“Local Touch – Global Reach”?Julia Alvarez’s Mirabal sisters between Dominican Myths, (Failed) Feminist Icons and National Metaphors.
PhD student in Comparative Caribbean Literature
University of London
[Nota bene: Esta es la conferencia de Marika Preziuso -especialista caribeña, italiana, residente en Inglaterra, donde desarrolla una provechosa labor investigativa-, dictada en la Novea Conferencia del Caribe "Global Fire", desarrollada en Viena entre el 1 y 4 de diciembre, con los auspicios del Departamento de Antropología Social y Cultural de la Universidad de Viena y la Sociedad de Estudios del Caribe. Le agradecemos a Preziuso la oportunidad de compartir su significativo texto sobre una escritura dominicanísima: Julia Álvarez]
There is a past to be learned about, but…it has to be grasped as a history, as something that has to be told. it is narrated. it is grasped through desire. it is grasped through reconstruction. it is not just a fact that has been waiting to ground our identities. what emerges from this is nothing like an uncomplicated, dehistoricised, undynamic, uncontraddictory past. S. Hall
The present article intends to challenge the definition of Dominican - American author Julia Alvarez’s novel In the Times of the Butterflies (1994), as a model of “historiographic metafiction” as given by Isobel Brown. Moving from Linda Hutcheon’s definition of “historiographic metafiction” as a form of literary representation that attempts at a combination of feminist epistemology and postmodernist techniques, Brownargues that Alvarez’s novel falls into this category bymaking “historically and thus politically public” what was “fictively personal” of the Mirabal sisters For the purpose of my critical analysis I will locate the novel in the interstices between an experimental ‘testimonio’, a national epic written in the form of a family ‘romance’, and a literary ‘revision’ of Dominican ‘gendered’ nationalism.
By exploring some of the novel’s linguistic strategies as well as its self-reflectiveness and its public configuration of private spaces, I will prove Alvarez’s negotiation of history and fiction as a metaphor for her own ‘hybrid’ subjectivity:
On the other hand, my paper will also highlight the limitations of Alvarez’s revisiting of the Dominican and, more generally, the Caribbean nationalist ‘myths’, since, I argue, the novel arises different theoretical concerns around the topic, which it does not always successfully resolve.
As we will see, Alvarez risks producing an essentialist image of the Woman as a metaphor – thus not representative in her individuality - for the Nation, upholding the widely accepted idea of one Dominican - Hispanic - ‘Raza’.
Let me highlight that in the DR la “Raza” is, effectively, synonymous with the Nation, as, among the most pernicious implications of Dominican nationalism has always been racial homogeneity, meaning Iberian whiteness, intended as “a necessary condition for the existence of the Nation”, where ethnic similarities are emphasised over racial differences.
Story- telling, a hallmark of all Alvarez’s fiction related to her use of inter- and meta – textuality, in In Time of the Butterflies reflects the author’s explicit choice of demythologising the Mirabal sisters, since, for her own admission, “The sisters of legend, wrapped in superlatives and ascended into myth, were finally inaccessible to me. I realised, too, that such deification was dangerous, the same god making impulse that had created our tyrant (…) So what you will find here are the Mirabals of my creation, made up but, I hope, true to the spirit of the real Mirabals”. (324)
By portraying the sisters’ “domestic” stories, therefore, Alvarez intends to stress the ‘narrative’ potential of their lives as expressed in the fragmented, incomplete, prejudiced textualities of letters, pages of a journal, drawings and overlapping memories that she privileges over the official History, in which they are nevertheless imbricated. I will argue that these experimental elements of Alvarez’s novel are exemplary of her idiosyncratic attitude towards her problematic bilingualism and, as such, significant of the negotiating of her self-definition in the US.
In the Time of the Butterflies explores the boundaries between historiographic metafiction, and another genre that has been identified with Alvarez’s writing: “autoetnography”, ccording to the author’s declared intent for the novel: “I wanted to immerse my readers in a epoch in the life of the DR that I believe can only finally be understood by fiction, only finally be redeemed by the imagination. A novel is not, after all, a historical document, but a way to travel through the human heart” (324)
In this respect, there is no doubt that confronting In the Time of the Butterflies with Alvarez’s first family saga How the Garcia Girls lost their Accents (1991) will illuminate the author’s personality as a “Latina” writer grappling with “the realm of the hyphen”.
