Preceded by a series of important female voices like Salomé Ureña and Camila Henríquez Ureña, Aída Cartagena Portalatín, Hilma Contreras and Jeannette Miller, Ángela Hernández Núñez is one of the most original and celebrated authors of contemporary Dominican literature. She published her first books in the eighties, two works of poetry and an essay entitled Emergencia del silencio [Emergence from silence], dedicated to what would emerge as a constant concern throughout her life as a dedicated feminist as well as in her writing: the education of women and the struggle for equality.
After three books of short stories, she made her novelistic debut with Mudanza de los sentidos [Movement of meanings] in 2000. It has now been republished in several new editions, including one with the Spanish publisher Siruela. There, Leona (an extremely revealing name) reappears, the diminuitive narrator from Quima. She initially appeared in the short story, “Masticar una rosa” [To chew on a rose]. Sometime later, we see her world expand—like a tree branch, which is the meaning of the word “quima”—in Leona o la fiera vida [Leona or the fierce life], the 2013 novel now in its second edition. Like Onetti’s Santa María or García Marquez’s Macondo, Hernández Núñez creates a unique space in the region of Cibao. There, she places a group of characters that build upon one another and speak through Leona, the little girl from Mudanza de los sentidos and the teenager from her last novel.
Even though the splendor of the countryside is as overwhelming as the simple ordinariness of the people who live there is lovable, Quima is far from the typical rural idyll to contrast with the city, which is also present and determinative in both works. The pleasant and liberating view of nature (including the domesticated animals that appear throughout the tale) is juxtaposed with its thankless brutality: rancid pools, harvest-devouring plagues, mosquitos, chiggers… ; to the apparent tranquility and harmony of country life, the bits of human nastiness that tend to wreak havoc in closed spaces and, above all, the extreme poverty of the majority of the country’s inhabitants. As though to make sure that the reader does not lose sight of this reality, the narrator occasionally reminds us: “Bucolic Quima! Ha!”.
Ángela Hernández Núñez was born in the middle of the Dominican Republic, in Buena Vista, Jarabacoa, practically as far from the sea as possible within the nation’s 48,442 square kilometers. Of course, that is where Quima sits. Furthermore, her childhood, just like Leona’s, coincided with the final years of the Trujillo era and the convulsions of the 1960s.
As we well know, the worst parts of a nation’s history are invariably recorded not only in history books, but much more, perhaps—or at least in a less crude and heartrending manner—in literature. It can be a very controversial suggestion that history marks the path of literature, but it is beyond argument that the most painful social upheavals have left their mark upon it in many generations. It is not strange, then, that the thirty years of Rafael Leónidas Trujillo’s dictatorship and the many wretched events that preceded his fall take up a great deal of space in Dominican literature, both contemporarily and afterward. For that story, we couldn’t find better examples than the acclaimed novels of authors that have lived in the United States since they were children and even write in English: How the García Girls Lost their Accent (De cómo las muchachas García perdieron el acento), In the Time of the Butterflies (En el tiempo de las mariposas) by Julia Álvarez, and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (La maravillosa vida breve de Óscar Wao) by Junot Díaz. Ángela Hernández Núñez’s work is no exception. Even though the Quima saga is far from what is known as the literature of complaint and lacks any kinship with the historical novel, it is impossible to abstract away from the political and social upheaval of the 1960s that frame the story and give it meaning. Among other reasons, this is because in Leona o la fiera vida, two of the main characters, older brothers of the narrator-protagonist, maintain a persistent narrative tension in the tradition of Cain and Abel that responds (and corresponds) to that of the radically opposed camps at work in the country.
Leona does not have a clear political conscience; no young person trapped in a small town could. So we don’t see her pontificating about ideologies or concrete political positions, unless she is repeating what others say; that is to say, handing off the narrative baton to one of the many characters that surface throughout the novel. In effect, diverse voices express themselves here, but they are all passed through Leona’s sieve. By building the story around what she observes about herself and about what surrounds her, she necessarily includes the things that she sees and hears. Leona narrates, for herself, that which narrates the happenings of the world: the geographic, social, and human landscape that shape and guide her. And just like food and their flavors create preferences that become inalterable for her, the words and actions of others help her to forge her own convictions. In this sense, Lorenzo and Virgilio, her very different brothers, are fundamental to the story. It is impossible for her not to take a side when she is faced with the personality and mannerisms of one or the other; when she does so, she inevitably sits on one side of the story. Just like she does at the end of the novel, every townsperson of Quima will spend “the entire night with ears glued to the radio” listening to what is happening in the capital: the beginning of the Rebellion of 1965, aiming to restore Juan Bosh to the presidency. Lorenzo will explain this latter development when Leona allows him to explain the reasons for his desertion.
But if the political conflict can be seen solely as a reference point (despite its importance), something entirely distinct happens with regard to gender. Without a doubt, Leona o la fiera vida is a female rite of passage novel and, as such, cannot stop itself from reflecting on the frequency of the phrase “should be,” of the demands and sacrifices of that time of life that cut off the free development of a girl moving into womanhood—especially in the middle of the twentieth century and in the midst of rural poverty.
