in particular her encounter with an elderly woman. She found the woman behind the facade of a beautiful indigo and cream-colored mosaic wall. Expecting to see more evidence of the beautiful Spanish and Arab architecture common in Cuba, she instead encountered this woman wearing all of the clothes that she owned, sitting on a rocking chair at the top of a set of stairs that led to the wide open sky (she makes an appearance in the novel.) It was in this moment that Huergo abandoned her tourist identity and began the excavation of her Cuban identity.

Interview, Part 1

Sheryl: You teach in the women’s studies program at George Mason University. What do you feel young, undergraduate students need to learn most about feminism? In general, what are their biggest misconceptions when they enter your classroom?

Elizabeth: Yes, I have had the great pleasure of teaching in that program as an adjunct and working with some extraordinary faculty and students. The short answer to your question is that undergraduates need to learn feminism isn’t something to disown or overlook. Thankfully, we teach and learn in classrooms that are integrated in terms of race, ethnicity, creed and gender, so our students don’t know first-hand how much pain and struggle it has taken to reach this level of equality.

As well, (and here is the longer answer), the representations of women across popular culture reveal how conflicted our ideas about women’s identity and agency are. Yes, a woman can have access to education and training; she can have a career. Yet she is also expected to uphold some rather traditional patriarchal roles as well. This expectation is very different from an actual, unencumbered choice. We still don’t presume to put this same expectation on men. Generally speaking, we still don’t ask little boys how they are going to manage being a fireman or a doctor as well as a good husband and father.

Today women run corporations and public-sector institutions; they become entrepreneurs and astronauts, physicists and anthropologists, surgeons and athletes. But take a glance at the pervasive and insidious stream of images of women in popular culture, and it’s a bit like the description given to us in the fifth century B.C. by the leader of the men’s chorus in “Lysistrata”: “The most unnerving work of nature / the pride of applied immorality, / is the common female human. / No fire can match, no beast can best her. / O Unsurmountability, / thy name—worse luck—is Woman.” As this Koryphaios explains, his “irreversible credo” is “Misogyny Forever!” I would argue that as long as these stereotypes of women abound, and as long as they remain unquestioned by generations of young women and men, we are not equal, and the need for feminism remains.

Sheryl: How do you define feminism?

Elizabeth: I define feminism as a way of seeing the world that delivers us to the practice of social justice and peace. You asked what my students’ biggest misconception of feminism is. I repeatedly hear my students express their surprise that at no point in the semester have we expressed hatred of men or listened to expressions of hatred.  That sense of surprise indicates the monolithic effectiveness, the subtlety and seamlessness with which misogyny continues as an unquestioned and pervasive cultural practice.

I suspect that what makes feminism so dangerous and frightening to some people is that in actuality it amounts to a sustained critique of our assumptions about power and how power is organized within patriarchal societies. If we understand feminism as a perspective, a form of inquiry that leads us to the practice of social justice and peace, we can see just how radical it is, (literally, cutting to the root), how it helps us work back historically and see the arbitrary manner in which physical, reproductive differences have been rendered political; how the “feminine” has been construed as inferior, weak, and rendered “woman,” that “most unnerving work of nature.”

Sheryl: You experienced political dissonance at a young age when you immigrated to the United States from Cuba. How did that early experience color the rest of your childhood?

Elizabeth: That early experience of loss has shaped the entire trajectory of my life in ways that are excruciatingly painful and in ways that, at the same time, really amount to a form of grace. Immigration can be very difficult, but at least there is some degree, however small, of choice. This difference between immigration and exile, by the way, is the focus of my second novel, Between Ana and Ella, so the topic is upper-most in my mind right now.

Exile obliterates choice. We are separated from everything we know (family, friends, homeland, language, culture), elements of our lives that deeply shape our identity. And exile also does great damage to our sense of agency in the world. The regaining, the reconstruction of identity and agency becomes the work of a lifetime, and that is not the easiest sort of work. Though if you can manage to endure, to persevere, there is a certain degree of joy to be experienced in that process of reconstruction—if you can come out on the other side.