Despite her debut novel being strongly inspired by her own family’s experience of migration and, therefore, more loosely related to Dominican history, nevertheless there is a sense of the author’s intended trajectory between the two novels. Critics have applied the term “autoethnography” to The Garcia Sisters, and rightly so, I believe, since the very definition of autoethnography in creative writing as well as in visual culture focuses on the two central elements of the novel: its links with broader social formations and historical processes and its representation of the self as a performance.
According to Thomas Russel, in his article “Journey of the Self”, autoethnography reflects the new awareness by its creator (whether director, writer, video maker etc.) that identity is no longer a transcendental or essential self, but a “staging of subjectivity”, played out among several cultural discourses, be they ethnic, national, sexual, racial and/or class based.
What is relevant for the scope of the present paper is that autoethnography announces a breakdown of the colonialist precepts of both autobiography and Bildungsroman (historically an almost exclusively male genre), as it supposes a subject who conceives him/herself as “ethnic”, therefore a fictional, inauthentic, always-in-progress self. The subject’s “I” involves, but it is not contained, in the writer’s “I” nor in totalising claims on his/her identity in order to leave room for a speculative commentary of the contradictions of reality and the self.
The event Alvarez sets to elaborate in In the Time of the Butterflies is a real one in Dominican history, when, November 25th, 1960, three of the four outspoken Mirabal sisters, Minerva, Mate and Patria, active opponents of the Trujillo regime, were found dead near their wrecked jeep at the bottom of a stiff cliff. Nobody believed it to be a car accident, although the extent of the violence endured by the women and that certainly accounted for their death are, again, has been subjected to fictional “rewriting”. (I.e. in Alvarez’s novel Dédé, the survived sister comments on her sisters’ deaths by ‘gentlemen murderers’ who did not “violate” them, whereasthe homonymous movie version of the novel - 2001, by Mariano Barroso Featuring Salma Hayek and Marc Anthony - ends with a group of men circling the Mirabals with iron sticks well in sight).
Yet Alvarez is more interested in exploring the odyssey of the Mirabals’ young lives and, metaphorically, in bringing them back to life by creating a patchwork quilt of memories. The novel is organised symmetrically: its major parts are laid out in four sections, one devoted to each of the three murdered sisters and it is framed by Dédé in conversation with a ‘gringa dominicana’ journalist, supposedly Alvarez herself.
We see the sisters in their teens, later marrying, leading double lives of wives and active contributors of the Dominican Resistance against Trujillo, commenting on and being inspired by the Cuban Revolution, being imprisoned and then released, losing beloved ones after mysterious police inspections, and eventually succumbing to Trujillo’s power
The novel opens with Dédé admitting “We had lost hope and we needed a story to understand what had happened to us” (313). Dédé lives like a ‘public’ shrine of her sisters, paying the price for her having refused to get involved in the Resistance by being the “Butterflies”’ “oracle” after deaths. However, when asked by her niece Minou (Minerva’s daughter) why she accepts being visited by constant flows of intruders curious to ‘savour’ the first-hand stories of the Mirabals, her answer is ambiguous: “The day I get tired of doing it, I suppose I ‘ll stop”(…) of course, I think, I can always stop”. (312)
It would be safe to say that Dédé does not want to give up her role as ‘oracle’ of her sisters’ myth since this is the only way she knows to share their fate, whether in its glory or in its tragedy.Telling stories becomes, then, the defeated sister’s strategy of survival and her only possible way to expiate the ‘martyrdom’ of not having being withThe Butterflies and not having been like them.
However, Alvarez’s fictional Dédé is not a woman fixated with the past. She has consciously chosen a life in the shadows of her sisters’ myth, within which she has shaped a niche for herself
We see her cherishing the idea of a trip to Canada and the thought of a bourgeoning love thatmakes her face “burn”. Besides, Dédé cherishes the past since it grants her the exclusive power to choose what to remember and how to tell: she is more interested in “the simple facts that give her the illusion that hers was just an ordinary family, too – birthdays, weddings and new babies…” (p.6) than in recounting her sisters’ revolutionary exploits.
But Dédé’ is also Alvarez’s vehicle for her criticism of the post-colonial situation in her country, since she knows how to look beyond the myth of the post-Mirabal ‘liberated Nation’ into the gloomy present of US neo-colonialism and mass tourism that had transformed the DR into “the playground of the Caribbean” (318).
The nightmare is over, we are free at last. But the thing that is making me tremble, that I do not want to say out loud – and I’ll say it once only and it’s done. Was it for this, the sacrifice of the butterflies? (318)
“THE LATINA IN ME”
Alvarez’s constant preoccupation with language – both with the spoken word and the written sign - and with exploring the limits of the fictional means, is resulting from her personal history of migration and dislocation, but also from the sense of discovery and the possibilities implicit in her “Latina” status.
