BORN: 1938, Buenos Aires, Argentina
GENRE: Fiction, nonfiction
Clara: Thirteen Short Stories and a Novel (1966)
Strange Things Happen Here (1976)
Other Weapons (1982)
Black Novel (with Argentines) (1990)
Bedside Manners (1990)
Luisa Valenzuela. (Valenzuela, Luisa, photograph. Reproduced by permission)
Luisa Valenzuela is an Argentine writer of both fiction and journalistic works. She is among her nation's most significant writers, best known for magic realism, a style of writing often associated with Latin American writers Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Julio Cortazar, that blends magical and fantastic elements. Valenzuela is also one of the most widely translated female South American writers. Throughout her literary career, Valenzuela has focused on the themes of politics, language, and women. Valenzuela is renowned for her short stories, especially those collected in Strange Things Happen Here (Aqui pasan cosas raras) (1976) and Other Weapons (Cambio de armas) (1982).
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
The Liveliness of Words. Luisa Valenzuela was born November 26, 1938, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, to Pablo Francisco Valenzuela, a physician, and Luisa Mercedes Levinson, a writer. Valenzuela, an insatiable reader, attended a British school in her youth. Given her parents' place in society and the family's connections with academics, Valenzuela was able to meet writers, such as Jorge Luis Borges, Ernesto Sabato, and Peyrou, in her youth. While she originally hoped to become a painter or a mathematician, writing eventually won out over those early career aspirations.
Early Writing Endeavors. Valenzuela's first journalistic work appeared in magazines while she was still in her teens. Her first short story, “Ese Canto,” was published in 1956. Valenzuela also worked for a time at the Biblioteca Nacional, where Borges was the library's director. She went on to earn a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Buenos Aires.
In 1958 Valenzuela married French merchant marine Theodore Marjak and moved with him to the Normandy region of France, where her daughter, Anna- Lisa, was born. It was while living in France that Valenzuela wrote her first novel, Clara: Thirteen Short Stories and a Novel (Hay que sonreir) (1966).
Journalism and International Attention. Divorcing her husband after five years of marriage, Valenzuela moved to Paris and began working as a writer for Radio Television Françoise. She returned to Buenos Aires in 1961 and worked as editor of La Nation's Sunday supplement from 1964 to 1972.
A collection of short stories titled The Heretics (Los Hereticos) was published in 1967. Valenzuela was subsequently awarded a Fulbright grant in 1969 that allowed her to participate in the International Writers Program at the University of Iowa. The result of this fellowship award was the 1972 novel Cat-o-Nine-Deaths (El Gato eficaz). In 1970 Valenzuela began giving lectures about writing, and over the course of the next two years, she traveled to Spain, France, and Mexico on a grant from the National Arts Foundation of Argentina. Her journalistic work appeared in publications in the United States, Mexico, France, and Spain, as well as in various publications based in Buenos Aires.
Political Concerns. Returning to Buenos Aires in 1974, Valenzuela discovered that the political situation in Argentina following the death of Juan Peron—three-time president of Argentina, beloved by many but viewed as anti-intellectual by some writers and artists—had degenerated into a paramilitary dictatorship rife with violence and repression. Between 1976 and 1983, some twenty thousand Argentine citizens “disappeared” and were never heard from again. They were almost certainly the victims of abduction and murder by government forces. Continuing to work as an editor, Valenzuela was impelled to write fictional works under the repressive regime, resulting in another short story collection, Strange Things Happen Here. Valenzuela had been teaching at Columbia University periodically since 1973; in 1979 she was offered a writer-in-residence position and decided to move to the United States to escape political repression. At Columbia University she became a teacher in the school’s writing division from 1980 to 1983, the year she was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship. The fellowship allowed Valenzuela to move across town to New York University, where she was appointed visiting professor in 1985. She held that post until 1990, traveling frequently to lecture, and was a guest speaker at writing conferences in locations throughout the world, including the Americas, Israel, and Australia. Valenzuela became a fellow at the New York Institute for the Humanities in 1982 and belonged to the Freedom to Write committee of PEN’s American Center. Her concerns with human rights issues prompted her to join Amnesty International. In 1984, after the fall of Argentina’s military regime, forensics specialists from the United States came to Argentina at the request of the government to help investigate the fate of the thousands of citizens who had disappeared. Hundreds of mass graves were found, and evidence uncovered by the forensics experts helped convict six out of nine leaders of the military junta of murder.