Reflecting on exile reminds me of one of my favorite lines in A Room of One’s Own: “[T]he beauty of the world which is so soon to perish, has two edges, one of laughter, one of anguish, cutting the heart asunder.”  Exile “cut[s] the heart asunder.” It splits your consciousness, and yet it is that very splitting that helps you see that the world is perishing, nothing is as solid or as permanent as we like to believe. (The world is burning, burning, as the Buddha reminds us in his Fire Sermon.)

In Representations of the Intellectual, Edward Said argues that one of the advantages of exile for the intellectual is that one learns to “[l]ook at situations as contingent, not inevitable, [to] look at them as the result of a series of historical choices made by men and women, as facts of society made by human beings, and not as natural or God-given, therefore unchangeable, permanent, irreversible.” As with Woolf’s “two edges,” from the position of exile every situation is contingent and made–capable of shattering, but capable also of being gathered, reconstituted, and actively shaped again. So exile can provide us with the gift of seeing all social systems as contingent. It also pushes us to question orthodoxy and dogma, and to represent, as Said insists, the people and issues we want most to forget.

Said’s “double perspective” is also relevant to feminist pedagogy. His idea dovetails into the point made by Paulo Freire and Donaldo Macedo in Pedagogy of the Oppressed about how one reads the world and how one reads the word; between the actual cultural, social and political practices in which we all engage and the language we use to describe those practices; between what we actually do and how we insist (with all too human hypocrisy) on representing those actions to ourselves.

You could say that, as feminists who are part of a professoriate, we always have before us the question of whether we will teach contingency or co-optation; to think critically or to learn how to blend in without question. (I’m paraphrasing Freire.) We never determine the answers to those questions for our students—that would undercut the very purpose of education, but we should ask those questions. Feminist pedagogy, I think, should be about being conscious. Freire and Macedo write about a “critical comprehension of reality,” a process that involves not just seeing distinct objects, but the web of “complex relations among objects”—not just our common humanity, but how we are too often willing to overlook that common humanity in the name of our own narrow interests.

Sheryl: Was Woolf one of your feminist influences?

Elizabeth: Woolf and my mother, who is an extraordinarily powerful and resilient individual! Do you remember the Beadle and the very angry Professor von X that Woolf’s narrator encounters? Woolf’s description of those two figures, their sense of belonging and political enfranchisement, spoke to me at an early age. I understood that what was inherently available to these male figures was not available to women (or exiles like me, like my mother) to a great extent because the ways of measuring the character and contributions of each is skewed. “Is it better to be a coal-heaver or a nursemaid?” Woolf asks. “[I]s the charwoman who has brought up eight children of less value to the world than the barrister who has made a hundred thousand pounds?” I remember reading that and thinking about how hard my mother worked to raise me, to help my father, to provide for our family in Cuba. What is the measure of that “woman’s work” that is all too often rendered invisible?

Woolf concludes that the question is pointless because there is no way to measure such contributions comparatively; and besides, even if we could, history intervenes to alter our perspectives. Yet both the Beadle and Professor von X’s sense of enfranchisement are predicated on the existence of such measurements. (Consider, for example, how we decide not to measure or represent poverty in the US or how we decide not to measure “collateral damage” abroad, and how that refusal narrows our understanding of real human suffering.) The privilege of both the Beadle and Professor von X is possible because their lives and their history are represented as a single, coherent, consistent line.

In contrast, women’s contributions, in intellectual and social terms, have been rendered a silent, invisible presence that flows across generations. Or their contributions have been rendered “compensatory,” as the feminist historian Joan Kelly-Gadol argues in “The Social Relation of the Sexes.” “Compensatory” in the sense that women’s contributions are all too often discussed as being almost as good as a man’s, as if women were very intelligent poodles or monkeys intent on mimicry. The problem, as Woolf sees it, is that the social roles women have accepted have rendered them passive, reflective surfaces; so though their contributions have been great, they have been for the most part overlooked.

Check back soon for part 2 of StS’s interview with Elizabeth Huergo!

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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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