I am interested in exploring precisely the ambivalence of Alvarez’s Latino authorship, especially since it implies, in my opinion, an extremely self-conscious use of her ‘ethnicity’ as an invaluable resource of fictional inspiration as well as a key reason for her appeal to a cross-cultural readership.
Julia Alvarez certainly falls in the “Latino” category because she experienced a double migration, first from NY to the DR soon after she was born and, at the age of nine, from the DR back to the US, after her father took part in a failed attack against Trujillo.
Alvarez, like other Latino writers, has conquered the Anglo-American market (and she is becoming more and more popular abroad, as attested by her recent Spanish, French and Italian translations) writing a peculiar ‘ethnic literature’ in English that responds to the Latino concerns about their definition by the dominant US culture. Latino authors answer back by producing “counterpoints to the American dream”, which often involve a ‘reverse colonization’ of the US. One should remember that the US international expansionistic interests have been in many cases the reasons behind Caribbean people’s massive Diaspora – suffice it to think of the US occupation of the DR, the “colonisation” of Puerto Rico and the intervention and later embargo in Cuba.
As for its varied creative expressions, the Latino presence challenges the essentialist idea of one’s mother tongue being the only possible means through which narrating oneself.According to this ideology individuals can only conceive what their ‘native’ language allows them to, since this shapes their reality conveying meaning to the outside world in a univocal way. Alvarez experienced this attitude first hand in the creative writing classes she took in the US: As a young writer, I was on guard against the Latina in me, the Spanish in me because as far as I could see the models that were presented to me did not include my world. In fact, I was told by one teacher in college that one could only write poetry in the language in which one first said Mother. That left me out of American literature, for sure
Contrary to her teacher’s destructive comments, Alvarez argues instead that when she left the DR, she “landed not in the United States, but in either the English language or the world of the imagination”. Latino subjectivities prove the artificiality and the arbitrariness of all languages as human constructs, and demonstrate how individuals are liable to ‘land’ in more than one language at a time. Latinos, however, oppose also to the idea of the translating medium as being“transparent, metalinguistic, and universal”.
These authors’ English will be never ‘pure’, but always contextualised, strategic and “ethnic”, that is carrying remnants of their linguistic trajectory and sediments from the layers of their interculturation. This also proves us that “cultures are not always mutually intelligible”.
On the other hand, as Alvarez’s self-validating postscript to the novel reads, she explicitly addresses a cross-cultural (yet Anglophone) US literary market: “To Dominicans separated by language from the world I have created, I hope this book deepens North Americans’ understanding of the nightmare you endured and the heavy losses you suffered (…)”.
Alvarez’s intended audience, however, needs to read ITOB from a Spanish syntax frame of mind, since many sentences follow a Spanish structure, which attests to the possibility of – at least - some kind of linguistic ‘grafting’. It is precisely her bilingual project as staged in the novel that I will consider as controversial.
Besides, the absence of a glossary or any kind of explanation to her use of italicized Dominican Spanish terms – “ a young Llorona”, la jamonita, Un abrazo, que placer, Mi hija - in fact, leave us wondering whether the author does in fact believe in the transparency of languages, since her Spanish does not seem to have the necessary weight to be translated or elucidated by the author addressing to a non-Spanish audience. I am here referring above all to the traditional Dominican expressions that are left unexplained in the text “Un clavo saca otro clavo” (p.97) and to Dominican socio-cultural references like ‘la Virgencita’, which I will expand on in a minute.
If not even Alvarez makes the effort to explain her ‘native’ references to a non-Hispanophone audience, how can this gets to value her mother tongue, and consequently the Hispanic – Caribbean – Dominican “local touch” which is nevertheless impacting hugely on her writing?
Without the author suggesting the links between her language and the Dominican specificity of the novel’s subject matter, the reader is authorized to skim over the Spanish terms, identifying them as ‘exotic’ embellishments.
On a more theoretical level, Alvarez’s linguistic idiosyncrasies in In the Time of the Butterflies, while contradicting the ‘locality’ of a key event of Dominican history – falls into the recent postcolonial literary discourse, that assumes a ahistorical concept of hybridity set up as a ‘global’ category or structural principle for the analysis of the writing from the Caribbean, especially when coming by the so called ‘hyphenated’ or ‘ethnic’ writers.