In this regard, the first thing to point out alludes to a major problem in Latin American society: male absence. Apart from Emilio, her friend and schoolmate, Leona’s life completely lacks a positive male figure. The only two men she has loved are gone: her father died long ago and now seems to be a sort of ghost for Beba, the mother, something she works to preserve. The other, Virgilio, left home for clandestine political activities. There are two older brothers left behind: Mateo and Lorenzo. The first, separated from the family since he was a boy, has managed to make himself a total stranger. The other is presented to us from the very first pages as soulless and cruel, with the exception of a single, brief parenthetical note that, surely, Leona narrates in order to save him in her eyes and in our own: hidden away, he touches and plays with his baby half-brother.
We know that during the vital learning period, Leona must confront a series of experiences related to her womanhood. Indeed, in her case, these experiences will be the obligatory center feature of her march towards adulthood. Sometimes she takes note of them with a smooth sense of humor, by insisting on Beba’s constant worry about having to suffer for her daughter’s “disgrace,” or by emphasizing Edermira’s eagerness to make her understand that “a woman’s purpose is to get a man to come around and stay around, give birth, and raise kids.” or even telling how girls were rejected from the town baseball team or how the boys always got the best pieces of chicken. On other occasions, the irony that permeates the book is overcome by the drama of male abuse. For example, early on, Lorenzo makes his little sisters (Lesabia and sick Leona) do his own hard chores. It happens to an even greater degree when her brother in law’s persistent harassment culminates in what we could call the climax of the story, where Hernández Núñez shows extraordinary narrative skill by keeping the reader in a state of true anguish and anxiety. Without a doubt, it is a passage worthy of a great master.
And Beba, ever-severe, trying to offer Leona a better fate than that which awaits her in Quima, makes the drastic decision to send her away to Santo Domingo without realizing that urban poverty can be much harder and more dangerous than the countryside, without even suspecting the abandonment to which she has condemned her daughter. Fortunately, the girl’s fate is governed by a recurrent maxim with which the novel begins and ends: “If I got something, I’d lose something. If I lost something, I’d get something.” What she gets after her cruel experience in the capital is a door that opens toward the freedom she so desires: a new life in the home of an educated Italian family, with clean, fresh sheets, plenty of food, and best of all, books, “real books.”
Upon her return to Quima, Leona is “reabsorbed” by her origin, giving way to the last phase of life lessons. At the tipping point, all turns contrary to what is generally true of this type of story: Leona does not resent her return to the provincial scene, full as it is of privations and prejudice. On the contrary: “being close to my people,” she tells us, “I wouldn’t trade it for all the comforts in the world […] all that time in Santo Domingo seemed like a borrowed reality to me.” It never occurs to her that her return could cut short her desires: the door is open, and she knows with great certainty that it will never close again.
Two recurring dreams, introduced to us in the beginning, become very real near the end of the novel. The first comes to pass when Leona uses her savings to buy and prepare a great quantity of food, a feast, a veritable banquet, for all the loved ones she can see. It is almost a sort of exorcism; from that moment forward, everything seems to take off and emotions become organized. And until the brief civil war that is about to break out following the occupation by the United States, three of Leona’s eight brothers will overcome their misfortune and get onto the path on which they belong.
The second persistent dream involves finding an old coin; it becomes reality with the resolution of a puzzle: the location of half of the money that the father got from selling a farm. Unexpectedly finding the three ounces of gold that Enmanuel had buried before dying marks the definitive end of the family’s economic woes.
In the midst of the manifestation of both dreams, there is a no-less-significant revelation about the character and the writing of the novel. If something is important and inescapable when describing the text, it is the theme of language, particularly, amongst others, Dominican speech. In the first place, one must recognize what Jeannette Miller terms “almost baroque” writing, not only with reference to the balanced narrative that the author achieves between the different worlds that Leona talks about (the real world and the one inside—fantasies, dreams), but also with the use of a vocabulary that happily, unconcernedly, mates the erudite with the popular and sometimes, the sublime with the rude. Leona gives meaning to this difficult mixture when she speaks about her head “throwing out words, like the buds and sprouts of a plant. A volatile bundle of words governed my imagination, even the most terrible words, the bad words, the sticky words […] the sinister words and the heavy or threatening or bilious words, damp on the inside, vibrating strokes of beauty… no less than the pleasant, candid, warm, smooth, luminous and revealing words.”
It is logical that in this orgy of words, Dominican terms and expressions abound. It is extended even further if we consider Leona’s passion for naming everything: fruits, foods, home remedies, animals… as if by doing so, she created them. With regards to this latter point, there will assuredly be those who chafe at the abundance of dominicanismos, something that should prove pleasant to the advanced reader and lover of the language. No reading could be worse than those novels that seek to “please” the immense Spanish-speaking public, only to wind up as idle linguistic machines in pursuit of a “unifying normalcy” that is entirely false and non-existent.
For those who do not know Ángela Hernández Núñez’s work, Leona o la fiera vida is a magnificent and highly recommended way to start. It is a coming of age story, a female coming of age story, even though it offers so much more than that: it is a complete exercise in memory and imagination, of subtle and fierce realities, of struggle and conquest. It is, above all, a work that manages to trap the ample wealth of our language, offering up an eminently Latin American story, precisely Caribbean and wholly Dominican.
Translated by Michael Redzich