March 17 - Today's post contributed by Margarita Engle
|Publication date: March 19, 2013|
I was inspired to write about Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda (also known by her childhood nickname, Tula) partly because she was brave, and partly because she was an independent thinker, far ahead of her time.
Tula’s mother regarded literature as unladylike, so she had to write in secret, then burn her stories and poems. One of her favorite literary projects was a theater for orphans, where she performed plays she wrote when she was as young as ten. This creativity, along with her childhood courage, carried young Tula toward her legacy as one of the most celebrated female writers of the nineteenth century. Forgotten by history, today she is practically unknown outside her native Cuba, with the exception of Spain, where she lived most of her adult years. I hope that The Lightning Dreamer will help bring her back from obscurity.
As an abolitionist, Tula was more daring than most of her male contemporaries. Since there was no free North in Cuba, most abolitionists were poets and novelists, rather than essayists and orators. Censorship and persecution simply did not make it possible to take a stand openly, so references to emancipation were veiled in metaphors. At a time when male abolitionist writers in Cuba generally paired their secretive appeals for emancipation with metaphorical appeals for freedom from Spain, Tula had a unique perspective. Instead of challenging the Spanish Empire, she paired her abolitionist writing with feminist themes. Her interracial romance novel, Sab, was published eleven years before Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Not only did Sab make an impassioned appeal for emancipation, it surpassed that narrow goal by showing the need for complete equality, with interracial marriage portrayed as a normal aspect of Cuba’s culturally mixed society. Sab is the only known feminist/abolitionist novel from Latin America, combining the two consistent themes of Tula’s work: freedom and voluntary marriage for all races, along with freedom and voluntary marriage for both genders.
As one of the world’s earliest feminist writers, Tula campaigned against the archaic custom of arranged marriage, which she regarded as the marketing of teenage girls. In fact, Sab is thought to be inspired by real people Avellaneda met at the age of 15, when she was sent away to a country estate “to rest,” after rejecting an arranged marriage that would have been profitable for her family. Mocked, despised, and punished by disappointed relatives, she went on to reject another arranged marriage later.
I hope that Tula’s belief in equal rights for all will inspire young readers, who are so often challenged to make their own decisions about right and wrong. I also hope the book will help them become aware that many of the great women writers from earlier centuries are being rediscovered in modern times. Finally, I hope it will be used in classrooms to stimulate discussion about current issues of involuntary marriage, still so common in many parts of the world.