In order to expand on this linguistic conundrum, one should consider the issues of power and visibility that the acquirement of a Latino identity in the US brings with it. This has helped Latinos to achieve some form of mobility and access to levels of US culture and society that other minorities in the US (I am thinking of African Americans and Native Americans) have not been able to.
However, my belief is that Latino authors’ remarkable presence in the Anglo-American mainstream literary market demands a price to be paid: these authors’ adjustment to cultural expectations wanting Latinos more than any other minority to be the living paradigms of the USmelting-pot: Americanised, yet ‘ethnic’ enough to be appealing to the mainstream.
LAS MARIPOSAS: FROM DOMINICAN HEROINES TO FEMINIST ICONS
Another way Alvarez negotiates an interstitial place between the local and the global is by taking a decidedly unique approach to the Dominican myth of Las Mariposas: the author does not ‘search’ the myth, but rather uses it to reassess the martyrdom of the three young women as a gender battlefield.
First of all, each sister is endowed with specific set-in-stone familiar traits that will define them throughout the narrative: Patria is the pious one, Minerva is the rebellious, Dédé the pragmatic and Mate is the innocent one.
According to Isabel Brown, in her discussion of the novel as historiographic metafiction, the above feature is one example of the fact that “Alvarez is informed by social constructs characteristic of conventional occidental perceptions of ideal women”’., therefore she ends up fashioning stereotypes rather than a demythicised portrait of the three sisters. By detaching herself from the specifically “local touch” of the Dominican myth of Las Mariposas, Alvarez then turns the Mirabals into icons a certain model of non-ethnic, a-historical and naturalised femininity.
Whereas the narrative project of the novel supposes women’s multiple perspectives and kaleidoscopic voices, it is Trujillo who eventually stands out of the female chorus as the personification of a patriarchal metadiscourse that makes his presence mostly metonymic, “his reign of terror ubiquitous”.
Alvarez plays with but eventually reaffirms the Dominican national imaginary, in which Trujillo is at once the individualised and metonymic presence, whereas women occupy the generalised and generic metaphorical place of the national territory that needs to be safeguarded by the dictator, thus they are never subjects in their own merit. They stand for the conciliatory, homely and ‘natural’ connotations of the Mother country, and the custodians of its traditions.
It is indicative that the trajectory of the heroines’ political awareness follows a structure similar to a (male) Buildungroman, but marked by their bodies and their sexuality in conventional ‘feminine’ ways.
For instance, Minerva’s coming of age is signalled by the arrival of her first menstruation, which coincides significantly with her process of demythification of the dictator.. Indeed, the same night she knows that Trujillo had killed the family of one of her classmates, she “enters her womanhood”.
More importantly, in those key moments where Minerva is portrayed in close proximity to the dictator, an unrelenting sexual tension is perceived, a game of seduction/repulsion taking place through Trujillo’s bodily language and, especially, through his unashamed references to her ‘beauty’. He addresses her to as “a national jewel” (98), and, after her death, we see Dominicans remembering her La Virgencita (the Holy Virgin), who, in the Dominican Catholic - machista imaginary is the necessary spiritual complement to “the Benefactor of the Fatherland” Trujillo.
It interesting to note that the novel also denounces the sexual undercurrent of la Virgencita in the Dominican imaginary, since it implies that the appellation was given to those girls who conceded sexually to Trujillo: “They probably think they‘re following the example of La Virgencita if they bed down with the Benefactor of the Fatherland.” (94)
Minerva argues ironically.
Trujillo. is also addressed to as el Poblador (playing on the double meaning of him being the founder of a brand new country and, metaphorically, the one who literally fecundates the DR, which alluded to his supposed hyper-active sexuality). These are just two of the sexualised images Trujillo lingered on in his symbolic construction of the Dominican nation.
As for the Virgencita, both the mysticism and the sexual submissiveness implied in its myth were meant to ‘contain’ Dominican women’s rebelliousness, in the same way the dictator had ‘conquered’ , possessed the new Nation
A DISENGAGED HISTORIOGRAPHIC METAFICTION
On one hand, Alvarez seems to distanceherself from the dominant nationalist discourse through her treatment of gender as a feminist struggle: As we have seen, she proves that the nationalist discourse is bound – up withgendered and sexual symbols, which are nevertheless neglected by the misogynistic order, so much so that the women protagonists cannot see their role within the realisation of their country’s nationalism, until the “political” invades their “personal”.
On the other hand, however, Alvarez is in line with the the Dominican national discourse since she creates a family romance where issues of ‘race’ and class in the Dominican Republic are voluntarily neglected.