Return to Argentina. With democracy restored to Argentina in April of 1989, Valenzuela returned to Buenos Aires. Occasionally visiting New York City, she continued to write prolifically, as evidenced by the publication of the novels Black Novel (with Argentines) (Novela negra con argentinos) (1990) and Symmetries (Simetrias) (1993), as well as the 1990 short-story collection Bedside Manners (Realidad nacional desde la cama).
Valenzuela’s works have been translated into English and have appeared in several anthologies. Much of her work has been published in translation outside the Americas, including Japan, and her books can be found in French, German, and Portuguese translations, leading to her acclaim as the most widely translated of the South American female authors.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Valenzuela's famous contemporaries include:
Juan Peron (1895-1974): Controversial yet popular, Peron was elected president of Argentina three times.
Peter Benenson (1921-2005): This English lawyer founded Amnesty International in 1961.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1927-): Garcia Marquez is a Colombian novelist and short-story writer who brought magic realism into the spotlight with his One Hundred Years of Solitude.
Margaret Atwood (1939-): This Canadian writer's themes involve women's issues, some told in the style of magic realism.
Laura Esquivel (1950-): Esquivel's magic realist romance novel Like Water for Chocolate was very successful in the United States.
Works in Literary Context
Since her earliest pieces, Valenzuela has concentrated on three interrelated topics: language, politics, and male- female relationships in patriarchal societies—societies in which the power is generally held and passed down from generation to generation by males. The power of Valenzuela’s fiction lies both in the intrinsic interest of the themes it develops and in her constant search for a feminist discourse. Although she is not the only Latin American female writer to embark on such a project, her fiction undoubtedly has broken new ground for women’s writing in Latin America.
The Power of Language. Valenzuela’s prose, often playful and humorous, underscores the fact that language is an untrustworthy means of expression and communication. Words not only can distort reality, but they can also contaminate social interactions. Most individuals are unaware of such contamination, and very few escape it. This idea constitutes a fundamental concern of the collection Strange Things Happen Here.
Characters in the stories of Up Among the Eagles (Donde viven las aguilas) (1983) explore language as a means to escape contemporary Western societies. Most of the tales are set in the Mexican highlands where vestiges of pre-Columbian cultures are still present. In these ‘‘upper worlds,’’ reason and magic coexist; individuals experience closeness to nature, and the possibilities of communicating by interpreting pauses, intonations, facial expressions, and sighs allow the characters to pierce the boundaries of reason.
Politics and Women’s Issues. As critics have noted, Valenzuela’s work usually revolves around themes of politics and women’s issues. Also rooted within her work is the violence and suffering experienced in many Latin American countries under authoritarian regimes. For instance, in her novel The Lizard’s Tail (Cola de largartija) (1983), the protagonist, a cruel sorcerer, is based on Jose Lopez Rega, Isabel Perron’s Minister of Social Welfare.
Strange Things Happen Here is Valenzuela’s most overtly political work. Its stories were inspired by the ‘‘Dirty War’’ unleashed against the Argentinean population by that country’s military dictatorship in the mid 1970s and early 1980s. The stories explore the psychological and social effects of sustained and systematic violence. One of their most immediate concerns is the effect of fear, which translates into people’s unwillingness to recognize that strange things are happening, that nothing is normal anymore. The main character in ‘‘Who, Me a Bum?’’ for example, regards the cries of those being tortured that he overhears at night to be a mere impediment to his sleep. Also, while at a metro station, he comments on the anger of commuters because a suicide victim is holding up the train. Nobody questions the motives behind these incidents, and all continue about their business.
