Since I last wrote about my favorite book from 2019, I thought it made sense to move on to one of my other top reads, which was another one of the MANY books I carried home after spending most of my summer in Spain. This one in particular holds so much potential for use in my undergraduate Spanish literature and culture classes, and as I think about this for the 2020-21 academic year, I thought sharing some details might help out my fellow Spanish professors looking for new ideas. Tsunami, Miradas Feministas (first image below) is a collection of 10 feminist essays edited and compiled by Marta Sanz and published in early 2019… well, it’s actually 9 essays, several viñetas (cartoons/comics by Flavita Banana), one piece of narrative fiction (Sara Mesa‘s contribution, which opens the volume), plus Sanz’s Prologue. The book also contains an essay from María Sánchez, the author of Tierra de mujeres, aka, my favorite book of 2019 (last image below).
One of the reasons I really enjoyed this book has to do with the inclusion of a variety of voices from different generations (the contributors were born over a 30-year span, between 1958-1989). But also, as I mentioned above, I think it will be useful in my future Spanish literature/culture courses because, when selecting readings for these intermediate-level content-courses, I often struggle to find materials written in Spanish at a level appropriate for my students (whose L2 skills can range, in a single class, from intermediate-low/mid/high to advanced-low/mid/high). Academic articles tend to be too specialized, detailed, and dense for their language skills, expertise, and levels of interest in the intricacies of feminist theory or Spanish cultural history. But the essays in Tsunami offer a great balance, as they are written more for a general audience (rather than an academic one), and they range from about 10-15 pages each.
In May (2019) Tsunami’s contributors gathered together in Madrid for a promotional event. When I learned of the event in Madrid, I had just purchased and begun reading the book, and I planned to attend the presentation with a few students, since my summer study abroad program would begin at the end of the month. But on the day of the event, we had several(!) issues with transportation and were unable to arrive back to the city from our day trip to Segovia in time. As disappointed as I was, I was excited to learn that the entire session and interviews were recorded and made available on YouTube via Espacio Fundación Telefónica Madrid. Together with Tsunami, this video will be an especially useful teaching tool to complement selected readings — even if I only choose to assign one or two chapters. My students have recently seemed to appreciate out-of-class listening/viewing assignments that give them a break from traditional daily readings and allow them to work on oral comprehension skills. The full video is below, and it’s organized very well to give each speaker/writer a chance to discuss their views on or experiences with feminism, and to elaborate on the ideas they each present in Tsunami.
In this post I’ll briefly highlight 4 chapters from the book that I found to have the greatest potential for students studying Spanish in the US (in my case, at a large state institution). The essays in Tsunami all deal with issues related to feminism and women’s lived experiences in Spain, from the latter half of the 20th-century through today. Each woman reflects on her past experiences with feminism (or anti-feminism; patriarchal or machista cultures, policies, and institutions), on current feminist debates, and/or on the feminist movement in Spain right now. Rather than summarize the content of each chapter (many Spanish blogs have already done so; this review via ‘Explicaciones no pedidas’ is quite thorough, as is (somewhat surprisingly) El pais‘s discussion of Queen Letizia’s summer reading — Tsunami)… so in this post I thought I’d select a single excerpt from the essays I wanted to highlight.
“La amabilidad” (Kindness) by Sara Mesa (b. 1976)
Sara Mesa opens the volume with a short story, a first-person narrative that relates three moments in the life of a young woman and single mother. The story is organized in three parts, breaking with traditional chronological narratives to present events by year, beginning with 2001, then reverting to 1998 and 1999. This would be a great text to use in an intermediate or even advanced literature course. One of my favorite descriptions has to do with the pregnant protagonist’s trip to the doctor, and would serve as a great example of #Mansplaining for students to identify in a Spanish-language context: “Los embarazos no se cuentan por meces, dice ahora. Hace tiempo que no se cuentan por meses, y añade: lo correcto es contarlos por semanas, lo correcto y lo preciso, cómo es que ella aún no sabe esto, ¿no se lo han explicado?” / Pregnancies are not counted by months, he says now. It’s been awhile since they’ve not been counted by months, and he adds: the correct thing to do is count them by weeks, the correct and the precise way, how is it that she still doesn’t know that, haven’t they explained it to her? (p. 31). In an advanced literature course, students could also read this interview with Sara Mesa, where she discusses her recent preference for somewhat biased narrators where, while not completely crafting an internal discourse (some aspects of the character still escape the reader), she nonetheless focuses almost exclusively on one particular protagonist and how they experience and contemplate the world.
“A tí no te va a pasar” (It won’t happen to you) by Laura Freixas (b. 1958)
Evident by its title, Laura Freixas’ Tsunami-essay connects thematically to her most recent book, an autobiographical narrative published in 2019, A mi no me iba a pasar (It wasn’t going to happen to me). In this essay she traces the development of her feminist thought by speaking of her grandmother, her mother, and then of herself. She describes her grandmother as “una mujer sometida que sabía que la rebelión era imposible” / a subdued woman who knew that rebellion was impossible (p. 46) and her mother as a woman who disliked — even hated — being relegated to the home and domestic tasks, yet nevertheless promoted those same values to her daughter: “Era terrible ver a mi madre furiosa contra un estado de cosas tan injusto… y ordenándome que me sometiera a él” / It was terrible to see my mother so furious with the unfair state of things… yet ordering me so submit myself to this state as well (p. 52). The irony inherent in the fact that many women perpetuate patriarchal and machista values, or even encourage their continuation in their daughters, is not lost on Freixas, but she treats it less with irritation and more with a mix of light humor and empathy. This essay would work well in a course on Spanish Women’s Literature or Feminist thought, or even on 20th-century Spanish culture, focusing on gender roles or the Franco era. Moreover, in the above video, Freixas discusses the power and appeal of autobiographical feminist narratives.