Despite the ‘real’ Mirabals must have condemned all racial, gender and class inequalities, Alvarez’s fictional counterparts do not provide the readers with any commentary on how race influences the construction of class in the country. Her women protagonists seem to be oblivious to the other victims of the Trujillo regime: the Haitians living in the border region, the Afro- Dominicans and the campesinos.
The view into the Dominican nationhood offered by Alvarez is limited to the first-person perspective of these four womenfrom a white, upper class background: for instance, they lack any relationships with the campesinoswho are used in the novel as a romanticised backdrop, rather than a relevant support to the political resistance, despite the fact that the Mirabals’ movement was actually strongly inspired by Marxist-Leninist ideas againstboth Trujillo’s dictatorship and US neo-colonialism.
Due to the lack of a more encompassing analysis, Alvarez’s novel misses out on Trujillo’s manipulation of the Dominican concept of la Raza by fostering the population’s identification with the aboriginal inhabitants, the Taino Indians. These were used to epitomise a certain syncretic, non-dialectic and static idea of hybridity with which most Dominicans identified themselves. Thus, the regime gave currency to the term ‘indio’ (Indian) to identify its people’s mixed ancestry.
By idealising both the ‘indios’ and the campesinos in many ways – we see the Mirabals lamenting the end of a mythical Taino past and craving for what they perceive as the “campesinos’ freedom” -and ignoring the presence of Afro-Dominicans in the country, Alvarez’s Mirabals miss out on the ominous and multifaceted aspect of the Trujillo regime for an almost exclusive feminist anti-patriarchal perspective.
I would conclude by arguing that Alvarez brings the Mirabals to the spotlight of US imagination not as national myths, but as on one hand feminist icons and on the other as metaphors of the national discourse of the Dominican ‘raza’, in both ways avoiding to engage with the conundrums of race without eliminating race and ethnicity.
By demythologising las Mariposas and ‘translating’ their myth into an English story of – failed -feminist revolution addressed mostly to a non-Dominican audience, Alvarez consciously exploits both the romance genre of which she overlooksthe nationalist implications and the historical novel, over whose scientific accuracy she seems uninterested in.
In this way she eventually provides US readers with both a reassuring Latino ‘ethnicity’ and Western femininity, while constructing a conciliatory version of Dominican national history that fits with Latinos’ often idealised image of their own country. This eventually turns In the Time of the Butterfliesinto what I will define as “Alvarez’s disengaged version of historiographic metafiction”.
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“Rosario Sievert’s Interview with Julia Alvarez”, p. 32, Review: Latin American Literature and Arts, 54 (1997)
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Stavans, Ilanl, “Las Mariposas”, Nation, 11/7/1994 vol. 259 issue 15.
Torres-Saillant, Silvio. 2000.“The Tribulations of Blackness: Stages in Dominican Racial Identity”. Callaloo, 23.3. pp.1086-1111.
Wall, Catherine, “Bilingualism and Identity in Julia Alvarez’s poem “Bilingual Sestina”” in Melus, Winter 2003.
Here I am using the title of an article by Alvarez in the Texas Library Journal, 1998. See bibliography.
All quotations from the novel will be referred to in the body of the text.
Alvarez quoted in Ilanl Stavans, “Las Mariposas”, Nation, 11/7/1994 vol. 259 issue 15, p. 553.
For a concept of the ‘female’ Bildungsroman see Esther Kleinbord Labovits, The Myth of the Heroine: The Female Bildungsroman in the 20th Century, Peter Lang, NY___
William, Louis, Dancing between two Cultures, p. 146.
Alvarez, Julia, “Local Touch: Global Reach” Address to the Texas Library Association, 4 April 1998, Texas Library Journal 74.2 (1998): 68-71, 74.
Interview with Rosario Sievert, p. 32, Review: Latin American Literature and Arts, 54 (1997):31-37
Jacques Derrida, 1992. (quoted in The Time of Translation by David E. Johnson, in Border Theory.The Limits of Cultural Politics.
Boehmer, E, The Migrant Metaphor, p.244.
See E. Boehmer, Colonial and Postcolonial:The Migrant Metaphor, 1995,ch. 5
Brown, Ibid, p.110.
Boehmer, E, The Migrant Metaphor, ch. 5.
The only two Afro Dominican women in the novel follow the stereotypical representations of the “tragic mulatta” (Magdalena) and the “Mystic healer” (Fela).See McCallum, Ibid.