The five stories in Other Weapons—all of them narrated by a female voice—explore the ways women resist the codes of behavior imposed on them by the patriarchy. The title not only refers to the violence of the dirty war, of which women were often the main victims, but also to the recourses available to women in their struggle for freedom. In their struggle against a tradition of passivity, submission, and acquiescence, Valenzuela’s women need to chart new ground and explore the untapped resources of their imaginations and erotic impulses.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Valenzuela's works center around the power of language, especially when used to gain freedom for women or for the oppressed. Here are some other works that deal with similar themes:
Like Water for Chocolate (1989), a novel by Laura Esquivel. Each chapter of this novel begins with a Mexican recipe, symbolizing the main character's need to express herself the only way she has so far been allowed to: through cooking.
Evita (1978), a musical by Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice. This Broadway musical chronicles the life and death of Eva Peron, the much loved second wife of Argentine president Juan Perron.
Silkwood (1983), a film directed by Mike Nichols. This Academy Award-nominated film details the life of Karen Silkwood, an activist who mysteriously dies while investigating—and potentially disclosing—wrongdoings at a nuclear power plant.
The Handmaid's Tale (1985), a novel by Margaret Atwood. Set in a futuristic state, this novel deals with the subjugation and silencing of women and their attempts to regain freedom.
Works in Critical Context
Called ‘‘the heiress of Latin American literature’’ by Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes, Luisa Valenzuela is one of the most celebrated contemporary female authors in Latin America. Nearly all her novels and short stories have been translated into English, and some have been published as far abroad as Holland and Japan. Critic Evelyn Picon Garfield has described Valenzuela’s prose as ‘‘critical and revolutionary.’’
Strange Things Happen Here. The 1979 English publication of Valenzuela’s story collection Strange Things Happen Here was marked by rather lackluster reviews. Fimie Richie, in a review for Studies in Short Fiction, states, ‘‘None of this is edifying nor pleasurable reading.’’ Clara Claiborne Park, writing for The Hudson Review, asserts that most of the stories in the book are ‘‘finished before we know what they’re up to,’’ and therefore seem pointless. Park offers one possible explanation: ‘‘Maybe it’s safer to stick to parable and mysterious vignette if you want to go on living and publishing in Argentina, where Valenzuela is a prominent journalist.... If this is the price of writing in Argentina it is a heavy one.’’ Roger Sale, writing for the New York Times Book Review, acknowledges ‘‘moments of perkiness and whimsy in the stories.’’ However, he calls the short novel ‘‘He Who Searches’’ (included in the collection) ‘‘unreservedly awful,’’ and asserts that on the whole the author ‘‘is just playing around in a sandbox filled with trite words and events that she, and, one hopes, not very many others, find fascinating.’’
Responses to Literature
1. Why do you think magic realism seems to be so prevalent among South American writers? Is it popular in the literature of other cultures? Do you think the magic realism Valenzuela uses makes the violence she describes harder or easier to digest?
2. What do Valenzuela’s works have in common with fairy tales you may have read or heard growing up? Would you recommend reading some of her stories to children?
3. Choose two different female characters from Valenzuela’s works and two different male characters. Write a list of adjectives describing each. Are there any similarities among characters or genders?
Feminist Writers. Detroit: St. James Press, 1996.
Gazarian Gautier, Marie-Lise. Interviews with Latin American Writers. Elmwood, N.J.: Dalkey Archive Press, 1989.
‘‘Luisa Valenzuela (1938-).’’ Contemporary Literary Criticism. Edited by Jean C. Stine and Daniel G. Marowski. Vol. 31. Detroit: Gale Research, 1985, pp. 436-441.
Marting, Diane E., ed. Spanish American Women Authors: A Bio-bibliographical Source Book. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1990.
Medeiros-Lichem, Maria-Teresa. Reading the Feminine Voice in Latin American Women’s Fiction: From Teresa de la Parra to Elena Poniatowska and Luisa Valenzuela. New York: Peter Lang, 2001.
Americas (January-February 1995).
Belles Lettres (January 1996).
Knight Rider/Tribune News Service (August 10, 1994).
Publishers Weekly (March 9, 1992); (November 21, 1994); (December 20, 1999).
World Literature Today (Winter 1984; Autumn 1995; Spring 2002).
Interview with Luisa Valenzuela. Retrieved February 28, 2008, from http://alcor.concordia.ca/~matrix/excerpt3.html. Last updated January 3, 2008.