Freixas goes on to describe how her mother encouraged her to study — as she had also studied — so that the same thing would not happen to her daughter that happen to her (pp. 53-54); and yet years later, Freixas finds herself highly educated, with a professional career, a husband, and two children… slowly transforming into a housewife and mother… and a writer in her “ratos libres” (free moments) (p. 61). Her essay — and her book — explore a question she now asks herself : “Ahora me pregunto qué parte de responsabilidad tuve yo en ese proceso” / Now I ask myself what portion of responsibility I had in that process (p. 61). Her meditations and reflections on this question are personal, but also provocative. I say this not exactly because of their “radical” nature, but rather for Freixas’ willingness to explore and revisit some of the purportedly essentialist qualities attributed to women (caretaking, motherhood, creating a home) with an open and empathetic mind. She ends her essay — and speaks in the video — of “un secreto… un algo...” / a secret, a something (p. 63) that women like about that traditional female role (“que nos gustaba”). I’ll leave my comments here, or for another blog post (!), especially because I have yet to read Freixas’ full-length book, but I’m sure many readers familiar with feminist thought (in the US especially) can recognize the controversial nature of such a hypothesis. A mi no me iba a pasar is on my reading list this summer.
“La forastera” (The Stranger) by María Sánchez (b. 1989)
It turns out the word forastera — “foreigner, outsider, stranger” — in the title actually refers (#Spoiler) to the author herself, which I was not anticipating as I began to read this chapter, but was made clear on the final page (p. 96).
Sánchez’s essay is divided into six short sections — the second simply containing a single line: verses of poetry by Portuguese writer Maria Gabriela Llansol, translated from Portuguese to Spanish: “Es mi propia casa, pero creo que vine a visitar a alguien / It is my own home, but I believe I came to visit someone” (p. 88). In this chapter, Sánchez’s reflections on returning to her rural home after studying in the city and becoming a veterinarian who now splits her time and work between rural and urban spaces, are both honest and poetic. The sense of being a stranger in your own home will surely resonate with many First Generation students — especially here in Kansas. For this reason, I think this essay – or even selections of its 1-2 page “chapters” would be ideal to use not only in Spanish literature or culture courses, but even in intermediate conversation or grammar courses (as a way to introduce literature and prepare students for mid-level content courses). The sixth and final part of Sanchez’s essay discusses feminism, specifically describing it as “una bofetada muy necesaria en mi vida. Una mano decidida a quitarme la venda que llevaba en el rostro, y que no sólo tapaba la vista, sino la voz y el oído / a very necessary ‘slap in the face’ in my life. A hand determined to remove the blindfold I wore on my face, and that not only covered my sight, but my voice and my hearing (p. 94). The self-reflection, at times self-criticism, and overall accountability to the women in her family and home community are evident in her prose, and Sánchez’s writing in this essay (and her book, Tierra de mujeres) offers a refreshing perspective.
“María Pandora” by Nuria Barrios (b. 1962)
Nuria Barrios’ essay would be a great addition to a course on 20th-century Spain — history, culture, or literature — as she presents reflections on her Catholic Education during the later years of the Franco dictatorship.
The essay opens making it clear that the Catholic Church’s control of adolescent education — especially represented by nuns — will be the object of critique: “Fui a un colegio de monjas de los dos a los dieciséis años. Cuando salí era agnóstica y feminista” / I went to a Catholic school run by nuns from 2 to 16 years of age. When I left I was agnostic and feminist (p. 149). She describes how the school was segregated by gender to such an extreme that even Jesus Christ was absent — only the Virgin Mary. As a result, she grew up surrounded almost exclusively by women, learning that her role, and that of all women, was to serve, to obey, and to remain quiet, in complete submission to men. Like the nuns, they were nearly invisible. Yet a core feature of this gendered indoctrination during adolescence — what Barrios calls “aquel puritanismo militante” / that militant puritanism (p. 154) — was how women learned to perceive their own bodies and sexuality. For Barrios, the results of learning to think this way during such an impressionable age are dangerous: “El puritanismo es una violencia soterrada. Es dificil medir las consecuencias de imponer a adolescentes esa forma rigida y artificisiosa de contemplar la vida” / Puritanism is a hidden violence. It’s difficult to measure the consequences of imposing on teenagers this rigid and artificial form of considering life. (p. 155).
Barrios goes on to explore how difficult it is to overcome or to free oneself of such ingrained cultural ideologies; how leaving a school does not mean one has successfully left them behind or escaped; how traditional, even unconscious ideas regarding masculinity (ex: authority, complexity) and femininity (ex: frivolity, domesticity) continue to inform — “contaminate” — what we read or consume; and how women’s vs. men’s cultural productions, especially literature, are interpreted and valued. I appreciated Barrios’ final discussion about her personal experience as a female writer in Spain, and about the continued and even growing need for women’s solidarity in Spain today, particularly in light of increasing resistance to feminist projects by parties like Vox and the PP (p. 165). For its consistent and coherent connection of Franco-era gender ideology to the present (current events), this essay would work well in a variety of intermediate Spanish culture, history, or literature courses.
What are some Spanish readings — not from textbooks! — that are accessible to Spanish-language (L2) undergraduate students, especially in the US? What have you used successfully in your courses… or simply enjoyed reading yourself?
Sanz, Marta, ed. Tsunami. Miradas Feministas. Sexto Piso, 2019.
Freixas, Laura. A mi no me iba a pasar. Ediciones B, 2019.
Sánchez, Maria. Tierra de mujeres. Seix Barral, 2019.