Book review: Feebleminded by Ariana Harwicz (trans. Annie McDermott & Carolina Orloff)

Silvia Rothlisberger

Feebleminded is narrated with an intense and fragmented prose characteristic of Ariana Harwicz (Argentina, 1977). It is the second book of what Harwicz calls an “involuntary trilogy” where she explores motherhood, how it affects the characters psychically, and how it sways their desires. Divided in three parts and with only 117 pages Feebleminded is a bold and superb short novel that confronts the impossible parameters society has set for women.

In the book, a woman in her late 20s lives with her toxic and alcoholic mother. They are more like two best friends than mother and daughter. Their house is a creepy place with wigs hanging up and mice in jars of formaldehyde. We learn about the daughter’s neglected childhood through feverish memories unveiled in conversations and internal monologues. Memories as far in the past as when she was conceived (“the guy comes inside my mum looking skyward and so it all begins”), or from one night when she was in her mother’s womb and the mum threw dice to decide if she’d get rid of the unknown creature inside her.

The pace of the novel is like a staccato: short punchy sentences where there is an intensity, a heaviness; only with short sentences can this roller-coaster of a book be bearable. We follow the story through dialogues where you don’t know if it’s the mother or the daughter talking. Other times the dialogue is internal. We feel their madness, their constant delirium in each phrase, or as the daughter says: “I’m not crazy, just possessed”.

The daughter is in a relationship with a married man who leaves her because his wife is pregnant. She feels angry — “it was the other common bitch who got him”, she thinks. She wishes for the baby to be born dead, or to be a Siamese twin stuck to a dog. But when her mum learns about this, she has a more sinister plan of revenge.

The two women are marginalised, they are maladaptive, they are happy in a very disturbing way. They have relationships with impossible men. They fantasise about men coming to their house to rape them. They drink whisky, talk about sex and masturbate in an insatiable way. From the opening paragraph —each chapter is one long paragraph— when we are getting to know them: “sitting on my clit I invent a life for myself in the clouds. I quiver, I shake, my fingers are my morphine and for that brief moment everything’s fine”.

They are verbally and physically violent to each other. Sometimes the daughter wishes for a different life. “If I could only have started a new chapter elsewhere… say bye to mum without fearing the crack of a fired arrow”. Yet, they are inseparable. At the end of part I, the mother has left and the daughter is searching for her. At the end of part II, it is the daughter who leaves the mother.  But they both return. At times they are tired of life, but most times they can’t get enough of it. At the end of part III they are crawling on hands and knees, covered in blood: “let it all explode, let it all turn to dust, says mother, still wanting more.”

Translated into English by Annie McDermott and Carolina Orloff, from its original in Spanish La Debil Mental, reading this book is an intense deranged tension that only a writer like Ariana Harwicz, who wants to transgress with her work, can achieve.

Harwicz’s main characters – at least in this trilogy – are women searching for who they are in a world that is telling them how they should be. The first book of this trilogy Die, My Love is similarly a sharp book about a marginalised woman who lives with her husband and unwanted baby. It was nominated for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize, and for the Republic of Consciousness Prize, placing Ariana Harwicz at the forefront of the so-called new Argentinian fiction.

 

* I’ll be talking with Ariana Harwicz and Gabriela Cabezón Cámara in an online event on 3 June 2020 7pm (UK time), Find out more HERE!

 

 

Against literary machismo in Latin America

Silvia Rothlisberger

A manifesto signed by hundreds of Latin American female and male writers from the region raises awareness of the gender disparity in most of the cultural and literary events in Latin America and of the machismo culture that reigns in the industry.

The most recent example and the one that encouraged this manifesto was The III Mario Vargas Llosa Novel Biennale, which took place on the last week of May in Guadalajara, Mexico. The Biennale awards a Latin American author with US $100,000 and is named after the most recent Nobel Prize winner from the region Mario Vargas Llosa who stirred things up on March 2018 after writing in the Spanish-language newspaper El País that nowadays feminism is the biggest enemy of literature as “it pretends to decontaminate it from misogyny, prejudice and immorality”.

The scarce female presence on this year’s Mario Vargas Llosa Biennale couldn’t be ignored: from the 16 panellists only three were women, from the five shortlisted authors of the literary award only one was a woman. And from the five judges of the prize only one was a woman.

“This year is not different from past years”, states the manifesto. “In 2014 the panellists were 25 men and only six women; in 2015: 22 men and eight women,” it continues. “And in both editions, the panel of judges and the shortlisted authors for the award were equally disproportionate. Also, on both occasions the winners were male. We can guess what gender will be this year’s winner.” As if predicting the near future the winner of the III Mario Vargas Llosa Novel Biennale Award was a male writer.

The Manifesto also raises awareness of the machismo culture in the literary industry. After a scandal that broke on Mexico at the end of March when a journalist denounced on Twitter that a male writer had physically harmed many women and they were afraid to speak up. This unveiled a wave of testimonies of harassment via Twitter from personal accounts under the hashtag #MetooEscritoresMexicanos (#MetooMexicanWriters) and there is now a Twitter account called @MeTooEscritores where women can send their testimonies and they are published on this account. If they want to remain anonymous they can.

#metooescritoresmexicanos (also known as #MujeresjuntasMarabunta) is now a movement and their manifesto states: “In the last couple of weeks, more and more women working in publishing have joined in a collective and subversive action against violence that has been normalized in our workspaces: publishing houses, book fairs, conferences, congresses, universities, workshops, etc. This is not new. We have kept harassment, humiliation, segregation and sexual assault to ourselves far too long, in fear that our accusations would be dismissed and our work excluded.” The manifesto also states how their “mission is to underscore impunity, which in Mexico stands at an alarming rate of 95% -an absolute imbalance of power that benefits perpetrators”.

The movement has ten demands as an initial stage to stop the harassment and gender imparity. To highlight a few: That the development of public policy guarantee gender parity in the different levels of cultural institutions, as well as in juries and selection committees for all state and national contests. That all publicly funded magazines and publications include at least 50% of female authors in their catalogue. That there be an alternation between men and women in decision-making positions.

This movement in Mexico is the latest of an increasing number of feminist movements in the literary sphere throughout Latin America that wants to change the industry into a more balanced and fair environment for women.

Comando Plath is a collective from Peru of women writers, artists and intellectuals who are tired of being “stereotyped, ignored, treated violently and being ridiculed”. The collective Comando Plath created a successful petition on Change.org asking the president of Peru to withdraw the National poetry award given to the poet Reynaldo Naranjo. This petition came after an award winning investigation by journalists Gabriella Wiener and Diego Salazar exposed the laureate poet of sexually abusing his daughter and stepdaughter in the 70s.

#EscribimosPublicamosExistimos | #Colombiatieneescritoras

 

Photo: Katherine Hanlon